On December 19, 2021, I was standing in our bedroom in Douglas, Alaska, when my dad called to tell us he’d had a seizure. Subsequent tests revealed cancer. He’d been unable to find words when he was speaking, and the friend to whom he had been speaking had called for an ambulance.
As we would already be in California after Christmas, we decided that would be a good time for me to fly to Wisconsin and check in over New Year’s Eve. We had a nice, late night talking with my dad and brother. The next morning my mom called early: my grandma, her mom, couldn’t breathe and was asking for me.
I’d flown to Wisconsin to check in on my dad, but my brother and I spent that cold, quiet holiday weekend in the hospital with our mom and grandma, telling stories, listening to chill music, and drinking coffee.
An hour after I’d arrived back at my in-laws’ house in California, she was gone, and I was devastated. I hadn’t realized I wasn’t ready to let her go until she had already slipped away. But… I’d been there.
Even before all of this happened, we had been having a little bit of a hard time in Juneau. Our house was getting too small. On our best days we would talk about adding on to it or getting a separate space for Jacob to work. It almost never stopped raining, which did have its own mystique. But I was sick of it.
I had been talking to Jacob about how I was ready to move on from the mountain town when we got the call from my dad. Even when I had been much further away, I had never felt so far away or helpless as I had after receiving that news.
We hadn’t necessarily decided to make a beeline for Oshkosh. Now, we had a reason: to be around people again. Especially after COVID. Especially having just lost a main family member. I billed the move of our lives this way to mine, and, even though at least half of us were skeptical… we went for it.
We’d moved to Juneau, Alaska, from Bonn, Germany, when our daughter Imogen, now six, was two months old, making Alaska our kids’ only home until now.
And then, from the first end table to the last mattress, we dismantled it, shipping to my brother and sister-in-law what we’d keep, giving away all the rest of our things, and our fish, selling our cars and eventually our house. That part was actually easier than I thought it’d be.
On March 18, 2022, I left Alaska with my own family and made my way back to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the place of my birth.
We had to make one stop on the way: in Kona, Hawaii, with seven 50-lb. totes containing the stuff we’d needed until the last minute and all the leftover stuff. (The stuff! I don’t even have a lot!) We rolled into Wisconsin at the end of March, a few days before my birthday. It’s been (almost) a year.
It’s only been a year but it’s also been a whirlwind of a year, the ins and outs of which I am only now beginning to process. I still can’t think about the kids saying goodbye to our crew on 5th Street. But we were able to stay at some friends’ house and travel with them to their family place on the Big Island of Hawaii, which we’d had planned before the move. It was good that it fit in between places.
I finished my MAT (Master of Arts in Teaching program) from Alaska, Hawaii, and Wisconsin, time zones be damned. We all got COVID upon arrival in Wisconsin. My mom and I went to Georgia for more days than I’d ever been away from my kids. From my Aunt Dana’s front porch, I started applying for high school teaching jobs in Wisconsin; I got one, in Oshkosh.
During the eight-ish weeks we were staying next door to my dad’s in a gracious, traveling neighbor’s house, Imogen and Ansel each successfully finished the year at new schools, we went for walks by the pond, caught turtles, snakes, and frogs, played in the creek, and took supper over to my dad most nights.
We celebrated dad’s 75th birthday with family and friends on June 2nd, the last day of the school year, and we also had a beautiful service with my aunt and cousins for Nana (“Gigi”), which did offer some closure, but didn’t make it any easier to not have her here to listen and talk to and be around. As grateful as I am that my kids have their own grandparents, it’s weird to be in this town with none of my own anymore.
We were able to move into our house on Knapp Street the Monday after Gigi’s memorial. Our house immediately felt like home to me. The first night it was ours, I turned on the country radio and washed every inch of the original wood floors. Around Christmas time, Imogen told me she was starting to like it here. This past week, she told me she is starting to like it better than our old house. It’s been a year.
Summer in Wisconsin is for cabins and lakes, and we were able to take part in a lot of that fun in Wautoma, Waupaca, Lake Wandawega, Manitowish Waters, and at my dad’s own cabin in Crivitz (twice). Family and friends visited from Florida, Minnesota, Illinois, and Germany… Jacob and I even made it to Driftless Music Gardens to see Charlie Parr and Trampled by Turtles in concert.
So this has the breezy tone of someone who has things all dialed in… but I do not. Dad is doing well. But there are so many aspects to his care, to the care Imogen and Ansel need with their friends and activities, to the care my job requires, itself a high learning curve. There is not much at the end of the day. I know I need to put down my phone and pick up my running shoes, and make some homemade dinners.
I was forty when I had Ansel: something my students would refer to as a “me decision,” it might have something to do with why I cannot do the things I know I need, except, apparently, yoga and the occasional loaf of bread. As it is the last day before spring break and I am a high school teacher, let’s allow for a bit of grace around the edges as well: even the “just teacher”-teachers are at their breaking point.
But since I’m also the lady who jams earplugs as far as they go into my ears, and sleeps in the guest room if Jacob comes to bed one minute after 11:00 pm and dares to turn on his bedside lamp… I can’t imagine who I would be at this point had I not had the time to fully inhabit myself in Istanbul, in Africa, in Greece in my twenties, etc., and would not have had all of that balancing on the other side of this husk.
This has been a long-winded way to say we were there and now we are here. We may, at some point, go somewhere else. And we’ll be fine, again, because we’ll do it together. But for now we are here. Our house, as already stated, is beautiful. We want to fix up the basement a little. The kids have friends and are excited about summer and we have a black lab puppy and two kitties and a bunny named Stan.
And my dad is here. Fifteen months ago, I was given a reason to believe he may not be.
We handed in Imogen’s Kindergarten registration packet today for August 19th (!) start at Sayeik: Gastineau Community School in Douglas. She misses the Sept. 1 cutoff by less than two weeks so we applied for early admittance. When a kid should start school is of course a divisive topic as there are clear cons and clear pros to both early- and late-starts; we took the decision seriously.
Preschool is a developmentally special time for kids and I didn’t feel there was any rush, especially now that Imogen is happy in her new class: she moved to the other classroom at her school two weeks ago and will have only been there a month when she says goodbye to her teacher, who has already messaged us she’ll be “sad.” (I believe her!)
As always, this rambly post of mine helps me to make sense of what has happened/is happening and someone else is in the same boat as me. So here is what led us to scan that registration packet in, and it’s okay if you disagree/feel differently/have questions/want to yell at me, because this is what we are doing and why we are doing it.
The counselor who interviewed her told us Imogen is about where Kindergarteners are halfway through the school year in terms off writing, letters, listening comprehension, story telling, imaginative play, etc. So we are not worried about her struggling in that regard… furthermore, there is the risk that she would be bored/not challenged/have to find other, not-as-productive outlets for her brain.
We have heard anecdotally that there are no advantages to being the youngest/least experienced kid in a class; it is also proven that people learn by participating in activities with “more competent others” who provide support for part of the task that they cannot yet do (Thank you Reading Apprenticeship Framework!), which also applies to social-emotional stuff and big kids having been around school, etc.
Imogen has had fun at preschool and has met some good friends there and had some wonderful teachers, but we didn’t believe another year there would be as challenging or as fun or as stimulating for her as going to “big school” would be. Not the least important, she really wants to go, she wants to ride the yellow bus, and, I might be imagining it, but she seems up to the challenge already.
She asks me when Robbie, her baby in the front carry, will grow up. “Oh, you’ll just know,” I start out all sing-song-y, and pretty soon my 4.5-year-old is consoling me, telling me exactly what her house looks like so I can come there when she gets one. (It’s on Blueberry Hills!)
So now my first baby is on the brink of biggirldom and I am a blubbering mess living inside a cliche. For some reason I was reading reviews of Pottery Barn kids, over-the-top bedding, and this mom was so happy she was able to get hers in time to take it to the dorm, and had a picture of her daughter’s bed and I was just like that is a picture of the last time she made her daughter’s bed!
It may be a little overstated; you obviously don’t say goodbye to your kid when they get on the bus for kindergarten. But I do believe they get off the bus a little different than when they got on, and that that’s a good thing. I’ve also been reminded with the help of Jacob who had a little different school experience than I did, that schools are institutions, and the sooner she starts, the sooner she’ll be free.
I’m sure I could go on and on about this topic but I’ll leave it here for now: we had a wonderful weekend with new friends and old, and after bathing a particularly grubby kid that kid put shorts on to go play soccer with our 8-year-old neighbor, who is going into third grade at the same school, and was waiting outside the door.
I’m not sure I knew exactly how it was going to go until, watching from the window after straightening up her room, hearing them laugh and giggle and play: they’ll be on the same bus.
UPDATE: The neighbor (now nine) goes to a different school! But so far Imogen says her own is “great.”
I’ve had eight counseling sessions, and I would like to share what I’ve learned.
Angrily blowing up when when something little goes wrong is usually a secondary emotion to stress or sadness.
Months of isolation have made it more important than ever to check in with one another.
If anger or resentment is felt, it is possible that “big” response belongs elsewhere; may be a reflection of something deeper (a side benefit of this outlook is it can make it easier to deal with the situation at hand).
A traumatic event can freeze/fragment/fracture time in a way that does not allow access to logic and reason as we know it; “okay-ness,” like spring after winter, eventually does blossom.
One ought to notice stress being alleviated, as there is a lot of inertia in physical stress; in “anchoring” oneself, one is less likely to be pushed around by stressors.
When the nervous system goes into fight or flight mode if affects physiology.
Make space for frustration, anger, confusion, and powerlessness; it takes too much strength to hold those all back.
Don’t let yourself be pushed or pulled around by negative energy.
It’s okay to be mad, sad, proud… all are working together as a team to make you someone different and special.
If you get “keyed up,” notice it with less “efforting: “any extra thing is a threat, and you have enough safety.
Learn capacity and tolerance.
Give space and grace.
If you feel overstretched, give yourself or someone else a hug.
There were a couple incidents dealt with piecemeal, and at the risk of embarrassing her or anyone involved who may happen across this I will just say the truth came out that she was physically threatened to act out and she complied against her own judgment.
After it had been going on for two weeks, she was able to tell us what was going on, who was involved, what they had asked her to do, what they told her would happen if she didn’t. We listened to her, and she is LIGHTER.
We talked to her teacher, who was either unaware or unwilling to engage, or both, so we spoke with the school’s Executive Director, who told us they’ve known about the problem for weeks. I wish Imogen hadn’t had to go through it alone.
She was carrying the burden of would happen to her if she didn’t do what they asked her to do, and worried she’d getting in trouble if she did do it. My advice to her (take it) was for every mean kid there is always a nice one she may not even see.
“She will come through it even stronger than before,” her dad says and I hope he’s right. After such a long winter, one ought not have to work so hard to see the spring. And, as though it needed to be said, four is a little young to have to be dealing with this.
Tuesday I got to model for Mary’s portrait series at her gallery! We’d been planning it for a long time and it was an awesome experience. Not hard, just cool. Some of the paintings and drawings were amazing, including Mary’s, of course.
A plaster cast and Motorola smartphone were unlikely casualties of a cross-country cousin in-bath videoconference Wednesday. A surprise gift from her aunt on Wednesday afternoon prompted Imogen Charlotte, 4, of Douglas, Alaska, to call her cousin, Stevie Jean, 5, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
The girls “hang out” on video chat often, so it was understandable that when Stevie headed for her bath, Imogen requested to take one too. Imogen broke her leg sledding on Feb. 27, so mom managed her waterproof cast cover while she grabbed her sunglasses and Barbie from Aunt Christina.
