RV Chronicles #2 – Tablecloth

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As I drove home from work, I thought to myself:  We haven’t had much rain lately.  I need to water the flowers and garden before leaving on our trip tomorrow.  If you’re an English teacher, you might call this thought “foreshadowing”.

We left on a bright, sunny Friday afternoon.  The RV was packed to the hilt and the kids were buzzing with excitement.  We were heading on a one-week RV trip, with the first stop being Stone Mountain, North Carolina.  Stone Mountain State Park boasted some pretty amazing hiking with a great mountain feel. We were excited to get into the fresh air, and capture some beautiful sights.  

As we headed north, the sky started to turn cloudy.  I checked The Weather Channel app and it said rain. OK, I thought.  Periods of rain, but there had to be some breaks, right?  I was still so optimistic at this point.

We set up camp at our rather bare bones camp site, a concrete slab with an electric hook-up.  No water. No Wi-Fi. No problem.

It was cloudy, but no rain.  So, I set up the picnic table with our brand new tablecloth.  I fastened the clips to keep it in place and…..CRACK. Lightning very close by.  Kids ran into the RV like the outside world was a house on fire. I took the tablecloth in and waited for the storm to pass. I tried to check to see if the weather was going to be severe or if there were any tornado warnings, but we had no Wi-Fi.

We ate some delicious pizza my husband made and set up dinner on our RV dinette.  We all viewed it as an adventure – seeing the torrential downpour outside, while safe and warm in our home away from home.  We played board games and waved to our neighbors in the campers next to us.  

There was a strong rain throughout the night.  It was hitting the roof of our camper really hard and the wind buffeted the camper.  No matter. We were snug in our beds and I was feeling so grateful for this home we made in our little corner of the forest.

The next day, more rain.  Again, wanted to check the weather forecast because it felt like we were sitting ducks if there was a tornado.  I suggested taking off and heading somewhere that might not have any rain- somewhere further west. Also, wanted to find a campground with Wi-Fi.  It just felt safer to have some tether to society. As you can probably tell, I am not an outdoor girl. No one would accuse me of being Cheryl Strayed or anything.  

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My husband is always up for an adventure and the kids were game, so off we went.  The weather forecast did not look good for anything in western North Carolina. Perhaps Tennessee?  We’d see what we would see.  

We decided to stop in Boone, North Carolina, as it is one of our favorite places.  The campground where we stayed was on top of a mountain and promised beautiful vista views (and Wi-Fi).  As we climbed the mountain, we encountered more rain and fog. Vista views may have to wait until the weather cleared.  Still the rain slowed a bit. Perhaps an al fresco lunch at the campground?  

I took advantage of the break in the rain and the tablecloth came out again.  I have to admit, I was becoming a little hell-bent at this point. We were going to eat outside if it killed us.  Well, not killed us per se. But, you get the picture. We were going on the second day of being in close quarters.  Fresh air was needed. Again, I clipped the tablecloth to the picnic table. We ate outside for a total of 2 minutes.  Really? The first bite out of my sandwich aaaannnnnddd…..DOWNPOUR.  

We stayed in the camper for lunch and dinner that night.  The rain was relentless. As we were hanging out with the kids, my phone made a loud alarm noise.  It was, hold on to your hats, a mudslide alert. Conditions were favorable for severe mudslides in our area.  The alert said look for downed trees, power lines and avoid areas of high elevation.  Umm….would that include mountaintops?  

At this point, I had enough.  The kids were anxious messes as they feared our deaths by mudslide.  Mark and I were beyond tired and disappointed. 

And, there was that damn tablecloth amidst the chaos, folded neatly in the open cupboard and full of promise of happy outdoor eating.  It taunted me from its perch like a smug little shit, if only you could use me, Elizabeth…  

Don’t judge me.  Cabin fever will do this to you, too.

I announced (well, really growled)  that everyone was going to bed. Enough of this day!  We’d figure out a plan tomorrow.  I went back to our bed and flopped on the mattress.  I tend to be a bit dramatic at times, I know. As my arms fell, I noticed a damp spot at the head of our bed.  “Who drank something in our bedroom!?” I yelled, accusing the kids of spilling something. No one confessed. However, upon further investigation, the window and wall were wet as well.  There was a leak in the camper.  

Mark and I got towels and stuffed them into where we thought the leak was.  We went to bed in a camper that felt like a sinking ship. For real. I had the wetness to prove it.

