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

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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.

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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.

Finding Ghosts and Beauty

Moon PassI 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.

IMG_6417Take, 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.

Cedar Ghosts

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.

August 2013