30 March 2012

[ this moment ]

[ this moment ] - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. (Homage to Soule Mama)

27 March 2012

A Full Dozen

Earlier this month in Death Valley, as on many of our outdoor outings, Dan and Madeleine were in one tent and Arden and I shared the other. They’re our small backpacking tents, so there’s not much room inside. It’s actually kind of nice to share one with a small-sized human, as that leaves a little more space to store clothes and flashlights and other items we want to keep near.

On the other hand, though, Arden is still a somewhat wild sleeper, flinging herself here and there while in a deep slumber, so I never know if I’ll wake up with her curled about my head, like a cat, or with her legs flung over me, or with her teeth chattering because she’s wiggled out of her sleeping bag. The morning we traveled to Racetrack Playa, though, I woke up to what seemed like an empty tent. I opened my eyes and saw no Arden, no sleeping bag, no pillow. It wasn’t until I sat up, wondering where she’d disappeared to, that I saw her, scrunched into a tiny ball at the very foot of the tent, still inside her sleeping bag.

And so, on our last night, we somehow convinced the two girls to take a tent together, figuring they would enjoy one another’s shenanigans. Plus, we both wanted a more predictable sleeping partner. Dan and I sat outside, enjoying a vision of the Milky Way that only the isolation of Death Valley could provide. As the last light from our Lupo candle burned itself out, we listened to Madeleine reading Superfudge to Arden in their tent. They giggled and acted like the best friend sisters that they’ve grown into being. Now I feel like I really know what my mom meant when she would say that she loved observing us, to see what we’d become.

It’s hard, too, not to attach myself too tightly to their dreams. I learned that lesson (or so I think) early on, when Madeleine commented – at the age of five – that she’d like to play the violin. Immediately caught up in the romantic notion of a small child playing music, we signed her up for lessons, listened religiously to the songs she’d learn to play by ear, and became a Suzuki family, with me learning the same tunes on my own violin. And we ignored the early signs that maybe she just wasn’t that into the violin. And after about a year and a half, she made the decision to retire. At that young age, she might have said that she’d like to travel to the moon just as easily as she’d mentioned the violin.

It was tough on me, because I knew I’d pushed her towards it. I was the one practicing alongside her, encouraging and cajoling her, demanding and correcting her. And just when I was starting to feel like I could play something and have it sound decent, she pulled the plug. And I had to respect her decision. I’m not a Tiger Mom, after all. But this year, as she considered her options for electives in middle school, she elected to try violin again, and she’s been very diligent about practicing. It’s really nice to have music in the house.

Today, Madeleine turns twelve, or as my grandmother would have put it, “a full dozen.” Yes, all those clich├ęs are true. Time does fly, especially once you become parents (except maybe for that witching hour between about 4:00 and dinnertime when everyone is tired and cranky and hungry).

As if I needed more proof that my introverted, shy Madeleine is growing into her own, she came home early last week and announced that there would be a talent show at school. I asked if she would be trying out and she said she didn’t think so, but that one of her friends was going to audition. And then, on the morning of the audition, she mentioned it again, saying that maybe, just maybe, she would try out. I was skeptical, but we made arrangements for her to call if she decided to audition, because she’d need a ride home.

She didn’t call. And she wasn’t home when I got home. I called her and texted. No response. And just as I was starting to get really angry that she hadn’t followed our plan, she called. And she was positively elated. She’d auditioned. And she was ready to be picked up. I could barely get her to hang up so that I could drive to school, she was so excited. I knew that I had to just let go of that anger, that this was a moment far too important to keep calling-mom protocol.

And I realized how far she’s come, how grown up she is. She made this decision on her own, had the guts to follow through, and had the encouragement of positive friends: an empowered, courageous daughter, surrounded by constructive young women. To be independent and capable, to have friends who help her to be her best: a perfect example, right there, my vision for both of my daughters, coming to fruition.

The next morning she found out that she made the cut and will perform in the talent show. And like any mother, I asked when it would be. These kinds of events need to be put on the calendar. And like any middle schooler, she has absolutely no idea.

