Sunday, November 11, 2018

2005 Hunting Trip with Dad

Dad, his Original Mountain Cur Jimmy Polk, and I went raccoon hunting together for the first time in East Tennessee on 01 January 2005. Very soon thereafter, Dad asked if I’d raccoon-hunt with the two of them near Bradford, Pennsylvania that coming November. I’d been anxious to spend some quality time with Dad for a long time, so I agreed to meet them. As the time drew closer, I questioned my decision: when I gave my word, I hadn’t anticipated leaving seventy-plus sixth-graders in the hands of a substitute. I couldn’t bear, however, to disappoint Dad, so I requested the two personal days in my teaching contract. On 09 November 2005, I stacked breakfast passes, lesson plans, seating charts, and worksheets on my desk and headed to the Allegheny National Forest in my Ford F-150.

At 2:15 AM the next morning, I finally saw the sign for Tracy Ridge, and—under it—Dad in his white Jeep. He came over to the truck and kissed my head through the open window. He said, “Child, I didn’t think you’d ever get here!” I followed him to the camper. Dad was noticeably relieved that Jim (in the almost-year since he’d seen me) hadn’t changed his mind about liking me. Dad pointed out my bed on the top bunk. Hello, Old Friend, I thought when I saw my sleeping bag. Dad had mentioned weeks earlier that he’d bring my sleeping bag, but I hadn’t realized that he meant MY sleeping bag: the one that my parents had bought for me when I was young enough to resent the
fact that it was a simple, rust-colored sleeping bag without Strawberry Shortcake on it. I thought of the countless camping trips on which my sleeping bag and I had gone, both with the Girl Scouts and with my little brother Buck.

I climbed up into the bunk and stared at the ceiling, which was only a few inches from my nose. Jim was excited that he’d treed me and proceeded to bark. After he settled, I fell asleep. I awoke a couple of times during the night, and—feeling claustrophobic—stuck my head out into the open camper to breathe.

By the time I got out of bed around 9:00 AM, snow had covered the ground, and Dad was slow-cooking beans and pork in the Dutch oven. We ate oatmeal for breakfast and left to get water from another part of the campground. I held the large container steady while Dad pumped water into it by hand. We then drove down to Slaven’s Country Cupboard, where Dad gave several quarters in exchange for an onion. We picked up Jim’s dog box while we were there. (Jim had proven to have wild affection for me and would afford me little peace in the camper.) We added the onion to the beans when we got back to the camp. We fiddled with the radio, ate noodles, and napped. I wrote a few letters.

At dark, I dressed in Jason’s warm clothes and hopped into the Jeep with Dad and Jim. We drove down to Willow Bay and parked. The night was cold (32-33°F) and windy, and the moon was half-sized with clouds around it. There were flurries of snow. The three of us traveled along the lakeshore and circled back to the Jeep by road. Jim ran off a couple of times, and each time Dad got anxious until Jim returned. Dad said that his anxiety, when hunting, comes from not knowing what the dog will do or what will happen. Nothing much happened that evening. We drove back to the camper and ate beans, and bread with honey.

The next morning, Dad made delicious pancakes from a sour-dough starter. Then, he, Jim, and I drove to Salamanca, New York, where Dad and I walked through an amazing antique mall. In all of his trips to the area, Dad had never been through the mall and seemed to enjoy it. He bought some garden stakes for one of Mom’s flowerbeds. He also bought a giant cookie cutter for me: one that will cut out at least twenty cookies in one fell swoop. In addition to many small things, I bought a yellow, Formica kitchen cart on wheels.

The hunt that night produced no raccoons but was more interesting than the hunt before it. We walked along the New York line off Wolf Run. It was a cold (28°F), clear night with very little wind. Jim treed things that we couldn’t see: flying squirrel, we suspected, because I thought I saw one, once. I took quite a few pictures with Craig’s digital camera.

After the hunt, Dad and I ate beans, and macaroni and cheese. I was tired from walking, and, with my belly full of hot food, slept soundly for the first time since my arrival.

On 12 November 2005, Dad, Jim, and I went to the Kinzu Dam. We drove down to the bottom of the dam in hopes of touring the fish hatchery, but, unfortunately, it was closed. Next, we visited the Civil-War-era Kinzu Bridge. Dad explained that the bridge had been a real tourist attraction until a summer microburst destroyed it. A friendly, red-haired lady took our picture in front of the bridge. Dad and I ate pizza in Mt. Jewett and headed back to camp.

That night, Dad, Jim, and I walked east—toward the moon—along an old mountain road on the Johnson farm. Vehicles hadn’t traveled the road for years, so it was more like a trail than a road. I felt as though we were walking in Sleepy Hollow, or a woodland tunnel: trees seemed to bend down and fold over our path. I stepped in a few, deep puddles. At about 38°F, it was a clear night with very little wind. Again, Jim treed things that we couldn’t see. We were convinced, however, that they were flying squirrel: we saw one glide out of one of the trees where Jim barked. Dad shook his head and pronounced that, unless there were a change in the weather, there would be no improvement in the raccoon hunting. The moon was sp bright, he said, that the dog wanted to hunt squirrel as though it were daytime. We headed back to camp early, and Dad made crab cakes for dinner.

