Coffee, Angels, & Hope

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Two Cups is my metaphor for life. One cup overflows with gratitude for all the blessings I’ve come upon as I’ve walked the path only I could walk—infinite, really. The other cup, only filled partway right now, are heartaches I’ve collected along my almost fifty years of living in this crazy world. It feels like a healthy balance to have so much goodness and a few hardships too. Perfectly imperfect. It’s kept me shooting for the stars while remaining grounded in real life too.

I’m extra grateful this year as I’m still here, sitting on my couch with a book about Christmas, Paris, love, and the heartache of loss. My cat is curled next to me whistling in her sleep, the fire crackles below four Christmas stockings my grandmother made for me and my three girls. The darkening sky above the bay is a soft grey, one that whispers words of serenity and peace.

This summer while on a vacation in Peru, my girls and I were in an accident where I was directly hit by a boat while we were motoring back to our cabin in the middle of the Amazon at night. I blacked out but heard the sound of a fishing boat hitting ours and then me. It took another two to four days before I realized I had bruises on my arm, dislocated ribs, and a head injury that has a 60-90 percent mortality rate. After the accident, my girls and I were taken by a different boat to the third-world-strip-mall, urgent care to have my lip sewn back together. Novocain was injected, but I wasn’t numb to the needle and thread pulled in and out of my gums in a hallway surrounded by the soundtrack of devastation. Nine stitches, mostly on the inside, answered my prayer that it would be “better than I think it will be.”

The next morning I drank more coffee than I usually do because I had a Seattle-sized tumbler with a lid for my swollen lip covered in a bandage. And, perhaps, I was in shock and kept sipping, reliving the events of the previous night. “What the hell? It’s a family vacation!” What was happening inside my head was the bleeding veins between my skull and brain on my left side were being constricted by the extra caffeine. It only took a half hour for the bleeding to stop before my body encapsulated the blood like a blood blister and pushed my brain over just enough to give me a freight-train headache through the center of my being. This headache was enough to get us out of the jungle and back to civilization where there is migraine medicine, a real hospital, and people who could help me and my three kids get out of the country. We got our two weeks worth of clothes and souvenirs packed and back on the long, narrow boat for the 45 minute ride to the tiny airport and then to Cuzco at 12,000 feet where we spent the afternoon waiting for our flight to Lima. It just so happens that altitude is also a blood vessel constrictor. Lucky for me.

But for the Starbucks mug I got in Lima at the beginning of the trip, drinking too much coffee, and having lunch at 12,000 feet, I might not be here this Christmas. I would have stayed for another day and a half in the humid jungle where blood vessels remain in full dilation. I would have thought my headache was a regular migraine with the added benefit of being hit in the mouth and this would have caused me to continue to bleed until it was too late. I may have been on the airplane with my three kids heading back the next day. I may have had to have surgery in Peru to relieve the pressure of two days of bleeding inside my skull. If I would have made it through, only 30 percent make a full recovery after surgery when bleeding is undetected for too long. This is what makes subdural hematomas the most severe of head injuries—you don’t know it’s serious until it’s almost too late.

Angels were in the Amazon. There were so many things that could have gone wrong. The first being, our group of eleven didn’t get thrown into the murky water where caiman (alligator family) and other terrifying creatures live. There were five kids on board… Just the trauma of being thrown into that water in the dark… I believe my angels were my four grandparents I’ve lost in the last handful of years – Elwyn and Shirley, and Alice and John. I was protected in the Amazon until we were able to get all the way back to Seattle where I realized I might have a severe concussion. Yep, and then some. And, I was protected at home when I sent a prayer request because the hematomas got bigger and surgery was a real possibility. Hundreds of Facebook friends responded. I was sent to a different doctor at the last minute and he said we would wait despite the CT scan. After two weeks of excruciating headaches, they stopped completely with the prayer, thoughts, and love that were sent my way—the very next day. Gone.

***

Four months later, I’m doing so much better. Christmas is busy always, but it’s seemed like a little extra overload this year. Cookies didn’t get baked and not enough holiday movies watched from the couch all together. We had to get two Christmas trees because the first one was picked out in haste during a homework break at dusk. It was too small, “just not right.” Not to mention two sets of cards because there was a typo on the first set. Once again, life moving too fast.