Happy Full Dozen Birthday, Madeleine!

25 March 2012

How I Became More Plugged-in by Unplugging

Yesterday was the National Day of Unplugging. Well, really it began Friday at sundown. Twenty-four hours without email, Internet, or texting. This year, I decided to take the challenge. Now, mind you, this is not the first time I’ve gone 24 hours without technology. In the past year, I’ve had at least two Internet-free interludes that lasted at least five days each. Not much plugging-in to do in the middle of Death Valley or at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. But I’d never unplugged for that length of time at home.

I’ll admit that I can get a little compulsive about checking email or checking in on Facebook. I don’t really know why. It’s not like there’s ever that much that’s changed or new or different. But I don’t know that until I check, do I? And a quick two-minute check-in easily turns into fifteen or twenty minutes – or more – of mindless surfing. Do that a few times every day and it really adds up. And what is the one commodity that I always wish for: more time. So I was willing to take this challenge just to see what it was like, how difficult it might be for me, and what else I could accomplish in the meantime.

So Friday night at sundown, I switched off my computer and put my iPhone on its cradle. I read another chapter of a Judy Blume book to my youngest, who went to bed, and then I watched Super 8 with my husband and older daughter. It was the first time we’d watched a movie with her that we hadn’t yet seen that had been deemed “suspenseful” and “scary.” She jumped, got spooked, and loved it.

Saturday morning dawned a lovely day. Instead of checking email and surfing during my solitary breakfast, I caught up on magazines that had been collecting dust on the coffee table. And in one of them, I read that taking a break from the Internet and email can be as difficult as smoking. I wondered what I’d bargained for, but figured I already had slept through half of my unplugged time, so I might as well continue until sundown.

By the time all my family members were awake and out of bed, I’d graded all the quizzes and assignments I’d brought home, and then started reading a new book. I read a few chapters in another book. I worked in the yard for several hours, before and after lunch, weeding and replanting iris. I watched my daughter play with a couple of lizards we found in the garden. I called my mom. I watched my nephew’s televised lacrosse game. I read some more. And I did all of that without distraction, with my full focus, without multi-tasking.

And I have to say, that when the sun went down on Saturday, I didn’t really feel compelled to plug back in, although I did anyway. And you know what? I discovered that I hadn’t missed much.

What was different, though, was that I felt differently. All day I'd been more focused. I felt more plugged in to my family and to real life. And while I’m not sure that I’d do a weekly Internet fast, I’ll definitely shoot for at least a monthly Internet fast sundown to sundown some weekend that we’re home. And who knows? Maybe next time some of you might join me.

23 March 2012

[ this moment ]

[ this moment ] - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. (Homage to Soule Mama)

19 March 2012

Death Valley Improbabilities, or Moving Rocks, a No-Big-Deal Flat Tire 30 Miles from Nowhere, and a Charming Character in Beatty, Nevada

Not many people venture out to Racetrack Playa. The 30 or so miles of rough gravel road are notoriously bumpy and can be blamed for an abnormally high number of flat tires in proportion to the vehicles traveling on it. The playa is huge and flat, with concrete-hard silt partitioned into small hexagonal cobblestones. Alluvial fans and vast mountain ranges flank the playa, and the Grandstand, a jumble of black rock boulders crops up in its midst.

What makes this playa special, though, are its moving rocks. Dark stones dot its vast expanse, some about fist-sized, others a bit smaller than a standard microwave oven. Faint tracks trail behind many of these rocks, presumably pushed about by the wind when the playa is wet or frozen. The trails vary: some have gentle curves; others indicate abrupt changes in direction. Sometimes rocks seem to travel together, in groups of two or three. The trails of other rocks intersect or cross back over themselves.

After the long drive out, we set up camp just a couple miles beyond the southern edge of the playa. Dan and I remark with astonished gratitude on our lack-of-flat-tire luck. Then, just before the sun vanishes beyond the tips of the Cottonwood Mountains, we hop back in the car to visit the playa. Within our first mile back to the playa, we hear the tell-tale chime, warning us of low tire pressure. Hope seeps out of us, too, but luckily, we have a small compressor, and over the next 18 hours we are able to keep the slowly-leaking tire adequately filled. Throughout that evening and into the night, I imagine the tire’s hiss and try not to calculate the odds of more than one flat tire on the trip out.

