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Archive for the tag “Foreign Service Blogs”

Why I Can’t Quite Bring Myself to Visit My Favorite Village

We have lived in Honduras for a little over one year now and we have visited some truly gorgeous places. Honduras, as I’ve written before, gets a bit of a bad rap, but it’s a country I’ve come to love. To me Honduras doesn’t represent violence and poverty. It represents natural beauty, warm people, fascinating history, and friendship — here are a few places we’ve been that I will always associate with those things.

Lago Yojoa, which we visited for the first time this past January, is a place we immediately fell in love with.

Lake Yojoa Jan 2015

Lago Yajoa is stunning and one of the things we love about it is that there are Lenca ruins, and a eco-park with beautiful hiking, right next to it. The only thing wrong with the first trip we took there was that it was very rainy every day of our visit, except for the day we left (of course).

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So we decided we needed to go back and see the lake when it wasn’t fogged in.

Lake Yajoa, Part 2

What a difference the sun makes!

My dad and our youngest walking through the eco-park

My dad and our youngest walking through the eco-park

We discovered there are more Lenca ruins at a Finca near the lodge where we stayed

This is an old Lenca ball court. Archaeologists believe, because the Lenca pre-date the Maya, that the Lenca actually invented the infamous ball games the Maya played.

This is an old Lenca ball court. Archaeologists believe, because the Lenca pre-date the Maya, that the Lenca actually invented the infamous ball games the Maya played.

We climbed a nearby mountain called Las Nalgas or, The Buttcheeks. It’s self-explanatory

Las Nalgas

Las Nalgas

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Climbing up the mountain

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The view from the top

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Our youngest walking back to our lodge with our fantastic guide

There was much silliness from the kids

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“When I say ‘no, you can’t take my picture’ I mean ‘no, you can’t take my picture.'”

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Even at 14 he still wants to be an explorer

Lake Yajoa, Part 2

“I know you said it was too cold to go swimming, mom, but I did it and I’M FREEZING!”

And, there was beer. Because the lodge where we stayed is also a Brewery

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The other place we really enjoyed was Tela, on Honduras’ Caribbean coast.

A good time was had by all, though Firu made it quite clear that he had no intention of entering the water.

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Tela March 2015

Tela

Racing on the beach

Racing on the beach

A face that just screams WHEEEEEE!

A face that just screams WHEEEEEE!

She makes a floaty out of her rash guard.

She makes a floaty out of her rash guard. Every. Time.

Chasing the man selling coconuts

Chasing the man selling coconuts

Sunset on Tela

Sunset on Tela

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There’s one more place very close to home that I’ve come to love, a small Colonial village called Valle de Angeles, about a half hour drive from our home. Valle has two things — the village and the entrance to a lush national park where there is fantastic hiking. This is a place I can’t wait to get back to.

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Valle de Angeles

My kids are goofballs

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Seriously, goofballs

Then there is the town of Valle de Angeles, or Valley of the Angels.

Valle de Angeles

Valle de Angeles

Where you can buy fresh papusas — a little slice of heaven.

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Have coffee in this very cool coffe house, Cafe Las Estancia.

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Have lunch at Las Abuelas restaurant

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Or just wander through the lovely central square.

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Valle de Angeles represents friendship to me. And I can’t bring myself to go there right now. Because everything about it hurts a little — the cool coffee house, Las Abuelas restaurant, the central square, even the damn papusas. And please don’t mention iron because I’ll probably burst into tears. Trust me on this. It all stings because it was the place that was “the place” my closest friend here and I would go. We’d frequently message each other “Valle this week?” and the other would always respond with an enthusiastic “YES!” Always through messaging because she knows I hate to talk on the phone and she respects my quirks. She gets my quirks. It’s one of the reasons she’s an amazing friend. And everything there, everything, reminds me of her. There is so much to love about being a nomad — but saying goodbye to friends blows. It’s the friendships that are, all at once, beautiful and painful. I am an introvert, a shy introvert, a shy introvert who isn’t crazy about being around people I don’t know. But from the very first moment I met my friend I knew I’d met someone I would adore. The second time we met up I knew I’d found a soulmate. In part because she told me the story about how she’d used a wildly raunchy Spanish word, thinking it meant something else, for about her first year in Honduras. And the fact that she could say that word to me, in English, without even breaking a blush told me, “yep, this woman is part of my tribe.” She became, over the course of a year, a soul sister.

She and her family moved, on to their next post, while we were home in the U.S this summer. As much as I was looking forward to coming home to Honduras I was dreading them not being here. Her oldest and our youngest were inseparable, and I knew the loss, when he saw that his friend really was gone, was going to hit him hard. And it has.

And me? Most of the time I’m okay — though yesterday I had a million things I wanted to tell her and had to stop myself from messaging her every five minutes. But sometimes, I’m not okay. Sometimes I think of her and burst into tears. And I know, for now, I’m not quite ready to walk the cobblestone streets of Valle without her.

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The Pros and Cons of Life in Tegucigalpa, Honduras

It’s that time again — bidding season. Not for us, thank GAWD, but for many others (you have my sympathies). I know some folks love bidding season, for me whatever patina bidding season once had is gone and I just dread the researching and the waiting. And waiting. And waiting …

I’ve decided to do my Foreign Service blogger duty and write out my list of pros and cons of life in Tegucigalpa, I hope it helps folks. Plus, if I don’t blog about something besides PETA Imma lose my damn mind.

So, here is my list. I’ll start with the cons first so we finish on a high note.

The Cons of Teguc:

1. Not being able to go out on foot. This is, by far, my biggest issue with living in Teguc — to the point that I really had to scrounge around for the others because they’re so minor to me. But there is potential for violent crime and post states that going out and about on foot is a no no. This is a quality of life issue, it’s a major quality of life issue for a runner, especially since Teguc has some really nice straight aways for running and all I can do it look at them longingly while we drive past. Now, having said that, once you leave the city you are good to go — walk around (or run) to your heart’s content. I’ll write more about that in the pros section. Also, in contrast to what we’d heard before we moved here, driving at night is fine, just know where you’re going and don’t wander into areas that are not safe.

2. The security situation. Loads of narcos out there, folks, and they don’t play. But let’s keep things in perspective. Our major cities have hot spots for violent crimes, and they have all the things that cause it, and Teguc is no different. Be smart, stay out of the areas you’re not supposed to be in, practice safe driving techniques, pay attention to your OPSEC — you should be fine. I don’t dwell much on the security situation, I think folks blow it out of proportion. Bad stuff can happen no matter where you are but you choose whether or not to live in fear (which is different than just being cautious). So don’t let this prevent you bidding Teguc.

3. Traffic. It sucks. ‘Nuff said.

4. The air quality can get obscenely bad at the end of the dry season but it’s temporary so not a huge deal.

5. I’m thinking … I’m thinking …

The Pros of Teguc:

1. Post morale. While I realize this is fluid I wanted to list it here because it’s pretty awesome. Local staff are fantastic, knowledgeable, responsive, and friendly. And our Ambassador? He’s like the Old Spice guy of Ambos — you wish your Ambo was as cool as our Ambo is. Seriously.

