DR398   (Our Dominican Vision Trip in 398 words)

a toddler peers through slats in a window to see visitors to her rural Dominican Republic home

Day 1
On the plane, drifting over clouds
And so it begins. We will play in unfamiliar settings and take in all the smells and textures that make up the tiny portion of the Dominican Republic which awaits us.

Day 2
On my bed, beneath a creaky ceiling fan
Sweat. Drips. Sopping wet. H-U-M-I-D is how you spell Dominican Republic.

Day 3
On the bus, heading to our first community
The intern announces, “It’s Terrible Joke Tuesday!”
Later, he says our gang of 6 participated more than last week’s group of 18. We attribute that to Senor Tim.

In a school room where the Village Savings & Loan members meet
A woman says, “We are grateful a thousand times a thousand – grateful for so many things. If we were to share them all, it would take days.”

Merengue musicians, with guitar and drum and guida.Day 4
On a balcony, surrounded by Dominican people, food and music
The Merengue starts, with guitar and drum and guida. They sing about the hard work of coffee growers. We clap and dance.

In a one-room church building, where children line the walls, eager to engage
The teacher leads a lesson on a familiar story: the birth of Jesus. Her emphasis is on a detail maybe we’ve missed before: “Jesus was born into nothing.”

Day 5
On the patio, while roosters call and shoo away the morning gray
Doves embark on playful races and the chants of a dozen birds are muted by the scuffing of tired feet. Morning has broken.

On a thickly forested mountaintop
A young boy and his father drive the oxen to haul logs – carefully selected trees removed for the health of the forest. 

Rosa, a most impressive farmer, shows the diversity of plants she has tended. Watching the chatter between gringos and her neighbors, she wraps her arms around a tree and smiles.

lush green farmed hills in Dominican RepublicDay 6
On a restaurant deck, over the lapping waves of the Caribbean Sea
We eat breakfast: four weary Americans and a cheerful Dominican named Chico.

How quickly bonds are made. With or without a common language, there is joy and understanding.

Day 7
On a bench outside Denver’s Union Station
Three new friends reflect on their good fortune: they have seen poverty and richness redefined by Dominicans. And they forge ahead as apostles of a gospel that blends care of the earth with care of those who inhabit it.


Written by Kate Vanskike, 
who journeyed to the Dominican Republic
with Amber Smith and Tim Busse to experience the work of Plant With Purpose, August 2016.
For more on how planting trees has helped diminish poverty, visit
www.plantwithpurpose.org.

3 May Poems

Riding the Yellow Whale

Riding the yellow whale
through green alfalfa fields
– a roar from the back,
a glare from the front.

They are young and that is good –
inquisitive, defiant
funny, dumb
self-conscious and oblivious.

Past the basalt, past the hay, past
the iron horses all graffitied and
over the wide Columbia, with white ladies
twirling on the bluffs.

Climbing the Cascades now, the black snake straightening
in the rear view mirror, and twisting, winding ahead.
It’s quiet now. Charades give way
to Mocking Jay and Anne Frank.

 

My Muir Hill

I named the place Muir Hill.
It belongs to the neighborhood, but really
only I and my dog and my daughter go.

We like it that way.

In suburbia, five acres of wild woods
—with deer and coyote and skunk and turkey—
are enough. Enough to hear the birds over
the traffic, nothing more than bulky basalt rocks to clamber and
Ponderosas reaching, (except those that fell victim to the November storm)
only sky overhead, only moss and pine needles below.

I think about the two stately trunks from which I hang my hammock —
I named them Sybil and Ferrell — a young widow and a farmer’s wife.
Both are my grandmothers, but those thoughts
are interrupted by the crows who are fighting —
screaming, it seems — maybe
over the tastiest bugs or the perfect branch.
All I know is they are louder today than ever — right across the street
from the old man who calls his wife Tiger and who
scolds the kids and who once pulled a gun
on a teen who rang his doorbell and ran.

I had words with him, but now
the crows are taking their turn.

I lie on a rock and watch the clouds drift slowly by. I hear
my dog – crunch crunching on the remains of a carcass, and later
when I rise to see her whereabouts, she is silently resting
in a field of wild purple lupines.
I lie back down and the next time I see my dog, she is standing
overhead, fleshy breath and glistening slobber hanging precariously.

