Attending Zags basketball games
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
Family Camp at Camp White
Spending my birthday at Glacier National Park
Fall harvest at Green Bluff
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.
4 Fun Trips
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.
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.
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.
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?
It 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
She 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.
I have unfairly judged North Idaho. Terms like “backwoods” and “redneck” most often come to mind, based on experiences during my five-year residency there—the same timeframe as my five-year marriage to a true North Idahoan. I’ve written off the panhandle of the Gem State as a home for bigots and racists, with a smattering of California transplants who’ve successfully transformed some beautiful landscapes into well-known tourist spots.
While my sentiments still feel (somewhat) legitimate, I must recognize there are many well educated, thoughtful, open-minded souls residing there, and beyond those fine individuals, North Idaho mustn’t be written off.
For one thing, I love good, unadulterated wilderness, and there remains plenty of it in the state’s panhandle. North Idaho has a collection of pristine lakes and rivers, and ranges of mountains and forests left to themselves, seemingly empty of capitalist commercial juggernauts ruining them for the sake of a buck. No, here—where locals drive big trucks with fishing rods, rifles and dogs—the land is pure as it can be.
Take, for example, the St. Joe Scenic Byway and rugged Moon Pass through St. Joe National Forest. Every twist and turn in the road delivers a new treat to behold—from marshes to road-side creeks to mountain-flanked riverbeds. Moon Pass follows part of the old Milwaukee Line—which would be an adventure unto itself, even without the surrounding mountain views, thanks to its tunnels and single-lane trestles high above the valley floor. Moss-covered rock walls tell where water rushes over in the spring and trickles down in summer. There are picture-perfect picnic spots high above the river, where the only sound comes from the water itself and the air is so crisp and clean, you want to bottle it up to take home.
And then …
Then there are the ghosts. The cedar ghosts. Hollowed out shells of trees left standing since the big burn of 1910 when fire roared through the forest and the lives of countless acres of giants and dozens of human lives, too. They were 300-500 years old when the fire scorched their trunks and snapped off their tops. And here they stand – gray and cold and unmoving, but not dead.
Oh, not dead. For something in them spoke to me. They want to recognized, loved. They have stories to tell and I must listen. Stories of a land called North Idaho that calls to be loved rather than labeled.
(Pulled this out from my “archives” and thought it was worth posting.)
I sent Em to her room this morning for back talking. When she came out 10 minutes later, she was pulling a pink suitcase and said she was running away. I asked her to stay on Stonington Lane, and out the door with her suitcase she went. Roughly two minutes later, I stepped outside and saw her about two houses down. I hollered after her: “Breakfast is ready. You might want to eat something so you have strength for all the walking you’re going to do.”
She promptly turned and came back. And during breakfast, we had this conversation:
Em: So, it would probably be a good idea if you got some walkie-talkies. You can get some at the repair (hardware) shop before I leave. Do you know how they work?
Kate: Yeah, but I’m probably not going to get any. You want some snacks?
E: I’ll pack snacks. And then all I need from you is a phone and some money. Do you have 50 cents?
K: That’s about all I have. What are you going to buy with 50 cents?
E: Probably some pizza.
K: I doubt you’ll buy pizza with 50 cents, but you can have it anyway. You need help packing?
I unzip her suitcase and it’s empty. So, the laughter I’ve been holding in now bursts forth. “You’re running away and the suitcase you were dragging is EMPTY??”
She finished her breakfast and headed into her room where she emptied her underwear drawer into a backpack and began packing another. This kid is prepared for homelessness: plenty of changes of panties, a pillow, a flashlight, some pjs, a pair of shoes, an outfit and – lo and behold – she packed a toothbrush and toothpaste!
K: Well, that’s a little more like it. Now I feel a little better about you being out on your own. When will I see you again?
E: I’ll stop in for dinner tomorrow.
K: Okay. I love you.
She turns to leave and this time I wait more like five minutes to peek outside and see where she is.
Back on the porch.
E: Mom, I want to be one of the Boxcar Children.
K: Well, homelessness is pretty tough. How about we settle for finding you a gigantic box that you can pretend is your boxcar and you and your friends can play in there?
That settled it, and I was good to my word, calling multiple stores before finding a hardware store that had a nice big box we could have. She can be a Boxcar Child safely inside my garage.