2. Loads of fun weekend trips. There is a huge national park with lots of hiking (La Tigra), a very large park up in the hills of Teguc (El Picacho — where you can RUN), and there are beautiful colonial villages to visit (Valle de Angeles and Santa Lucia to name just two). There are also other activities I’ve heard about but not yet done, like the children’s museum, which I’m told is fantastic. Farther afield there are fun and completely manageable, even with kids, weekend trips. Our favorite so far is Lago Yajoa, where we’ve gone so many times that we have yet to visit other places because sometimes when you travel so much you just need spots that are comfy and familiar, right? We’ll branch out soon. If you do visit Yajoa, make sure to stay at the D & D Brewery and Lodge, it’s not only lots of fun but the people are some of the nicest you’ll meet and they have fantastic guides who can take you around to all the best spots in the area. D & D is also within walking (or RUNNING) distance from Lenca ruins, which are very cool to explore, and the national park they’re in is large enough that you can spend the whole day hiking. The beach is, in my opinion, too far for a weekend trip, it took us about five hours to get to Tela, but I’ve been told the beaches of El Salvador are much closer and very nice (they’re on our list).

3. Proximity to the rest of the Mayan world. The Ruta Maya is at your fingertips here, and it’s awesome! We recently took a trip to Tikal, Guatemala. It’s a long haul, it took us two days to get there, but it is so worth it. We stayed on the beautiful island of Flores, which is incredibly charming, (another hotel recommendation, Hotel Isla de Flores is inexpensive and very sweet, also has great food). We’re planning what we’re referring to as our epic adventure for this winter, where we will visit as much of the Ruta Maya as we can squeeze into a few weeks — Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

4. The Honduran people. They are warm, welcoming, and very down to earth. And they don’t mind gringos in the slightest, which is a plus. The folks I’ve met not only tolerate my awful Spanish but are very patient when I can’t seem to spit the right words out or when I look at them with that awkward deer in the headlights look I get when I don’t understand something. And they have a real pride when it comes to their country, which they should, because it’s an absolute gem.

5. Discovery School. It’s small, which is important to us, and the teachers, administration, and staff are fantastic. They’ve got an open door policy — which I appreciate because, while I’m not a helicopter mom, I do like to pop in and say hi to my babies now and again. Our kiddos are pretty scary smart and I feel that their teachers at Discovery picked up very quickly on their strengths, and they provide them with the avenues to move forward and be challenged. The teachers also recognize the areas where our kids need extra assistance (or where they’re just being a bit more lax than they should be — yea, I’m talkin’ to you, kids).

6. Bonus Pro: The cost of living and availability of stuff. You can get just about anything here and it’s relatively inexpensive. Imports are pricey, of course, but that’s to be expected. Travel is not expensive and that’s a huge bonus for a family of 5. You can make it expensive, of course, but you don’t need to pay big bucks to stay somewhere decent or to have fun while traveling.

So there you have it, my list of pros and cons. I was very hesitant to green light Honduras because of the whole “Murder Capitol of the World” headline but I am so glad that we did. We bid Honduras for the job, which we’ve never done before, but we’ve ended up loving it because it’s a fantastic country. Bid Teguc — know what its limitations are but don’t let them stand in your way because they pale in comparison to what makes this a special country.

Choosing to Listen to My Immature Dark Angel

This past weekend we made our first overnight trip in Honduras to magical Lake Yojoa, Honduras’ largest lake. While driving through the countryside from Tegucigalpa to Yojoa I found myself thinking “I am so grateful that we ended up in this country.” Its natural beauty, its warm people, its rich and ancient history, I love it. And I’d come very close to letting my fear deprive me of discovering that.

When Eric initially floated the idea of bidding on Honduras I laughed and laughed and laughed. Are you off your nut???? I’m not moving my children to the murder capitol of the world! No way. No how. Not happening. Cross it off the list. Then my inner voice spoke up …

“Heather, you traveled to Guatemala on your own during the height of the civil war when you were 18!”

“So?”

“The State Department issued a travel warning for Americans while you were there, given the chance to leave you decided to stay!”

“And?”

“They named that August “Black August” because of all the bodies that were being found!”

“Your point being?”

“That you had some of the most incredible experiences of your life! What would you have missed if you’d let fear determine your actions?”

“This is not that. I was young then, I didn’t have kids to think about, this is a completely different situation. I need to be practical and, practically speaking, it’s not worth the risk.”

“Pffffft …you’ve clearly grown old and boring and I’m leaving now …”

“Fine, do that, nobody needs an immature dark angel on their shoulder anyway.”

Deal done, decision made. Except it wasn’t.

Central America was a place that got under my skin at a early age. When I was 15 my family and I took a trip along the “Ruta Maya,” traveling from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, through Guatemala, into Belize, and then looping back. We took the rickety buses the locals traveled in because the aim was to encounter the fewest number of gringos possible, getting to know the countries and the people along the way. At first I cursed the experience …

“Dad, what are we doing? I have a chicken in my lap and I think this bus is close to dying. Why can’t we go to Cancun and stay in a resort?”

“That’s boring, that is exciting! What’s the point in traveling to a different country if you’re just going to surround yourself with other Americans?”

“This isn’t a vacation, it’s work! Why can’t we go to Disneyland, like a normal family?”

“Because I’m trying to raise you right.”

And, of course, he knew what he was talking about.

We swam in underground cenotes, explored Mayan ruins, had a few close calls with guerillas and soldiers, and had the time of our lives! We weren’t afraid, though we were careful, and the richness and depth with which we lived our lives increased in countless ways. So when my dad gave me the choice between a high quality camera and a trip to language immersion school in Quetzaltenengo, Guatemala for my high school graduation present it was an easy choice–next stop, Guatemala! Of course, this was a decision I was kicking myself for making when my grand adventure was finally underway. I landed in Guatemala City, all excited to be an “adult,” traveling on my own, can’t stop me now, world, I’m on fire! Until I discovered that nobody from my school was there to pick me up. What’s a girl to do? First, fight back the tears, try to look brave, not vulnerable– inside I was utterly panicked. The police officers with sub-machine guns, the taxi drivers and money changers calling to me, the darkness of a city I hadn’t been to in years, all made me feel less adult and more “I want my daddy.” But, I couldn’t stand there all night, I had to do something. I put one foot in front of the other and began to walk towards a taxi whose driver looked friendly.

I had the name of a hotel written down where the school, I’d been told, had a standing reservation for their students, so I hopped in his cab, gave him the name of the hotel, and hoped for the best. Once at the hotel I was feeling pretty darn proud of myself for making it that far, and relieved that I had someplace to spend the night. Whew! I’m on fire again, world, lighting it up … that’s the point when the man at the front desk doused me with a healthy dose of water. “Standing reservation, ” I said, and he looked at me with confusion, informing me nope, not so much. Then it went like this …

“Well, do you have a room available?”

“The only room we have is a double and there is only one of you.”

“Um, but I’ll pay for it, I don’t mind.”

“No, it’s for two people.”

“But what does it matter that it’s a double when I’m willing to pay as if I am two people?”

“Because you’re only one person.”

“Can’t you just pretend like there are two of me?”

“There’s only one of you, the room is a double.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense!”

