There once was a girl named Julie

When I was ten years old, I learned my best friend had died from leukemia. Her name was Julie, and she once was my favorite person, in the way little girls choose their favorite person. We met in Italy in the first grade, in Mrs. Pendleton’s class. Or had we met in kindergarten and carried our friendship over into first grade? I don’t remember. Actually, after thirty-plus years I don’t remember much about Julie at all, but I do still remember how much I missed her not going on our class field trip to the zoo.

That morning I sat on a double-seat bench in the middle of the bus and didn’t talk to anyone else. Then I waited and waited and waited for Julie to climb aboard and sit next to me, except she never came. The bus started up, and Mrs. Pendleton and my mother, who had volunteered to be our class chaperon that day, whispered to one another a few seats in front of me. The engine was running; my classmates were being told to sit down. And I started to panic. Where is Julie? Why isn’t she here? I told Mrs. Pendleton that we couldn’t leave yet. We had to wait for Julie. Then Mrs. Pendleton and my mother had another quiet but short conversation. They invited me to sit up front with them where I was told, sympathetically but without much fuss, that Julie had moved away.

It wasn’t unusual for friends to move away. It wasn’t unusual not to have a chance to say goodbye to each other. Julie and I both lived in Italy not because we were Italian, but because our fathers were in the military. This is how life as a military kid works: you move, you make friends. Then you move again, and you make new friends. Sometimes you get to stay and your friend has to move and make new friends. You do this so much that it becomes second nature, but as you get older you recognize the importance of saying goodbye to people you might never see again.

This is not, however, the moment I learned that she had died. That moment came much later, when I was in the fourth grade at a new school, on the other side of the world from where Julie and I had become best friends. And when I learned she had died, I was devastated. Julie, it turns out, had moved away because she became sick. I was never really lied to, but her family had to rush her back to the states in order to get her the best treatment possible. As my mother stood in the kitchen telling me this, I was stopped midway on the stairs, not sure whether to go upstairs or down. So I just stood there. My mother asked me if I was okay. Yes, I was okay. She asked me if I had any questions. No, I didn’t have any questions. Then she asked me if I even remembered Julie. No, I didn’t. I didn’t remember Julie, my best friend. And that’s why I was devastated.

I remember there once was a girl named Julie who I absolutely adored. I remember there once was a girl named Julie and I missed her terribly on that class trip to the zoo. I remember there once was a girl named Julie and we were such good friends that we would sometimes hold hands. I remember there once was a girl named Julie, but I don’t remember her. Not her face, not the color of her hair, not the sound of her voice, or even the feel of her hand.

I remember nothing about her, yet I often find myself thinking of her.

Road Trip Through the Deep South

There will always be something about the south that makes me happy. Here are a few of those somethings:

  • Barbecue and sweet tea in Jackson, Mississippi.
  • The sight of the big, open waters of Mobile Bay in Mobile, Alabama.
  • Manatees.
  • Palm trees.
  • Publix subs, if I’m being honest here. (And I am, considering we went to Publix for dinner on the night we arrived in Crystal River, Florida. THEN we checked into our hotel. And I ate Publix subs four times in three days.)
  • Driving across three major bridges in the city of Jacksonville, Florida, because that’s the only way to get around.
  • Being chased out of the ocean by lightning and rainstorms, only to decide to come back first thing the next day. Also, no shark attacks! (Did you know there’s an app for that?)
  • Spanish moss and the sweet, sickly smell of candy shops, paper mills, and river traffic in Savannah, Georgia.
  • Crossing the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee, after watching Fourth of July fireworks from our hotel beds.
  • Kudzu forests that can be seen from the interstate throughout Arkansas.
IMG_2801

An Old Florida/Cracker Florida landscape – Homosassa Springs, Fla.

Untitled

A manatee in Crystal River, Fla.

Untitled

Taken from the underwater observation dock in Homosassa Springs. The permanent damage on both of her flippers was caused by entangled fishing lines.

