Thursday, July 26, 2018

downhill

i took a backpacking course in college, my very first semester.  i was one of two women in the class, with ten guys.  it was serendipity that my female classmate and i were also connected through mutual friends/family and were assigned rooms across the hall; and, unsurprisingly, marla became one of my very closest friends and a constant companion.  this was years before we all had pedometers and microcomputers on our person at all times, but had we, i'm certain it would document hundreds of miles together on foot, backpacking and hiking through the blue ridge mountains of western north carolina.  
Discovery 1994, Day One
after our sophomore year, marla and i both registered for a three-week wilderness course offered by the outdoor education department.  it was a rite of passage at our college, marketed as a 'transformative experience,' provoked by the emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual challenges faced in the process.  (for what it's worth, it delivered on that promise for me in 1994 and continues to run annually each and every summer.  2018 will be the 42nd class of discovery.)  i couldn't have imagined doing it without her. 

when backpacking on mountain trails, you pay close attention to the squiggly lines on your topographic map that indicate elevation, fingers crossed that your route crosses widely spaced lines, suggesting gradual ascents and descents.  but when the lines narrow, your scrutiny intensifies, for these represent the steepest terrain.  and when the mountain is tall, the path you take matters a lot.  
Discovery terrain
we learned to read the topographic clues well.  we looked at the position of the peak relative to the sun to determine the shade.  we looked at the length and frequency of switchbacks to gauge intensity and boredom.  we assessed total distance and factored in elevation change.  but most of all, the question we cared the absolute most about was 'up or down?' 

in that very first backpacking course, i recall my skepticism when our instructor told us that downhills are harder than uphills.  he explained it with a thorough discussion of proper rest-step technique for ascents and the benefit of switchback design contrasted with the continuous muscle contraction necessary for descending an incline with a load on your back and the compounded stress on joints.  not to mention, unless a body of water awaits, a valley is never as appealing as a summit.  but still i didn't believe it until i experienced it. 

discovery has been on my mind a lot lately.  though i'm not fool enough to compare it to cadet basic training, i do recall the isolation and emotional and mental struggle of the group dynamic paired with the physical challenge of three weeks of wilderness expedition (despite having my best friend suffering alongside).  i've tried to share with luke the tidbits of wisdom that have stuck with me and i hope he's taken heed.  but most of all, i keep coming back to the lesson of the downhill.
Discovery 1994, considerably later
sunday marked the midway point of luke's beast training.  it was punctuated with a lengthy phone call home, most of which was via facetime, allowing us to see each other.  this may be the most highly anticipated milestone of the six week training and it delivered fully.  leisurely, unsupervised, and candid.  for the first time, i felt as if all my questions were answered and we had caught up.  i knew where luke was mentally, physically, and emotionally at this very moment in time. 

what i hadn't anticipated was the heaviness i would feel on the other side.  despite this being the downhill, despite the confidence in his success, despite the increased familiarity with the rhythm, monday was hard.  the ache was more pronounced, the weight of what luke unloaded heavy upon me, and the absolute clarity about how long is left and how long it will feel is anything but easier.  

four days later i have my head down, one foot in front of the other, leaning on those around me and those who have gone before me.  and remembering the lesson of the downhill.  it's supposed to be harder.  it calls for careful steps, strong core, a sense of humor, and good conversation.  

d:  strength and steadiness
b:  discovery lessons passed down
g:  friendships forged in footsteps

Monday, July 16, 2018

corner

anyone who really knows me knows i'm not a worrier.  i'm not a hypochondriac.  i don't keep close tabs on my boys' whereabouts.  and i generally assume everything is going to be ok and everybody is going to be fine.  in fact, if i err to either extreme, it's laissez-faire.  

so if you'd asked me three weeks ago how luke's beast experience was going to be for me, and many did, i'm sure i said something to the effect of, "i'm looking forward to the quiet.  i'm sure he'll be fine."  the weeks leading up to his departure were stressful.  the magnitude of the commitment he was making at 18 years old weighed on him and, in turn, me.  far beyond the four years of college, luke's full-time obligation to the military is another five years and then three more after that, as in-active reserves, at a minimum.  (if he pursues aviation or any number of other advanced degrees, it will be longer.)

so, those weeks were heavy with the weight of his imminent oath, but light with any awareness of what the first couple weeks might look like for me.  i imagined that first week home, with todd visiting his girlfriend in philly and luke safely tucked into the army's bosom, as a much-needed reprieve and rest.  lots of time to read, relax by the pool, catch up with friends, and enormous productivity at work.

ah, the lovely haze of delusion... 