Everything was going great until Ansel Emmett, 2 1/2, wearing a Batman suit he’d also just received in the mail after preschool, stated he needed gloves. Gloves were found and rice was put on the stove, during which time the girls could be heard giggling.
As it would happen, Imogen had been ‘washing the ceiling’ (the floor, and, by extension, the phone) with a cup of water. It was noticed the valve on the cast cover had come open and the cover had water sloshing in it only once we had hung up the phone.
“Stevie was sad our bath was over, so I licked the phone and that cheered her up,” said Imogen, who has an appointment to get her damp cast replaced after school today. The bath was over, but not before a LOT of fun and laughs were had between the cousins, who live 2,900 miles apart and see each other in person once a year, and not at all in 2020.
The fate of the smartphone, a 2016 Motorola which was a wedding gift from Jacob’s friends, is not yet clear, but, having recently been adorned with a “Daddy Shark” sticker, its fate in the hands of his family seemed appropriate.
Everyone agrees there should be more cross-country cousin baths in the future.
The year 2020 was when I started writing poems again. In November 2019, during the only two nights I have ever been without my kids, I went to a two-night writers’ retreat at the Shrine of St. Therese and met a group of women who helped me figure out what I wanted to say, and with whom I formed a writers’ group which is still going strong, meeting monthly.
My first poem since I became a mom ran in April. It’s about Imogen’s birth by emergency Caesarean, which was not what I had planned. The process of writing it showed me that I gained whatever power I’d presumed to have lost when the birth went another way by healing myself, my daughter beside me. After four years of trying to get the poem published, when I changed the title to include her, it was accepted immediately.
Also in April, my not-so-secret favorite month of the year, a poem of mine, “Christmas Girl,” about navigating toddlerdom, was published on bus #6660 in Juneau. I haven’t seen it, but it drove past me again today! Alaska Women Speak picked up two of my COVIDiaries-19 blog posts, and the piece I wrote about our retaining wall is meant to run in Ruminate yet this month. They even pay!
Aside from my artistic renaissance, 2020 has mostly been about improving the walls I have tried to keep my kids from climbing. Even now when I look at the picture of us holding the SOLD sign in February 2018, I can see so many things we’ve done: shored up and painted the deck, had the retaining wall and stairs replaced, updated both bathrooms, and replaced doors, just to name a few.
As far as work life is concerned, I’m going back January 11th for my second year in House Records at the Alaska State Legislature. I still can’t believe I had the perfect pandemic job, working from home for DW for five years, and lost it two months before the pandemic, at which point I got kind of a cool job… which then became remote. This year will start 75% remote as well.
So the biggest change yet for our family is coming as the kids are going to be out in the world, at their new preschool which emphasizes putting things away, TOGETHER, while Jacob and I toil away and he answers my myriad of computer-related questions. But that’s 2021: I’m getting ahead of myself; tomorrow is Christmas Eve and we still have to go shopping.
In 2020 I got to spend seven months as JUST a mom. The last two days culminated in making a cardboard rocket, which… looks like it was made by us. So far the kids have been to the swimming planet, the chocolate planet, the moon, and other places they can and can’t go. I hope they’ve got their wits about them and remember their manners. Fly off, little birdies.
See you all in 2021, here or, infinitely better, in person.
We cancelled our trip five days ago. Postponed being the preferable word. What is there to say? We’ve already been unsure, indecisive, mad, sad, disappointed, and, finally, resigned. When we broke the news, Imogen just said “But I want to see my grandparents!!”
And then we told her we could get our Christmas tree earlier, and that she’d have more time at preschool, and she came out okay, though she did try to erase with a dish towel the word “TRIP” she’d written in green magic marker on her calendar.
The third wave is upon us, and Winnebago County, where my side of the family all live, is currently experiencing a severe outbreak. All gatherings with folks outside one’s immediate household ought to be avoided.
On the California side, Sonoma County is faring better, but only a little. Everyone on both side had agreed to test the week before our arrival and hang out with just us. It wasn’t enough. In the end, we could have done our trip and been fine, it’s even likely.
But so was it possible that someone in our family would have contracted the virus and gotten sick during the time we were there or because of our visit. Taking that chance, and becoming part of the problem, in the end, was not something with which we felt comfortable.
It’s supposed to be sunny and mid-sixties our whole week in California, no rain: that’s beach weather for these Juneau kids who had already been granted permission to go barefoot with Gramps, who had even fixed up bikes for both kids.
On the Wisconsin side, we un-planned a trip to our cabin up north and to our timeshare in the Dells, sledding, swimming, water slides, as well as celebrations at my dad’s, my brother’s, and my mom’s. My brother and I had been prepared to blow our kids’ minds.
It is not too productive for Jacob and I to go too far down these paths of what would have been. We had a Thanksgiving to put together, and tomorrow starts Christmas, our own. For today, we found high bush cranberries, the sun was shining on the mountains, the sky blue.
Everything Jacob and I made turned out great. Imogen said Grandpa Dusty told her her bike would be waiting for her in California. Of course, it will, but this pandemic is actually affecting our kids’ lives, and we are not okay with that.
Preparing to do our big travel “triangle” (Alaska to California to Wisconsin and back) isn’t quite as simple as I’d made it seem in my last post, a Norman Rockwell-esque portrait of us all packing one duffel. This morning, Ansel woke me up at six. I switched on the radio in our still-waking-up kitchen. They’re talking about refrigerated trucks again. Morguemobiles.
Of all the states, it had to be Wisconsin. My home state is at capacity, as though it’s a Hootie and the Blowfish concert and not peoples’ actual lives and deaths about which they’re speaking. “But how many people have actually died from COVID?” My dad asks. Two hundred and fifty-two thousand. In this country. So far.
The past few days’ cold, relentless wind making whitecaps on the channel, snapping loose boats from their moorings, seems to have been testing me. Even my only fall decorations, these little crocheted pumpkins, my nod to the spiced-latte side of fall, seem to be a chore to move out of the way for each cobbled-together dinner.
How many things in life are meant to cause happiness but actually stir up misery? In summer I shoved the pumpkins further back in the closet as fall was some distant idea. Of course they came out eventually with the ramping-up of Halloween. We bought in, minus the friends with whom we would have gone trick-or-treating, plus buckets and buckets of rain.
We dragged the kids along in a downpour to the neighbors’ clothes- and zip-lined candy setups. Imogen, who had been trying to decide what to dress up as for a full calendar year, was a classic-beauty Elsa, completely saturated from head to toe, the double-lined fleece cape with ostrich-feather tie I’d made her, in the end, just weighing her down.
It was around this time we booked our tickets to California and Wisconsin, to go spend some time with our families we miss daily, even in summer, to have something to look forward to, to add another timestamp to our kids’ lives, to just get them off their own street and island and with their cousins and grandparents, even if just for two weeks. It would be enough.
So, after scheduling our COVID test, our family photo, dentist appointments for all four of us, and having to inform Immy’s preschool the day before Thanksgiving will be her last day, Alaska Airlines informs us we have to FLY HOME FROM A DIFFERENT STATE and I have to ask my brother to drive us to Chicago instead of to Milwaukee.
And underlying all of it is should we go? “It will all be alright in the end,” my sister-in-law assures me. “What’s the alternative?” asks Jacob, in a calm moment. “You tell that little girl she doesn’t get to go see her cousins?” he whisper yells at me while on the phone with Alaska Airlines, as I’m gesturing to him that they can’t do this to us or we’ll cancel.
Meanwhile, we had our first solid pine door installed. If you are thinking a door? try working in 1100 square feet with a two- and four-year-old who just wanna have fun! and hollow-core doors. I’m so keyed up about this trip and the goddamn virus and its implications every time the handyman Ron’s air compressor sounds I practically have a heart attack.
And yet. Ansel somehow manages to fall asleep while I’m holding him, the kids and me cuddled in Immy’s bed with the laptop. We’ll go through that new door, then make sure Ansel can open and close it. Some days will be more difficult than others. We’ll keep going through it, together, again and again, and again and again and again.
Like many people, with the holidays fast approaching we were faced with the decision of whether to travel to visit our family members or “ride [the pandemic] out.” We weighed our options carefully. We can’t imagine not going. On what will have been a year to the day since we last left Juneau, we’re taking off again.
We found a good price on tickets with no overnight layovers in SEA-TAC budget hovels, and booked them with the caveat that we could always postpone or cancel, but as we’ve already told the kids and bought them his-and-hers headphones for the trip… cancelling at this point is unlikely.
As it’s possible we’ll both have jobs again by January ’21, it was the right time to go. So as has never not happened to me when I have some travel on the horizon, I’ve started to become more introspective, to take stock of everything, to see this trip as a milestone. I breeze past the diaper aisle; my kids now argue with me in complete sentences.
How will we go to Wisconsin, fourth-worst state in terms of COVID stats, and not get COVID? Who knows. We’ve been careful. We will continue to be careful. We’ve also been stressed, and will continue to be stressed. At this point I’m more worried about my mental state when I have to say goodbye to my family again than I am about getting COVID.
Imogen asked if we were going to stay in Wisconsin for a long time. We told her one week. She said she wished we could stay for twenty weeks. Wouldn’t you miss your friends here? We ask. She names her friends here, then goes back to rattling off what she would like to have matching with her cousin Stevie.
It was the same last year when we left California; she was inconsolable. Even if it is hard, and in a lot of ways because it is hard when our visit is over and we fly back to our little homestead, it is invaluable that, at least one time per calendar year, these kids take a seat at (or grab a cookie from) their grandparents’ table.
My neighbor walked by with her daughter, two years older than Imogen, when I was out shoveling. She said she liked my rabbit fur hat, which I bought at a flea market in Germany when I was newly pregnant with the four-year-old in the Disney princess dress light-sabering her brother as she launches herself off the couch. How fast it all goes.
This is how we will manage: one convertible car seat, one booster seat, and one army duffel at a time.
Anyone in Dr. Jane Carducci’s Shakespeare class would vouch for the fact that Carducci felt hostile toward me, but one had the courage to help. I got by by pretending I didn’t care, but it affected me greatly that she in her authoritative position would belittle me in front of my peers for seemingly no reason.
One day she actually scoffed while I was in front of the class doing a presentation. I could feel my face getting hot and I suddenly had to go to the bathroom, when Heidi Jo Jones, the teacher’s pet, asked Carducci, right in the middle of my presentation, why she had to try to put me down in front of the class.
The professor was dumbstruck as the class sat in silence, and then my student colleague turned back to me and told me to continue. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt a similar level of gratitude toward another human being before or since, and the incident taught me that it is not enough to silently disagree with mistreatment of others;
it is not enough to whisper under your breath you’re against an injustice while out of the earshot of the perpetrator, therefore not risking one’s standing: it’s the use of one’s standing, or privilege, handed down just as arbitrarily as another’s exclusion, that will actually affect change.
Sixteen-year-old Wisconsin Farms waitress me wouldn’t have believed that I’d never see Rita again, but when I left the barn, now a Kwik Trip, that was the case. I knew her slouchy leather purse like I knew my own mom’s. I knew her lunch: fish sandwich with Thousand, a cigarette, sometimes simultaneously; I was in awe of her. Eye to eye we’d conspire, her bad breath whispering how we’d handle the day. She got me drinking coffee: mixed with cocoa, the Poor Man’s mocha. We’d fill sugars side-by-side, roll our eyes behind the boss’s back when she swung through the door to the kitchen.