Shrug, “There is only one of you.”

“But I’ll pay for two!”

“But there is only one of you.”

Dear God, get me off this evil merry-go-round.

I stared at him in disbelief, he sighed as if I were the stupidest person on the planet and said “look, if two people don’t come in within an hour I’ll rent you the room.”

I nodded, picked up my backpack, and went to wait. My veneer of self-confidence was beginning to crack as I sat there and thought about what I would do if two people came and took the room. It was very late, I was exhausted, in a city where I couldn’t just walk out the door and find a hotel, and I knew I would be screwed without that room. So I did what any self-respecting, confident young woman would do under those circumstances–I held my head up high, marched straight to the man at the desk, plopped my money down in front of him, and demanded the key! Kind of. I burst into tears, sobs of loneliness and fear, shoulders shaking with the force of it all. The desk man from beyond the looking glass appeared shocked at first, then his face clearly said “make it stop!” and he told me he enough time had passed, I could have the room. I sniffed, eyes full of tears, nodded, thanked him, paid him, and made my way to the room, which was a bed in a tiny space with a door that didn’t lock. I tucked my backpack under the bed, made sure my money belt was secure around my waist, and fell asleep, straddling gratitude and fear.

The next morning I showered in the shared bathroom, made my way downstairs, caught a taxi to the bus station, and hopped a bus to Quetzaltenengo. Hot damn, can’t stop me now, world!

In the end, the trip changed my life in a way a life can only change when you’re 18 and on your own in a foreign land. I studied Spanish with a tutor several hours a day and, on the weekends, traveled, either with the school or with friends. I hiked through a rainforest, visited a squatter’s camp outside Guatemala City full of some of the bravest and most resilient people I’d ever met, wandered colonial cities, visited villages that rarely saw Americans, got lost a bit, learned about the people’s struggle for land and dignity, and discovered that I was stronger and more resourceful than I’d ever known.

So when I really thought about Honduras, and moving there, I thought about that girl and all she did during a month that changed her life, then I held my breath and though, Honduras or bust!

We’ve been here about five months now and I haven’t regretted our decision to move here even once. So when Eric and I were sitting in the restaurant of the lodge where we stayed during our trip to Lake Yojoa, talking to the lodge’s guide, and he asked how we liked Honduras I was very enthusiastic in my answer: “we LOVE it!” He smiled and asked how it compared to what American’s know of it from the news, which, of course, only talks about the violence. We told him it wasn’t anything like what most Americans think. He said that it makes him sad that so many people think of Honduras only as a place of violence and drugs because he loves his country, his country is beautiful, full of rich history, and people don’t give it a chance because of the misconceptions that surround it. I agreed with him, in part because I’d been guilty of that myself.

All of this–my experiences in Guatemala each time I went there, my experiences in other countries where we’ve traveled, our time in Honduras, our lives as nomads, it all got me thinking about fear and how, so often, we allow fear to be the deciding factor in our lives. It comes in many forms; fear of the unknown, fear based on one-dimensional pictures of a place or a person, fear of failure, fear of taking that first leap, fear of being vulnerable, but it all ends the same way, in deprivation.

So when we were hiking through Los Naranjos park, which borders Lake Yojoa, walking in the footsteps of the ancient Lenca tribe, among their unexcavated buildings, marveling with our kids about the mysteries buried beneath the ground, about the lush forest, my inner voice spoke up again, “Heather, thank goodness you listened to your immature dark angel because … This. Is. Awesome!”

Lake Yojoa

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There is a lake out there, you’re gonna have to trust me on that …

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The boardwalk leading through the forest

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A Lenca statue outside the museum in the park

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Unexcavated Lenca ruins

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The mounds of ruins

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Lenca ruins

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Learning to Embrace the Turtle

One of my favorite stories is one my Dad told me from his time in Thailand years ago when he was working with Vietnamese refugees. On his off days he would go to the Buddhist temple by his house, he would teach English to the monks and the monks would teach him Thai. While he is not a religious man he was intrigued by Buddhism so he asked one of the monks how he would go about becoming a Buddhist, the monk replied “If you feel like you are a Buddhist, then you are a Buddhist,” which is exactly something I would imagine a Buddhist monk saying. Stick with me, I’ll curve back to this story.

On New Year’s Day my DH, Eric, and I made our way to the gym and ran our final run of a 36 day running streak challenge from Runner’s World magazine. My muscles were fatigued, I was feeling every run I’d done over the past 35 days, but I was motivated by the accomplishment of running 36 days in a row. We both planned to do a longer run, which meant my mind had a lot of time to wander and mull, and it did, I began thinking about the internal journey running had taken me on over the past two years.

Over the summer, when we were in the US on home leave and doing a lot of running on the gorgeous trails of rural Maryland and in Minneapolis, I started lovingly referring to myself as the “Speedy Turtle,” my pace is south of speedy and I’d struggled emotionally with that. But, with each run, I began to embrace my turtle self, I began to remind myself that I may not be the quickest but I never quit, my pace may be slow but I always put one foot in front of the other. I’d been calling myself a runner for some time but, until this summer, it felt not quite true, not because it wasn’t but because I was judging myself as not good enough to really be given the title of runner. Over the summer, I stopped paying so much attention to how quickly other people were running the trails and started focusing on my run, on how I felt about it, on what my body was doing. I was there, on the trails, several days a week, giving it my everything–and I finally started to realize that I should call myself a runner because it was true.

During the streak I started getting faster, at first without even realizing it, and then because I was pushing for it, and it was a revelation because of what was motivating me to do it. In the past I’d pushed myself to be faster because I thought it was something I needed to do, and every time I didn’t go “fast enough” I felt not good enough. During the streak I began to push myself to be faster because I wanted it, because it felt good to work my body harder than I had before, to shave seconds off previous times, to finish a run knowing I left everything on the road or the mill. And my arms fully encircled two truths …

The first is that I am a Speedy Turtle, and that’s just fine. All the feelings of not being good enough, not being fast enough, were causing damage to my self-esteem, and it was eating away at the absolute joy and release I find in running. A friend of mine who is also a runner summed it up perfectly when she wrote something along the lines of how comparing yourself to someone else is a form of self-violence, I read that and it resonated so strongly with me. Why should I chip away at this incredible gift I’d decided to give myself by comparing myself to others? Why should it matter to me how fast they are going? Everyone runs their own pace, everyone runs their own runs. These are things I had been saying to myself for two years but had never fully believed until I opened the door to them over the summer, and until the streak finally allowed me to let them in. Somewhere on that last run of the streak I thought of my dad and the Buddhist monks and it dawned on me, if you feel like a runner, then you are a runner. Don’t complicate it, don’t weigh it down, just run.

I learned a lot about myself during the streak, and I learned a lot about my tribe, my fellow runners. I belong to a FB group of ex-pat runners, many of whom were also running the streak. Every day I went to this group and read about the runs that people had taken, I read the words of encouragement from the streakers and from other runners in the group, and I was reminded of what a remarkable tribe runners are. Everyone is running their own run, very few are judging someone else’s run. This group is the only FB group I’ve ever belonged to where I’ve never seen one bit of negativity, or judgement, or snarky commenting–just support, words of wisdom, shared joy, and a common love of the run. I am so grateful for my worldwide tribe, and for their unconditional encouragement, for their humor, and for just knowing they are out there running.

