A Family Tree, Nuts, and Poetry

Nothing bubbles the excitement within our house like autumn.

Our calendar explodes with plans and activities for the entire month of October:

Our children pose for a picture on a trail laden with fall leaves.
Our children pose for a picture on a trail laden with fall leaves.
  • Decorating the house for Halloween
  • Fall and Halloween-themed meals
  • Homemade apple pies and other apple treats
  • Walks in nature to surround ourselves the warm colors of fall
  • A visit to a pumpkin patch
  • A night of screaming at “haunted” trails and attractions
  • Pumpkin-carving
  • A fall or Halloween-related craft or art project
  • Costume-shopping and make-up practice
  • Visiting a cemetery or other local places of lore at night to tell ghost stories
  • Bonfires and keeping packet of hot dogs and marshmallows in stock
  • Trick-or-treating wherever and whenever we can fit it in (school, church parking lots, downtown special occasions – we are there)

This year, we were able to spend an afternoon at Bernheim’s ColorFest event. For a five-buck-per-car entry fee, we all enjoyed a $200 time. We launched pumpkins, folks, with a giant slingshot. We ran through a hay maze, made necklaces out of natural things foraged from the forest, made the prettiest mud pies you eva’ did see, played strange-looking instruments, and listened to fantastic live music (not crappy music, but actual sit-down-and-listen type of music).

Our older girls laughing seconds after launching a pumpkin through the air using a giant slingshot.
Our older girls laughing seconds after launching a pumpkin through the air using a giant slingshot.

At  some point while perusing the artists’ booths, we were asked if we wanted to write a poem about our favorite season, trees and the hippies who love them (we kind of fall into that category), or why we love nature. My teens and wife were leery, and hung back.

Our 7-year-old stepped up to take a pencil for a spin with her imagination at the wheel. She chose to write about winter (spelling corrected for easy reading) and is untitled:

Our youngest daughter's poem about winter.
Our youngest daughter’s poem about winter.

Winter

Cold, windy

Holiday, celebrate, no leaves

Santa goes to deliver presents

Mrs. Claus

She sometimes tells me she will be an artist like me, and other times she says she wants to be a writer like me. I tell her she can do both. I tell her she can do many things. I do.

Then I wrote a poem too. Moved by the moment of time with family I was fortunate enough to enjoy, I quickly penned the following (slightly edited from original):

Family Tree

My poem inspired by spending time with family in nature.
My poem inspired by spending time with family in nature.

Never a tree

More precious to me

Than mine, my family tree

Though it also be

Beyond flesh and bone

Its gold leaves

Bark

And nature

Are my home

I forget how much I enjoy writing poetry. I never forget how much I enjoy our Octobers, and that we don’t have too many left to spend like this.

My wife and youngest seconds tag-teaming the launch of their pumpkin.
My wife and youngest seconds tag-teaming the launch of their pumpkin.
Accurate pictorial representation of the wife and me.
Accurate pictorial representation of the wife and me.
Mud pie art.
Mud pie art.
A necklace made with flower petals, seeds, fuzzy leaves, and other items foraged from the forest.
A necklace made with flower petals, seeds, fuzzy leaves, and other items foraged from the forest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I’m Never Camping Again

“Mom, camping is not a date; it’s an endurance test. If you can survive camping with someone, you should marry them on the way home.”

― Yvonne Prinz, The Vinyl Princess

I just needed to feel warm again.

We had arrived at the Green River campsite 18 hours earlier. My clothes were soaked with a salty combination of late September rain and sweat.

I trudged in muddy boots up the hill to the restroom that doubled as a shower house. I slipped behind a moldy curtain, an inch of light on each side where the curtain fell short of hiding my shivering body away from the world. I only brought shampoo with me and a roll of paper towels to dry my hair as we forgot to bring towels. I needed the steam and hot from the shower to quicken my blood and release the numb from my limbs. I’d scrub the dirt away later. I didn’t have anything to use anyway, unless I wanted to snap a pinecone from a tree out back.

I tilted my chin up to let the blessed water slip down my back, and opened my eyes. Three of the four corners in my tiny shower stall harbored well-fed spiders. They crouched in their webs watching my naked form.

“Stay there, guys, and no one loses a leg,” I warned them. I watched each of the spindly arachnids to ensure their obedience.

my-family-is-one-tent-away-from-a-full-blown-circus

The spiders were not a big deal, and they were not why I hated camping.

I hate camping because I’ve never had a good camping experience absent of something that makes me declare every single time that I am never going camping again. I’ve now camped four times, and all four times, something horrible happened ranging from a bad sting needing a steroid injection to a campsite take-over by a Mexican Baptist Convention in which the attendees were so excited for Jesus, they sang about it all night long.