The mountains are calling and I must go, Muir said.
I cannot flee to Yosemite today and hide for weeks in the granite crevasses
or wander through meadows and over streams.
But I do have Muir Hill and the sweet wild reprieve
from concrete and from deadlines
and from Tigers.

 

Rumi on the Rocks

Atop a rock in beloved Montana
watching the river rush by below
reading Rumi high above the falls on a ledge
covered by bluebells and goose poop.

He writes of running at boogeymen and narcissus and kisses
Says there are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Ah … Away from the roar of the man-made falls and the hum
of turbines turning water into electricity
for our phones and TVs and laptops.
I find respite in away in the woods, hearing instead
only a whisper of water, bathed in the shadows of trees.

Green, green, all around me green, for now
that’s all I need.

Wash yourself of yourself, says Rumi.

And so I sit.
Hello to the old man and hello to his Spaniel.
Hello little birds whose name I do not know.

Tall grasses toss their heads and branches softly sway
but the rocks, they do not bend, or twist, or soften in the rain.
They gather moss and lichen and wildflowers – sometimes even
give root to trees, and a stool
for a solitary derrière whose person tries to rid herself
of herself.

Kate Vanskike (C) 2016
middle-school girls sit on Capitol steps

On Twain & Tweens

middle-school girls sit on Capitol steps

It was my first time serving as a substitute teacher in a middle school English class.  The topic was Mark Twain, and this should have been easy, as I had grown up near the park surrounding the great Missouri author’s birth home, attended a high school carrying his name, and lived in the same town – Hannibal – where Twain grew up and then used as the setting for the tales of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.  I knew as much about Mark Twain as anyone in this area –how hard could it be to teach about him?

After an hour of chaos, a sixth-grade boy dropped his pants and strutted away from me with his red briefs staring me down. I made sure the school district knew that I would not be subbing for middle school anymore.

That was about 20 years ago, but the experience left me dreading the day my own child would enter middle school.  I prepared her for the worst. Middle-schoolers are confused, I told her, and that confusion plays out in myriad odd behaviors.

She wanted to be part of a student leadership team at her school, which was a brand new charter school without those usual opportunities in place.  When I asked the principal if there would be a student council, he said, “As soon as there’s a parent volunteer to lead it.”

I now spend every Wednesday afternoon with about ten middle-schoolers – the very beings I once swore I’d ignore at all costs.

They can’t control themselves in the rolling chairs we use in the board room.  Constantly swirling, pulling the levers, adjusting the arm height.  Constantly squeaking, leaning back.  One boy can’t resist admiring himself and fixing his hair in the reflection of the large-screen monitor on the table.  One girl never says a word.  Another girl wants to do all the work.  They fight over the occasional treat of fruit roll-ups like it’s the last bite of food they might ever enjoy.

But in short time, these same students have shown their adaptability and eagerness to grow and to push themselves outside their usual comfort zones.  They can articulate why we need to talk to legislators about the importance of funding for their charter school.  They can demonstrate the ways their international curriculum has taught them to see topics from a global point of view.  They discuss leadership and agree that the three characteristics they find most important are responsibility, respect and organization, and they challenge one another to exhibit those qualities in carrying out their work.

These 12-year-olds have restored my faith in middle-schoolers.  And that’s why I traveled by plane and by bus with them recently to plead their case at the Washington State Capitol.  And it’s why I will continue to meet with them on Wednesdays and show them how to run meetings and committees and how to contact local businesses for support.  It’s why I will help them plan an international festival and a field day, and watch them make posters for dress-down days and help them gain confidence in standing before their peers to discuss the importance of good school attendance.

I’ll even volunteer to go bowling with them and be surrounded by 60 of their peers on a Friday night.  Because now – whether it’s because I’ve grown up myself or because I see their great potential – I don’t fear them as I did the kid who mooned me with his bright red briefs.

Twain said it best: “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.”

My 2015 Review, by the numbers

10 Firsts

biking the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago

Attending Zags basketball games
Vegan cooking
Taking a college class as an adult (critical thinking)
Producing Gonzaga Magazine from start to finish
Joined the board of Healing Hearts Northwest
Biking to work, and along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago
Hiking the Avalanche Creek trail at Glacier
21 miles in Spokefest
Serving as parent advisor for student council
Pneumonia

6 Firsts with Emily

10940586_10204726065966079_597742440051006259_n
Tubing at Bear Creek needs to become a yearly thing.