So my second truth went along with my first, I must treat myself with the same encouragement and kindness that I treat other runners, and that I have received from other runners. I never find myself judging another runner, I just don’t do it because I love, in a pure and unconditional way, my fellow tribe members and it wouldn’t even occur to me to judge one of them. I finally realized that, as a member of that tribe, I should give myself the same level of respect and support I give to, and receive from, others. It sounds elementary but it took me a while to get there!

I am gifted many things through running, and one of my favorites is how it pushes me to venture outside my comfort zone emotionally and physically. This year Eric and I have signed up for a challenge called “Run the Edge,” where you challenge yourself to run and/or walk 2015 miles in 2015. Since there are two of us we’re splitting the challenge in two and logging running miles (if we were each doing it on our own we would log walking miles as well because, well, 2015 is a HUGE number). Even cut in half to 1,007.5 miles it’s pretty intimidating, definitely outside of my comfort zone, and will require a whole lot of determination. But I know, because of my journey towards self-acceptance, coupled with the love of my runner hubby and the support of my tribe, I will do it! Run on, my fellow runners, and continue to be the absolute rock stars that you are!

Done with the 36 day streak and holding the Mile 1 bib for Run the Edge!

I Made a Pretty! And I Really Needed to do That.

I’ve been living the perfect storm of “how best to frustrate and paralyze Heather” lately. Since we left Costa Rica, we have been dealing with some pretty jaw dropping monetary charges from our landlord, he gave the bill to the embassy and they, in turn, kindly handed a large portion of it to us. I don’t want to blog about that until it’s done and dusted, some things are best left unwritten until sorted, suffice it to say it’s been stressful.

Add that to the fact that our sweet labrador has been sick for about six months and all the tests, x-rays, ultrasounds, and blood work can’t seem to tell us what is wrong, the only thing we know is that her white blood count is through the roof, despite rounds of different antibiotics, and she has lost a scary amount of weight.

We’re trying to settle into a new country, one we love so far with a fantastic embassy that has been good to us, but there are always hiccups, especially with kids trying to transition into a new school, and especially when they loved their last school. So that’s had some tough aspects.

Then, almost two weeks ago, we got the news that my grandfather passed away, and that was a punch in my gut that sent me into a tailspin, I cannot articulate what he meant to me and how much I love him. I held it together while our daughter and I went home for his funeral, because, at that point, you just put one foot in front of the other and move forward. My saving grace was running, which is even more enjoyable in a place as beautiful and runner friendly as Minneapolis. On my runs I felt cleansed– in the rain, in the cold, just me, the changing leaves, and miles of trails.

Kenilworth Trails, Minneapolis

Kenilworth Trails, Minneapolis

Then, somewhere in the last minutes of my last run, something happened to my right foot, not sure what yet but I’ve been treating it very kindly. I’ve already gone through a stress fracture in my left foot, I’m hoping it’s not that because, been there, done that, it sucked hard. And Heather without the therapy that running provides is not remotely pretty, I’m shocked the kids haven’t taken their chances on the mean streets of Tegucigalpa at this point, poor babies. One of my closest friends put this on my FB wall the other day, she knows me well …

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I’ve held it together this week while Eric has been on a really poorly timed business trip (planned months ago and not something he could get out of) but I’ve just been going through the motions, if it wasn’t for the kids and our sick dog I’m thinking the odds are pretty good that some mornings I would have been happier to stay under my fluffy comforter and snuggle with our cats.

We’ve been in a temporary house since we arrived at post in August, which has been a little trying, and yesterday Eric told me we finally have a date for moving into our permanent one. Instead of feeling happy I just didn’t feel much, which is unusual. Then it started to feel overwhelming, just one more thing we had to do, which is also unusual because I love doing the whole making a house a home thing.

This afternoon I was limping around the house, feeling foggy and cranky, when I spotted the swath of fabric that I’d ordered to reupholster our dining room chairs because this is what they look like in their natural state …

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No. Just, no.

and I thought “what the hell.” I loaded up my staple gun, very wary of it because I have seen WAY to many horror movies and, also, I’m kind of a klutz. When I’d told Eric that I’d ordered a staple gun he looked a little horrified, I’m sure he thought I was going to end up stapling at least one finger to a chair but … BAM!

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Two waterproof, washable, happy chairs AND, total bonus, I still have all my fingers intact, which is pretty exciting! I think sometimes it’s good to get lost in simple things, get out of your brain and just be, and I’ve always enjoyed getting lost in a task. So maybe spending some time cutting and pulling and stapling was exactly what I needed to feel more like Heather, at least for a little bit. All the rest of it will still be there when I’m ready to go back to it but, for now, I’m going to enjoy my pretty chairs. I still have eight more to do, just waiting on the fabric to get here, so safe money is that I will end up in the ER before this project is done, I can nearly guarantee that Eric will start a betting pool if anyone is interested…

The Poetic Nomad: a Flash of Light, a Gift from My Daughter

I understand that wishes will not always come true

I say that if you believe in it, it will happen

I dream of lifting my roots, walking away from the damp soil that keeps me down

Those words are from a poem that our eleven year old daughter wrote last night for her English class. I think I’ve read it fifty times, the first few times my eyes filled with tears. I’ve been worried about her since we moved here, leaving SEAS, our beloved school in San Jose, was painful, is painful. In SEAS, she was on firm ground. There, she knew everyone, was friends with everyone, adored her teachers, and felt safe and loved. Here, everything is new, it doesn’t feel safe yet, and we’ve had more than a few tear filled conversations that consist of her telling me how much she hates it here and how she just wants to go back. “Please, mommy, can’t we just go back?” On the surface I am steadfast, under it my heart aches for her and wishes I could whisk her off to the place she wants to be.

It is trying to move to a new country, to settle into a new school, to make friends, get to know your teachers, get a new routine down. And she has started middle school, which is a substantial transition in and of itself. She’s straddling two worlds right now–one where she is still a kid and one where she is becoming a young adult, she would prefer to have her feet firmly planted in the place where she is still a kid. She was telling me that part of the difficulty she is having is because “all the girls in my grade act like they’re so grown up! But they’re really just kids! I don’t feel any different than I did when I was in fifth grade, I just want to be a kid!” Yes, be a kid, kid. Please, stay a kid for as long as you can, don’t be in a rush to grow up, this is best for you. But I gently remind her that everyone is different and that those girls are just trying to figure out who they are, we do that by exploring, putting on different masks, trying on different personas. It’s a normal part of growing up, and it exasperates her. She knows who she is, she knows what she likes, she just wants to be Aisleen.

And Aisleen is disorganized, which she comes by honestly–ahem. We’ve been working on different ways to help both of us be more organized, some things are working and that is a relief. But the lack of organization has meant some assignments were not being done or, if done, not being turned in. Which compounded her frustrations and grief, it’s hard enough to do everything she is doing but when you feel like you’re moving backwards frustrations loom larger.