You can imagine I wasn’t thrilled by our friends’ suggestions to gather up our children and go camping.

“It’ll be different,” they said. “You’ll be with us, and we always have fun.”

They were right of course. These people, Joe and Robin and their two girls, were our favorite family. We were all best friends – the kids too.

So I relented. My wife wanted to go, and the kids would love it. We set the schedule, divided the expenses, and packed the cars for Green River. Here is a rundown of events that followed:

Friday

  • We arrived at dinner time on Friday. The kids were hungry. We were losing light, and it began to rain a steady pour despite the weather claims for a calm evening. We managed to get our tents up.
  • 45 minutes out of the car, and one of two change of clothes I brought for the weekend were already soaked. I only had one hoodie. I lay shivering in the dark on a weird foam beach bed my mom gave us to use for the trip. My hip ached from laying on the hard surface.I wondered how the kids would do on a diet of chips for supper. We would not be able to light the wet wood in the fire pit to cook for our group of four adults and five children.
  • Our tent leaked. I felt around in the dark, and could feel large areas of wet and cold on our sleeping bags, pillows and blankets. The glow of cell phone lights revealed the tent was indeed leaking in several spots despite the rain protection tarp thing strapped to the top. The old, but expensive tent belonged to my father, who passed away six years ago. I never got the chance to use his camping stuff.
  • We realized at some point we forgot most of what we needed to make dinner. Even the heavy duty aluminum foil rested in the cabinet of our dark house. Not that it mattered. A fire won’t start in the rain.

thank-god-no-one-forgot-the-booze

  • When I informed our friends of our fumble, they realized they also left behind many of the groceries purchased specifically for the trip, including breakfast and cooking utensils.
  • No one forgot the booze.
  • Our first night “camping,” we ended up eating chicken strips and ice cream at a nearby Dairy Queen in our wet clothes. We voted on whether to buy another tent and stay the night or go home. I lost the vote.
  • At Super Walmart, a slippery, half-eaten kiwi slice took down and injured one of us in the produce aisle (identity omitted), but the rest of us got out unscathed. We purchased a new tent, re-purchased all the items both families left at home, then headed back to the soggy campsite.
  • The first night camping closed with my family sleeping on damp bedding in a dry tent wearing wet clothes. The cold ate at my face and hands, but the alcohol lulled me to sleep off and on throughout the evening.

Saturday

  • Saturday opened with pockets of rain that forced us to rush food back and forth from the table to the coolers and chairs back into vehicles throughout the morning.
  • Our 7-year-old girls found most of a large fish skeleton and decided to share their find with the whole family back at our campsite. They brought a trash can lid also assumed a treasure to place over it for protection.
me-with-7-year-olds
Me and the 7-year-olds (dead fish to the left unpictured)
  • The family dog lost her mind every time she saw another dog, which was often. She tried to eat the fish bones too.
  • The rain almost prevented us from cooking hot dogs for lunch, but we managed to get them cooked enough. We dubbed them “acid rain dogs” and ate them plain since we forgot condiments.
  • I took a hot shower with shampoo to thaw my body. I dried my hair with cheap paper towels we purchased from Super Walmart and the hand dryer next to the sink since no one thought to bring a hair dryer.
  • I suggested a walk to the beach to stretch and get away from the camp. The family competed in a rock skipping contest, collected geodes along the shore, and explored. The fun forced my bad attitude back into the corner of my mind for a while. The rain, for once, rested during this brief time, but it began again when we started the walk back.
  • My nerves snapped. I picked a fight with my wife, and we sat up until late talking before she crawled into a tent to try to sleep. Sleep was beyond me.
  • I sat by the embers in the fire pit and stirred them for heat. Midnight had long passed, and the camp was quiet, until I heard what sounded like someone dumping water onto the ground behind me. I turned in my chair to look, only to see my dear friend Joe peeing on a tree. I was grateful for the lack of lighting. I decided it might be best to also retire to the tent lest I witness other men emerging for middle-of-the-night peeing sessions.

Sunday

  • I awoke to a woman yelling at a boy about his clothes. I heard footsteps running away after his final defiant, “No!” The campsites were so compact, it sounded as if they were arguing right outside our tent.
  • I needed coffee and couldn’t find any more cups. So I dug through the trash until I found a used one. A hair clung to the coffee-stained side. A rock and possible bug hung out in the bottom. I used the water pump to rinse away the undesirables, then filled it with hot, brown caffeine. I took a seat by the pile of arranged sticks in the fire pit. Joe attempted to build a fire, but the lighter refused to strike. Joe informs me there were more coffee cups in the car.
file-oct-03-9-07-52-pm
Geode we found on the beach.
  • Not long after, we packed the cars and drove away from what many consider paradise. It definitely was not paradise for me.
  • Finally headed home, I shot my wife a pitiful look. She turned on the heat, took my hand and squeezed it.