We had to head home the following morning due to the leak and everyone was relieved.  I looked at the weather and noticed this major storm would blow over in a few days. We would try to resume our trip later in the week.

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RV Chronicles #1: The Lifestyle

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“Home is where the heart begins, but not where the heart stays.

The heart scatters across states….escape is vital, in some cases, as a survival tool.”

Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

 

 

It all started when Mark came home from work talking about RVs, or showing me RV Trader listings and dealer videos on YouTube.  I listened to him, but these conversations were like listening to a distant melody.  Nice topic, but not something right in front of me.

The casual conversations became an everyday topic.  My growing apprehension of RVs was all logistics- they are expensive and a depreciating investment, what would the upkeep be?….all of those worries.  We arrived at the idea of renting an RV to see if we liked it or not.  Renting was a no-brainer and we were all very excited to see what “The Lifestyle” was going to be about.

“The Lifestyle” was a term coined by our dear friend.  We shared this RV odyssey with our closest friends and one friend said, “So, you’re looking into the lifestyle?”  Little did we know, he was very interested in RVs and was enthusiastic about our expedition. Since then, we started calling everything associated with the RV, “The Lifestyle”.  I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what this lifestyle entailed.

Soon, I was warming up to the idea of RV vacations.  The man wore me down.  After all, I always dreamed of having a camper ever since I had a Barbie Dream Camper when I was little.  It was my favorite toy, but I never thought my amusement would become reality.  I had myself convinced that this RV thing was meant to be.  Until, I heard Mark’s voice as he was driving the rental to our house.

“What’s wrong?” I asked when I heard the lack of enthusiasm in his voice.  He seemed, well, nonplussed, to say the least.  Was he afraid to drive it?  Is it too big?  Aww.  Now that I was on board, he was wavering.  Man!

After peppering him with a million questions, it turned out he was just really worried that somehow the kids and I would not like the RV – would it be too loud, too cold, too wobbly?…  In our family, sometimes the smallest issue can turn into a big problem.  His worries were justified based on past experiences.  I mean, we’ve had entire vacations messed up because of bugs.

When the kids got home from school that day and saw the RV, Mark and I were relieved to find he had nothing to fear.  As soon as the kids set foot in the RV, they were completely hooked!  John promptly leapt into his perch above the cab and shouted, “I’m king of the world!!!”  Colleen, ever the domestic goddess, started setting up her cozy nook in the dining table area.  She even unpacked John’s clothes for him!  It was amazing to see how our sensitive kids were adapting to our temporary home on wheels.

After getting situated in the RV, we were off!  Yes, the ride was loud, but the kids managed beautifully with the help of headphones and calming music.  When we arrived at the campsite, we found our spot was under a thick canopy of trees that gave just the right amount of shade under which to read and write, at least that was my plan.  Even though we were only 1.5 hours away from home, we felt miles away.  I had no idea how much I was going to love outdoor living, and how much it would pay dividends for my mindset.  It was a tonic to sit outside with the night sky winking its bright stars at me with approval.

It was as if nature said to us, “You made the right choice.  Welcome to the lifestyle.”

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Drawer

20181127_152912(0)Recently, my family and I decorated our Christmas tree.  As we were hanging the decorations – relics from family vacations, kids’ crafts, fancy bulbs from my childhood made from beads – I held each one and lovingly remembered all of the experiences each decoration represented.

As I was adrift in memories, I realized something.  Gratitude comes in many packages. I was grateful for the little hopeful faces that gave me their creations, the parents/grandparents who went to great pains to make these bulbs and the many fun adventures we were able to take with our family.  

It occurred to me that gratitude is like these decorations.  You have to pull it out of the drawer, dust it off and let it breathe.  Acts for which we are grateful are abound, yet we don’t acknowledge them so often.  Rather, we may choose to focus on the not-so-happy aspects of daily life.

For example, Christmas has become a complicated holiday for my family and me.  My mother died at Christmastime two years ago. Sometimes when I see our outdoor lights shining through the window against our dining room wall, I think about the people who came to our door to deliver meals to our home while she was in the hospital.  When the cold air of December blows in my face, I think of how it did the same thing walking to the car after days and nights in the ICU.

It’s not our fault.  Our minds tend to go to the negative – what we haven’t given, what we haven’t gotten, how much we have missed, how much we have to overcome, etc.  Critical analysis is part of our everyday experience.