Up until last night Aisleen had yet to truly be sparked by anything at school, but, last night, she sat at the computer and wrote enthusiastically, thinking out loud about words she could use, asking us for meanings and context, and I was thrilled! She loves to learn, she loves the challenge of school, she loves to delve into projects that engage her and help her grow. She had two assignments to finish, one was a poem imagining herself as a willow tree, and one was to write a diary entry from the perspective of a character in a book the class had just read.

When she finished the poem she first showed it to Eric, I could tell from his reaction that it was a special piece of writing. She handed it to me and I read, curled up on our sofa, the incense I had lit drifting past my nose, my glass of wine untouched as I sat completely entranced by her poem. My eyes filled with tears, I read it a second time, then a third. Then I placed the paper in my lap, looked up at my magnificent daughter, and said “wow.” She smiled and replied “did you like it?” I looked at her with complete astonishment and told her it was an incredible piece. Just, wow. Her smile grew larger before she went back to writing her diary entry. Eric and I looked at each other with disbelief on our faces. We have always known she is creatively gifted, she’s been weaving stories since we was old enough to talk, and then to write. She has notebooks full of characters that live in lands she has invented, their lives are rich and adventurous. This poem, and the diary entry that followed, showed us that she is coming into her own.

I Am, by Aisleen

I am as vast as the distance between galaxies, and as tall as the sky on clear summer days

I wonder if I will be able to graze with the buffalo that live on the plains

I hear the morning birds sing their sweet, calming song

I see the butterflies fluttering around the field of grass that surrounds me

I want to be free like the animals that sleep at my roots during the cold, harsh winter nights

I am as vast as the distance between galaxies, and as tall as the sky on clear summer days

I pretend to be free with the deer, the grass tickling my feet every step

I feel as if I will leave one day, never to return to the soil that keeps me from my dreams

I touch the wind that hits my face as a gust of wind floods over the farm

I worry that my beliefs of being free with the world will never come true

I cry when I think about being cut down, the advantage of leaving, never coming to be

I am as vast as the distance between galaxies, and as tall as the sky on clear summer days

I understand that wishes will not always come true

I say that if you believe in it, it will happen

I dream of lifting my roots, walking away from the damp soil that keeps me down

I try to make the dream come true, walking, flying, adventuring with the animals

I hope that I can explore the world, see the countries many miles from where I stand

I am as vast as the distance between galaxies, and as tall as the sky on clear summer days

Every parent has doubts; we doubt the disciplines we use, we worry if we shower them with too much praise or too little, we have those nagging thoughts tinkering in the back of our minds–are we doing right by our kids? What if we aren’t? What path are we setting them on? When you are the parent of nomads there is an additional layer of doubt–am I asking too much of them? Should we call an end to this and settle down? Which way is right for them? And then there are those flashes that tell you, yes, they are okay, more than okay, they are thriving, and those flashes are gifts. For me, this poem is one of those flashes. In it I see a girl who is wise beyond her years, a girl with roots who recognizes that there is much more to this world than what is outside her bedroom window, so much beauty to soak in, and she recognizes that the journey she is on is full of endless possibilities. I feel abundantly blessed that I will witness her walk her path and whether she becomes a writer, a teacher, a veterinarian, or a stay at home mom she is bound for greatness and her spirit, full of grace and recognizing no boundaries, will not settle for less.

Gramps: By Aisleen

I miss my Gooseberry. I miss the smell of her every night in bed, and how her sweet voice whispered in my ear telling me how much she loved me. She had the most angelic voice. Her words on our marriage day, “I do” echo around my head. Her pale, wrinkled skin, how my fingers felt when I touched it, I felt like if you offered me to stand there and touch her arm forever, I would accept it in a heartbeat. Her grey hair, oh how it shined all day, it would reflect of the sunlight, and would glisten in the brightness of the moon. Her smell was indescribable, how it would dance through my nostrils. I can still smell it in our marriage bed, in the pillow, in her suitcase. I could smell it whenever I went to her grave. Her eyes, oh how I miss them. Her beautiful eyes would sparkle whenever she looked at me, I could see my reflection, as if they were a stream in an evergreen forest. When we kissed, I could taste her cherry lip-gloss, I would hate to admit, but I put it on at night to make me feel like she is there with me, in bed, her arms wrapped around me. Oh, how I want to have her back with me, enjoying the pleasant breeze on the farm, the sun shining down on us.

I have a new dog named Huzza-Huzza. I named his after Gooseberry. Huzza-Huzza and I sit in the back of the car while my Chickabiddy drives around the fields. Driving over bumps, grass, and dirt. As I sit in the back I pet Huzza-Huzza, his short, silky fur under my fingers as I smoke my pipe. It reminds me of the trip Gooseberry , Chickabiddy, and I took, around the United States when we went to visit Chickabiddy’s mom. Sadly, I could not see her grave, since I had to stay back with Gooseberry.

Chickabiddy’s friends are coming over to stay with us for a little while. I have heard so much about them. They sound like magnificent friends to Salamanca. I have been staying up at night because of the delight. Ben sounds like a wonderful, smart boy, and how I am so happy that he and Salamanca are together, and Phoebe sounds like a blast, her life sounds like a roller coaster, excitement, hilarity, sadness, thoughtfulness, uncertainty, anger, but I shall stop with that for if I kept going it would be as long as a ray of sunshine coming from the rising sun reflecting on a beach. Apparently, her English teacher might also be coming. It warms my heart to see my Chickabiddy ricocheting off the walls of the house. Oh how I wish my Gooseberry could be here for such an exhilarating time.

My Ice Bucket Challenge Rant

So last night, while chatting with my DH, I realized how much something is bugging me, namely, this new anti-ice bucket challenge stuff I’m seeing and hearing. I know ice bucket challenges are filling up FB newsfeeds, and maybe people are over it but, damn, it’s raised a big buttload of money for the ALS Association so I just don’t get how people can think it’s meaningless or a stunt or any of the other words I’ve seen tossed about. As of August 27, $94.3 million dollars has been raised for ALS! In the same time period last year the amount raised was $2.7 million. Don’t you think that’s worth a little newsfeed clogging? How can you diminish those numbers and the good that is being done? And, more importantly, why would you? People are having fun and doing something good. To me, pushing against that is just cynical. There are WAY more important things to complain about.