I recognize there are no other people in the world whom I’d rather have shared this experience. Our family’s ability to come together, to overcome, and still laugh in the pouring rain spoke of a decade of deep friendship and connection. Between all these moments of feeling like my face would freeze off, we played card games. We light-heartedly poked fun at each other. We watched the kids make friends with other kids. The children got to run around like sprites in the forest and gather wood (since we didn’t bring nearly enough). We sang weird songs around the campfire, likely disturbed our neighbors, and didn’t give any cares. Robin and I snuggled – a lot. We huddled in our tent and shopped for Halloween-themed leggings during a heavy rain. We held deep discussions uninterrupted by the outside world.

take-a-sad-song-and-make-it-better

Then there were those beautiful moments on the beach. We were all dirty. Wet. Hungry. Tired. But we were together. We were one large family playing on a sandy shore brought together by love, not blood, and we were making the best out of a horrible series of unfortunate events. We had a sack-full of incredible memories to add to our trove.

That was the take-away, and it was a gem I’ll treasure far more than our 7-year-olds treasured that dead fish. But I still hate camping, and I still declare I am never going camping again.

 

 

Trading Bandwidth for Bonding

My family on a black out Friday snapped a quick picture before putting cell phones away in favor of family time.
My family on a black out Friday snapped a quick picture before putting cell phones away in favor of family time.

Story originally published in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less” on April 19, 2016. 

At our house, we can watch T.V. shows and movies on four television sets, two tablets, two computers and five cell phones. We can play games on all thirteen of these “smart” devices too.

But when I walk into the room and see all of my children, who are six, twelve and fourteen, with their heads bent over slick screens, fingers typing away and faces awash in artificial blue light, it doesn’t feel “smart” to me. It feels unnatural.

I’ve read the blog posts by “experts” wagging their fingers at parents who allow their children hours of butt-sitting, game-playing, social media-scouring and television-watching time on screens large and small. “It’s unhealthy,” they say. “It promotes sedentary lifestyles. There’s no brain enrichment.”

I’ve read the other blog posts by “experts” claiming time on electronics is time well spent. It can be a time for learning, a time for socializing with friends or expanding creativity and imagination. My six-year-old would gladly testify in a court to defend Minecraft as more than just a game. My older girls would swear social media is the best way to get to know their friends, “No different than you, mom,” referring to when I spent hours talking on the phone with the cord stretched all the way into the closet.

I’m no judge and jury. I convict myself guilty of too much time on social media and reading news websites. What I do know is that a time came when I felt disconnected from my children. Perhaps this is where the unnatural feeling originated. Buried in their online worlds, my children were not poking their heads out to breathe. Or say hello. Or say anything to me other than, “I’m hungry.” They were growing, changing and making new friends, deciding on a new favorite color or maybe even developing a new skill. They were finding a new favorite online celebrity to follow. I’d ask questions, but get no answers. “Fine,” doesn’t really describe how one has been doing lately.

The hours of screen time had to be cut. Our family had become more connected to the online world than each other. My motherly instincts screamed at me to fix this.

One of family crafting projects was painting monochromatic bells.

One afternoon after work and school, backpacks cratered on beds and dinner boiling on the stove, I walked into the living room and looked over my family, heads bent down over their various tools to plug in online like plants in need of water.

“Listen up, family,” I said. “I think it would do us some good to have time when all electronics are turned off. We will call it a black out night, and instead of our noses in screens, we will make art and play games. We will talk about whatever you want. We can plan our summer vacation or be silly. I don’t care what we do and I’m open to suggestions, but absolutely no electronics, including cell phones, during this time.”

I braced for the whining.

“Cool! Can we paint bottles? I’ve seen some designs online I’d like to try,” Mackenzie, the middle child, responded.

“I have an idea too. Let’s do a fire in our fire pit with outdoor games,” said Madison, the oldest.

The youngest chimed in, “Can we color together? I’d like that.”

I was stunned. This was not the reaction I expected. Instead, my children agreed, and we listed several ideas for our black out days. We decided Friday evenings would be a good start since we rarely have plans.

For our first black out Friday we built a fire in our fire pit, roasted all beef hot dogs on sticks and made ice cream s’more sundaes, played football and talked about space travel, stars and planets as the sky began to darken and sparkle. No cell phones or other electric devices were allowed.

We painted donated bottles one evening for our family bonding time.
We painted donated bottles one evening for our family bonding time.