What would you like? From sunrise, to, on a double shift, sunset, catching a small glint through the windows of the barn-shaped truck stop restaurant at the intersection of Highways 41 and 44. Country music all day and who I was somewhere between there and the miles I’d drive home to my parents’ kitchen table and our pets. Eggs over medium. Biscuits and gravy. Cherry cheesecake. Rita one night, upon a fresh load of silverware being dropped in front of us after we’d carefully rolled what we thought was the last, stuffing all the forks in her apron to take home.
“It’s starting.” We’d been waiting for the wall project to begin for eighteen months, and officially since July 20th. This morning, the excavation crew, the first of two teams of contractors, started speed walking around at 7:30 and the kids and I watched Jacob confirm from Immy’s window we would still be able to use our steps and that they were going to put in a full day. When we got home from our adventure, the neighbor’s concrete steps and our maple tree were gone. Around 3:30 p.m., the wall came down.
We’ve been talking about the wall a lot; if you know us, sorry about that. Home improvement projects (even scary, financially treacherous ones) are, like dreams, infinitely more interesting to those at the helm. But alas. In case anyone doesn’t know, our retaining wall is/had been failing, and it is going to cost about what we put down as a down payment on our house to replace it. Our house is on the mountain side and said mountain is being dug out and terraced back. We also live in a rain forest, and ever since they dug it out, it has been pouring.
We’re not going to get much sleep tonight. I just asked Jacob where he was at on a scale of one to ten as far as worry that we’ll slip and he said two; if he’d have said five or higher I’d either have us all sleep in our bed or I would sleep on the kids’ floor. Imogen told me today that she sometimes thinks there are ghosts in her room when she is in there by herself and I told her there was nothing to be scared about, so it would be better if I spent the night in my own bed rather than beside her on the floor.
I just wish it would stop raining. We’ve spent so much time, so many whole nights, talking about this project: the lack of communication, the financing, the delays… and now it is finally started and the weather is making it just as tenuous and nerve-wracking as everything else (i.e., the pandemic). But there are good things. Nana (mom) is coming to visit at the end of the month, she just told us today; it is good to know at any age that your mom will do what she can to come and see you (and her grandkids).
Juneau has received record rainfall this summer, and Imogen talks about flora here with such gusto and vigor even the most uninspired among us pay attention. She even asked me today if I remembered when we used to say, as winter made the long, arduous journey toward spring, it’s getting gre-en, which of course I do remember. And yet, I will thank her for the reminder. Winter turns to spring, even within our worries. There are ghosts, and terrible things that happen, but we needn’t live in fear.
Jacob did our quarterly (seriously – some employees are mad about it, but we don’t have a membership and just use gift cards because we don’t go that much) Costco run last night and I have to say I was looking forward to breaking down those boxes before he even got home. After two months of quarantine I’ve grown both accustomed to and very grateful for being able to put something on “the list” (whiteboard on fridge) and having it appear. I’ve even been testing it lately (“huge organic lotion”): still everything and more (giant unsalted cashews, kim chi for days) is there.
Of course, having our shelves stocked and even our woodpile stacked doesn’t help the anxiety that is the most prevalent part of the “new normal.” An art therapist on a radio show recommended family members draw each others’ portraits without looking up from the page, opining never-before-seen traits would be revealed. The show’s host, without missing a beat, said “Even after two months quarantining together, wow!” I had smile at that. People are just pulling out whatever they can; I remember that exercise from fifth grade and it was a riot, I have to give the therapist that, but it’s not much going up against this level of stress. (Still, we’ll probably do it.)
Today, Jacob and I had dentist appointments back to back, rescheduled from March, and, after a bit of discussion realized the non-kid car would go to the first appointment, and the kid car and kids would be driven to the second appointment and driven home by the first patient. It was raining, which was wonderful and needed in the kind of way only rain can be. My 90 minutes away from the kids was actually lovely (the hygienist is a friend), and trading places in the car afterwards and seeing them in their car seats, smiling in their raincoats with hip hop playing, made my heart surge.
We dropped a little package we’d put together for a friend on our way home, two masked moms exchanging bags in the driveway of a house on which I had recently come to rely as a relaxation and decompression point. She mentioned doing an online happy hour. We probably will. But still. Imogen was given a little stuffed kitty (itself quarantined for three weeks) because my friend probably knew not being able to get out of the car would be a thing; she’s sleeping with that kitty as I type this. Imogen and the same friend, it’s worth mentioning, had a virtual pool party on Sunday.
When we got home Imogen wanted to make Christmas cookies: I envisioned my mom’s recipe and went through my ingredient list, confirming I did have everything; but I had taken the whole day off and had a job application all set up waiting to finish, so I reminded her we had just made chocolate chip cookies on Monday and set them up with paints (which was probably just as big of an ordeal as cookies). Then I waited just a little too long to put Ansel down for his nap so his drifting off coincided with Jacob’s arrival from Fred Meyer. The excitement of a few new clothing items, construction paper, and a new sketchbook meant Ansel was not going down for his nap, and the kids watched Peppa Pig while Jacob worked and I applied for a job as a paraeducator (teacher’s aide) with the Juneau School District.
When the rain stopped, Jacob put Ansel down easily and early, and Imogen and I watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which can be found on YouTube in its entirety. As usual, she was tickled pink by Cindy Lou Who, as one ought to be. And Christmas is not really about things, and everything will still happen without stuff. But making a grocery run after bedtime, and editing someone’s story from the dog food aisle at Fred Meyer because your daughter needed some new dresses, is love: maybe not hand to hand (we’re not there yet), but definitely heart to heart.
Happy four year wedding anniversary (tomorrow) to my love Jaco!!
During my time as a copy editor I read thousands of news articles. In December 2019 I was laid off and had to get a real job. The last articles I edited were about the novel Coronavirus. I worked in the Capitol just under two months before begging to work from home again. I couldn’t believe I had set everything up only for it to fall down.
My husband and I argued about the time we were allowed to work and the time we were allowed to sleep, and everything in between. But then we’d have a couple of easy days, where the kids would play and we would work, and it occurred to me what we had in fact set up was a little stress factory of our own making: we had set up a house of cards.
When “Mom started working at the Capitol,” she (I) had to be at work at 7:30, which meant I had to leave home at 7:10 at the latest (after scraping windows – this was January) and wasn’t able to help get the kids ready for whichever combination of care providers they were headed (three for Immy, three for Beeb, one for both together).
We had an hour together in the morning, during which time I would be worried about getting out the door. Later, I would be the last mom at pickup, no dinner plan would somersault into bedtime, and another day would be over. Three hours together per weekday, and that wasn’t even taking into consideration how much outsourcing cost.
We had a “joke” during that time that the weekends were harder than the weeks: our family quickly grew accustomed to being apart and, once reunited, we would either over-plan or spin our wheels or both. Frustration would abound and we would find ourselves looking forward to staring at our computers in relative silence again… separately.
Fast-forward to mid-April: we are both still working full time from home. We have no childcare because it doesn’t exist, but we have realized when we both work from home we can do without it. When the weekend rolls around we grab a few things and go to the beach for as long as we want. It’s the easy time again, the way it’s supposed to be.
Obviously, we weren’t able to do this a month ago when we were obligated to go in to work. But I know I am not alone in saying I wasted a lot of time at the office. I am much more productive at home, where I can take a break and pitch in when I am needed and where it’s obvious when I am not. My husband, as it turns out, never had to go in!
It is worth stating at this point that since we moved to Juneau in 2016 I have felt pretty isolated at baseline. It feels like a fail when, after a raucous holiday video conference with cousins and grandparents, our house is a different level of quiet. Video is a pretty meager substitute for spending time together with family, as everyone is now able to see.
We are making our own way, my husband tells me in these moments, as we bundle the kids up for yet another walk. You are making your own way, say our family members in California and Wisconsin. And of course, the nature: the ocean, the mountains, the view. It is fulfilling to be surrounded by such dramatic beauty, even if one has had to learn it.
The virus, awful, bewildering, and consuming as it is, has made some of my guilt go away. Mandated distancing has allowed me to relax about my kids not seeing family; I’ve been able to mom without feeling as though our choice to be third-staters has left our kids craving, stunted without the precious grandparent time that informed every aspect of my own child- and young adulthood.
This pause is a deep breath for everyone. It took me a while to see that personally, because I was in a necessary-but-indulgent I-have-to-go-see-ya mode. And just when we realized we didn’t need the racing or the expenditure, the talk has returned to reopening: before the worst of it hits; before it has run its course. I feel physically threatened by the impending media onslaught.
Yes, I want to be able to donate to The Salvation Army and pick up my inter-library loan books and participate in life. I don’t want to have social anxiety about my mask or the post office or my daughter waiting outside. But I am also not much of a consumer and I don’t want things to go back to the way they were.
No longer as worried about myself or my family getting sick from COVID-19, I briefly considered the feeling my friend aptly described as an armadillo sitting on her chest may be grief; now I understand: it’s anger. Yeah, I’m mad.
I’d been in sitting up in a rented upper in 2003, trying to relax between a night of tending bar and a morning of assistant-teaching preschool when I heard the U.S. had started dropping bombs on Iraq. I’d come up as short of breath I feel now.
When I moved into my apartment in Uptown, Minneapolis, in 2008, I ate catering leftovers from the Republican National Convention (RNC): even though the convention was at about one-eighth capacity, they’d bought out the entire restaurant. So. Much. Waste.
In 2013 in Istanbul I’d had to dance around riot police blocking my street on my way to get copies. When I was done teaching, a tear gas canister went off right in front of me and there I was in black, running with the capulcular, not looking back.
By 2018 I was in my house with my husband and two kids in Douglas, Alaska, tele-editing the German news website and making mostly comfortable mortgage payments. Around Christmas, just before I would begin editing my last articles for the website, which were about something called the Corona virus, I got an email my position would be eliminated.
A friend in the Alaska State Capitol helped me make some contacts and I was able to start working as a House secretary the day after the website job ended. It took four different configurations of childcare but Jacob and I figured out how we could both work full time.
And then, the closures: first our daughter’s preschool, then our son’s daycare, and finally our daughter’s daycare; all of our lovely places. It was the right decision, of course, but at a cost to our kids, who are very social and miss them, and yet… many places haven’t closed, managing to devalue those that have, in accordance with Governor Mike Dunleavy’s cowardly half-measures.
He’s gonna shut it down, I have been saying for over a week about the governor whose recall petition was graciously delivered to me in my car when my son was sleeping, when his decisions were in a way so much more theoretical and not so heavy-hearted. I really have no idea why I expected him to do the right thing.
Last night, The Alaska State Employees Association said office workers who need the jobs the most are the most vulnerable. Public health crisis notwithstanding, we can’t #stayhome if it has not been mandated, and we need the money, end of story.
The U.S. drops bombs; you leave the country and make lifelong friends. You take all the food you can carry from the RNC, give half to your brother. The police burn your tent when you are sleeping in a park to try to protect it. You run away with your friends, laughing.
But this is something completely different than any of these aforementioned scenarios in which I had F*ck the Establishment moments once every five years and then returned to regular life: COVID-19 is regular life, and it hits a bit harder when my daughter asks about her teacher, still not able to understand where she went.