The moments though… We had the best time shopping for each other in Seattle. We saw Annie: The Musical at the 5thAvenue Theater. We watched a couple movies and got to sleep in a few days. My family, aunts, uncles, and cousins came over for Christmas Eve. It was magical. Our morning was lovely too – matching pajamas, Christmas music, the fire flickering, twinkling lights on the tree and mantel, presents opened, and pumpkin pie and homemade whipping cream for breakfast. Around noon I helped my girls put all their things in Ellie’s car and off they went to celebrate the holidays with their dad and his family.

The house is peacefully silent now. I’m still in my pajamas and the filtered sun won’t shine again until tomorrow. It’s not picture-perfect, but it’s been a beautiful day. I’m surrounded by love and grace. My girls gave me the softest blanket I’ve ever touched (ever), photographs of my girls with Santa through the years sit on the table behind the couch, a nativity scene on the piano, a “perfect” (second) Christmas tree with ornaments I’ve collected since I was young, art, flowers, and even my cat and dog, surround me as a reflect on where I’ve been, how blessed I am to get to live this life of mine, and what’s ahead in the new year.

We all have moments of absolute magic and moments of deep grief for what was lost or what will never come to be. Me, too. I’ve decided I’m going to live for the magic, the connections to others whether minutes or a lifetime, and, most importantly, for the love I can give to those in my circle and their love given right back.

This is life. It’s two cups at the same time. Sometimes one cup is overflowing like a Starbucks cup from Peru. It’s easy to keep refilling until you have to get out of the jungle—right now. The cups are not always marked clearly. The cup of heartache just might turn into the cup that saves you, but patience is required. It’s happened over and over for me.

The only thing I need to remember is to accept whatever comes, have faith I will be okay no matter what, and hold onto the hope that is infused in both cups. I’ve learned that everything in this beautiful, messy life is meant for me. I get to decide the narrative, even when it’s as crazy as a rogue fishing boat hitting me in the middle of Peru on our family vacation.

There is always, always something to be thankful for… Today, I am thankful for every single thing because I almost lost this life. This Christmas I was given perspective and that grace surrounds me like the softest blanket I’ve ever been wrapped in.

May you also know for sure that no matter what, life is so, so good. Love and grace are protecting you too. xo

Divorce and Childhood Trauma

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When we think of childhood trauma, we think of poor neighborhoods, inner cities, desolate rural areas, or other economically disadvantaged countries. Trauma sounds extremist. But, The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not those other people, they were us. Researchers looked at 17,421 middle-aged adults with jobs and good healthcare living in California; seventy-four percent were college educated.

Divorce can and does set the stage for children and adolescents to experience chronic, unpredictable toxic stress, otherwise known as childhood trauma. And, divorce happens every day, it is ubiquitous it sometimes seems. It can be the loophole kids fall through even when they have good, healthy, loving, responsible parents. The stress caused by a family splitting can last a short time and cause one adverse childhood experience or it can set the stage for a cascade of negative experiences that change a child’s ability to deal with stress for a lifetime, setting them up for both immediate learning and psycho-social consequences, as well as chronic physical and emotional health conditions later in life.

It’s losing a parent in body, mind, and/or spirit. It’s being split between loyalties to one parent against the other, essentially handicapping their mind, psyche, and emotions. It’s trying to carry on as you always have when the world as you’ve known it collapses and everyone says, “They will be fine. Kids are resilient.” It can come from the parent introducing a new significant other and just moving on like nothing has happened. It can come from one or both parents being devastated and just barely making it through the day.

The good news is it’s not divorce, per se, that can cause real harm to our kids; it’s losing their secure attachment to one or both parents that can cause the real damage. The single greatest thing you can do for your kids if you are getting a divorce is to keep them connected to you (stay close even if you are the one to move) and to help them stay connected to their other parent too. This means fostering the attachment to the other parent. Yes, the one who is hurting you more than you thought possible or you are so angry at that you can’t look in their general direction.

The second most important thing you can do for your kids is to be kind, supportive, and compassionate to their other parent. Healthy, happy parents parent healthy, happy kids. The more turmoil, stress, hardship you cause for the other parent, the more of all of that you will cause your child. This is the case even if it looks as though your child is happy when they are with you. They will be their best self for a while, until the threat of you leaving subsides. Helping them deal with their sadness, anger, locked down emotions will bring the whole family out of the abyss and back into the sunshine of life. This is good for your kids and consequently is good for you too.