But, I realize that I cannot live in that space – the place of regret, loss, guilt, negativity.  It leaves a dark imprint on everything in my life. My kids get very anxious when they hear me complaining too much.  They are like little mirrors, showing you the result of when you allow negativity to permeate your lives.

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Gratitude is everywhere, impelling its way into everyday life.  My husband came home the other day and told me about a story he heard on talk radio about a reluctant and crabby person who was forced into keeping a list of things for which he was grateful.  He begrudgingly wrote down some half-baked ideas, “glad I got up this morning”, “glad I’m breathing”, etc. Then, he started to get into keeping this list and got more creative. The radio announcer said this hesitant observer now has thousands and thousands of items on his gratitude list now and he is not stopping.  He remains excited about recognizing the gifts of living.

Gratitude seems like exercise – you have to remind yourself to do it, and do it often. The benefits will not happen unless you perform those moves of mindful reflection on a consistent basis.  So, like getting on the treadmill to remain healthy over the holidays, or reluctantly going to the gym in the rain or snow, try gratitude training.  In the words of George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, you could be flexing your muscular kindness.

Trees

20180824_154353“Places remember what people forget.”

Richard Powers, The Overstory

I recently saw a documentary about sentinel trees.  Sentinel trees have witnessed major events in history.  For example, they were examining the trees in Gettysburg, PA who saw the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

It got me thinking of all that trees observe.  In the White Mountains of California, there are Great Basin bristle cone pine trees that are thousands of years old.  What have they seen in their lifetimes?  Pioneers in covered wagons searching for prosperity in the new west?  Curious and inventive citizens have certainly sampled their bark for medicinal purposes.

I thought of all of the trees in my own history.  Like that mammoth oak that had the tire swing in my friend’s backyard growing up.  I was afraid of that tire swing because the tree was the size of a building!  The tire swing was high above the ground. The yard had a steep slope, so it would swing right over her mother’s garden.  One day, I twisted up my courage and attempted to master the tire swing.  I did not ride in the middle of the tire like most kids.  I decided to straddle the top of the thing and ride away!  Little did I know I would get frightened mid-flight, let go and landed directly in her mother’s vegetable garden—just a foot or two away from the tomato stakes.  I could have been impaled!  Yet, I looked up and saw the tree.  Its green canopy above signified that I was OK.

There was also another tree in my backyard.  It provided shade for the whole yard. I believe it was another mighty oak, perhaps maple.  I used to collect the large leaves in the fall and pretend they were dollar bills.  My dolls were the richest toys in all of Cortland, New York.  They had many leaves with which to buy their jewels, cars and houses.

My brother was a fan of our crab apple trees on the side of our house.  He and his friends would pick them and hurl them at each other in vicious apple fights.  I remember being scared of even touching the crab apples because our mom warned us not to eat wild fruit.  I don’t know if my brother cared.  He just wanted to engage in battle.

Trees are silent witnesses to so many events.  They not only see the mischief of everyday life, but have been bystanders to pivotal moments in history.  There are trees still alive in Dallas, Texas that observed the assassination of President Kennedy.  There are also trees around Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts that had a front row seat to Louisa May Alcott’s family history she so lovingly recounted in classics such as Little Women and Little Men.

I am on my back porch now looking at the pines in our backyard and think about all they have seen while we have lived here.  These pines have witnessed the growth of our two kids, my reading and writing back here, the kids and I whistling at the birds in their branches and many, many family celebrations filled with food, wine, bubbles, sprinklers and songs.  Our daughter finds solace in the small wooded area in our backyard.  She used to build wooden sculptures out of downed limbs.  It was looking like the Blair Witch Project in our backyard for a while.

As writers, we have a lot to learn from sentinel trees, these silent spectators.  Observe.  Take it all in.  Be in the background for a while.  Just watch. See what unfolds.

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Garden

20180614_171002“What is called genius is the abundance of life or health, so that whatever addresses the senses, as the flavor of these berries, or the lowing of that cow, which sounds as if it echoed along a cool mountain-side just before night, where odiferous dews perfume the air and there is everlasting vigor, serenity, and expectation of perpetual untarnished morning,—each sight and sound and scent and flavor,—intoxicates with a healthy intoxication.”