Grocery shopping on my lunch break, red-rimmed, masked folks steer clear of me in shelf-stripped Foodland. I am dazed, seeing for the first time the emptiness, and feeling the widespread panic, when I gravitate toward laughter among the deli workers; I find my voice catches when I thank them for still making sushi.
Getting ready for the party starts when I bring her a clean shirt and she barrel rolls off the side of the bed, getting her leg stuck between the frame and the wall, then insists I change her into a dress because her friend might be wearing a dress (that friend, as it turned out, had come from snowboarding and was wearing a base layer).
When I ask her to put her boots on she runs into the closet, but we finally get down to the car and soon she’s kicking her brother’s seat, and then she kicks his fingers and he cries. By the time we’re on the main road they’re both crying.
She’s saying Mom Mom MOM and I’m just looking straight ahead not changing my expression. It’s snowing and slushy and I don’t feel like indulging her. She keeps it up until we get to the turn off to the party and I head the other way, back toward home. She knows it and tells me she’s going to calm down.
We get to the party at the gymnastics center and she snags some butterfly wings someone had left out, and her friend won’t say hi to her until she has some too so we find some more and they run around in circles like ribbons. I’m dizzy when she runs over and gives me a big hug.
We hear the happy birthday song and she almost loses it again because she doesn’t have her wings on even though she had just asked me to take them off. She sits down and has a cupcake and is incredulous that her friend is allowed to have two.
Leaving is almost as big a scene as arriving. She doesn’t want ANYONE to go. The birthday boy’s mom, who is also there with her 1.5 week old baby girl, finally calms Immy down, telling her everyone has to go, gets her some chips, helps me get coats.
When I get them buckled in and look in the mirror I am sweating and have frizzy hair and boogers. Having lost my center would have been a nice way to put it.
It’s done snowing and I take a sip of my coffee even though it’s five p.m. The sun is setting behind the clouds. It’s actually orange and I realize I don’t remember the last time I’d seen that.
When we get home Jacob has grocery shopped and made some halibut our neighbor gave us. He puts the kids to bed and I clean the kitchen. When we debrief, the main idea is that the past month has been just as hard for our kids as it has been for us.
I had been saying at the party that Imogen’s situation has changed the least of the four of us: now, as my husband tells me, I’m different, not in a bad way, but I have less time to do what I was doing at the time, cleaning and organizing the kid play kitchen; i.e., being around at every moment for my kids, and it hits me that my starting a full time job, to my kid, is another way (of many) that I will show her that I am not just hers.
How was it? Jacob had asked our daughter when we got home.
I wore butterfly wings and hugged mom, Imogen had said.
So, that was her takeaway. This time, I’m going to make it mine too.
I always feel the need to post when transitioning, so why should this time be any different? The job I’ve had since August of 2015 ends Wednesday, and on Thursday I start a new position as a committee secretary in the Alaska Legislature’s department of House Records. It’s never easy to change jobs, and the logistics can seem a bit tiresome to those not directly involved, but to Jacob and me and our kids it’s maybe the biggest change since we’ve moved here! This position is only guaranteed through May but of course I’m hoping to be asked to stay on. Just have to do a good job!
So I started working for Deutsche Welle’s English service as a freelance copy editor in 2015, just days after moving to Bonn from Istanbul. The “German BBC” office was a ginormous, sparkling labyrinth. There were very strict rules in the cafeteria. I got a thrill out of riding my bike to and from there for work and German language classes, and eventually it occurred to me that I could do my job from home, so when I was about eight months pregnant with Imogen I began that phase. The only time I went back, 2mo Baby Imogen was in the wrap and I asked if I could continue to do the job from Alaska. They said yes! So we packed everyone up and telecommuting 4900 miles commenced.
A little over three years and one more baby later, the “gravy train” has finally come to a screeching halt, as myself and the other four copy editors were simply informed in a few-sentence email that there was no longer budget for us. Ansel had just turned 20mo, the same age Imogen was when she started DaveCare, her “tribe” down the street, two days a week. As luck would have it our neighbor, a SAHM and face painter-for-hire, agreed to take care of Ansel during the time before he can join his sister, and at our house, no less, with her daughter who is almost his same age. Off we go!
And, as often happens when everything is thrown into sudden upheaval (i.e. no mortgage payment would happen on one income; no second job would happen on no “Beebcare”) and then it manages somehow to sort of-kind of-maybe work out… everyone, especially Jacob, got very sick. Fever and chills. Vomiting. Fatigue. All the blissful January perks. And I see how.much.he.helps… and how small our place is. So Beeb is also very congested and not up for a rain scramble, even in the right clothes, and Imogen is on the mend but growing and tired… so when my mom friends are traipsing up to Eaglecrest, we’re at Mickey D’s. Just catching up, hanging in there, whatever verb phrase works.
All the love this transition and always, to all of us. I hope we all make it.
you gotta be you gotta be, you gotta be you gotta be, you gotta be you gotta be, you gotta be you gotta be ready – Dolly Parton, I Believe in You
After Imogen and dad’s yard camping night, which required base layer, bear robe, crocs, waterproof mattress, and books, we made the plan: beach, which required pistachios, macadamias, the kite, swimsuits for three of the four of us (remember her face when you got into swimsuit; don’t think about how cold the water is…), swim diaper for Beeb, all the buckets,
commence her running into and out of channel, jumping on a crab pot string, squealing with delight, pulling crab pot around, trying to touch fish head inside said crab pot, giggling, laughing, more running in and out of the water. Rolling around in the sand. Flying the kite, again and again and again until the plastic tail feathers are too wet and sandy. Allowing me to dry her off, put dry clothes on her, wrap her in a sarong and snuggle her while she eats pistachios and watches her brother and dad watch yet another cruise ship come into port.
Dad carries home most of the way. Hot dog lunch. Youtube “Jolene,” many versions. Another plan, another beach: a long-sleeve because enough sun is enough. A “mom” hair tie. Tears over which shoes. Tears over wanting to go, but also wanting to stay home and pluck raspberries off the neighbor’s raspberry bush. Mom holds; decides everyone should stay home. Neighbor gives handfuls of raspberries and two crabs caught in the pots with which she’d been playing.
Happy again: cracking, scooping crab, eating meat with fingers. Tricycle riding, all the way to the elementary school down the street: owl helmet, warm back. Absolutely not letting mom help steer. Ready for bed. Shampoo and Conditioner. Look at the ceiling. We didn’t get soap in eyes. Yes we did. Clean sheets. Books. Dolly, who leads me back to ready.
It’s late September in southeast Alaska and the tops of the mountains are already covered in snow. I hope it’s only been a day or two that they have been, although it’s very possible they’ve been that way for a week and I’ve only just managed to look up at them.
It took about a month for our co-op nursery group to iron out all of its own kinks, as it does and has been doing since long before I’ve been in charge of it. One “kink” was my realizing Ansel wasn’t quite ready as he still naps at this time, which is how I’m able to sit down for an hour before we pick up Imogen.
Any new thing is hard, especially at three, especially something as structured and multifaceted as preschool. As is usually the case, I wasn’t able to prepare my daughter in advance for all of the changes this would bring, not only for her but for all of us, but I suppose that is how learning takes place: on the fly.
A parent is allowed to come with the new preschooler the first time they spend a whole day there, so I did, and I watched her pretty much sail through meeting the Guinea Pig Stumps, dress-up/play time, group story time, snack time, and outside play time. She was ready. And she had so much fun!
Her first day by herself was her third birthday. We opened presents first thing in the morning, and by the time we headed out the door, first me and the baby, then the birthday girl in her rainbow unicorn headband holding her new kitty from Nana, and finally Nana behind her holding 20 ‘worms and dirt’ birthday treat, Imogen was so keyed up she fell headfirst down our stairs.
Thankfully, I was just the right distance in front of her that she didn’t tumble, and, amazingly, she didn’t get hurt at all save her pride, which is what seems to take the most bumps on the road from toddlerdom to preschool kid, the first of many times in life when you’re not little anymore but not really big yet.
A friend was driving by at that time and sang her a little song, and pretty soon she was telling Miss Mary that they were real worms in her treat, and it was all okay. I’d heard that there could be some ‘backsliding,’ but thought we were good… except suddenly she didn’t want to go.
Our nursery room is right down the hall, and after we left her she followed us there, squeezing real tears out of her eyes. I reminded her our group was for the littles… and now she was a big who got to go in all the other rooms, and reminded her that Mary said she could ask her anything, and somehow it worked.
She started walking away from me, back toward the preschool. She sniffled and looked back. There was no one around, so I told her to run. She did.
One of the best things about our first summer in our new home is that literally every time I take the time to take a proper look around something new and amazing is blooming.
It makes me really look forward to future summers when I am able to take more time with this. All I can say about this summer is bravo. And you are a little bit overwhelming/outta control as the best ones always are/have been…
The alarm was set for 5:00 but I was up at 4:00 cuddling with a restless Immy, then showering with a special surgical soap, the remainder of which I left in our shower stall for a week after I’d been home, a reminder of reality which had been once again, all rearranged.
Jaco and I left our house at 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning, May 9th, 2018. It was the type of morning – alive, earth-smelling and green – that made it easy to understand why so many people speak highly of May as the time to give birth.
In September when I found out I was pregnant I’d hoped to have a VBAC birth, but after a lot of consideration took the advice of my obstetrician and scheduled another C-section as close to 40 weeks as we could, and I made it as far as I possibly could have (39w 5d).
When we got to Bartlett we were very happy to see my room all ready, my name and the nurses’ names on the little white board. I hung up my coat, put on a hospital gown, and climbed into the bed I’d stay in for two days, minus the time of the actual surgery, and signed the consent forms.
Everyone was smiling and professional, asking me if I had any questions. I asked the anesthesiologist how long it would take for the spinal block to take effect: “seconds.” Finally in came Dr. Newbury, all bright-eyed and bushy tailed. We were ahead of schedule and would have our baby within the hour.
We’d found out, to our great delight, at my last prenatal appointment, that Dr. Newbury had convinced the powers-that-be to allow music in his OR. He actually asked us if we had a request for his Pandora, and we decided to go with Bob Seger. And with that, this birth took on its own vibration…
I was allowed to walk into to OR myself instead of being wheeled in as I’d been last time. A nurse stood eye-level with me and talked to me while I was given the spinal block. She was also the one who convinced everyone to let Jacob, peering in the window in his shower cap and paper slippers, in already.
As the block began to take effect they laid me back on the table, and as Dr. Newbury and his assistant came into the room with their hands scrubbed up to the elbows i.e. McDreamy and -Steamy, I am not even joking, “Night Moves'” “I was a little too tall, coulda used a few pounds…” came on
and like actors in a one-act play, the nurse, anesthesiologist, and Jake were all right there by my head, I lost all feeling in my toes within minutes but was still able to joke around with Jacob about the songs: “Gonna take a freight train:” Marshall Tucker played at the Hotel, I know; Skynyrd, “Simple Man;”
“Don’t tell me they are going to take the baby out to ‘Witchy Woman;'” “Rocket Man’s” ‘I think it’s gonna be a long, long time…’ but it wasn’t – about five minutes after the surgery was scheduled to begin I was told there would be a lot of pressure, and then we would meet our baby.