Untitled

Morning at Peter’s Point Beach on Amelia Island, Fla.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Majestic old oak trees at Johnson Square in Savannah, Ga.

IMG_2811

River Street at night in Savannah.

Untitled

Johnson Square. Memorials. Live oaks. Bliss.

Untitled

Looking across the Mississippi River into Arkansas from downtown Memphis, Tenn.

IMG_2818

I finally saw my Peabody ducks.

New Additions

My husband went on a solo camping trip over Memorial Day weekend. The weather forecast was terrifying at best, but he was adamant. He always sends me a photo of his campsite – he’s a proud campsite nester – and this time he included a little note that mentioned he’d befriended a puppy. From the looks of it, according to Matt, this pup had been living at the campground for awhile, either abandoned by some jerks or lost and alone after wandering away from her family. They kept each other company that night, he and this puppy, as tornadoes tore through the state. I spent my evening tracking supercells in two counties and texting my husband with updates. There were flash floods and tornadoes all over the place. One was within 15 miles of his campsite near the Lake of the Arbuckles. It was a busy night for us both.

Meet Ari, named after the Lake of the Arbuckles where my husband found her abandoned in the woods during his solo camping trip this weekend. Most likely an Anatolian Shepherd and she's already huge. Judging by the size of her feet there's still more growi

I had the following week scheduled off from work, and was contemplating a trip of my own to Northern New Mexico or Southern Wisconsin. However, Matt and I both agreed he couldn’t just leave the puppy there. He’d sent me a photo and she looked…medium size-ish. I began to ignore any thoughts of a solo road trip and promised to stay home that week and care for this poor pup until we could find her a good home.

Which brings us to Ari. That’s the puppy. Photos sent via text message are the biggest liars ever by the way, because she turned out to be a 75-pound puppy. She’s a Great Pyrenees/Anatolian Shepherd mix and we are so in love with her. Clearly, Ari’s not going anywhere. We’re getting her microchipped this week (she had no chip and no tags when she was found). Ari (named after Lake of the Arbuckles) is now an official member of our human/dog pack.

Untitled

Untitled

Before Ari showed up at Matt’s campsite, I’d been wondering a few things. What would it be like to have a fourth dog? Could we handle a fourth dog? Does anyone in their right mind even NEED a fourth dog? But we are dog people so these were not completely crazy questions. The answers to those questions are: It’s pretty much like having three, but with an extra; Yes; and We might not NEED a fourth dog but that fourth dog desperately NEEDS us. 

I am not asking questions about a fifth dog. I know my limits.

So, as our family grows I figure it is only fair to show how much my garden has grown. Thanks to those same Memorial Day weekend rains, the garden practically exploded overnight and I’m thrilled with how it’s been progressing. We’ve already enjoyed some sugar snap peas in a sauteed veggie mix and my yellow sugar sun tomatoes are popping out about half a dozen a day or so. The cucumbers are right on target, my okra is gearing up nicely, and the eggplant…IT’S STILL THERE! I’m deliriously optimistic that I might actually beat the elements this year and get at least ONE FULL EGGPLANT out of these plants.

By the way, I gave up on growing squash. That stuff just pisses me off.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

 

Stayin’ Alive

Did you know that the Bee Gee’s hit song “Stayin’ Alive” is the best song to have stuck in your head while performing CPR? It’s all about the rhythm, or the compressions per minute. And how fitting is that song title? I wonder how many lives the Bee Gees have saved just by writing that catchy little tune.

But prior to CPR (and the Bee Gees), there was the Silvester’s Method. It was occasionally referred to as Sylvester’s Method, as you can see from the illustrations I found in The Soldier’s Handbook published in 1909.

Untitled

When I was a little girl I had quite the crush on Andy Gibb. It was probably because of his hair. He had great hair. My early childhood and teenage crushes all had really great hair – Eddie Rabbit, Jon Bon Jovi, Sebastian Bach, etc. But I digress. The reason I bring up Andy Gibb is to point on the irony of his early death. Andy died from complications of myocarditis which causes sudden cardiac arrest and even death – a death that, incidentally, can sometimes be prevented by administering CPR.