Henry David Thoreau’s journal entry, 11 July 1852

There is a healthy intoxication in North Carolina during these sweltering days of summer.  Farm stands abound with fresh produce and it is the time to try out new recipes. Each summer, my daughter and I plant a small garden in our backyard full of herbs and tomatoes.

I have been researching foods that help reduce inflammation associated with RA.  My sister gave me an excellent resource, The Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Action Plans by Dorothy Calimeris and Sondi Bruner.  I have found that some of my favorite foods/herbs (basil, strawberries, spinach, pineapple, cherries) might help with inflammation.  My go-to fruit lately has been cherries, much to the delight of my Michigander husband.

I have been trying some of the recipes from my new cookbook and wanted to share some of them with you.  I have been making a lot of smoothies lately. With temperatures rising to 100 degrees, something cold really hits the spot.  This smoothie is my current obsession:

Cherry Smoothie, serves 1

1 cup of frozen, no sugar added, pitted cherries

¼ cup frozen raspberries

¾ cup coconut water

1 tbsp of raw honey (try to get local honey for the pollen, which helps with allergies)

1 tsp chia seeds

1 tsp hemp seeds

Drop of vanilla extract

Ice (optional)

In a blender, combine all ingredients until smooth.

So, I made this smoothie for my husband before one of my son’s soccer games.  As he tasted it, he said, “is this alcoholic?” Umm… no? FYI…Watch how much vanilla extract you put in this smoothie.  I misread the recipe and added a teaspoon of vanilla extract, not the drop that the recipe called for. It does taste alcoholic when you do that.  Not bad, but definitely not the drink to have at a Saturday morning soccer game. Lesson learned.

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The next recipe is an unusual entree, but I promise you it is delectable!  Again, I’m a little obsessed with cherries lately. They are just so sweet and fresh!  I found this recipe for Chicken Breast with Cherry Sauce and my husband made it for me.  It is unbelievably good, healthy and celebrates the abundance of the season:

Chicken Breast with Cherry Sauce, serves 4

1 tbsp coconut oil

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 scallions, sliced

¾ cup chicken broth

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

½ cup dried cherries (I used fresh cherries.  They made for a little more liquid. See step #5 below.)

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees fahrenheit
  2. In a large, ovenproof skillet over medium high heat, melt the coconut oil.
  3. Season the chicken with salt and pepper.  Place the chicken in the pan and brown it on both sides, about 3 minutes per side.
  4. Add the scallions, chicken broth, balsamic vinegar and cherries.  Cover with an ovenproof lid or aluminum foil and place the pan in the preheated oven.  Bake for 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
  5. If you are using fresh or frozen cherries, transfer the sauce into a saucepan to reduce the liquid – making the sauce thicker before transferring back to chicken.

Exploring new recipes makes this transition exciting.  I am able to find better ways to eat clean and preserve my health.  Oh, and I also made Lavender and Honey homemade ice cream from the lavender in our garden.  I won’t add that recipe. It was unbelievable, but definitely not anti-inflammatory or healthy.  Sometimes you just have to indulge. And I was still honoring the abundance of our garden.

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Chess

20180608_070056The other night, my husband and I were watching the Netflix show “Off Camera with Sam Jones.”  Sam Jones is a photographer and film director who does in-depth interviews with actors in an unconventional way.  They aren’t selling a movie or pitching an idea. They are just talking about their craft, riffing about art. We watched the episode featuring Robert Downey, Jr.  

In this interview, Downey said he was reading a book called The Tao of Leadership by John Heider.  The author encourages readers to trust the process and let go of the typical philosophy of leadership – controlling and managing people. Heider makes the point that managing people and controlling situations is virtually impossible.

So, isn’t managing the essence of leadership?  No. And it is even possible to lead effectively without holding the reins too tightly.   

As an example of this type of leadership, Downey told a story about what it is like to be an actor in a Guy Ritchie film.  He said Ritchie keeps a very laid-back set. He even noted it’s almost impossible to see Ritchie as the director because he is usually in the background.  Sometimes, he’s even playing chess while scenes are in progress. Although it looks as though he’s not paying attention, Downey says Ritchie is keenly aware of everything that is going on.  If something goes awry, Ritchie will be the first one in line to remedy the situation. However, his interferences are minimal.

So, what does this story mean to someone who is a teacher and writer – read control freak?  Have you met any of us before? We want to manage everything! Classrooms, content, instruction, choice of books, etc.  Add to that, we have two children on the autism spectrum in our family. Control means more than choice. It means safety, security, predictability.  We’ve had schedules and routines since the kids were infants.