“Together, the two discoveries – the epidemiology of the ACE Study and the brain research — reveal a story too compelling to ignore:

Children with toxic stress live much of their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on learning. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. Some kids do all three. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamine, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work and over-achievement.”

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-ellen-stevens/the-adverse-childhood-exp_7_b_1944199.html

What Do We Owe Another Person?

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Relationships, in all the various forms from acquaintance to family, are they contracts written in the air between us but rarely communicated out loud? When we enter into a friendship, relationship, or even marriage, what do we owe the other person? Is there a difference in expectations at the beginning or the end? It seems universal to begin with our best selves. It can be intoxicating to meet someone new, a kindred spirit who says, “Yes! I feel exactly the same way!” It’s balm to the soul really; all our best qualities are coaxed from hibernation for a magical moment, day, or a season of connection with another human being. If we’re really lucky, the fairytale love of family, friendship, or the melding of body, mind, spirit lasts a lifetime—forever is our greatest desire.

Being held in another’s bubble, translucent colors swirling all around, creates a force-field, an invisible protection from an ending we can see from inside no matter how far off the ground the bubble has risen above our ordinary existence. We say, “Not this time…this time it’s the real thing, it’s forever. The End came in all the other stories but this one will be different; it will be the happy ending that my dreams are made of, eternal love.”

Alas, forever, eternal, the real thing is more rare than anyone would like to know. Family bonds can be broken or sometimes they were never forged, friendships move on, the one you thought was lovely turns out to be just a few more dates, and marriages fall apart too (even when there is no obvious end.) As a girl, I wanted to hold fast to each person who entered my life, to hold on to the magical feeling at the beginning, but as a woman who has lived through too many endings, I now know endings are part of a life well lived. An ending says there was a beginning that was magical, there were vistas and valleys, rivers with rocks and grasses and wildflowers and we were meant to surrender to the current, to let go when it’s time to let go.

Rarely do two people agree when to hold on and when to surrender to the flow of change. The unconscious or very conscious (as in a marriage) contract with another to care for each other is pulled back out for review. Unlike the feeling of euphoria in the beginning, the ending isn’t always our best selves—more is required. An ending brings an entirely different set of emotions to the forefront: sadness, disappointment, desperation, disbelief, depression, anger, entitlement, vengeance and rage. This person that you thought would be by your side forever has made a different decision and that can be devastating depending on the depth of the bond forged in a different time and circumstance.

Whether we are the ones left or the one to leave, what do we owe each other? And in the case of a marriage, this person who you once loved and who once loved you, a person who made you feel connected to humanity and understood, who shared a magical season with you, what do you owe this person? Do they deserve vengeance, your wrath, a slammed door because something in them whispered that it was time to let go? Are we trying to keep them bound to us by anger and revenge? And even worse, when we want to let go, is it fair to withhold peace and kindness, blame their bad character for our change of heart just to assuage our own guilt for breaking the agreement to love each other forever?

It seems that far too many who go through endings or even divorce unconsciously, try to destroy the person who once gave them all they had, who also wished upon a star that it would last a lifetime, and who is also devastated that it did not. And far too often people use their children as the weapons of destruction, rationalizing that they are the better parent or that the other person is trying to destroy them or take their children away and they are only protecting themselves. Everyone feels threatened and makes decisions from that awful place.

What is this behavior? What do we think is going to come of it? Do people think it will lead to their own happiness? That robbing every spark of light and joy from this person they once loved, in some cases their child’s other parent, will somehow bring love and light to them? Do they think it will lead to that feeling of euphoria, the winner mentality, they once felt when they were in the vicinity of this person they once cherished? Do they think they will receive more love from their child if the other parent is destroyed? It makes no sense whatsoever, but it happens every day in every community.

What do we owe another person? We owe them kindness. Yes, all the feelings are there. Yes, you can say a million F-bombs with their name attached. Yes, you can be devastated, but to hold another person in contempt for simply saying it’s time for me to go is a childish tantrum that can have deep, unconscionable consequences for everyone involved, especially when there are children—which is all too often the case. This is also true for the one who leaves but projects all the guilt and contempt they hold for themselves onto the person who once said they would protect their heart with love.