So many things in our world are upsetting. We have so many reasons to fear.
But in the midst of us are these children of ours who are like sponges and we can help them soak up so much good: intelligence and compassion, responsibility and humor, critical thinking and good listening.
Which is why it pains me to see parents who don’t engage with their youngsters much, or too quickly hand over an iPhone or other gadget to entertain them, or snap at them with disgust, or overreact to some minor inconvenience.
I cringe because these kids are the sponges who will someday be our community leaders.
If we want real change in this world, it should start with our parenting, because raising children to be responsible and compassionate adults is the only way for us to see healthier communities and a happier world.
With that utopian goal in mind, I offer some kudos to some parenting heroes I know.
“Heather” is recognizing some early onset anxiety in her 6-year-old, and in addition to getting some education and professional guidance, is also instilling in her little girl the notion that it is absolutely okay to share anything and all her feelings with her parents, and receive complete safety and support.
“Ann” is balancing a parent’s natural desire to hold on, with a teen’s natural desire to get away. It’s delicate – and scary – but she respects her teen’s individuality while also continuing to instill the kind of wisdom only a parent can really offer.
“Jim” is always able to put fun in the day even when the stress from a demanding job and challenges from some devastating circumstances that could make him an uptight and angry dad. He’s never too busy for bike ride to the pastry shop for a few unnecessary grams of sugar that grant him a sweet moment with his son.
“Lynn” puts up with continual bullying from her ex and his new wife and rather than giving in, finds the strength to continue fighting for the best options for her daughter.
“Barb” is the strongest child advocate I’ve ever known. She always puts her kids’ needs before her own—which seems contrary to this growing trend of parents thinking their time sipping lattes should have first priority. Her kids’ needs are particularly demanding, but she doesn’t complain about devoting all her energy to fulfilling them.
There are so many others. So many moms who are showing their kids what is right, noble, true and praise-worthy. So many dads demonstrating that their kids are more important than their paycheck … or football. So many parents coming to school to be present in the classroom, organizing activities and buying cheap crap from fundraisers to show their children that education is an important investment.
And so the hope—not the fanciful-wish-kind-of-hope, but the expectant-watching-kind-of-hope—of a bright, pleasant future is here in these parents’ kids.
Here’s to tomorrow. Now let’s go fill those sponges with something rich and wonderful.
Saori, a 15-year-old Japanese student whose name we would botch throughout her three-week stay in our home, brought many unexpected blessings to us this summer. I knew I liked her when her profile indicated she liked camping and hiking, and I loved the initial emails we exchanged before she departed her home and came to ours. (“What I want to do with you are too many!” she wrote.)
We were told many things about “typical” Japanese students in advance of their arrival: they’re shy, they need to be shown to pull the blankets back from the bed or they will sleep on top of them instead of under, they will shut the water off during their showers to conserve water, and if you want to treat them to something reminiscent of home, serve some Ramen noodles.
By the very fact that they were embarking on this journey to America for a three-week language immersion school and cultural experience, we assumed they enjoyed adventure at least a little. Sao, as she let us call her for short, seemed to have no limits on her willingness to embrace every opportunity to do something new.
We broke her in to some good old-fashioned American fun with camping over her first weekend. Those three days on the river in North Idaho provided her with a litany of “firsts” that she won’t soon forget: sleeping in a tent, having a campfire, roasting marshmallows, eating s’mores, swimming in a river, attending a church service, and viewing a whole galaxy of stars on a crystal clear night away from city lights. She was open to anything Emily and Alex (aka Lewis and Clark) wanted to do, and I warned her that was a little dangerous, as I never know what plans they will devise. She grinned from ear to ear and said she didn’t mind. The three of them took a raft and paddled it along the shore over to a cove where they got into the water and fished by hand; they caught a small minnow they named Ponyo, much to Sao’s delight. She and Alex built a massive sand castle with a fortress and a moat, and Emily successfully talked her into trying out a variety of jumps and positions on the diving board and slide. Later as her time came to a close, she said this camping experience was the favorite activity of her time in America.