Nighttime sledding at Mount Spokane
Participated in a MLK march
Attending a college lecture on racism
Volunteering for SCRAPS (animal shelter)
Serving with Blessings Under the Bridge (homeless ministry)
Haunted Houses

5 Top Activities for Em

Students from Spokane International Academy at Washington Capitol

Started 6th grade at Spokane International Academy
Second season of softball (shortstop, slugger, All-Star)
Serving on Student Council
A weeklong trip without family to Olympic National Park
Trip to the capitol building in Olympia

5 Traditions Kept

water over rocks in crevasse

Family Camp at Camp White
Spending my birthday at Glacier National Park
Fall harvest at Green Bluff
Halloween
4 weeks of Christmas activities

1 New-ish Tradition Kept

Hosting an international visitor.  And I just have to say more about this.  Last year, we had a 14-year-old student from Japan for 3 weeks and she was delightful.  This summer, we had two medical students from Guatemala for a month, and they were so much fun and wove their way straight into our hearts.  We are somewhat leery to do it again, only for fear that our next visitors won’t be as wonderful as Saori, Ale and Julia.

Guatemalan friends at Spokane park

 

4 Fun Trips

Home by Kate Vanskike

Philadelphia – living history
St. Louis – all my parents’ favorite stomping grounds
Chicago – work and reflection, and biking downtown in the rain
San Francisco – Christmas road trip

5 Books Finished

“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love.”

Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand)
Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil (John Berendt)
Travels with Charlie (John Steinbeck)
Tibetan Peach Pie (Tom Robbins)
The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
A Jesuit’s Journey through the Tumultuous 1960s (Paul Swift)

7 Books Started

Jesuit’s Guide to Almost Everything (Fr. James Martin, S.J.)
The Book of Wanderings: A Mother-Daughter Pilgrimmage (Kimberly Meyer)
Another Roadside Attraction (Tom Robbins)
In the Company of the Poor (Paul Farmer)
Tattoos on the Heart (Fr. Greg Boyle)
Just Between Us (Meredith Jacobs)
The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Stieg Larsson/David Lagercrantz)

1 Big Wish

Peace, in our hearts and in our world. Courage to defend what is right. Finding God in all things.  Assuming the best in people.  Laughing more. Drinking more spiced tea, eating more veggies, buying less crap, enjoying more music, saying thank you more, celebrating all that is good. Peace, in our hearts and in our world.
a metal sign reading Peace is covered in snow

Cotton-headed ninny-muggins

Republican, democrat, libertarian. Muslim, Christian, Jew.  Pro-life, pro-choice. Gay, straight, transgender.  Marxist, fascist, socialist, Nazi, commie.  Left-wing, right-wing, conservative, liberal.  Rich, poor, educated, ignorant.  Gun lover, cop hater, addict, hippie, redneck, abuser, victim.

We have life-or-death issues to discuss: violence, immigration, terrorism, education, police brutality, war on drugs, freedom, equality, homelessness, mental illness (and more).  Solutions don’t lie with labeling, segregating, name calling and fear mongering. Solutions lie with humanizing every concern, finding common ground.

We all thirst for security, health and freedom.   Let’s start there.

IMG_2394

I Wasn’t Supposed to Be a Mom (Or, Not Your Usual Mother’s Day Reflection)

At 31, following several years of medical treatments and a roller coaster of adjusting hormone therapy, I was anxious to proceed with a hysterectomy.  Those troubled ovaries weren’t worth keeping.  They caused so much pain and worked so poorly that my doctor said I’d never get pregnant without a lot of fertility assistance.  I wasn’t interested in going that route, had never envisioned having kids anyway, and I was in a dead-end marriage.   A hysterectomy seemed like a great idea, so I planned my surgery and the six weeks off to coincide with the best time of year in Spokane to have some free time.

Two weeks before that vacation was to start, I underwent a normal test to rule out pregnancy.  After running it three times in disbelief, my doctor’s assistant uttered the words that would change my world:  you’re pregnant.

I was not elated.  I did not cry tears of joy.  This was not the plan.

A high-risk pregnancy, a month of bed rest and countless exams on a little life that wouldn’t cooperate inside the womb culminated in the emergency delivery of a 4-pound, 7-ounce little bug named Emily.  I was a mom, despite the odds, and in spite of the decisions I thought I’d made.