There are a few people at the playa when we arrive; they are far off in the distance, little black specks slightly larger than the rocks they linger near. The horizontal plane of the playa almost seems unnatural. Compared to the rugged mountains and the rounded alluvial fans, it is improbable that such an even, level surface exists. Even the stormless horizon of the ocean appears more uneven than this.

The girls wander, running across the playa, playful as only sisters can be. We venture nearly all the way across, more than a mile, zigzagging from rock to rock, following their paths and stopping for lots of photographs. The long shadows make for more interesting photos. The only other person we encounter is a serious photographer with a lens nearly the size of my head, setting up his tripod here and there. We do our best to stay out of his photos.

The next morning, after pumping the tire again and disassembling camp, we head back towards the playa, stopping to explore the Grandstand. The black rocks there are embedded with large crystals and the girls clamber up and down the massive boulders. The moving rocks around it, though, have left less prominent trails, or perhaps the trails have been eroded by the relentless wind. The surface of the playa here is also smooth, without the interesting hexagonal shapes we saw last evening. Again, we are alone, the only other people visible a large group of college students preparing for a backpacking trip into the mountains on the far side of the road.

We leave, somewhat reluctantly, knowing that this is a magical place and wondering if we’ll ever return. But we have to head for Beatty, Nevada, in hopes of getting the flat fixed. A couple hours later, we pull into Revert’s 24-hour Tire. And old yellow lab and a younger pointer lie in the sun, lifting their sleepy heads in greeting. Three men sit outside the garage, looking considerably more weathered than the cast of the Andy Griffith Show. It is just the scene I’d expect if my life were a movie. The youngest – probably my age – quickly hops up to tend to our tire; he is so quick and efficient that before I even know it, he has the tire in a sudsy bucket, searching for the leak.

I can’t help to be distracted, though, because at our feet is a tiny husky, a mere five weeks old, one of the wrinkled men tells me. We ask the puppy’s name, but the man can’t pronounce it, saying it’s the Shoshone word for ‘wolf and it’s beyond his linguistic reach. We pet the dogs and take copious amounts of photos of this puppy, who is so clumsy and fuzzy, stumbling among us on his way-too-big paws, chewing our hands and looking for affection, which we are more than happy to provide. And in spite of the rigidly political, far-right bumper stickers plastered over the wall of the shop, the men are incredibly friendly, and our mutual smitten-ness with this little pup unify us and them.

I wonder at the gems the past 24 hours have brought us: from moving rocks on an other-worldly landscape, to this Mayberry-esque cast of characters, and to this sweet little pup who makes the anxiety of our flat tire melt away as much as the quick work of the tire repairman. Moments later, the tire is finished and re-mounted, and we say our goodbyes, grateful for the service, each of us lingering for one last pet of this sweet little wolf pup, heading first towards the decaying ghost town of Rhyolite, and then through the glittering lights of Las Vegas, homeward bound.

16 March 2012

A Real Voyage of Discovery

Awake in the tent, I hear the sound of the wind coming down canyon. It’s not a whistle or the proverbial freight-train sound. It’s more like a whoosh that grows and broadens as it hurls itself from the high mountains, through the canyons, down to the floor of Death Valley below us. Instinctively, I brace for it, clenching my jaws and shoulders, squenching my eyes closed to keep out any wayward sand. And then the gust hits, flattening the tent momentarily before it moves on, beyond our insignificant camp. I hear it, wending its way down the massive alluvial fan below us. And then, from the opposite direction, up canyon, I hear the next gust, gearing up for its passage, and I can feel myself tensing again, apprehensive and exhausted, hoping the tent stakes will maintain their bite in the desert soil, hoping that sleep will come.

Four nights in three different locations, and this scenario plays out each time, varying only slightly in duration and intensity. But Death Valley is worth the lack of sleep.