At home during the week, we enjoyed our conversations with Sao as she returned from school excited to share what she had learned. On her first day in class, she was thrilled to discover some of the many ways Americans say yes (uh huh, yeah, okay, sure) and we added to her list. Dad continually confused her with his usual array of colloquialisms and jokes that only produced blank stares. “Did you bring the kitchen sink?” (Does he want me to use his sink? Am I supposed to wash something?) “Are you up for all day?” (Am I up? What does this mean?) But the two of them connected when she indicated an interest in a topic he deeply loves: the American Western.
“What is ‘Western’?” she asked when she heard that her class would be celebrating Western day. Dad sat down with her and showed her a map of the U.S. and explained how gradually people explored the wide-open and Wild West. He opened a book and showed her pictures of corrals and old west towns. He showed her a short clip of cowboys at work on the movie “Lonesome Dove.” And she soaked up ALL of it. Her teacher later told me how proud Sao was on Western Day to know what chaps were, especially when no one else did. That day, they also made “Wanted” posters of themselves and learned some country line dancing with the help of their American friends.
During the last week of school, the Japanese celebrated all the American holidays in one day. They made Valentines, had a BBQ for 4th of July, dressed up for Halloween and gave white elephant gifts for Christmas. The day culminated with all the host families coming together for a Thanksgiving feast. When Sao learned that her teacher would be carving a roasted turkey for us to eat, she was conflicted. I found this odd, as this was a girl who was willing to eat anything. (She loved Mom’s roast pork and tried everything that was served.) It was only later on the ride home that I learned why Sao chose to go meatless for that particular meal. Our neighborhood has a flock of turkeys that wander through our yard every morning, and she had grown quite fond of watching them. As we came up the hill to our house, I had to stop the car to let the family of turkeys cross the road. “Turkeys!” she exclaimed. “And you would EAT them?!”
We threw a party for Sao and several of her friends on their last weekend. They gorged themselves on sugar cookies and played a wide variety of games in the yard, along with having a water gun fight and jumping on the trampoline. Oh, the trampoline. She was so timid her first time on it, unsure whether she should really jump. She quickly got over that and enjoyed seeing Emily do flips and tricks. They even slept on the tramp a few times, woke up sopping wet once as the sprinkler system soaked through all their layers of sleeping bags and blankets. So many memories she won’t likely forget soon.
And as for me … I won’t forget the impact quickly either. Sao became an instant daughter to me. I was so excited to watch her grow in her comfort with speaking English and with doing things on her own around the house. She would play the piano and cook Japanese dishes for us, show the kids how to do origami cranes and use her kendama. Her voice always held enthusiasm and her eyes always shone with wonder.
May Sao never forget what chaps are. Or that the Q in Scrabble should always be used where one can make double or triple points (in her case, for “quill,” which also added a new word to her vocab). Or that demi glace sauce is French is that’s why no one at the local Safeway knew what it was. Or how wonderful an afternoon nap in a hammock can be, hanging between two tall pines near the river. And how tasty huckleberries are, picked right from the bush. And how fast fiddlers in a Bluegrass band can play those violins.
And in return, may we always welcome youth exploring a foreign land and look for ways to bridge people across the globe. And consider it a blessing to share the great enjoyment of so many firsts, especially something as simple as viewing the stars, far, far away from the lights of Tokyo.
May we always remember a bright-eyed 15-year-old girl named Saori when we carve the Thanksgiving bird.
Today I deposited my child into the hands of complete strangers. Actually paid them to take her.
That’s kind of bizarre, isn’t it? Sorta like the first time you leave your kid at a new daycare, except with summer camp, you drive far away from home and dump them somewhere that isn’t close enough to retrieve them conveniently if necessary.
Emily is at Camp Spalding, about 75 miles north of town. Per her instructions, we were packed and ready to go at 12:15 p.m., even though registration/check-in wasn’t until 3 p.m. As I pulled out of the driveway, she was singing an upbeat, made-up, hip-hop tune about how great it was to leave home for a week. We arrived at 1:45 and were the first parents/campers to arrive. I heard one staffer remark, “Are you kidding, they’re coming already?!”