We’d elected not to find out the gender ahead of time this go-round, and it was not an easy thing to do! Of course, we wanted to know so badly, every day. But making ourselves wait was the right thing to do as it really and truly was all about that one MOMENT our baby entered the world: “It’s a BOY!”
A fisherman was selling spot prawns at the docks and I told Jacob that Imogen and I would go and get some for our dinner that night. He and I had taken her down to Harris Harbor to get shrimp in the spring, so I sort of knew the deal.
She’d dropped her sunglasses into the water that May day, and Jake had hit the dock and scooped them out just before they disappeared from view, eliciting a round of applause (from me, because I’m his biggest cheerleader even though he says I don’t like anyone).
As it would happen on this cold and rainy fall day, Squigs and my walking buddies Erin and Auggie wanted to go for a stroll too, so I suggested we all go down there together to get prawns. Afterward, we all climbed aboard Erin and her partner Chris’ boat to warm up.
As these things sometimes go, NOW I’m pretty sure I know what it was – her not-completely-dry cloth diaper against her skin, compounded by the fact that we were out in the cold and the rain was hitting her face – that made Imogen completely lose it as we were walking back to the Flats from the harbor.
At the time, though, for as much of a frame of reference as I had, I felt like I might as well have never done anything, traveled anywhere, met, loved, or birthed anyone: it took fifteen minutes once back inside, for her to warm up and settle down.
Walking back, I’d pried open her icy, red fingers and closed them again around a piece of bread hastily torn off the loaf I’d bought to go with the shrimp: why do I keep her on this island in the rain? Who the hell do I think I am hoisting her on and off of boats in her stroller? Am I even qualified to do this at all?
But it was another mom lesson, or a bunch of them in one, hard because they are meant to be: use disposables for even short-ish outings outside in winter (check), get a stroller with a rain cover when you live in Juneau and walk everywhere everyday (check)… keep moving on at the pace of life.
In April 2017 I go to my dad’s house with the intention of having a look at the gifts from my baby shower that I wasn’t able to take with me the last time I was home.
I am so excited to do this but once there I lie down next to my daughter and text by lamplight the friend still in town who has since moved, and felt so peaceful, but never did go through the stuff.
In 2013 one of my favorite poets visited me at my home in Istanbul, and he shouldn’t have been sick even part of one of his days in Turkey, but he was able to come out and walk around the island and eat fish with us.
Man, that is far away now, but I really had pulled the cot in my room on top of the island right up to the radiator and watched the snow fall while worrying about then-boyfriend Jacob in Donetsk, Ukraine;
and Jacob is the husband who not only got me the ticket to this show, but told me to sneak in a beer which I’d scoffed at but which was the right move: no one is going to take a beer from a mom on her first wedding anniversary.
Who knows where the time goes: by Eva Cassidy as I once knew it, by Richard Thompson… every one-syllable word is weighted: sometimes with just a time, sometimes with just a place, sometimes with both,
like my grandparents arriving at our house on Christmas Eve in the eighties, and twenty years later driving my grandma home through town to look at the lights for the last time.
And now I wear her wedding ring on the hand that’s holding an Alaskan beer in a coozie as I write in my journal at a show, but that’s how we become, by little leaps, and by big bounds.
Imogen Charlotte turns one year old a week from today! At first I was a little peeved at Jake for setting up a Labor Day trip (albeit a mini one) in between Ted’s visit and Mom’s visit, but I decided (not to just roll with but) to try to get excited about it.
Then I started to pack, and, even though we’d only be gone one night (I have said this many times before) we needed everything – clothes for every type of weather, every electronic and its corresponding cord, e.g.) we would need for a week or more.
Somehow, by 7:15 a.m. we’d started the 4 1/2 hour journey to Gustavus, gateway to Glacier Bay National Park. On the ferry, Imogen enjoyed alternating back and forth between saying “hi” to everyone and speed-crawling toward the bolts on the bottom of the benches, which she liked to lick.
In Gustavus we checked into Jan and Ela’s Wild Alaska Inn which I would totally recommend as they and their place are very warm, especially on the rainiest of days (that take a bit of gumption to get out in, I might add).
We did one short trail and tucked in for the night. (Woodstove and cedar-plank salmon.) As it would happen, the next day (today, Tuesday) was gorgeous and after we both finished our work went for more of a proper walk to check out “town.” And I had been thinking (the whole past year, but especially this month) about Imogen’s birth and the anger and hurt I unfortunately still feel toward my midwife who completely phoned it in, but also about the fact that people can be such hypocrites and phonies,
when a car went by with the sticker that looked like one of those stick-figure families, but it was either a snake or a pile of poop, that said “let that shit go” and I had to smile; it was just about the right amount of toughness and truth.
We started our craigslist odyssey with this antique bed, which was found in a hunting shack in South Dakota thirty years ago and fixed up by a car painter… we love it.
(So does Squigs! And because I’m sure some of you are wondering, she hadn’t yet mastered rolling over onto her tummy at the time this picture was taken)
It is quite interesting moving into a three bedroom place that is COMPLETELY empty, when you also don’t really have anything (furniture). But we are just taking it one step at a time.
So for this room (our room) I added the war quilt, our Mexican flags, and curtains I made by lining a queen size flat sheet I got at Salvation Army with another queen sized flat sheet, and hung with some PVC and garment hooks.
And a tiny room only needs a 15 watt bulb…
Nursery is next! I just have to decide where to hang something…
My water broke around 2 p.m. Sunday, September 11, 2016, on a beautiful fall day about 100 yards from the top of Drachenfels, a hill that was formed by rising magma that could not break through to the surface, but cooled and became solid underneath.
I called my midwife Heike to let her know, and Jacob and I excitedly began the stomp down. Something was finally happening with the baby we’d been waiting to meet since January! I felt completely ready for whatever was going to come our way.
Regular contractions started about 5 p.m., an hour after we’d made it back to our apartment in Bonn from Konigswinter on the tram: they’d been between five and six minutes apart for the duration of one episode of The Wire.
The midwife came by and was able to determine I was 3.5 centimeters dilated. As we’d discussed, this was probably too soon to go to our Geburtshaus (aka birth center) so she went home to wait and I spent the next phase in the shower, Jacob holding the wand to my lower back. By 9 p.m. we were ready, and I showed up at the Geburtshaus at 7.5 centimeters.
Continued “rushing” all night, Jacob breathing with me through every one, kissing me, giving the kind of support I’d read about in my books. Eight hours later, at 5 a.m., I was 9.5 cm dilated, and Imogen’s head was down in my pelvis as it had been for months, but she wasn’t positioned in such a way that would allow for any descent, much less a smooth descent, down the birth canal.
It was suggested that we lie down and take a rest: another midwife would be in in the (later) morning and the best way to proceed would be decided upon her arrival. The contractions continued through this “rest” (nodding off while Jacob spooned me and waking up every three minutes with a contaction/anxiety/fatigue cocktail).
Christiane showed up over an hour later and confirmed the fact that the baby was stuck in my pelvis and that my contractions evidently weren’t powerful enough to bring her down. It was during this confirmation I did my one push.
We tried different positions, I was given an enema, Jacob and I went outside for a walk (that was interesting). When I quite literally couldn’t do anything anymore, Jacob convinced Heike that we needed to lie down again. Christiane, the other midwife, seemed to have vanished into thin air.
Heike hooked me up to the fetal heartbeat monitor in my bed and told me that another midwife would be coming to fill in for her because she was so tired. I understood the tiredness and thanked her for her help but could not believe she was leaving us at that particular moment, two first-time parents sweating it out in a bed.
Another contraction woke me up and I saw my my baby’s heartbeat, which had never once dropped below 120 in nine months of doctor appointments, at just 39. Just then the midwife Barbara showed up and essentially played cleanup crew: called the university hospital to tell them we were on our way, asked Jacob to gather our things,
helped me into the bathroom as my bladder had been too full for me to make it there on my own, which was a big part of the problem, I’d find out upon catheterization (read: instant relief) at the hospital, and then into her own car, drove us to the hospital, almost got broadsided on the way, debriefed our new team who induced me to try to establish lost regularity of contractions, which didn’t work.
It was explained to me that since Imogen’s water had broken now close to 24 hours prior, there was a high risk of infection for us both. Her heartbeat was up at this point, but irregular. Keeping my eye on the heartbeat monitor, I decided to get on all fours and try to regulate my own contractions. A 20-something nurse put my hair in a bun and applied cold cloths to my neck.
A doctor came in and explained the head thing again. Jacob asked if we could have a few minutes to discuss what I already knew: that they were recommending a C-section. Another doctor came in to “assess the situation,” which she told me the next day they commonly refer to as “oh fuck what do we do now” slash “come with us if you want to live.”
From the moment you are sliced until you meet your baby takes about one minute, I am told. I am given something to now stop the contractions. I am put into a gown and a green shower cap. They try to take my necklace, a gift from my best friend Jenny which has Imogen’s name and Jacob and my wedding date on it, off, but they can’t untangle it fast enough and leave it.
I am wheeled in my hospital bed to the “theater,” everyone seeming familiar with the word in this context but me, made to switch beds, given an epidural while in the midst of a contraction, which does nothing (luckily). I can remember being polite and trying to make small talk even in this situation and thinking at least the theater was cooler than any of the other rooms (I was getting too hot, I was told later) — I am such an optimistic person.
I thought of my baby and my husband the whole time. I remember Jacob yelling at the anesthesiologist and then in the next breath calmly telling me that he believed the Caesarean was named after Julius Caesar — a “fact” I learned later was actually not true but I think he was just trying to give me something on which to focus.
Jacob says of this experience it was as though I died and came back to life. If that is indeed the case, it was worth it for who was waiting for me at the hospital in Bonn.
Sept. 13, 2016 5:04 pm (To Imogen: these were the first 24 hours of your life)
You were brought to me in a yellow towel. You looked very familiar. I was only able to glance at you because I was dealing with the pain of the doctors rearranging my insides, but I felt your warm weight in this towel that felt as though it had dried in the sun.
The doctor brought you back after having checked you out and laid you on my left shoulder. I tried to focus on you but kept feeling like I was going to knock you onto the floor — I couldn’t be still because the doctors were STILL rummaging around inside me.
They asked your dad to take you and leave when they finally put me under general anaesthesia. On his way out they said congratulations to him while they were, as he put it, elbow deep in my gore. Thanks, he replied, not looking at them.
The next thing I knew I was being wheeled back into the room where you and dad were waiting. He told you a little bit about what to expect from the world during that time it had just been the two of you.
For the next couple of hours doctors paraded in and out explaining things. Your dad, being your dad, listened carefully to every single thing they said and asked all of the important and pertinent questions.
There was no family room available at the hospital that night, so dad had to go back to our apartment in Bonn on the bus. He told me later that he got some takeout from a little place next to our apartment.
Your head was a bit misshapen from ramming it against my pelvis and your right eye still had some opening to do, but you nursed like you had been doing so your whole life and promptly turned yourself a different color.
Your dad rode his bike back in the morning with a bunny for you. You didn’t cry until that afternoon. When you did cry, another midwife said it could be because your first memory (your birth) was not such a nice one.
As your mom, I figure I have the next 18 years to the rest of my life to improve upon it.
I was staying at a flat in Uskudar, Istanbul when two Syrian flatmates with whom I would become great friends and stay in touch arrived.