I guess the other big pushback I’ve seen from folks is that this is wasting water. Water is scarce in many parts of the world but I’ve seen people who live in some of those parts handle this creatively (like by using a cup instead of a bucket) so it can be done. We live in Honduras, I used the water that came from our cistern (and that’s what I made my ice with as well). Cistern water is what comes out of our taps–apparently it’s fine for bathing and it’s cool to ingest it if you boil it for five minutes but it’s otherwise not supposed to go near your mouth. So it’s a good thing I held my breath when I did it! We’ve also lived in Guinea, West Africa, where our water came from an above ground cistern, including the water we drank. It went through a distiller before that happened so it was, technically, disease free. Which I reminded myself when I made the massive mistake of looking in the cistern and seeing our water with a thick coat of green slime on it. Yes, folks, that’s what we gave the kiddos, no wonder they’re so hearty. So, I’ve got to be honest, I get a little eye rollie (rolly? whatever) about being lectured on water usage by folks who have likely always had all the clean water they need. We’ve gone without water, we’ve lived with chronic water shortages, we’ve stared into empty cisterns and called for the water delivery guy, until the point when it was too dangerous for 18 Wheeler (that was his handle) to deliver water to us because of civil unrest. This, of course, is exactly when our well decided it wanted to throw a temper tantrum, which not only meant we had no water, it also meant that all our neighbors who lived in shacks around our house, for whom we turned on the outside tap twice daily so they wouldn’t have to hike miles for their water, had no water. And, yet, I still think this challenge is worth the water. Because let’s look at the reality of water waste in the US:

According to an article I will link to at the end of the blog (I’m on my iPad and too lazy to figure out the WordPress app bells and whistles in order to insert the link here), about 95% of the water that comes into a home goes down the drain. 95%! Over 1/4 of all drinkable water is used to flush toilets and older toilets can use about 3 gallons of water per flush, which is the amount of water many in other parts of the world survive on daily. We taught our kids the old, if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down saying for a reason. And I would like to know if people screaming about how much water is being wasted by the ice bucket challenge turn off the tap while they brush their teeth because, if not, you’re wasting about 4 gallons of water. How about when you shower? Do you get wet, turn off the taps, lather up, then turn them back on for your rinse? I don’t have the number on how much water you’re wasting if you don’t but I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be moaning about someone who dumped a bucket of water over their head for charity wasting water.

So, in my opinion, if you are really so worried about water being wasted by this massive fund raising effort then you can start making some changes in the way you use water in order to offset this, kind of like planting trees to reduce your carbon footprint. Then, once you’ve done that, you can let go of your cynicism and eye rolliness and have some fun while raising money for a very worthy cause. Problem done and dusted!

PS: Ive been told that some folks doing the challenge are using things like confetti and wine (oh, the humanity), which misses the point of the ice and cold water, which is to mimic, on that moment of impact, the way ALS makes a body feel. Also that some folks aren’t even mentioning ALS. I understand this kind of stuff happening is the nature of the beast, things like this grow arms and legs and whole bodies of their own. But I DO think losing sight of the original challenge diminishes the importance of the challenge, which is too bad.

water waste in the US

ALS Association

The Space Between AKA Crap, I’m Bored

The last few months have been chaotic, stressful, fun, and full of change. I’ve been so busy that it was all I could do to just squeeze everything in, and sometimes I didn’t. Now we’re at post, in our temporary house, living out of our welcome kit (who buys those damn comforters anyway, clearly someone without any nerve function in their skin because those bad boys are like sandpaper!), which means the house is pretty much empty. I feel kind of like a little ball of fur rolling along the tile floors, looking for stuff to do. For the first time in months I have time on my hands. Gobs and gobs of time, in fact. You’d think I’d be happy about this. And I’m not unhappy, I’m just bored. I haven’t reached the level of boredom where I do stupid shit because, as Eric just wrote to me “uh-oh, a bored Heather is like a curious cat!” I’ll force myself to be un-bored before I reach that level but, for now, meh, not so much. Ordinarily I’d set out on foot to explore our new city but that’s a no no in Tegucigalpa–going out would be filed under “stupid shit Heather does when she’s so bored that she’s going to start beating her head against the wall for stimulation”–so that’s out. And we have shiny new maps on our GPS so I can start driving when I work up the courage (I’m the only person I know who can get lost driving around a block so a GPS is a must). My desire to run, even if it has to be on the treadmill, will soon outweigh my cowardice about getting behind the wheel. But, for now I’m here.

This is what I think of as the space between. Between the insanity of an international move, the whirlwind of DC training and home leave, the mad rush of getting settled at post, and truly making this new city our home there exists a no man’s land for me. This is the space where I do a lot of wandering around the house, straightening things that aren’t crooked, talking to our dogs even more then usual, staring off in to space, and writing down all the things I can bake in the one loaf pan I have. I seem to have zero motivation to actually be productive, I’m not sure why and, honestly, I’m not even sure if I care that much. See? No motivation, I tell ya! The kids have started school, Eric has started at the embassy, I keep things rolling along at home and, right now, that doesn’t take much.

This is the part of the roller coaster where you’ve done all the fun twists and turns, felt like you we’re going to hurl a couple of time, maybe screamed a bit, thought “why the hell am I on this thing????” and then BOOM! That hard brake at the end before you pull back onto the platform, moving slowly to the spot where you get off the ride and figure out which one you want to conquer next. For now, I’m just coasting, sitting in my little roller coaster car, twiddling my thumbs, waiting for the next bit.

Maybe I’ll read a magazine. Maybe I’ll brush a cat. Oh, look, it’s 11:27, only 6 more hours till I can get dinner started. Maybe I’ll take a nap …

An American Hero and the Journey of a Lifetime

My grandfather is my hero, I straight up, no holds barred, adore him completely. Everyone who knows him knows that he is a hero, not only because he served in WWII and in Korea, but because of the way he served–with valor, determination, and by putting the well being of his fellow soldiers above his own time and again. He’s also my hero because, through all the battles and the horror, he never lost his kindness and compassion, his gentle nature and goodness. These things are incredible, and some of the strongest memories I have from childhood are sitting and listening to his stories about WWII, especially about D Day. From the moment it all began … when he jumped off the boat and was so top heavy with gear that he flipped upside down in the water, unable to right himself and feeling fairly certain he was going to drown, he felt someone cut his heavy baggage off and help right him, that person was his Sergeant, Sergeant John Weaver. To later on the beach, after his Sergeant had been shot. My Da had risked his life to find a medic for the Sergeant but, in the end, he couldn’t be saved, and Da wouldn’t leave his Sergeant, so amongst the gunfire and the blood, Da stayed until his Sergeant passed, and then he fought on. This is my Da, an American hero

I.L.Harper-Holland-1944 Liam-Da-WWII

 

So much more could be written about everything he experienced during WWII, everything his young wife who waited for him experienced, and I kind of touched on it here, but today, on the 70th anniversary of D Day, I’d like to focus on a trip we all took last May to Normandy, France. My grandfather was granted a wish by a non-profit that gives back to seniors for everything they have given to us called Wish of a Lifetime. His wish was to take his oldest great-grandson, my Liam, to Omaha Beach. Liam is the only child I know who has spent more time than I did listening to Da’s stories about WWII and, not surprisingly, Da is his hero as well. Never in a million years did we think this wish would be granted because it would be such a big undertaking, but the foundation decided it had to be done (you can learn more about the details here) and we decided we had to go as a family. We asked the foundation to please give Liam’s plane ticket to my Nana, we would pay for Liam’s ticket and then all meet in Paris to make our way to Normandy. The foundation was incredible in helping to organize everything, and, eventually, this huge thing happened and we ended up in this minivan–that’s the seven of us with two walkers about to drive from Paris to Normandy, we were a bit scrunched!