Kate & Emily, 2006 (Photo by Twila Davis)
Kate & Emily, 2006
(Photo by Twila Davis)

Before she turned a year old, my divorce was final, and thus began our journey of a unique relationship that is the only-child-single-mom bond: one that is fierce, unshakeable, and so strong that we—Emily and I—are the only people who could harm or hamper it.

On Mother’s Day, when most of us are reflecting on our own moms, this year I was pondering me instead.  The one who never thought she should or could have kids.  A woman who believes in being a person first and a parent second, because it’s the only way I figure I can do right by myself and my kid.

My first Mother’s Day, celebrated while little bug was still growing inside, I bought a 7-piece oak dining room set—something sturdy that would be around a long time, something we’d use day in and day out for years to come.  Ten years later, we celebrated Mother’s Day with a picnic near the mountain, a simple new tradition we’ve set with my own mom.  I don’t need some expensive piece of furniture to make me feel like a good mom.  All I really need is to put each day to rest with another tradition: lying on Emily’s bed, listening to her recount her blessings and her frustrations, make plans for the day ahead, and say her prayers.

Maybe I wasn’t “supposed” to be a mom.  But if I weren’t, who would love me “to the moon and back, and around the whole galaxy a million times” every night?

Grace for the Sparrow

2 Girls & a birdIt was like a Windex commercial, except without the laughing crows.  The small sparrow on its morning trek was blissfully unaware that the scene ahead was framed by brick and encased in glass.   The legal assistant inside the office building turned in her swivel chair when she heard the thud, just in time to see the frail bird fall to the ground.

She had dozens of phone messages to return, and a pile of papers stacking up at the fax machine, all of which would result in hours of paperwork to prepare for her anxious attorney.  But for Shirley, the last moments of that bird’s life were more important.

Dressed to the nines and sporting her new five-inch red stilettos, Shirley dashed outdoors and knelt down next to the window.  The bird was gasping for air, and seemingly crying out for comfort.

Shirley scooped it up in her hands and wept over it.  “No one should die alone,” she whispered, “I’m here for you.”

Hers was a heart that was wrenched daily by clients suing neighbors, doctors, family members; criminals avoiding due punishment for heinous acts; couples ending marriage in nasty court battles.  She read and filed and recorded countless stories of child abuse and saw failed cases where justice was not found.  A thankless job like this would harden the softest soul.  But for Shirley, it made her that much more tender and resilient and compassionate.

The bird witnessed this truth.  As did many a scorned teenager.  And plaintiffs wrongly accused.  Even her ex-husband.

As the bird closed its eyes and took its last breath in the comfort of Shirley’s hands, she was transported back in time to her youth, when she and her sister would feed the squirrels and birds, rabbits and geese that wandered freely through their Pennsylvania property.  Inevitably, the two girls could charm a feathered or furry guest to come and be stroked or even held.  In those moments, nothing else in the world mattered.  At those times, being so deeply trusted by another was as fulfilling as life could be.

Shirley dug a small hole in the ground by the window, clumps of earth collecting beneath her manicured nails.  She laid the bird in his final resting place, wiped the dirt from her hands and the tears from her cheeks and returned to court documents awaiting her attention.

If justice couldn’t be guaranteed for each client who came through her office, at least there was grace for the sparrow in its time of need.

*Editor’s Note: This photo was among hundreds in a box at an antiques store in Philadelphia’s historic district.  It was begging for a story, so I bought it, for $1 and gave it “Grace for the Sparrow.”  I have no idea who these girls really are—and if some soul out there recognizes them as part of a lost family history, then please reach out. While their identity is unknown, “Shirley,” is indeed based on the life of a real woman, a real legal assistant with a real heart for those who suffer. — kv

100 Words – a contest

mapShe had an old, brown map of the world, framed and hanging over her TV.  Stickpins with colored heads marked where she’d been and how many times.  Lying on a twin bed in her nursing home room, she propped a leg over the other knee in the air; her memory as sharp as her body was nimble.  She knew what she had paid for a Coke on an Alaskan cruise in the ‘60s, and why she returned to Australia twice. (Koalas.)  Thirty years after her death, the search for that map—with its pins and memories—begins.