When I heard the friend whose story I am about to share was going to take one of the sea-crossing journeys from Turkey to Europe I was less than thrilled with a world that would put someone in this predicament.
But he assured all of us who asked that he would be fine, so we had to believe that.
The situation is terrible, and it doesn’t look to be getting better anytime soon, but my friend is fine, and about month ago he sent me a forty-page document detailing the whole story of his journey.
Having read (as we all have) so many “ripple-effect” refugee stories (I talk about this elsewhere on this blog), it was almost calming for me to read a first-hand account. Mostly I feel really happy for my friend that he made it to somewhere he wants to be.
Please read (and share!) this story written by my friend: the more people who can understand the “refugee crisis” as it affects the whole world, the better.
As we move away from Turkish waters, everything becomes smaller behind us: the houses, the hills, the beach….but it seems as though we’re not getting any closer to the Greek island.
We can see it floating on the azure serene water, and the boat is moving well, but nothing is becoming bigger and we feel as if we’re stuck between two waters; neither of the two shores seems near.
We see what seems to be another boat of refugees and wave our hands but get no answer. Some of us agree they are refugees; others say it’s just a fishing boat. This “small dot” seems to be not moving anyway, with no response at all.
We try to forget the time by talking about different things – our previous lives, our future destinations. Some prefer to sing, others try to force themselves to sleep. I keep receiving calls from the guys on the Turkish side, checking that everything is going well.
After two hours we start to feel hope again: the Greek island of Lesvos starts to get clearer; one could see smiles starting to shine on everyone’s faces. An old man at the front of the boat starts to give us “directives” about where exactly to go next!
As we approach the island, waves start to get a bit higher, so our two great captains make use of their 2-hours’ experience to make some maneuvers which turn out to be successful. While celebrating one of these successful maneuvers, we see a huge ship coming very fast towards us, so we stop the move until it passes to avoid the huge waves it causes.
We keep our eyes on it as it passes about 600 meters in front of us – really fast in relation to its huge size. Then, as expected, the biggest waves start to rock us and this time we feel the boat might flip upside down. I wasn’t really afraid because I can make to the shore somehow, but the majority of those on board have never been to the sea before, even for swimming.
We make it again thanks to our “veteran” captains. Everybody claps and some guys stand up to dance or make cheers of happiness, forgetting that if they fall the Captains can’t do anything this time!
I keep receiving calls on my nylon-wrapped mobile, keep answering “30 dakika icinde orda olacaz….ama emin degilim” (“We’ll be there within 30 minutes….but I’m not sure”). I added “I’m not sure” again and again for about an hour and a half – it always seemed to me we’d hit the mirage-like shore within 30 minutes maximum.
After a while of meditational silence while the boat kept moving forward, we see a fast boat heading towards us. The captains decide to let it pass, but instead it moves directly towards us. “What’s this all about?” we stand amazed. As it comes closer, we hear a voice shouting through the speakers “Stop the engine, we came to save you!”
I see the word “Limeniko Soma” and tell the guys it’s the Greek Coast Guard. We didn’t really know what to do, but we decide to stop because we have no other choice. Sometimes having no choice is the best choice, because it makes us avoid a lot of thinking and accept facts as they are.
They ask us to tie our boat to theirs, and repeat the phrase “Don’t worry, we will save you” in English. We followed their instructions, and everything seemed to be alright.
As we began to climb onto their boat, they start to shout with an aggressive tone in order to keep things in order. Syrians (like most “Third World” people) usually lack a sense of general discipline for the collective interest; they act very chaotically in such situations.
The Coast Guard perforates the rubber boat and it starts to sink – with our stuff still on it. I decide to use my good knowledge of Greek, which I always wanted to be a language of music, of food, of love etc.: “Mipos boroume na paroume tis tsantes mas parakalo?” (“Can we take our bags, please?”) I asked one of the crew members.
The guy looked at me happily: finally they found someone to help them keep discipline onboard. He told me that one of us can jump to the slowly sinking boat and throw up all the bags. One of the Syrian guys volunteers quickly and saves what were our “precious treasures” at the time!
I start to play my new role as a mediator to help the crew keep things in order. “Please sit down,” I say to one guy. “Please remain silent,” I say to others. “Please put the bags there, please don’t move,” the crew threatening jokingly all the while that it’s easy to send us back to Turkey if we don’t keep things in order.
And yet – it seems that we are moving towards Turkey. “Maybe they are not joking,” I think to myself. Did they really mean it? Everybody panics. Some of the guys even wanted to throw themselves into the water – seriously. They are determined: no going back.
At this moment one of the crew members uses me as a mouth to tell the guys to remain calm: “We’re NOT going back to Turkey; we’re going to save another boat of your fellow Syrians.” Everyone becomes quiet again, while crew members start talking to each other about the next rescue steps.
While moving towards “saving” the other boat, my ear catches that one of the crew members is called “Sotiris:” it’s another optimistic sign, like the Tango in the Izmir park, I said to myself. “Sotiris” means “Savior.” We’re really saved.
The same procedures are repeated with the second boat, which is nothing but that far floating dot about which we had the discussion. The guys on the other boat were really in a miserable situation. Their engine had stopped after one hour of moving, and they couldn’t do anything but keep going with the flow until a miracle happens.
Thanks to modern technology, this miracle happened and the Greek Coast Guard spotted them, and spotted us. I called all the members of the Greek crew “Sotiris” and forgot which one of them was the real “Sotiris.” They were all saviors at this point.
Now we’re heading to Lesvos, quickly this time: everything is getting bigger faster on the land. We were about 15 minutes from the shore. During this time I took a scanning look at the faces of the tired refugees enjoying this moment of relief. “No way,” I say to myself: I recognize one of the faces from the other boat as one of my acquaintances from my hometown in Syria.
The last update I heard about him said that he was detained in an unknown place by the secret service. I was really happy to know that he made it here. He recognized me at once, but we preferred to remain silent until we reached the shore.
As we headed to the shore, I had casual conversations with the crew members:
“Why do you know Greek?” “What’s your destination?” “How much did you pay for this journey?” “What’s happening there that made you leave everything behind and come here?”
Soon we are in the port. We get off quickly, but the guys in the port are not as nice as the Coast Guard crew: they are very aggressive and screamy. Again I was asked to mediate and explain everything to the Syrian fellows. It was a hard time because the tension was so high!
After standing in lines, we head to a closed sports hall near the port of the city of Mytilini where they gather us, collect our names and data, and provide medical care to those who need it. After a while I realize this aggressiveness isn’t based on discriminative reasons – it’s the only way to maintain discipline: the same guys who were aggressive acted differently as soon as everything was in order.
At this closed sports hall, there was a nice old lady from the medics team taking care of children and the old people. On the other boat there was a 70 year old lady, and two three and four year old children accompanying a woman who seemed about 35. The children were hers and the old lady was her mother!
We are told we will move to the camp within the next few hours.
It’s been two hours since we arrived. A blue bus comes, we get on, and we go to the camp. As we go through Mytilini, I enjoy the views of the colorful houses, the blue sea, and the beautiful castle.
The camp is a horrible place. It stinks in the heat and is overcrowded by refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and other poor countries. There are white tents provided by the government or some organization, but they are really dirty and full of flies.
Other black, small tents are much cleaner and are privately bought for about 30 euros. When a family or a group leaves, they sell their tent to other newcomers.
Hadikun and I decide that we can’t sleep in the camp, and we do not spend too much time in the camp, but move around the city exploring it like very poor tourists. When we go to the public beach to swim, they tell us we can’t swim in shorts but we must buy official swimming suits!
Hadikun is an interesting personality, and I am happy that he was my companion. Originally I was supposed to go with another friend, but he couldn’t come with me because he had other things to finish in Istanbul.
Hadikun is a very quiet person, a visual artist and graphic designer, interested in Japanese culture. These elements made him very comforting to me, because I prefer to avoid close contact with the mainstream Syrian conservative mentality. Hadikun had the same attitude, and was a good match for the journey.
He also had his part of the Syrian misery: his father has been missing in the regime’s prisons since he was arrested the same day he was supposed to go a gulf country based on a job contract. They accused him of “supporting terrorism” because one of his relatives was involved in the “Free Army,” but Hadikun’s father didn’t even know about it.
Hadikun himself also had a taste of this. He was at the wrong place in the wrong time, so the secret service arrested him with accusations of being involved in anti-regime activities. He spent one week in a solitary cell that barely was enough for him, until some officer noticed that this guy is not into this business at all, and opened the cage for him.
In the camp, all kinds of misery is visible, and people are escaping from all different kinds of persecution – wars, poverty, you name it. Unfortunately, the cultural gap is very huge between these people and the ones of the “advanced” nations. The environment is totally different. This is a bad omen for the world.
The majority of humans on earth live in ignorance, poverty, and conflict; in misery that will explode into huge catastrophes, which will make huge and incontrollable migration tsunamis, which will reach the “advanced” world sooner or later.
There is an urgent need to deal with our planet as a whole – soon it will not be possible to have a culturally and technologically advanced minority and a vast majority afflicted by poverty, fanaticism, useless traditions, wars, sectarianism, and other diseases.
It is not a “luxury” of the “rich nations” to help the “poor nations;” it’s a must if the “advanced world” wants to protect itself from such scenarios. “We need a new Planet Comprehensive System,” I repeat in my head each time I hear one of these stories or witness one of these cases that reminds me of this huge gap.
We used to sleep under abandoned trucks, sometimes above them or inside them. Each one of the guys had his favorite place. I even was invited to drink wine on a corner of an abandoned warehouse. Other guys slept on the edges of the main road, others on the beach.
We kept coming back to the camp everyday to check if the “papers” which would allow us to go to Athens were ready. We had to make sure to come over and over again, because if our names were announced in our absence, we’d have to stay there for a few more days until they re-announce them again.
We bought Vodaphone SIM cards for ten euros from a nice guy and two girls who came especially to the camp to sell us these windows to the outer world. Nevertheless, we couldn’t keep in touch with the “world out there,” because we had no possibility of charging our phones except for a small kiosk we visited every morning to enjoy some snack or a drink and charge our mobiles (others had their own alternative ways of charging).
The kiosk-keepers were extremely nice and compassionate, and the kiosk was a platform to hear all kinds of stories from all kinds of refugees. The Eritrean guy escaping from the persecution of the authorities, and the Iraqi guy pretending to be Syrian who had his own story with ISIS (ISIL) who wanted him to fight on their side.
Mustafa’s family (this Iraqi guy) had a history of persecution from different sides, starting from the previous Saddam Hussein regime, passing through the local parties, and finally ISIS! Mustafa was a simple person from a conservative family, he was not “fanatic” at all; he had a good friendly spirit towards everyone.
Another example of misery was an old man from the northern parts of Syria who didn’t know exactly where he was going and kept asking everyone “which country is the best, I have to bring my family?”
On the other hand, there were some examples of people who might become “fanatics,” like a guy who was criticizing the “infidel lifestyle” all the time, so some guys asked him “Why are you seeking refuge in the lands of the infidels then?”
When you see this category of “refugees” you can understand why some people in Europe are afraid of the “Islamification,” especially in that this category might represent all the refugees in the eyes of some Europeans, like the right wing, or the Islamo-/xenophobic movements, who think that everyone coming from the Middle East belongs to ISIS or something like it. This might be partially true, but a huge part of refugees are actually escaping ISIS and its likes!