instead, it was more akin to the acute pain of losing a limb and what i imagine the phantom sensations must be like.  i know in my last blog i wrote about all the little ways my routine was thrown off and how overshadowing all the absence was a fierce pride.  and i don't mean to take away from that now.  i do feel enormous pride for luke and his decision and his unstoppable determination that propelled us to this place.  but the protective umbrella of pride and optimism collapsed under the weight of heartbreak by the weekend.

now i admit, i've had some codependent relationships in my lifetime.  i have.  (who hasn't?)  but the connection i have with my children and the constant thread of communication i've shared with luke especially, is something altogether different.  though todd and i are more similar in many, many ways and shared more common interests and activities throughout their childhood and adolescence, luke has always been the protector and connector.  from the time he could speak, the sun never set on a day that he hadn't checked on me.  (aside from a few days in middle school, when he was in europe.  though he did sneak one illegal call from a hotel phone, mid-week.  but i digress...) 

i spent hours over the weekend combing through thousands (no exaggeration) of photos posted from a parade that was open to the public... hoping for a glimpse of my "waldo."  (proud to report i found him - several times!)  and though the photos gave me a moment of comfort, the avalanche of questions in my mind only grew.  somehow holding him in my mind and heart, conveying telepathically, prayerfully, my love and support felt like a must-do.  as if, were i to let him slip from my forethought for even a moment, he would feel it.  irrational, i know.  there was no room for rational there.

the second week of this separation began last monday and it's around that point that i started to look for mail from him.  though i'd mailed at least a letter a day, i knew it would take a while for him to have access to mail, time to write, and then, of course, the pinnacle of reliability, our beloved usps.  but with each report of parents, some as far away as the west coast, receiving cadet mail on monday and tuesday, the lump in my throat grew.

though some helpful friends suggested that "maybe he's having too much fun to write," or "maybe he's tougher than you think," i knew with certainty that both possibilities were irrelevant.  no amount of fun or toughness would keep luke from writing to me.  but only i could know that, the way i did, and i saw both skepticism and sympathy in the consolations offered by those around me.

it was his 11th day at west point when i first received mail from him.  thursday of the second week.  they say god won't give us more than we can bear, but i do believe my breaking point was near.  i received three envelopes from him that day, with multiple days of letters enclosed in each.  he wrote to me every day, at least once, often more. and in these letters that spanned his first five days as a member of our united states army, he reported that the single hardest thing was being out of communication with me.  considering the other hard things he detailed, that told me a lot.  

and you might think that this was a huge relief, hearing from him, finally.  it was however, only a small relief.  hearing his voice in his words was wonderful, but hearing his struggle and loneliness was heart wrenching.  the peppering of references to the hard parts gave me topics to worry about, but mostly it was his heart and mental state that concerned me and underscored my own heartache.

(and i thought this would be a reprieve...)

as if the mail and waldo-hunting of photos wasn't enough to occupy my mind, parents were instructed to be on stand-by last week for that first phone call.  some cadets began calls as early as sunday of their first week.. and the window stretched all the way to saturday night, of the second week.  we were advised to keep our phones charged and ringers on and nearby from 8a to 10p, as the cadre leadership "would allow calls when training schedules permitted."

now, i know we're all addicted to our phones. it's the most ubiquitous punchline and judgement and complaint from parents, employers, teachers, partners, police, and everyone else in our modern american society.  but i offer this challenge to you:  keep your phone in your hand or pocket and be ready to answer it at any time for 7 days.  that means the bathroom, the copier, your colleague's office next door, a client meeting, hell - even the deck where you might momentarily step to water the plants.  this is absolutely a crazy-making dictate.  oh and by the way, "the call could come from any number and if you miss it, don't call back or text." 

so i'd like to report that this was no big deal.  that i carried on about my life normally and just slightly elevated my phone-attentiveness.  but that would be a lie of epic proportions.  i can't recall a time in my life where resentment and attachment were so intertwined, particularly toward an inanimate object.  it was 9:19pm on saturday night, 41 minutes before the calling window officially ended, when my phone rang with luke on the other side.  i already had tears in my eyes, imagining it wasn't happening; a pit in my stomach, frustrated with my helplessness; and a pounding headache from the stress and general lack of self-care that had consumed the week.

but then he was there.  his voice on the other end of the phone, right now, in the present tense telling me how he was doing and probing, insistently, on hearing how i was doing.  and for the first time in 13 days, since he'd kissed me goodbye on july 2nd at 7:47am, i was ok.  i was actually better than ok.  i was great.

that was two days ago.  two amazing nights of sleep ago.  a full day of my phone volume turned off.  and a work day that has shaped up to be fairly productive and focused.  i miss him like crazy still.  i mailed him a letter this morning on my way into work.  i've even checked the facebook page once today (as opposed to dozens) and flipped through a few new photos, wondering if i'd see him.