Like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, Death Valley inspires many inadequate descriptions. It is vast, unforgiving, and incredibly beautiful. There are few trees, and those that would be considered trees in other deserts, like the mesquite, are stubby, desperate-looking bushes here. Everything is exposed, from your inconsequential self to the massive geological features. You cannot come here to hide, but you could certainly become lost.


In the Southwest, we have vistas. In other parts of the United States, lookouts and viewpoints certainly exist. But these are usually places where we can peer out through the trees to catch a view of something quite spectacular framed by more trees. But here, especially in Death Valley, nothing obscures the vista.

I love vistas. I love climbing up just for the thrill of seeing what I can see, to get a sense of my bearings and the lay of the land. I love living high upon a hill with a 180° view, watching weather move in, seeing how the light changes each day between sunrise and sunset, observing the stars and the moon. And I’m a pretty well-traveled person, hiking many trails in the Grand Canyon, traversing Haleakala’s Crater, and visiting dozens of national parks throughout the West. I guess that I was beginning to believe I’d seen it all, as they say, supposing that nothing would ever rival the jaw-dropping, tear-inducing scene that was my first impression of Yosemite Valley. I suppose you might say all these vistas were making me jaded. But Dante’s View of Death Valley surprised me. It gave me a shot of the desert as I’d never seen it.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the bright white of the Badwater Salt Flats, a huge playa, or dry lake bed. It’s the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. And once my eyes have absorbed the void: the whitest-of-whites of the salt flats, I begin to notice the other colors: buff, black, copper, brick red, purple, ash grey to slate grey (and every shade between), oranges, browns, sage green, and Sedona pink. The variety of hues is astonishing. There is no vegetation to obscure any of the rock faces, the sands, the alluvial fans, the badlands, or the mountain ranges stretching far into the distance.

And so for the rest of the trip at least, I attempt not to pre-judge, or to have expectations that are either too low or too high. At more than 5600 feet above the salt flats, the wind whispers to me. This sigh, this undertone contrasts starkly with the undulating gusts of the previous night, but in it, I clearly hear the words of Marcel Proust: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. It is a gentle voice, a reminder of the beauty exclusive of, and exclusive to us all, merely awaiting discovery. And that maybe, once all is peeled back, revealing the very essence, maybe then we can recognize what is eternal and what endures. And perhaps then, we can begin to understand why.

[ this moment ]

[ this moment ] - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. (Homage to Soule Mama)

09 March 2012

Marching Towards Gratitude

February is always a difficult month for me. The short days really start to get to me, as I arrive at school before the sun is even yet up, and I trudge down the dark halls to my windowless fluorescent cave of a classroom. The newness of the new year has worn thin. The school year is barely half-over, and it seems interminable for both me and the students.

I can’t quite pin down when I started feeling this way about February. And it’s not like there aren’t things to look forward to in February. Some of my favorite people, including my mom, celebrate their birthdays during this month. And who doesn’t look forward to the crush of chocolate that precedes and follows Valentine’s Day?

It’s not like the winters here in Arizona, even here in the mountains, are harsh enough to warrant a case of cabin fever, even though it’s been especially unseasonably warm this winter. Maybe it harkens back to the days when I was pregnant with Madeleine, who was born in late March. That oh-so-pregnant load was pretty heavy by the end of February. Whatever the reason, flipping that calendar over to March each year is always a small but momentous occasion for me. I suppose I should feel grateful that February is the shortest month of the year. Once March’s face is showing, I start noticing little things, little things that give me hope for the finiteness of winter:

- the sun peeking over the mountains during my morning commute
- the swelling buds on flowering trees
- a daffodil here, and there
- and those moments of sun that stretch a few moments longer each evening.

And while these winter doldrums exist solely in my mind, they do weigh me down. I know, I know, they’re First World Problems. But I’ll keep marching on, seeking out those bright spots along the way.

[ this moment ]

[ this moment ] - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. (Homage to Soule Mama)

02 March 2012

[ this moment ]

[ this moment ] - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. (Homage to Soule Mama)