Go West!

We took a vacation. Like, a real vacation. And by real I mean there were no relatives to visit and no friends to catch up with, which has been the basis of all our other vacations. This time, though, the three of us piled into our van and headed west to visit places we’d never seen and to be surrounded by people we didn’t know. Do you remember my excitement at crossing the Mississippi River pretty much every single time I cross the Mississippi River? Well, last month I crossed the Rio Grande. TWICE! It was just as exciting, even though the river was barely a trickle in the dry New Mexico landscape.

As you’ve probably noticed, I haven’t posted in quite a while. An 8-week condensed graduate class on the History of the American West pretty much took up any desire I’ve had to write anything for the last two months. I was clever enough to make sure this class and our trip to the Rockies happened at the same time. Why? Because I have never in my life had a desire to go west. I just figured I’d read about something interesting in one of my textbooks that would get me excited. And it worked. Partly through New Mexico I saw a sign for the Chisholm Trail and didn’t shut up about its namesake and history for a good twenty minutes.

We spent our first night in Santa Fe. The town closes up pretty early, which surprised me since it’s both a booming arts community and historical tourist destination. After a quick dinner downtown and a stop at a local bookstore, the three of us went back to our hotel to binge on HGTV. We don’t have cable at home so this HGTV thing turned out to be a heavy theme on our family vacation.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

We headed north the next morning, toward Colorado and Great Sand Dunes National Park. I don’t remember how I discovered this place even exists but the NPS website photographs are incredible! Basically, there are these gigantic sand dunes that sit right at the base of the Rocky Mountains near a town called Mosca. The elevation change from 1,200 feet above sea level in Oklahoma City to over 6,000 feet in Santa Fe had made us all tired and headachy. Even though visiting the Great Sand Dunes was my idea, I was starting to second-guess this side stop. My husband insisted, though, and thank goodness he did. It is really one of the coolest things I have even seen – the tallest sand dune is currently 699 feet high. Visitors can walk to the top and head back down the dunes…on sleds! Of course, walking from the parking lot to the visitors’ center was difficult enough because there is NO OXYGEN up there so I commend anyone who makes it ten feet up the dunes.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

We rented a cabin in the tiny Colorado town of Twin Lakes. Our view was spectacular! We spent the first two days learning how to breathe (again, no oxygen!) and cursing ourselves every time we had to go up and down the stairs. Even turning over in bed left us winded. Since moving our bodies was such an uncomfortable thing to do, we tried not to do it. And this is where HGTV comes in. Like, HEAVILY.

We skied on day 3. It wasn’t a complete fail, but tempers flared and tears were shed. It’s probably best that I do not go into detail. Was it fun? After a while it was, and only for two of us. Will we do it again? Er…maybe the two of us who had fun will do it again, but skiing is an expensive sport. Why? And all the layers! When you’re that close to the sun, and the UV index is off the charts, the fewer clothes, the better. At least that’s what my mountain-top panic attack said. But, no details.

On most days the deer visited our cabin while we acclimatized to the thin air. We found a restaurant/brewery in nearby Buena Vista that we really, really loved. The town of Leadville, just north of the cabin, is full of all kinds of mining history. I convinced the family to humor me and we hit up the National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum. It was so interesting! And practically the only thing open in town…well, that and a Safeway grocery store. So Leadville was a bit disappointing, especially when one considers how much history could be shared in the off-season. (I hate that term.)

Twin Lakes, CO

Twin Lakes, CO

Untitled

Untitled

Twin Lakes, CO

 

By the time we figured out how to breathe without oxygen, it was time to head home. I had been arguing for the Santa Fe route again, since we’d had no time at all to tour the town. My husband was arguing for Denver, though. Elle sided with him and, since I was outnumbered, we went to Denver after our 5-day stay in the mountain top cabin. Denver is really, really cool! Breweries everywhere, it seems, and the landscape is such a contrast within the city itself. To the west are the Rockies and to the east is nothing but flatness. It was a nice change to see flatness. For me, anyway.