but, i'm tentatively reporting that i've turned a corner. 
my mind has allowed itself to set him slightly off center, stage-right.
still visible, still in my peripheral even, but ever so slightly moving closer to the wings.
one-third of the way through, i'm starting to create a little space for myself.

d:  strength and peace
b:  i know my sons
g:  they know me  [sweet evidence:  luke closed one letter from last week with the charge, "be at peace, momma," and todd and i cried together when we read it.] 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

independence-s

here i am three days after leaving luke at west point, two days after delivering todd to his girlfriend for a week in philadelphia, and a day after the 4th of july.  independence day seems to be a theme.  i dressed for the occasion:  may as well own this shit, i thought.  


back at work today my head was in the clouds.  working through several days of email backlog and trying to set up priorities, tasks i can usually do in a flash, felt like trudging through waist high mud.  one. laborious. step. at. a. time.  thankful for that small voice in my head reassuring me that tomorrow is friday and then a weekend to reset awaits. 

i find myself checking my phone regularly and habitually, expecting to see a message from luke, but then remembering.  
i find myself a bit tentative with decisions that i'd usually consult him on, like what meals to select for next week's dinners.  
and i have a running monologue of funny and/or useful things that i'd typically say to him at the end of the day or in one of the many conversations we had throughout the day.  it's these little ways that i miss him most.  

but, juxtaposed beside those tiny moments, or perhaps overshadowing those tiny moments like an umbrella, is a fierce pride and optimism about our individual independences.  

d:  celebration of independence
b:  i am ready 
g:  a timely holiday cutting the week short 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

choreography

west point has been training our army’s junior officers for over 200 years now, providing both a superb college education and shaping these headstrong, driven young men and women into military leaders, able to both function as a unit, part of a large and often maddening machine, as well as inspire those under their command to do the hardest and most frightening things, when everything in them screams, ‘no!’  

so, it probably shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to witness the efficiency and effectiveness of the in-processing of 1200+ incoming new cadets on R-Day.  but, what can i say, my experience with government processes has never been so smooth - and i admit, i was impressed. 

good-bye

the day started with a long line to check in; a long line that moved so quickly, i was wishing we hadn’t been so prompt.  ushered into an auditorium with 50 cadets and their families, we settled in for the briefing; a briefing so brief it was over before i even looked around.  within three minutes of taking my seat, a cadre member announced that we had 60 seconds to say goodbye, and we leapt to our feet to embrace.  a minute later, families were being steered out a back door while the new cadets exited stage left...and as we departed the auditorium in a blur of tears and haste, another group of 50 cadets was already assembling behind us. a second podium awaiting their too-brief briefing, as soon as the door closed on my heels.  

choreography, i thought. 

the day concluded with a parade across the Plain, all 1230 new cadets assembled by company and flanked by their cadre leadership.  the morning’s disheveled teens were already transformed into a (fairly) cohesive unit.  heads shaved, uniforms fitted, and marching in unison and formation.  

as a mom, all i really wanted was to spot my luke. to lay eyes on his face and discern if he was ‘ok.’  whatever that might mean.  a parent seatedf behind me found her son first and started sobbing.  my heart was in my throat as i scanned and searched.  tears welled in my eyes, at the magnitude of the assembly.  i mean, i struggle to get the boys and myself organized against a dinner plan, and they had over a thousand strangers (mostly teens!) organized in columns and rows and synchronized movement. 

choreography

i finally spotted him on the exit march (thanks to great binoculars) and then identified him in a few photos from the same angle (thanks to todd snapping all the companies, just in case.)  i noted his serious, but stoic face.  his posture looked weary, but his movements were deliberate; and i exhaled for the first time in 12 hours.  

parade on The Plain, Foxtrot company

but today, as i watched my 5th or 6th video of the same event i had a front row seat at, i had an aha moment. somehow in the heightened emotion of the moment, i had overlooked an important detail.  a small, sharp, right turn.  it doesn’t seem like that could possibly be important, but it was. in that instant, rows became columns and columns became rows.  and that simple recognition on my part brought clarity.  where i’d searched and scanned photos in frustration all day, suddenly i could spot him in a blurry mass.  

choreography

in so many ways lately i’ve been awed by choreography. both literally and figuratively the universe has masterfully steered my steps and the steps of those around me to the highest good - sometimes despite my own clumsiness or lack of rhythm.  the day after my hardest goodbye, i find myself in an unexpected place of peace and joy; for as i look around i see divine choreography has surrounded me with love and support. 

d: a similar peace and joy, felt through love and support, for luke
b: two letters in the mail to him already 
g: clear recognition of beautiful choreography