Dad and I both cried the next morning, at our parting. It’s hard to know what more to write about our time together in the North Woods. I know it’s something for which we will always be grateful. I can tell you that it was overdue, but that really doesn’t matter in my heart, now. What matters is that we had the time. We made the time. I would encourage any man with a daughter to take her with him—to the woods, the garage, the racetrack, or anywhere he finds enjoyment. I would encourage any daughter to jump at an opportunity to go.

On our hunting trip, Dad told me things that I will never tell another soul; however, there was one story I’d like to share. He said that once, many years ago, he was tracking a giant buck who stepped behind an even larger hemlock tree. He waited on the other side, feeling sure that the deer would eventually step out from behind the tree. But that animal was so wise that it walked off in a straight line, in the cover of the hemlock.

Dad never saw it again. If you are a man with a daughter, you may think you know where she is. You may think she’s right there, just out of sight, almost within arm’s reach. She may be. Then again, she may be walking further away from you every minute.

Your daughter—even if she’s shallow, or silly—has stories to tell you. If you take her with you, your experience will be different than it would have been without her. Ask my dad is he expected to tour an antique mall in November, or eat pizza in a video-rental joint. He will tell you that he did not expect those things, and I think he will also tell you that he enjoyed them very much. He will tell you that his daughter accompanied him down some old, familiar paths and then asked him to travel down some new ones that he’d never trod. He will tell you that he understands her better, now, than he did before.

I returned to the chaos of the classroom. I looked at the faces of my sixth graders and knew absolutely that I couldn’t have given them—in the two days they spent with a substitute—anything close to what Dad had given me.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Thoughts on Breaking

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry. Ernest HemingwayA Farewell to Arms, 1929

Here we are, halfway through the year. My oldest child graduated from high school, last month. Many people have asked how I'm doing in light of that, and I've explained: his graduation felt a bit anticlimactic, as he'd moved out at the beginning of the year. He left the nest a solid nine months earlier than I had expected, and the whole situation not only caught me off guard but also devastated me. I grieved like I never had before.

The fact is: I had been struggling with depression and anxiety for years but had stubbornly refused medication. I had worked with therapists, read/studied on my own, and consumed mass quantities of krill oil in an effort to maintain control of my emotions, but the situation with my son pushed me over the edge. I couldn't stop crying. For the first time, I didn't want to be in my own company. I simply didn't want to be with myself.

At the beginning of March, I asked my doctor for medication. He warned me that it might take awhile to work, but from the outset, it did what I needed it to do. I stopped crying. I had no high emotion of any kind: what a profound relief!

I understand, now, that high emotion was the force behind my creativity, and my creative pursuits have taken a huge hit. I've written very little. I've taken photos but have edited very few of them. I haven't read much, either, although I committed last fall to reading through the Bible in 2018, and I've kept up with that goal.

I've been very motivated to move. I'm working out regularly and have lost about twenty-five pounds. I've also made a good deal of progress in my home in terms of purging, organizing, and cleaning. It's been very interesting that so many of the things I wanted to do before are things I don't want to do, now, and vice versa. Overall, I am much happier, now. I don't know what the future holds, but I don't miss my leaking eyes or racing heart. I don't miss fear. I don't miss rage.

I look at this as God's working all things to my good. Last fall, before I had experienced crisis, I was considering how many books I'd read in 2017 and felt suddenly convicted that I'd never read through the Bible. I don't believe that conviction was random but, instead, God's seeing ahead and providing for my year.

I could tell you a million stories like this. The word I chose for the year was "star." I didn't know why unless it was because of something my friend Rachel Britz had said. A couple weeks ago, I was biking upstairs in the gym, thinking and wondering about my word, and the gym's logo caught my eye: a giant star. I just smiled and kept pedaling.

"Differentiation" was my word for a year or two, and maybe I've finally learned it. I've learned that I can't control other people. Anyone I know could turn against or abandon me at any time. No matter what happens, I will be stuck with myself and inside of my body until I'm not. Finally, I understand the importance of being okay with that.

So many men have tried to break me, and in the end, no one could do it like the one I bore, as--this is almost funny--I had not expected him to behave outside of the manner in which he had always behaved, the manner in which I had raised him. I'm not angry with him, as God has always used my son to grow and change me. There's no one I love more; grief has always been the flip side of love; and mostly, I'm just thankful that we're both still here, that we're okay.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Safe Place

My brain tends to see big pictures over details. My brain can, does, and will see details and how they work together, but only with concentrated effort that absolutely zaps my energy. It's difficult to explain to those whose brains work differently, but here's an example of how my brain works (and doesn't).