I guess it’s time to unlearn some of my instinctual moves.

I really like the idea of being aware, but not having to be in charge of everything.  I think that this trust issue can apply to our kids and my students. I need to learn to trust that my children will make good choices and not kill each other when they argue.  I want them to become problem solvers, not problem makers, without my constant supervision. As for my students, I need to trust that they are in my class to succeed. If they choose to not hand in their work or fail the course, that has nothing to do with me or the quality of instruction they received.

The poet Barbara Guest talks about the writer’s need for control.  “Invisible architecture engages the productive tension between the desire of the poet to control and that something within the poetry desires the invisible.”  She further explains that invisible architecture is supporting the poem and interrupts the process of writing for the poet. Perhaps this interruption is a shift in perspective or a letting go to allow the art to blossom more organically.  

There are so many things out of my control these days.  Trust is difficult when there is so much uncertainty. Maybe there is an invisible architecture at work that is disrupting my status quo, but will benefit me in the future.  Or, maybe I need to stop thinking so much. I need to, you know, be like Guy. Play a game of chess.

Present

My RA sister and I were talking the other day.  While we were commiserating, she noted that RA takes such a psychological toll on us as well as a physical one based on the choices you have to constantly make.  We talked about how your energy reserves are now very precious and you cannot do everything you used to be able to do. So, you have to make choices. And, these choices are not always easy.

Here’s an analogy to explain my point…

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You have a leaky bucket, but you have many flowers to water.  Which flowers will you choose? You are losing water by the second, and you do not want your flowers to suffer.  You have to choose one over the other. Not because one flower is better. You simply do not have enough water to go around.

I think the hardest part for me is not everyone will understand the need to make these choices.  I look fine. I sound fine.  But, I have been bailing out on plans quite a bit lately.  I recently had an experience that forced me to re-calibrate my life for now.

The other week, I went to my brother’s 50th birthday party.  My side of the family got together and it was a wonderful time.  We laughed while my brother was opening his presents and took a picture of our mocked disgust while he read an inappropriate card. In the past, these celebratory times would rejuvenate me.  Being with my family used to be a boost. This time was different.

We only went to their house for a long weekend – virtually it was an up and back trip.  Yes, it was packed with activities, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Or, so I thought. I started feeling sick on the way home.  Really sick. So tired I couldn’t focus. My body was exhausted and it felt like I was coming down with the flu. I rested for the entire afternoon when we got home, but nothing seemed to relieve the deep malaise.  

The next two days were spent mostly in bed with an intermittent fever.  I missed work. I felt really frustrated; as if my body was not letting me do things, like a simple road trip.  Travel is very important to my husband and me. If I can’t do this minimal travel, how am I ever going to do our annual road trip this summer?  We take a two-week road trip every summer and our kids count down the days until we can go. I started reflecting about how different I was last summer and I lamented about taking my body for granted when it worked “right”.

However, for my own peace of mind, I need to realize that RA is not a punishment.  Find the light, Elizabeth. There has got to be a lesson in this condition. What is RA teaching me?

In making these difficult choices of where to go and what to do, I am learning to be mindful of my body and my constraints.  These constraints are irritating, but I really feel that they are also forcing me to live in the moment. When I am able to spend time with family and friends, I am grateful for the time with them.  I rarely waste my time anymore, as I am cognizant that I do not have unlimited energy.

I am also learning to mother myself.  After my mom died, I felt like I had lost my tenacious champion.  My mom was very protective and would go to great lengths to fight for her kids.  I need to be that champion for myself now. Arguably, there are tough choices. I cannot attend all of the parties, vacations, events that I really want to go to these days.  I disappoint my family and friends more regularly now.

But in the same vein of RA being an education, I am learning to advocate and stand up for myself.  I am channeling my inner mother. I cannot worry about who I will annoy or hurt. I need to gauge how much hurt I am willing to incur if I do this thing or that thing, and what attending that event will cost my family if I am down for the count.  These are not easy decisions.

20180601_072056So, is RA a present?  Should we be celebrating this new gift?  Well, I’m not going to go that far. However, RA is helping me to savor the moments.  I am thinking about what (or who) is right in front of me, rather than what I am going to do in the next hour, day, week or year.  I hope to become a better person, to myself and to others, as a result of this new normal.