I have no photos of Denver, unfortunately. Our short time there consisted of walking to Steuben’s for dinner (where I enjoyed the most delicious macaroni and cheese, hands down) and driving to a brewery downtown. There was more HGTV, but then we decided to spice up our television viewing by watching a spin-off of What Not to Wear called Love, Lust, or Run. When you don’t have cable, hotel television binging is always allowed as part of the vacation experience.

The next day we drove through Kansas. Everything you’ve ever heard about Kansas is probably true. There are no trees in Kansas but the speed limit is, like, 75 mph on the interstate, so that kind of makes up for it. Gets you out of Kansas a lot faster, I guess?

By the time we made it home Oklahoma City was in bloom and I had one week to research and write a 12-page paper on the history of the American bison. I wrote it in three days. Then, I think, I slept for two more. I decided to take a month off from school and it’s done wonders for my mental health. My family thinks I’m a nicer person when I’m not in school and they enjoy the fact that I’m cooking again. In fact, I woke up this morning and made blueberry pancakes then turned around and baked a bourbon bread pudding with homemade caramel sauce.

Free time is fun. Speaking of which, here’s what I’m up to book-wise:

What I’ve read:

The Martian by Andy Weir: One of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read. There’s a lot of space-science and technology talk, but don’t let that get in the way. It’s one of the few books that’s made me laugh out loud. You’ll be recommending this one to all your friends, too.

The Returned by Jason Mott: I just finished this one last night and I was sad to let these characters go. However, if you’re familiar with the French version of the television series, the characters and plot are quite different from the book’s, but not so much that it distracts. It’s more like another version of a great, great story. The American version, though, is not streaming on Hulu or Netflix or anything else, so I don’t know how closely it follows Mott’s book. Read it, though.

The Bear by Claire Cameron: I listened to this on audio while traveling. The story is told from the point of view of a child. It’s…okay. It’s not Room, but good enough. And it’s always interesting (I think) to try to see a story from a perspective outside of the norm. I recently discovered a book about the Battle of Appomattox told from the perspective of a rabbit. I’m not sure how I feel about that one, but it’s getting decent reviews.

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai: Malala spends little time talking about the event that led to her becoming a household name, and more time sharing the history of Pakistan and her family. It’s a beautiful story.

What I’m reading:

Redeployment by Phil Klay: I’m taking in this collection of essays little by little. It’s overwhelming, the sadness. Everyone I’ve told about this book has been warned about the language and the violence. It’s a part of war. But I’ve also mentioned that I believe anyone who is considering enlisting in military service should read this book, just so they’re aware of what they’re getting into. I read maybe one essay every few days. I can’t do more than that in one sitting.

There Once Was a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: Don’t let the title throw you off. There is a short story included that is about that very thing, a woman who tries to kill her neighbor’s baby, but it’s only a few pages long. It’s a good story, as are all the others I’ve read so far. If you like dark fairy tales and otherwordly characters or parallel universes, this is the short story collection for you.

Myths and the Landscape

IMG_0764

When I moved to Oklahoma almost three years ago, I immediately tried to connect myself to the landscape. This is one of the first things I do in almost every place I live. Italy, in my mind, was terracotta rooftops, cobblestone alleys, and a city called Venice that looks today much like it did half a century ago. Upper Michigan was whiteness, then sunlight until 10 o’clock at night, sometimes auroras, always pine trees as far as the eye could see. Maryland was beltway traffic, jellyfish in the bay, emergency sirens. It was a toxic environment for me. Florida’s landscape healed me. Salt water. Swamps. Longleaf pines. I’ve watched the sun rise over the Atlantic and set on the Gulf. I’ve seen whales in the river,  manatees in the springs, and dolphins in the ocean.