My daughters' Girl Scout leader provided me with a list of items to pack for a camping trip. I love it when planner-type people provide me with lists because--while I don't make them, ever--I understand that following them will help me organize and prepare. One of the items on the list was a rocket stove. Another item was a pot. I packed both items and crossed them off the list. It never dawned on me that my pot should be an appropriate size for the little rocket stove. I grabbed a big pot because I have a big family. (My big family is my big picture.) Goofs like this make me appear lacking in common sense (or worse), but I get by with a little help from my friends; details just aren't my thing.

Anyway. My youngest first cousin had asked me to take her senior casuals, and I was in route to her when the passenger-side window in my van shattered and fell out. I tried to reschedule for this past Saturday, but she had prom, so I asked about Sunday (yesterday). She reminded me about its being Mother's Day but said they were okay with it if I were, and I was. My mom's out-of-state (and on vacation, besides); my mother-in-law and grandmas are in heaven; and I figured I would be able to go to church with my kids before heading north.

The trip up was supposed to take less than four hours but took 5.5 with traffic/accidents/construction. I was concerned about our losing light, and a storm was rolling in; in fact, it was supposed to start raining thirty minutes after my arrival. I reminded myself that I work best under pressure, which is true and the great up-side to having a brain like mine: a brain so accustomed to things being amiss with details that it is able to stay focused on the big picture and just get the job done.

I took photos of my cousin around the creek, in front of what used to be our grandma's house, and all around the barn. As we were finishing up, my cousin said she wanted to get a few photos at the end of the road, so we drove and parked there. That's when I felt God say something to me like: "Look, Brandee! For Mother's Day, I brought you to your safe place!"

And it was true; in fact, my mom, friends, and I had been on retreat together in April, and we were led through a visualization exercise in which we were supposed to go to our safe place. I felt caught off guard and pinged around like a white ball in my mind: where am I? where am I? until I found myself on the road in front of the house where my grandma used to live. Yesterday, on Mother's Day, I was there for real with my aunt (my second mother) and cousin.

Some day I will tell you about the rest of the visualization exercise, but for now I will just say: my grandparents were (and are) central to my walk with Christ, and rain didn't fall on their old property, yesterday, for the entire hour we took photos.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

To Cade, on Your 18th Birthday

Dear Cade,

Walt Whitman wrote in an 1855-56 journal entry: "Understand that you can have in your writing no qualities which you do not honestly entertain in yourself. Understand that you cannot keep out of your writing the indication of the evil or shallowness you entertain in yourself. [What you love, think, grudge, doubt, etc....] will appear by what you leave unsaid more than by what you say. There is no trick or cunning, no art or recipe, by which you can have in your writing what you do not possess in yourself." I have carried this quote with me since before I carried you, and I have waited to write certain things (about my story, not yours) because I want the heat to be gone. I will not write certain things in anger, and I will not try to write them around anger because it's impossible.

What I really want to tell you about the Whitman quote, though, is I think the word "children" could almost be substituted for the word "writing." It's not a perfect analogy; still, in reading Genesis, we have an airplane's view of some of the earliest people, and sad to say, they run together a bit. They're all the same. Each generation seems to make the same mistakes as the generation before.

The seventeenth year of your life will go down in history as the year in which I learned: you didn't fall far from anybody's tree, either. I guess it had seemed for about 17.5 years that you miraculously embodied all of your dad's and my positive qualities and none of the especially negative ones. But the negative qualities are there, too. You are--for the most part, for good or ill--your dad and me thrown into a bag and shaken.

Here's the bad news: you are imperfect. Sinful, even.

Here's the good news: you know your dad and me. We, your parents, have been 100% present, so you know our weaknesses, mistakes, sins. Surely you can do a bit better than we have done. Surely you can do a bit better than you have done.

Here's more good news: if you read Margaret Atwood's "Happy Endings," you'll see that ease and perfection don't make for a particularly gripping story. Also, Enoch. "[He] walked with God: and he was not; for God took him" (Genesis 5:24). There's not much more to Enoch's story. Admittedly, he fathered Methuselah and a bunch of other kids; otherwise, what a snooze. There's not much of a plot when there's no trouble.

And here's the best news of all: Jesus.

I love you. I haven't fallen far from anyone's tree, myself. I am like your nana: I love my children without condition. There is nothing you can do or say to make me stop loving you. Also, I am like your papaw: I have my convictions. I will neither support your terrible decisions nor play pretty with anyone who does or means you harm. I have pressed further into my own character over these painful months. Don't you remember Liz Rosenburg's Monster Mama? We read it over and over when you were a little boy; we knew it by heart. "I am your mother, even if I am a monster."

I have been your "fast-moving freight train" for eighteen years. I am weary. I recognize that it's past time for boundaries: that you must learn to take care of yourself. I pray you'll be fearless like Patrick Edward; "use your powers for good, never for evil"; "remember that strength is for the wise, not the reckless"; and be proud and defensive, always, of your mother.

Happy manhood. I love you. What have I said. What haven't I


You know where to find me.