I didn’t mind being early, as it gave us the chance to explore the grounds and for me to see the beach, mess hall, chapel, trails and much of the grounds, so I can envision where she is throughout the week. Since we were early enough that there were no other kids to watch, Em even posed for me to take pics at several spots. By 3 when check-in started and Em still didn’t see her friend Ellie, she began to panic a bit that there was no one here she knew. “Making new friends is part of the excitement of camp,” I cheered. She began hugging Lavender Dog, the stuffed animal she brought.
When we finished checking in, we headed to her cabin and were greeted by her camp counselors, Natalie and Sarah. Em picked a top bunk and I helped her get her suitcase and sleeping bag in place, then she made a sign with her name on it for her bunk, like all the other girls were doing. We talked with Natalie and Sarah about making sure they had Em’s Epipen whenever they went hiking away from the premises, and Natalie said if it made me feel any better, she’s an EMT. Yes, that makes me feel better!! At least the total stranger I’m paying to hang with my kid can deal with an emergency. (And maybe she’ll tell gory stories about people she’s had to care for, and Em will think that’s cool.)
Reminiscing Gone Awry
To keep from crying on the way home (I know, it’s a bit ridiculous), I reminisced about my own experiences at camp as a kid. There were the classic camps at Cedarcrest, about 30 minutes from home, which I enjoyed—I mean endured—with all the kids I knew from school and church. This had to be the Midwest’s most run-down, mosquito- and snake-infested site to send your kids to. By now, someone has probably burned it down … on purpose. The chapel/assembly hall was like a huge old barn and it was HOT. There was a wooden plank “stage” and an antique out-of-tune upright piano, and old straight-back pews that some local church must have donated about a hundred years ago. The mess hall was small and very basic, and it was where you got to spend free time doing KP as punishment for bad behavior. (Which I experienced during one week when my dad was Camp Pastor.) The cabins were havens for spiders and probably rodents, and you could see the weeds through the slats in the floor. The grounds were pretty weedy and the pathway to the pond left nothing to be desired; then when you made your way to the dock and saw the water, there was no way you wanted to swim in it.
I suppose I owe my ability to camp and survive in primitive conditions to those days at Cedarcrest. Oh, and it was there I learned that if you crunch up Certs in the dark, you can see sparks inside your mouth.
Eventually, my mother was doing to me what I just did to Emily: shipping me off to some far-away camp to spend a week with complete strangers. Windermere was definitely several steps up from Cedarcrest though. It was located on Lake of the Ozarks, and while no lake in Missouri can compare to the lakes of the Northwest, the Ozark area really was pretty. There was a long and winding road to Windermere off the main highway and there were accommodations of every kind – cabins, nicer cabins, lodges and even a hotel. The chapel was beautiful, clean, air-conditioned, and had a nice grand piano that was actually in tune. The dining hall had AC, too, and two long cafeteria-style serving lines with an assortment of choices.
Still … I did not WANT to be at Windermere. I did not want to arrive early as Emily did today and I certainly wouldn’t have posed for photos if my mother had asked. I wasn’t early enough to get first pick and so I ended up with the dreaded BOTTOM bunk, and shared a cabin with a bunch of girls named Jennifer so we had to decide who would be Jen, Jenny, Jennifer and just J. What I did like about the cabin was how far away it was from everything and so close to the woods and trails. I also liked that Windermere had a nice snack shop (should I mention air conditioning?) where we could get soft pretzels, nachos, ice cream and other junk. There was also a boat dock and we could take out paddle boats or canoes. Windermere turned out to be an okay experience and I returned the next year probably with a little less resistance. I don’t remember my cabin counselor for that second summer, but I sure remember skipping chapel and hanging out in the cabin with some girl from Versailles, MO (which, in Missouri is pronounced Ver-SALES). She and her boyfriend (who was obviously not supposed to be in the cabin) would make out. Actually, now that I think about it, I’m not sure they were really “making out” because I was always there, just one bunk over. Versales Girl became my pen pal anyway.
This reminiscing has not gone the direction I’d hoped. I wonder if it’s too late for me to go back to Camp Spalding and get Emily … and a refund. No, I will wait for a letter. By tomorrow, she will have put a letter to me in the mail and by the next day, I’ll know that she is scoring friends, soaking up the wisdom from her cool counselors, having a blast bouncing off “the blob” into the lake, rappelling, making s’mores and enjoying those glow-sticks I put into her care package.