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.”

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

Funeral for a Chipmunk

March 2012 (Reprinted by popular demand!)

Today, the girls found a dead little chipmunk in the road. When Abbey and Emily brought it home and were inspecting it in the yard, I suggested that they put it in a box and give it a little respect, in hopes that this would discourage them from a natural instinct to touch it. I gave them a shoe box and thought they could take it from there … which they did … to extremes I had not imagined.

Emily wrote on one side of the box: “The Chipmunk who was special on Stonington Lane and who died of a crazy driver.”

Preparing the funeral site
Preparing the funeral site

Abbey wrote on another side: “Saved by Abbey & Emily and honored in this box on 3-18-12.”

A good while later, they asked me to join them outside for a ceremony. The box was in the center of a hula hoop, Abbey was sprinkling rocks around it and Emily was parading around the hoop with a garden sign that says “Peace.” They had my rocking chair in the yard and had moved a table to the edge of the porch to be a pulpit. Abbey and I sat while Emily opened the ceremony in prayer for the Chipmunk they had named Fat Cheeks. For a scripture reading, she went to Isaiah where she read the prophecy of the birth of Jesus. She then launched into quite a sermon about how the Bible says we should care for animals. “In Genesis,” she said, and opened her Bible to Genesis where she ended up reading about Joseph and his brothers. When she snapped the Bible closed, she said, “Well, I don’t really know that that had anything to do with this chipmunk or about caring for animals. …. But … I hope that it made your heart tick anyway.” (What?!!)

Emily eulogizes Fat Cheeks the Chipmunk
Emily eulogizes Fat Cheeks the Chipmunk

Then it was Abbey’s turn and she wanted to pick up where Emily had left off (sort of) and began reading about how Joseph when into Potiphar’s home and how Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him. I’m thinking to myself, “Okay Abbey, you can stop here…” knowing that we’re embarking on a soap-opera-esque story about a married woman luring a young man.  Abbey reads that Potiphar’s wife says, “Come to bed with me…” and I am just dying (what does this have to do with poor little Fat Cheeks the chipmunk, and what are these young girls thinking of this tale?).  I start to say something but Abbey keeps going and comes to the point where the wife screams and tells guards that Joseph came to sleep with her. Finally, Abbey stops after it says “Joseph left his cloak and ran out of the house.”

“Well …” says Abbey, “I don’t think that’s what we’re supposed to do — just run out on someone when they have asked for help.”

(How I managed not to burst into laughter at this point is still a mystery.)

Emily’s ready to take over again and asks us to stand and sing a song. “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” is her selection, and I add a verse about how “He’s got the Fat Cheeks Chipmunk in his hands” and am really amazed I am still standing and not rolling on the ground laughing. The song is over and I sigh and think we’re done, but Reverend Emily gets back up to the pulpit and really starts sermonizing away. She’s going on and on and on, and even Macy, our dog, starts yawning loudly as if to tell Emily enough is enough.

We went through two more rounds of eulogizing and sermonizing before they invited me to share and I said I was sorry the poor baby didn’t live longer but was glad he (or she, Abbey corrected me) was okay now. Then I left them to finish the job of placing the box somewhere in the bushes by the porch.

I must say it was the most entertaining funeral I have ever attended. Quite possibly the longest, too.

A 6-year-old tries out homelessness (for fun)

(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??”

running away 2011She 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.

A Brighter Tomorrow for Today’s Parenting “Heroes”

2013 - Good Morning Sun - cropped - smSo 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.

Summer Camp: my worst idea yet?

ImageToday 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.

Me with my brother during "Family Camp" at Windermere, 1981
Me with my brother during “Family Camp” at Windermere, 1981

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.

She WILL send me a letter from camp, right?






By popular demand: Emisms from the past

2010 em cowgirlEmism (EHM-iz-um): A quip or quote from my daughter Emily, written for posterity.

Well before blogging was within my line of sight, I frequently emailed stories of conversations with Emily to my family and friends. Since starting the WordsnCoffee blog just six weeks ago, I’ve had several requests to bring back tales from her toddlerhood (and beyond). Here are four shorts I dug out of my email archive for your enjoyment. — Kate


Short-lived contentment (age 3)

After watching “Polar Express,” I talked with Emily about how some children don’t get much for Christmas, like the little boy in the movie who was so thrilled just to get ONE present. Emily looked at her gifts under the tree and said, “You don’t have to get me too much, Mama. I already have SOOO much. Thank you.”

The next day, I was bragging about this response to my sister, who replied with a healthy dose of sarcasm: “Well, if you get THAT to stick with her, you get the Mother of the Year award.”

Moments later, I went to check on Emily, who had her bedroom door closed. There she was, hiding her Christmas unopened presents, one under the covers and another hiding behind her teddy bears.

No Mother of the Year award after all.

One day a week, please (age 4)

One day while driving the 12-mile commute from school to our home, I asked Emily what she learned about that day.

“I don’t feel like talking right now,” she replied. But within a moment, she had all sorts of things to say, and she talked non-stop until we took our exit from the freeway. The topic eventually came to her wanting to have a crab for a pet: if it was a boy she’d name him Mr. Crab and if it was a girl, she would dress it in ballerina dresses.

She asked if I thought she could have a pet crab and I began to explain that a person has to really think about what kind of care a pet needs…

“Mom,” she interrupted, “you talk too much. I only want you to talk on Mondays. Okay, please?”

An unbelievable teacher’s report (almost 5)

Emily received her first progress report from her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Dye. It said, “Emily is such a sweet little girl. She is doing very well academically. She has made lots of new friends and is adjusting well to kindergarten.”

I was proud. I put my arm around Emily and said, “Do you know what this says? It says ‘Emily is such a sweet little girl’…”

I paused to look at her and before I could go on, she said, “Mom! Tell me what it REALLY says!”

True confessions (almost 5)

When Emily was in kindergarten, I packed a lunch for her every day. One week, I began including one of those oatmeal cookies with the cream center, along with her fruit, ½ sandwich, carrots and juice. When I noticed she was coming home with the fruit or the veggie left, she would say, “I didn’t have TIME to eat my fruit.”

“Eat your fruit and veggies FIRST and if you have time, then eat the cookie,” I instructed.

The next morning as I zipped up her lunch bag, I said, “Okay, I put a hidden camera in your lunch box and I’m going to watch and see whether you eat your cookie first.” Her eyes widened with horror.

On the way home from school later, I said in a suspecting tone, “So, during lunch today…”

She gasped and exclaimed, “You saw me eat my cookie first?!”