Landscapes are mythical, I believe, and Oklahoma’s is no different. And while I know I haven’t seen all she has to offer, I probably will never feel a strong connection to this place. It’s like a relationship that never quite took off. We both wanted this to work, but Oklahoma and I tolerate each other until one of us receives a sign that it’s time to move on. Mother Nature has tried numerous times to wipe this state off the map, and yet after centuries of earthquakes, ice storms, and monstrous tornadoes, Oklahoma stays put. In all likeliness, I will be the one who moves on first. Until then, here I am.

To help me understand Oklahoma’s landscape and what she has to offer me (as defined by my idea of culture of place), I decided to enroll in a class the explores the history of the American West. This, of course, goes toward my master’s coursework, and it will allow me to learn more about the land that I’ve spent so much time on my own trying to understand, but have failed at doing so, and miserably. Over the next seven weeks we will delve into the frontier mentality. We’ll research the Native tribes’ alliances with the Spanish, the British, and the French, and the acquisitions of lands. Gold rushes, land rushes, oil booms, and mining busts. In the end I’ll present an in-depth research paper on something of my choosing that tells a story of how the American West came to be defined not only as a place, but also as a culture.

I struggled with this one. I truly struggled. I do much better when tasked with a specific topic, whether I hate it or not. And what made it so much more difficult, besides knowing absolutely nothing about the American West, was that my options were so many. Endless and vast, not unlike the West itself. And, as I mentioned above, there is nothing I could think of that I love about the West. At least, not in the same way I love the sound of the ocean or the thick humidity of the Deep South.

But, wait. Yes. Yes, there is. It was the one thing I had waited my whole life to see. It was the one thing I had always connected to life in the West. After seeing one with my own eyes, I will forever connect this creature to the landscape out here.

IMG_0743

IMG_0789

IMG_0745

IMG_0791

In 1866, General Phillip Sheridan, commander of the U.S. Forces in the West, said, “Kill the buffalo and you kill the Indians.” They almost succeeded. The life of the animal did not matter. What mattered was that the buffalo gave life to the Indians. The extinction of the Indians was the goal, and in the process, the bison were nearly annihilated.

I once created this daydream (more like delusion) about how my first encounter would go with a bison.

Daydream: It is morning and the sun has already come up, though it’s still hidden behind the smaller mountains. The early morning fog still lifting from the warm ground. The air has a chill. I’m wearing a long skirt and it’s tussled a bit by the breeze. I hear a snort and a huff and suddenly, a bison is next to me. I reach out with my hand to touch his snout, his nostrils steaming. He stares at me, and I stare at him. We have our moment.

Reality: I was in the passenger seat of my minivan. I might have cried a little because I was, undoubtedly, really, really, really excited! There was no long skirt; I was wearing jeans and a coat. There was no breeze; it’s the plains and the plains are very, very windy. There was never a bison next to me. All of my photos were taken with a zoomed-in lens.

Still, these are my bison. They are special to me. These are what I think of when I imagine the American West. This mythical landscape is inhabited by this mythical creature. One Native American legend gives credit to the buffalo for creating mountains. Another tells of buffalo marrying the Indians’ daughters. These animals are so revered in native lore that in some tribes, they are considered sacred.

Maybe after all this time I have finally discovered that which connects me to the Oklahoma landscape. Of course, I miss the ocean waves and the lushness of greenery in winter time. But when I think about what I might possibly miss when I do leave Oklahoma, it’s the bison.

You Are What You Read?

 

My reading preferences seem to surprise a lot of people. It’s not a matter of me preferring dystopian YA fiction over the works of Margaret Atwood. It’s not a matter of me preferring Amish romance novels over the meatier, literary stuff*. It’s that I tend to read books based on the horrible aspects of what it is to be human. My shelves are overflowing with texts on infectious diseases, genocides, slavery, and Holocaust literature. I own memoirs written by survivors of natural disasters, combat, and terrorist attacks. Lately I have found myself watching Netflix documentaries about honor killings and war refugees. I tell myself it’s to help me with my history studies, and it is. Culturally speaking, it opens my eyes to a lot of things I would have never known about otherwise and I can use those new perspectives in my future historical interpretations.