Dublin, France, Vista 019

We arrived in Normandy, decided to grab some lunch after we got Nana and Da checked into their hotel, and what should have been an easy breezy bite to eat ended up in a trip to hospital for my Nana. All the travel fatigue, and the cobblestone streets, caused a bad fall but , thankfully, we were very near to a hospital. Ultimately Nana, while very bruised and bloodied, was given a clean bill of health from the doctors but they wanted her to spend the night so they could observe her. Eric, my husband, had been the one who was back with her while we sat in the waiting room because they only allowed one person at a time with the patient and he speaks French. Before we left he talked the staff into letting me bring my Da back to see Nana. The memory of the two of them when they greeted each other is still so strong, Da reached out and took Nana’s hand, his face absolutely lit up with love, they spoke, she patted his hand, he leaned over and kissed her cheek. The love my grandparents have for each other, after decades together, is simply amazing and they are never happier than when they are together.

It was decided that Da would come back to our B & B with us rather than stay in the hotel on his own, and the very nice B & B owner who arranged for him to stay in the one room that was on the ground floor, and the very nice people who had originally been in that room and gladly moved upstairs to accommodate Da, will always have a place in our hearts. Eric and I decided that one of us should stay with Da, especially since the rooms we’d reserved were in a different building of the B & B, and Eric volunteered. So my 6’4 husband, who loves my grandparents as if they were his own, spent the night on the small couch outside Da’s room and, before daybreak, quietly went into Da’s room to check on him and to make sure he was there when Da woke up so he could help him get ready. Have I mentioned how much I love my husband? I stayed with our exhausted children in their room

Dublin, France, Vista 076

The next morning we had breakfast with Da and, by the way, if you ever find yourself in Normandy …

Dublin, France, Vista 078

 

do stay at La Ferme Du Pressoir B & B, it’s spectacular

And we still talk about how scrumptious the breakfasts were

Dublin, France, Vista 077

 

 

Then we started our whirlwind of a day, which included a ceremony in Saint Lo where there is a church that has been turned into a museum dedicated to the American soldiers who helped to liberate France, the mayor of Saint Lo presented my Da with a certificate of thanks and granted him honorary citizenship of Saint Lo.

Dublin, France, Vista 105

We also visited the church where the body of Major Howie, my Da’s Major who was killed, was placed …

 

and the children got to lay down in hedgerows and learn all about the important part the rows played in the battles.

 

We stopped for lunch with our wonderful tour guide, Dale Booth

Da talking to my daughter, Aisleen (can you tell by the look on her face that it was a very full day?)

Da talking to my daughter, Aisleen (can you tell by the look on her face that it was a very full day?)

 

Somewhere in the midst of that Eric was able to go to the hospital and get Nana checked out so she could join us for the rest of the tour, and we continued on to Omaha Beach, which was a pretty incredible experience. To finally be at this place we’d been hearing about for so many years, and to be there with Nana and Da, is something I won’t even try to put into words because words just can’t contain it. We sat there, listening to Dale talk about the battle of D Day, finally seeing where the men had landed, where the Germans had been with their guns, finally seeing the beach that had shaped so many people in so many ways. Our youngest, who was six, had wandered off to play on the beach. I watched him dig his fingers into the sand, jump over puddles of water, search for shells and rocks, and I was thinking of how this beautiful, peaceful beach had seen so much carnage, how so many men had lost their lives here; and there was my baby, playing  in the sunshine on this almost mythical beach. Omaha beach, once a place of horror, was now a place of joy where children were free to run.

Riley on Omaha Beach

Riley on Omaha Beach

 

Da, Eric, and Liam listening to Dale talk about the battle.

Da, Eric, and Liam listening to Dale talk about the battle.

 

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

 

Our day drew to a close in a very emotional visit to Normandy’s American Cemetery, where my grandparents took part in the lowering of the flags

Dublin, France, Vista 167

 

After the ceremony we were chatting about the day, making sure Nana and Da were holding up okay, when an American approached Da and asked if he could shake his hand, Da held out his hand and the man thanked him for his service, Da was visibly touched. One by one, surrounded by the silence of this sacred cemetery, American tourists and French citizens came up to Da to shake his hand and speak quietly to him–“thank you for your sacrifice,” “thank you for helping to liberate my country,” “thank you for being part of the greatest generation.” My children and I had eyes that were filled with tears at this outpouring of love and respect. A reporter came up to us and asked if she could interview Da and Liam, Liam had a hard time keeping it together because he was so emotional but he explained it was because this was such a dream come true for him, to be in Normandy with his great-grandfather, who was his hero.

Dublin, France, Vista 178

Then he took a few minutes on his own to pay his respect to the men who had made the ultimate sacrifice

Dublin, France, Vista 182

For so long, men who served in WWII felt that they couldn’t talk about what they experienced because, they believed, nobody cared, I’d heard this from men that Da had served with. Many years have passed since the time when Da could no longer hold his stories and experiences inside, I was lucky enough to be there when he decided he needed to start talking about it, and Da has always known that his family cares deeply about what happened in WWII and, specifically, on D Day; each stranger who expressed their thanks and respect to Da showed him that we are not alone in caring and in being grateful and we, in turn, were grateful for their kindness and for helping to make this journey of a lifetime complete.

 

From Da, on the 70th anniversary of D Day: “70 years ago I, with a small detachment of men from the 111th FA BN of the 29th Div. landed on Omaha Beach on the Normandy Coast. We were attached to the 1116th Inf. Bn. of the 29th Division and came in with the 2nd Wave at 7:30 in the morning. We faced German firepower, shrapnel, land mines, barbed wire, Tetrahedrons. I lost my BN commander, Thornton Mullins, my Sgt., John Brown Weaver, among others on that beach that day. To them and my comrades who survived D Day, my heart has been with you since that day. We did the job we had been trained for and did it well. ’29 Let’s GO’.”

 

SEAS, a Tiny but Mighty School

Every nomadic family knows that one of the hardest things about moving every few years is finding the right school for the kids. So many questions go with this search, so much stress and worry. Will they be academically challenged? Will they fit in? Will the staff nurture them emotionally? Will they be safe? Will they be expected to stuff themselves into a box or will they be allowed to find their own path? It weighs on a momma.

We have three children, each with their own special gifts and qualities, all operate above grade level in many subjects, one operates well above grade level in all subjects, and they have vibrant personalities that need to be allowed to fly free. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not trouble makers, each of them has always been the kids that teachers want in their classroom–they’re leaders, thoughtful and respectful to their peers and their teachers. But they all have large personalities and one of my priorities is to find a school where they will not be expected to minimize themselves in order to fit in.

Our first school here was very mixed for us. Our daughter was badly bullied (which I blogged about here) by a girl in our neighborhood who also went to the same school as our kids. Long story short, months of trying to get the behavior dealt with on the bus and in school was fruitless and we knew our only option was to find a different school. I was having coffee with a friend, talking to her about the bullying, and she suggested that I check out the tiny school her kids went to, so one morning our daughter and I paid SEAS a visit, after five minutes I said to myself “this is it, this is the school for her.” Our daughter, who had been so emotionally bruised and battered, had transformed from an incredibly extroverted, vibrant, joyful child into a shy child, mistrustful of strangers. I was pleasantly surprised when she said she wanted to spend the day at the school, when I picked her up that afternoon she bounded up to me and said “Momma! I made 20 friends today!”  This was the girl who, only the week before, I’d seen wandering the perimeter of the playground of her (now) old school, head down, earphones in–that was a sight that tore at my heart because it just was not who she was. Two days after starting at SEAS, her new school, she was back to hula hooping around the house and chattering non-stop. Academically she’d struggled, for the first time ever, at the first school, her grades were plummeting. She was so lost in the emotional turmoil of the bullying that she couldn’t soar academically. At SEAS she took off like a shot, making such rapid improvement that it was almost shocking to her teachers. We’d gotten our daughter back, SEAS gave us our daughter back. As a mother I have found very few things more painful than watching one of my children suffer, SEAS put an end to that suffering and showed Aisleen that she could trust again, that she was safe again, that she didn’t have to shrink into the background anymore, she could soar and be her colorful, imaginative, dynamic self. I really will never be able to put into words how grateful I am for such an profound gift, the gift of helping to bring our child back to herself.