The second black out Friday we colored in coloring books, but not just any coloring books. I purchased a nice set of colored pencils and “adult” coloring books, which are full of small details to shadow and take a long while to complete. We ate homemade pizza and talked about our favorite colors, our favorite seasons and our favorite classes. I taught them about the color wheel.

We built an art room where we teach the kids to paint. No electronics allowed, of course.

By the third black out Friday, my children were turning off their tablets and cell phones ahead of time. I found them, dark and abandoned, tossed about the house.

It hit me. They were enjoying this as much as I was. They needed time to connect as a family as much as I did.

Spending less time in virtual reality strengthened our family bonds. Now we spend more time updating the status of our relationship with each other than any of our social media accounts. Who knew unplugging could lead to feeling so plugged in?

Chasing Ghosts

 

IMG_2886“You cannot stop the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can stop them nesting in your hair.” – Eva Ibbotson, The Dragonfly Pool

Yesterday was my last day employed by the bourbon distillery where my father worked 17 years.

I made it 31 months.

It wasn’t that I didn’t inherit his stamina and work ethic. My co-workers were interesting, good people, with laid back, comedic and gossipy personalities one grows up around in a small town. Time tick tocks a little slower down in the valley where the distillery rises up above the tree lines.

Dad began working there when he was 19 until he was 36 years old. I was 12 when he got a better job making more money at a federal prison. He passed away at age 50 of lung cancer about 10 months after diagnosis. I was 25 years old, five days before turning 26.

Despite being an adult with a mortgage, paralegal career and a one-year-old daughter, the devastation of his loss brought my knee caps to the kitchen floor.

It happened after I called my brother to deliver the news. It had to be me to tell him. I knew it had to be me.

IMG_2583

Sometimes we are able to close the door on our emotions long enough to accomplish a difficult obligation. That’s what I did. I did it for months before dad let go of life. I knew I’d have the rest of mine to leave the door wide open, but not in front of him, or my brother or my mother. Not while hope and strength were needed as a priority to push us all through the treatments, hospital stays and filing for Social Security based on terminal diagnosis.

All until that moment when I hung up the phone with my brother; strength evaporated and took hope with it.

I knew part of me was going to be different from this point forward. I was not wrong.

My brother and I would join thousands of people who had lost parents, some young, and many who were much older than us. There’s an understanding expression in the eyes when we see each other, because it’s not possible for another human being to understand what it feels like to lose a parent until it happens. Not even if I were to craft a hundred metaphors to describe the feeling.

I wager the experience differs as well for those of us who were close to our parent, like I was with my father. (No, I’m certainly not saying it is harder or worse for me, but different.) We were so much alike, and we were best friends.

About two years after grieving dad’s death, I received a Facebook message from a friend working at the distillery letting me know her position would be open soon. She asked if I would be interested.

Here was a chance to meet many of dad’s former co-workers who I’m sure could tell me stories I hadn’t heard. I was tired of my commute to my current job and was feeling guilty about spending so much time away from my family, so I took the job.

I was right. Within a month, I had gathered many hilarious stories about my dad’s antics and humbling tales about his kindness. A few folks wandered to my desk just to meet “Otis Ball’s daughter” and tell me what a great person he was. I soaked it all up like a little shriveled plant thirsty for water. These were his memories brought to life through people who knew him well, and I had gained unfettered access.

My connection with my deceased father is so strong, I feel it even in death. Perhaps the pain comes from my inability to create new memories using our connection. Surely others left behind in the light of the living feel as I do. I was lucky. I had found a way to discover old memories which were new to me.

The job was easy, simple office work. I knew I was overqualified. Hearing about dad’s life from co-workers fed my soul, but the work didn’t. I was a writer. My passion lives inside words scrawled on a page. I liked challenge. I liked to help people.

Somewhere on my journey chasing my father’s ghost, I had forgotten my passion. So after several months soaking in the atmosphere where my father had spent half his adult life, I slowly began to write again, and realized I wasn’t supposed to be there anymore. Dad wouldn’t want me stuck in place on his behalf, a place I didn’t belong. A place where my talents were not utilized.

So I left.

I am pursuing a fulltime career as a freelance writer. When I switched majors my sophomore year in college from Physical Therapy to a double major in English and Communication, my father said, “How are you ever going to make any money doing that?”

me and dad collegeHe was laying on the concrete floor of the carport at home, fiddling under my car. The forest green Honda Accord was making a crazy scratching noise. He had the tire pulled off minutes after my arrival.

“I will,” I said, though I really wasn’t sure myself how I was going to turn words into cash. I was seated on my tire watching his greasy elbow move this way and that.

He turned his head and faced up at me to make eye contact. “Show me,” he said, then turned his attention back to the mechanics of the car he helped me buy.

Well, dad. I’m showing you now.