When I was younger I always gravitated toward reading the darker stuff, mostly books about old hotel hauntings or serial killers. This never seemed to bother my parents. As a kid I visited my grandmother often when she lived in the same Milwaukee suburb as Jeffrey Dahmer. Later I moved Gainesville, Florida, a town that became infamous after the gruesome murders of five university students. One victim’s mother frequented the pharmacy I worked at. I always stared at her in awe (tactfully, of course), and thought Jesus. How have you managed to get on with your life?

I’m just a curious person.

It got me thinking about the way people grieve. All of us will experience a devastating loss at some point in our lives, and it is likely that we will be able to grieve privately. We will get to choose the people with whom to surround ourselves and we will all recover, over time. But how does one grieve privately when one’s loss is so public and only a fragment of the whole? In the event of enemy occupation, I could lose my home. In the event of a terrorist attack, I could lose my family. In the event of any mass trauma, I could lose my identity along with millions of others. How does one grieve when one’s loss becomes a thing the entire community, nation, or even the world claims as their loss, too? How does one grieve when the pharmacy technician keeps staring and thinking I know what happened to your daughter and I can’t un-know this.

Just this weekend I scanned and organized all my books into virtual shelves with my Goodreads app which I have set up to interact with my Facebook page. I mentioned this shelving frenzy on Facebook, and encouraged my friends to notice all my chick-lit and feel-good books. I’m not all gloom and doom, I told them. Yet the only book that showed up was a paperback I recently found called Night of Stone, an account of 20th century Russia and the culture of mass death in the wake of famines, political violence, and war.

Is it a wonder nobody believes me, that I can actually be found reading Sophie Kinsella or Elizabeth Gilbert? So this weekend I decided I would toss aside the Auschwitz book, ignore the collection of Holocaust poetry on my beside, and read an honest-to-goodness book of fiction.

I was immediately taken by In the Shadow of the Banyan and fought to stay awake on my first night with this book. The narrator is, at the moment, a 7-year old Cambodian girl trying to understand why her family has been forced from their home by men in black pajama pants. I was able to read a little bit at work on my break, during which two coworkers brought up my penchant for “happy” books (oh, the sarcasm). By this point, my book’s narrator was getting a lesson from her father on the push and pull of the river’s tide, the forceful expulsion of water that sometimes leads the river into unknown territory (a metaphor, yes, for forced migration).

Surprised that I was not delving into a detailed report on Ebola, my coworker asked, “So, what are you reading today?”

I showed my coworker the book’s cover and, without apology, explained, “It feeds into my genocidal interests, but this really is fictional.” We had a good laugh. Oh, that’s just Dena.

I don’t want to use the word fascination when trying to describe just how intense my interest is in traumatic recovery. There just isn’t any other word. Nothing that seems suitable, anyhow. My interest in this stuff is one of absolute respect. I am completely in awe of how one reconciles the loss of their homeland, culture, or every single member of their family, to violence, and can wake up the next day with…what? Hope? It obviously exists. Why else would a person want to go on?

While my studies are focused directly on American history, I choose to use much of what I read toward understanding cultures in general. Whether it’s learning about families who live in border refugee camps, or about the mother who lost her child at the hands of a serial killer, there is this kind of hope that each one of them carries. Their stories are out there and, in my privileged position as a graduate student with all the freedoms and securities I can ask for, I feel a responsibility to learn them.

* I am not one of those types of readers who looks down upon those who choose to read Fifty Shades of Grey or Beverly Lewis’ Pennsylvania Dutch love stories over, say, any other book. I don’t read that stuff, but if that’s what you wanna read, read it! I’m just happy you’re reading.