Our youngest did well academically (though he was operating at a higher level than the other kids in his class and I was frustrated by what I saw as him having to sit in a box that he’d outgrown), fit into his classroom, had lots of friends, but I began to suspect that the kids were allowed to be very rough on the playground when the first words we heard him speak in Spanish were “ayuda me,” help me! And my gentle boy, who at his school in Virginia we’d been told was the most well-mannered and respectful child they’d ever had, became very rough and tumble, beyond what I would consider to just be part of growing up, and kind of rude which, if you’ve ever met Riley, you know is the opposite of who he is. Yep, time to switch him.

Then there was our oldest, who is now 13. When we moved here he was given a series of standardized tests and he scored pretty much off the charts so the school recommended he skip fifth grade and go right into sixth. We thought long and hard, sought advice, weighed pros and cons, and decided to go ahead and do it. He’s always been mature for his age, never has had problems making friends, and school was a breeze for him from day one so, sure, let’s challenge him more. Worst. Mistake. Ever. During our first parent teacher meetings his math teacher told us he was really struggling, which we knew because doing homework with him was a hair-pulling nightmare. We told her that we felt it was probably because he’d missed out on some pretty fundamental stuff since he skipped a grade, her response was “he skipped a grade?” I looked at my husband with my “are you freaking kidding me???” face. The school had never told his teachers that he’d skipped fifth grade, his math teacher had no idea he’d never been taught division. Sixth grade was a struggle but he ended up getting good grades and really rising to the occasion. He’d also made a lot of friends and was enjoying playing oboe in the school band so, cool, we decided he should stay where he was. Second. Worst. Mistake. Ever.

Seventh grade was an absolute bust that ended up in a crisis meeting with his teachers and the director of the middle school, the theme of which is “how can we stop Liam from tanking?” The most frustrating thing to us as parents was that he’d been tanking for a good couple of weeks and until I got a call from his science teacher expressing her concern at his rapid downhill movement I had no idea. His grades were still good but over the course of about three weeks he’d gone into a freefall–utterly overwhelmed academically and clueless how to fix it and, for the first time ever, he didn’t come to one of us about it because, he later told us, he felt like a failure. We decided he needed a smaller school, one that could tailor a learning plan to help him excel in the areas he was strongest in and teach him some of the fundamentals he missed out on when he skipped fifth grade, and one that would help him rediscover his love of learning; he needed SEAS. The school wouldn’t refund his tuition in order to allow us to switch him immediately so we hired a tutor who would work with him on organizational skills and help make sure things were getting done. Luckily, the tutor was his wonderful science teacher who he really liked and who was someone I trusted completely to help him. He ended up pulling his fat out of the fire and, in fact, finishing quite strong in the subjects he’d been struggling with the most. Now, at SEAS, his academic needs are nurtured, and the boy who could barely write a research paper last year is, in social science, history, and English, working at a college level. And far above grade level in math, a subject he came close to failing last year. It’s kind of incredible. And I kind of want to drive over to his old school and shout at the top of my lungs “IN YOUR FACE!”

So, all three kids together in the same tiny school. This school really is more like an extended family, it’s a place where I know my children are safe and loved, challenged and driven, and a place where they are held to the highest of standards academically and behaviorally. No excuses accepted, ever. Consequently, each of our children has learned to take so much responsibility for their own education, I’m kind of blown away. At SEAS our older children have been taught all the fundamentals they need to move on–Aisleen to middle school and Liam to high school. How to research and write a paper, and properly document the research? Not a problem. Math at grade level? Pfffft, too easy, they’re way beyond it. Science? Aisleen was asked by her teacher last year to teach the kids Newton’s laws of physics because, after having been taught the first one, she’d come home and learned and researched them all. Complete with an experiment made up of her little brother and a swinging hammock, luckily nobody was hurt. Also, don’t ask them about chemistry unless you’re prepared to sit for a good, long while. And did you know that Pachelbel’s Canon and Green Day’s song “Basket Case” do this … yea, neither did I until my kids told me (they learned it in Music Appreciation).

Our youngest came back from being kind of angry and rough (like he had to live on the defensive) to his incredibly sweet, loving, thoughtful self in no time once he started at SEAS. This is the child who always greets me with a resounding “Mommy!” and a huge hug, who will always apologize to our dogs if he bumps into them while tearing around the house (complete with that winning hug), who can charm the socks off even the hardest of hearts, and who is just plain old fun to be around. Some of that had been lost at his old school, SEAS let him be himself again, he no longer had to play a child’s version of “survival of the fittest.” Just like the other two, he excels academically, that box he was forced into in his old school fell away immediately. He is in second grade but reads at least at a fourth grade level, can do complicated addition and subtraction in his head (he often comes up to me and says “mommy, write down a hard math problem for me, please!” I haven’t been able to stump him yet), and recently finished a research paper on Leif Erikson. He has also started speaking Spanish at home, this crazy mix of one sentence in English, the next in Spanish, back to English, then Spanish. I love it! His teachers at SEAS recognized immediately what he needed academically, over the past two years I haven’t spent a day worrying about having his needs met. And each one of them, pretty soon after they started teaching him, came up to me with this melty look on their faces saying “oh my gosh, Riley is so sweet …” I know, my face looks like that when I talk about him too. Or when I’m around him. Or when I’m thinking of him. Yes, the child has me tightly wound round his finger.

So, I have been at an absolute loss for how to say thank you to SEAS for being exactly what my children need, for reinvigorating in each of them their natural love for learning, for giving me so much peace of mind. The short answer is that I can’t. I can never say thank you enough, I can never properly put into words my deep gratitude, or express how utterly blessed we have been to be part of this amazing, special school for 2 1/2 years. I will never be able to say how much we are going to miss them, or how devoted we are to this tiny school. This was the only way I could think of to come close to expressing my thanks and to putting into words how much SEAS has meant to our family. We love you, SEAS!

ps. If you check out the website for the school, on the homepage, that’s our oldest with the youngest son of the school’s director/owners on his back (one of the things we love about SEAS is the vast age range of the students because it gives the older ones a chance to mentor and the younger ones a chance to connect with older kids), our youngest with his face buried in a book, and our beautiful daughter in the blue shirt, looking at the camera.

pps. If anyone would like to know which school was the one our kids went to initially, please feel free to contact me. I didn’t name them because I didn’t want this to be about them, I wanted it to be about SEAS.

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