After four days of sleeping in the nowhere, not having enough water to wash our hands, much less our dirty and stinky clothes, and lacking of clean toilets, we cheered when the guy from my hometown (whom I will call the Egyptian as Hadikun called him, because he looks like an Egyptian and has a name used in Egypt more than any other Arab country) discovered a tap that we can use near the main road. We bought soap and headed directly there just to get rid of the stink a little bit.
I was going to use that tap in the midst of a hot day when I started to hear beautiful melodies, as if somebody was playing Oud (the Oriental Lute). I thought maybe I’m hallucinating because of the heat. However, while I was washing my head, I turned left, and saw a group of eight guys, with the one in the middle playing real Oud.
I did what I expected of myself: I went to the guys and asked them if I could join as a listener, so they welcomed me. After these two refreshing baths (one with water and the other with melodies), I had a nice chat with this group, who had made their trip from Turkey on their own.
They bought their boat and the fuel, mounted the engine, and chose the track all on their own. The Oud player (I’ll call him Moe) is rather a famous professional player (a graduate of the High Institute of Music) who used to live in Damascus.
Of course musicians are very alienated in the times of war, so it’s better to get moving somewhere else where people are interested in playing and listening to music instead of playing reality show Counter Strike.
Another evening as I was strolling in the city of Mytilini enjoying all kinds of beauty – the sea, the smells, the buildings, the whole atmosphere – I met the Egyptian by accident sitting with other friends, so we sat on an edge on the seafront, and had a chat about everything.
He told me his story about how he was accused of being from the “Opposition” although he is trying to avoid politics in every way possible being that he is a peaceful person, and politics in Syria nowadays means losing too many friends and having endless conflicts, most of which are useless and needless.
After hearing about his tragic 66-day journey through different prisons, he said a sentence that made me laugh although it should make me cry, “There is no way I go back to Syria, I would rather working here as a fish, but I will not go back to Syria!”
Each time we hear about some new batch of papers coming, we head to the camp, just to be disappointed that these papers are for Afghanis, Bangalis, or another group of Syrians. At the end of the 4th day, the police closed the camp and asked us to stay inside.
They closed the main gate to prevent anyone from leaving, which we considered a good omen: maybe the next day they would distribute the papers, and we’d be delivered finally. That night we slept on the beach in a tent that our friends had set under a tree in a clean place a bit far from the camp. It was the nicest sleep in a long time.
We woke up fresh, happy that today at five o’clock we’ll finally receive our keys to freedom. While eating, we hear someone calling us to go up to the camp. A friend of friends of mine said that we should go up immediately, because they were announcing the names. We left everything – we didn’t expect this at 12:50!
As we enter the camp, we see a huge crowd of Syrians in the middle, and hear the shouting voice of the police officer, asking everyone angrily to keep order. “If you don’t remain quiet and disciplined, no papers are going to be distributed,” he said, with some Greek swearwords.
We could manage to get the crowd calm, and succeeded to make everyone sit on the ground after about 20 minutes of struggling with this disorder. I start announcing the names with the help of another guy, and the situation becomes easier. It took about an hour before I spotted my name and put my paper in my pocket.
People who didn’t hear their names desperately asked me and the other guy what to do, so we asked the police officers, and they in turn answered that these people should wait, maybe their papers weren’t ready yet. “We’re trying to help as much as possible, but the numbers are huge – it’s getting out of control,” the police officer told us.
As soon as we got our papers we, a long convoy of “armless infantry” occupying about 500 meters of the road, headed directly to the port to catch the ferry to Athens. We took a shortcut through the castle, and there we met a group of girls in bikinis. It had been a long time since I’d been in touch with such a phenomenon.
I approached the girls (but not too much, because my clothes stank) pretending that I wanted to ask them about the way to the port. I don’t know why I did that – I know where the port is, and obviously nothing will come out of it. Maybe I wanted any type of contact with any beautiful ladies?
Some of the other guys – who come from conservative environments where the connections between the two sexes are very constrained, limited and full of needless obstacles and complications; where maybe they hadn’t gotten in touch with any girl (in a sensual-sexual sense) – are very poor in this sense.
While talking to the girls, I kept watching the guys (I think Hadikun was also watching them, because we both were observing the Syrian mainstream culture), and noticed how the guys were amazed by the scene of the girls, but at the same time acted as if they don’t care.
You could see also, we all were happy that some mermaids appeared to us on the road to give us a slush of soothing energy and guidance.
After ten minutes of walking we finally reached the port, stood in line, and booked our tickets. We saw a huge ship arriving from far away, the same type of ship that caused the huge waves when we approached the island five days prior. What was scary then was now our ally.
The Exodus from Lesvos
After 20-25 minutes’ walk (which seemed like ten minutes, but our telephones told us the objective truth) we reached the port, and stood in line to buy tickets, which cost too much for a budget of a refugee (47 EUR, about 52 USD).
Waiting in line I was again reminded of how “orphaned” these refugees are. A huge portion can’t speak even English, so they had difficulties buying the tickets and required the help of others who knew English. They are powerless, like fishes thrown out of water – but who can’t swim.
“I’ve lost 5 EUR in the sea, man, damn it!” I hear someone shouting and, turning around, see it’s Tarek, one of the two Damascene guys with whom we shared the waiting in the Izmir Kultur Parki and the ride thereafter. When I approached, he pointed his finger to a hat floating on water, and laughingly said: “Imagine man, I just paid 5 EUR for this, and it’s gone with the wind….or maybe with the sea!”
While talking about our future plans and how we felt so far, the boarding of two types of travelers – tourists, who were mostly northern Europeans escaping the routine of their lives in their rather cold countries, and refugees, mostly Syrians and Afghanis escaping from their “heated” lives back home, to the routine life of the cold northern countries – began.
Back in humanity, we were treated as travelers on a huge blue ship, while five days ago we were on a small floating rug with a motor. Some of the migrants fell asleep as soon as they saw the comfortable clean seats; others got out on deck to enjoy sea views without being afraid of drowning this time. I joined some new friends and the Egyptian on deck for a coffee and a chat.
While chatting, we felt the need to do a “toilet raid,” based on an order from our bladders. As soon as we reached the bathrooms, the Egyptian decides to take a bath using the hose in the closet! We burst out laughing, but he really meant it and did it! “I can’t stand my smell anymore, man!” he explained.
The next step was to recharge our phones, although no sockets seemed visible. The Egyptian (yes, again him) and another friend of his found sockets behind the TVs, but somebody warned us it was not allowed to use them for personal needs. We plugged in our phones anyway, as we can’t afford staying out of touch.
For the travelers on these journeys, smart phones were a very inevitable tool to keep connection with each other and exchange the needed info. They can even not buy food from time to time, but they must buy smart phones, even if they are used.
After about 3 or 4 hours of sleep, I woke up by the voice of the announcer saying that we will be in Athens within 15 minutes or something like this. Another step forward.
I was staying at a flat in Uskudar, Istanbul when two Syrian flatmates arrived with whom I became great friends and stayed in touch.
When I heard the friend whose story I am about to share was going to take one of the sea-crossing journeys from Turkey to Europe I was less than thrilled with a world that would put someone in this predicament.
But he assured all of us who asked that he would be fine, so we had to believe that.
The situation is terrible, and it doesn’t look to be getting better anytime soon, but my friend is fine, and about month ago he sent me a forty-page document detailing the whole story of his journey.
Having read (as we all have) so many “ripple-effect” refugee stories (I talk about this elsewhere on this blog), it was almost calming for me to read a first-hand account. Mostly I feel really happy for my friend that he made it to somewhere he wants to be.
Please read (and share!) this story written by my friend: the more people who can understand the “refugee crisis” as it affects the whole world, the better.
Jamie Lynn Buehner, December 12, 2015
This story by itself is literally nothing compared to the suffering of other people (refugees or others…not only Syrians) around the world. Actually there is no suffering in this story.
The reason I’ve written it is just to share it with anyone who is interested, and to give a hint about the stories of other people I met on the road. Another aim maybe is to provide you with an example (even though this example is not really “hardcore”) of how crossing the borders illegally as a refugee works in case you have no idea.
“Refugee” is the last thing I am, unless you would like to consider me a “Cultural Refugee” who escaped the limitations of a society still confined by rules of bygone and pre-WWII eras, to seek refuge in less “totalitarian” societies.
At the end of this file, you will find my analysis of the situation and my personal opinion.
Chapter One: Into Smyrna
I took my time saying goodbye to Istanbul before heading to Izmir, because the road to deliverance starts from there (and from Bodrum [Turkey] for others). A friend of mine was waiting for me there after his first attempt to reach the Hellenic [Greek] shores had failed because of the wavy sea.
I arrived in Izmir feeling free of many things, because I had to let go of almost everything and the “luxury” life in Istanbul. Left is some clothes and money in my backpack, my laptop, clarinet, university diplomas, and the money to cover the journey, all of which I left with my trusted flatmate at my Istanbul house.
I arrived in Izmir at 5:00 o’clock in the morning, I called my journey companion, so he came to meet me at Basmane Square, the epicenter where all the “Tra”s meet each other- the “Tra”ffickers and the “Tra”velers. However, my trip was already planned with the same “Mediator” that my companion in this journey relied on.
It was a rainy night, so my journey-companion (I’ll call him Hadikun) had slept at some house rented by 20 Syrian guys for 150 TL per day…but that day we didn’t sleep – we just stayed awake walking from street to street all day.
Mediators are people who mediate between the Travelers and the Traffickers, but they are mistakenly sometimes also called Traffickers (the real Traffickers are hidden behind the scenes).
Our mediator was a real human being (not a money eating creature) – he was a decent person that circumstances led to do such a thing. Unlike most of the Mediators, he is a man of his word, really caring, and he always gave us extra info about Izmir and the best things to do to spend our time fluently until the commencement of our journey.
There were no more cheap hotel rooms left in the city, so we had to sleep in the
central park called “Kultur Parki” for three days, waiting for our lucky day.
In Kultur Parki, two worlds collided: a world of happiness and cheerful events and activities, since it was the main park of Izmir, a city full of beauty and life; and a world of misery – hundreds of Syrians and refugees from other nationalities waiting for the moment.
Hadikun, myself, and another guy whom I shall call “Wallow,” who has a very interesting story, joined the participants in the latter of the two worlds.
Wallow began receiving his lot of this war by serving in the Republican Guard for two years, which he then deserted to join the Free Army. His experience with the RG was positive as he told me – he didn’t feel any discrimination against him as a Sunni Muslim, although the majority of the officers were Alawites (another Muslim sect).
However, he wanted to join the “revolution” to be on the side of his family in the city of Homs, which was officially the birthplace of the Syrian War (for some it’s the “capital of the revolution,” for others it’s the “birthplace of terrorism”). After Wallow fought with the FSA for a while, he started to feel disappointed.
He’d expected a dogmatic revolution, but what he saw was chaos, division, and corruption. For example, in some cases they would ask for backup from other groups, but those groups wouldn’t respond, or would say things like “solve your problems on your own.”
Wallow started to reach the conclusion that needed to get out of the mess as soon as possible, so he found himself a way to Turkey, where he worked for about a year and a half in hard conditions – 12 hours a day in a textile factory, while he lived in a common dormitory with other guys.
He aimed to go Europe and start all over – it was the only possibility to leave the chaos behind, at least until the end of the war.
Joining us in the park were two other guys from Damascus who’d arrived a few days earlier with plans and hopes for their kids and their future. Damascus is a relatively safe city except for some rocket attacks from time to time, but the rest of the country is just hopeless. Everything is madly expensive, there are electricity and water outages, depression…you name it.
Ramez and Tarek, 40-year-old engineers, were shocked at their new reality of sleeping in the park under the rain in a strange city, preparing for an unexpected journey to hunt better lives for their families.
They kept repeating “If someone had told me 4 years ago that I’d be going through this someday, I wouldn’t have believed it.” They hadn’t wanted to leave Damascus, where they’d had acceptable lives before the war – but they didn’t want their children to grow up in a climate of scarcity, despair, and depression.
During our stay in the park we heard different stories: some were running away from the regime; others from ISIS and different militant groups; still others just trying to see the light at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel.
The First Attempt
We receive a call from our gentle Mediator telling us to prepare ourselves, because our trip starts today at 24:00 o’clock [midnight]. He comes to us to the park at 23:00, sits down with us, and we have a nice chat. He tells us about his life in Damascus, where he used to have a jewelry shop.
He had a wide knowledge about everything in life, except maybe that life would throw him into this fate. He was different from the mainstream Syrian culture in the way he that he talked, dressed, and gestured: this was very comforting to me.
When the time came, he told us to follow him to a taxi nearby. We walked through the park hoping it would be our last walk (at least before we get a passport from another country, and come back to Turkey as visitors).
We arrived at a bus stop, and suddenly we heard someone calling us from the other side while trying to make as little noise as much as possible so as not to draw attention.
“Which one of you is the Mediator?” he shouted silently. Our Mediator flew to him and had a 10 seconds talk with the night shouter. After a while came another group of five women and two children, obviously Kurds. After another while, two taxis appeared to take us to the “gathering point.”
The driver took us to a remote place about 45 minutes from the city. It was pitch dark, we could see only the light of the stars, and the light of a cigarette about ten meters from us. As we approached the “light,” we heard a voice saying vague words. Then when we reached that phantom, he showed us the way to the group through the black forest.
It was a group of other phantoms – for whom we were new phantoms also – so all the phantoms waited together in silence for the “moment:” the moment the guy with the cigarette would show us the way.
After enjoying the magical dual absence of sounds and lights, an Izmir-ish version of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” the main ghost told everyone to move on – except us. He told me, Hadikun, Wallow, Tarek and Ramez to wait aside, because there was a mistake, and our attempt should be tomorrow, not today.
After accepting this destiny, we said “at least we enjoyed some hope under the starry night,” and waited in the woods for the taxi to take us back to the city.
The black car, which was actually yellow, came after 20 minutes, the place coloring everything in shades of black and dark blue. We hit the road back to Izmir and received a reassuring call from our Mediator telling us that this was a mistake of the Trafficker, and we shall try again tomorrow.
The fact that he called us at five o’clock in the morning, and stayed with us on the phone all the time, was really significant for us. The man almost doesn’t sleep just to serve his clients. He never complains; he always answers any call. Is that an Übermensch?
“Anyway, it’s just another day of forced Tourism in Izmir,” we thought to ourselves and went on sleeping on our green or brown beds in the park.
The second attempt
I spent my day exploring the beauty of Izmir. I really like the city, especially the seafront – an amazing meeting between the hills, the dark blue waters, and the Greek islands in the distance. I took a nap on the green grass by the sea, enjoying the sounds of the city and the sound of the islands, which I could hear through the visible distance.
Here comes the night again, and with it another hope. The same scenario repeated: the 5 of us with the Mediator gathering at 23:00 in the park; again to a Taxi (but this time with no guy shouting from the other side).
As we were moving through the park, I saw what I considered a “good sign,” a familiar melody in the form of a Tango piece by Carlos Gardel called “Yo no se que me han hecho tus ojos.”
The new part this time is that we were taken to a car wash away from the city – no forest, no starry night. When we reached this car wash, a guy welcomed us and told us to get quickly into a closed trailer without wheels or anything, used as a storage room.
There were already 5 people there, and as time went by, new taxis with new “five peoples” came over and over again. The trailer was full, so we waited for the next step. The Turkish guy from the car wash got in again, counted us, and then told us to stand by for the car that would take us to the “start point.”
The next ten minutes we would be the worst and most dangerous part of the whole trip, at least for me. A mini-van with no windows came, and we were asked to get in fast. How could a car like this with no windows have enough room for 47 people? Everybody was asking, but we got in because we had no other choice.
Inside this moving casket, our freedom of movement was limited to a four centimeter perimeter. But I had a flash of relief, for there were constellations of small bright holes, which looked like the stars from last night, in the ceiling, and they provided us with the air we needed to breathe.
During the dangerous, crazy-speed ride, which lasted two and a half hours, we felt that any time this car could turn upside down and fly to heaven instead of taking us to the start point. At last the car started to move slowly on what seemed to be an off-road path and stopped there as we expected: finally we could breathe fresh air again!
When the Turkish guy began to show us the way through an olive field, and asked us to run after him as fast as possible, everyone forced their legs to run because they couldn’t fly. After ten minutes of running we reached the shore, where two guys were pumping the boat and mounting the motor on it. We started pumping our vests.
When the boat was ready, the Turkish guy asked “Kapitan nerede (where is the Captain)?” We all looked at each other searching for the Captain and were shocked that we had no pre-appointed Captain, because usually on these journeys the Captain is chosen in advance, and he pays no money: here no Captain was chosen, and everybody had paid.
Two guys volunteered to be Captains, and the Turkish guy teaches them the basics. They learn fast and everyone is on board – a small boat supposed to carry no more than 20 People is now loaded with 47. Luckily the water was extremely calm that day – the strongest wave was ten centimeters high.
The Turkish guys took my number to keep in touch with us, and it seemed that this sea journey is much safer than the mini-van ride. We hit the sea, nothing interesting happens, everything goes as expected and planned, and I receive calls from the Turkish guy every ten-fifteen minutes to check if everything is going fine.
The real surprise was that the Turkish Coast Guard didn’t appear to try to stop us like they did with everyone else – even some guys with us on the boat had some advice about how to avoid the Coast Guard they’d gained experience from their previous attempts.
Why should we care? It was a good surprise. We headed forward to the Greek waters with no sign of the Turkish Coast Guard, or any high waves.
My boyfriend gave me his old bike bell today. I shrugged and put it in my purse. We were on our way out to look at a bike that he found for me on the internet. On the way I sat in the back-left seat in the dolmus and read, and he sat in the passenger’s seat next to the driver, texting me (mostly about the driver). When we got out he said he was sorry for not sitting by me, but that he still felt a little queasy from the night before and wanted to be up front. I know this feeling well: in 2003 I rode shotgun to the beach Elafonisi for the same reason, just beating nausea by a nose. We found the woman with the bike after taking a lot of wrong turns (in fact, some of them were the same wrong turns we took last time we went to that neighborhood) and she was nice and it was a good bike but too small. There was talk of a victory beer, but aside from the fact that it was a beautiful day there wasn’t much to be “victorious” about, so I went with him to get iskender, which, with the possibility of making or breaking him, made him. Then I bought ingredients for one friend’s potluck and two other friends’ wedding, both tomorrow. For the latter, we set out to buy a blender/juicer and wound up with Turkish Scrabble. We sat on a bench to discuss this purchase, and he put his head on my shoulder. It was his first wedding present bought. I also know well the weight of wanting to get something they will like. That is a story for another time but I’m glad I remembered it. We decided to have a coffee before our respective ferries. I pressed myself up against the window as his pulled away. At home, when I found the bike bell in my purse, I cried. It was a normal day but it just made me feel so appreciative of what I have, and so lucky.
I was on the phone with my grandma Jean. Of course, I couldn’t believe it was her so I was freaking out crying laughing, she asked me what I had for lunch and if I knew Aries was already in Venus and I just said rice, I was all choked up then, just said rice and yes!
Last night was the last night of AirVenture 2011, aka EAA, where I worked as a cashier selling reusable cleaning cloths! Some highlights were riding my bike in past all the cars in the morning, chatting with the prop technicians in the booth next door from Redding, CA, and, having worked the day, going out in the boat with EP and Jeff and watching the vintage aircrafts fly over Lake Winnebago from the water.
They were fast!
But, alas, another cobbled-together job has come to an end and now I find in front of me the only road left, the Real Job, the job that I can find and then relax, the job that I can be at Peace with. I have a new Degree and no debt, and also no money which leaves me feeling like I am sitting on one of those little cloths I was selling, my butt hanging over the sides. It is very well-constructed, but how does it get off the ground?
A moment can move on and still stay with us, it’s one of the most beautiful things in life, Robert Hass’ Mississippi John Hurt lines in the poem about his brother, Ryan Gosling honoring the spirit of Patrick Swayze in his recent film, and in a thirty-three year-old, not-even-really girl anymore, back to the drawing board again, or perhaps there, officially, for the first time, thinking back on what she has to give to the next phase of life.
In Istanbul post-undergrad/pre-graduate school I taught English, wrote in my journal, and watched the O.C.
…and the little book I came across last night that reminded me of those days. Maybe it’s a non-sequitor, but I just don’t want to forget her.
Time to start looking for what’s out there. No pressure in a bad way. I’m looking everywhere…
You scratched my broken leg with your knitting needle.
You even remembered pickles in those lunches we packed to eat in the parking lot and you went on all the scary rides with us, the water rides, the Eagle, and even though I was only eight I remember thinking ‘I am sitting next to my grandma on Log Jam, how cool is that?’
I still think of the songs from Joseph when Donny Osmond got raised to the ceiling in that coat, and I remember when I called you from Africa and you said I was so far away, and I was.
They are just some moments in a whole life. Did Gags like the rhubarb and the asparagus?
When the professor handed us an “example” answer to one of the essay questions, written by a former student, Carla started crying. She had to have known ahead of time they were going to do Dickinson, Carla whispered angrily after he left, her small face silently overtaken by red splotches. There is no way she could have written this otherwise.
We all knew it was Annie’s paper, and the general consensus was that Annie had known prior to the exam that it was Emily Dickinson’s “Poem 435” students would be asked to explicate. I walked out of the room, away from Carla, and smug-smiled Lisa, and Louie with his constant Gardetto’s and energy drinks, and whoever else was in there. I walked home slowly for once, concentrated on my breathing, ate an apple.
He leaned in very close, scrutinizing numbers with me at a desk. I could feel how he smelled and how he breathed. Eighty-six, he said. I was on a Tolkien horse as I watched his finger trace a dotted line on my paycheck to another column.
Asking him out for coffee has been my plan since Friday over cocktails and edamame. The words were on the tip of my tongue when he stood up and told me that we were going to have to sort this out over coffee: that this type of thing could not be negotiated under these circumstances. Only I don’t think he said the word, thing.
We are going to have to get this sorted out over coffee and a walk, he said. I will follow you, and carry a dung stick. I doubled over with laughter at the top of the stairs he’d already descended; he stood at the bottom looking up at me the way you do when someone laughs at something you say. In real life I woke up smiling.
School was normal except for library reading. Everyone is supposed to be quiet and read a book for fifteen minutes, but without any warning I snorted very loud like a pig. After school came my third birthday party. Two of the men insisted on spanking me 9 times. I was thinking god damn it you two! It seemed like it was more their party than mine. I got an art kit, clay mask, and a stuffed bunny.