We can hold on until we know for sure it’s time to go, but once that happens, when we’re absolutely sure there’s nothing more to be done, the contract in the end is kindness to this other human being in front of you. Let go so you can go on with your life to find another, to search for what’s beautiful in this world, to experience magical moments again. Letting go and being kind allows the other person to do the same. And if there are children, happy parents parent happy children. We are all living within one ecosystem.

What we put into our world, we will get back. Isn’t it better to receive kindness? Isn’t it better to leave another life better than you found it? Isn’t it better to treat others, especially the ones who loved you, the way you want to be treated? Kindness is the foundation of our humanity and it never depends on anyone else but ourselves. xo

 

 

 

Magic Can Be Found in the Darkest of Places

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This is one of my favorite sunflower pictures. I was in Upstate New York at Old Stone Farms, an inn near The Omega Center. It was a healing journey that August after getting my family (all five) through a cataclysmic transformation that left me emptied of who I was, am, and would become. My kids would be away from me for two weeks; an incomprehensible amount of time in any scenario but especially this one. It was a nightmare I desperately wanted to wake up from. I couldn’t wait for them in the house where there had been magic a lifetime ago, moments ago.

Through the poisonous fog and acid rain, I reached out toward the only thing I could do – write. Despite my past career in marketing, a graduate degree in business, and an ambition that used to propel me through the narrowest of passageways, my soul gently told me to write books about people, everyday traumas we unintentionally inflict on each other, and relationships starting with the parent and child, my dad and me. I traveled thirteen hours by car, airplane, train, and a night in Manhattan to get myself to a memoir workshop where Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, would be speaking among others. I spent five days at this lovely inn, mostly numb in my exquisite room, a blend of old and new. On the door was the word Spirit.

The ones who managed the inn were soft and loving, made me feel like I belonged right there on the other side of the country from home. They checked in on me when I didn’t come to dinner. “Are you okay? We were concerned about you. Can I bring you something?” the woman asked. Equestrian therapy, massages by a goddess (a young single mother with a singing voice like an angel and a spirit for listening), walks, yoga, reading, seclusion filled my days until it was time to move to the more austere Omega Center for the five-day writing workshop.

This photograph, half blue sky and the other a dense forest with a bright, golden sunflower in the center, reminds me of how far I’ve come. Writing was but a seed three years ago, it was the only direction I could go, and now my book is in its final stages of being completed. I have walked through the darkest forest and come to the other side where blue sky and bright clouds can be seen again.

This trip was magical and not in a euphoric, picture-perfect sense like life used to be. It was magical because I was on my knees like I’d never been before; because I allowed sadness to overtake me and because I allowed the kindness and concern of others to envelop me at a time when I couldn’t meet them at that place. I could only receive and say thank you. It was magical because there was love. It was the love you feel for someone who has done something brave and courageous, it was the love I have for my girls. I allowed myself to love and care for me, for maybe the first time in my life, and it made all the difference.

Father’s Days Gone By

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The day is heavy as it is when it starts off with rain. Water hangs in the air, I can see it but my coat remains dry. Sage pulls on the leash, eager to go for a walk after being housebound too many days due to a cold I can’t seem to shake; the kind that renders you voiceless for days. The neighborhood seems abandoned, not even a car drives by.

Halfway down I hear barking from across the road but keep my head down shuffling thoughts of Father’s Days gone by. This is heavy too. My default expectation is stuck on everyone-all-together; it’s my favorite place. The BBQ, my children’s father, dad, grandfathers, father-in-laws plus our counterparts and children mixed in, is the perfect day. Things have changed since that day. I’m going to see my dad today and how grateful I am I can, yet the pin drop of euphoria from that other day in the past keeps me stuck.

Sage pulls toward the barking and I notice one gentle soul walking his small dog, which is now running across the street. His owner walking slowly behind. We both wave and smile. The man has white hair, lines that bend up toward the color of the ocean under the folds covering his eyes. He is wearing trousers and a Nordic sweater.

“She doesn’t like to walk with the leash, but then runs away when she sees other dogs or cats,” he says. I walk toward him so he can catch her. He is a sparkly one, maybe in his mid to late eighties. This man has been loved but he doesn’t wear a ring.

“You got her now?”

“Yes, thank you for waiting,” he says.
“Hope you have a really great day.” I wanted to wish him happy Father’s Day but I decided against it just in case. He’s the kind of person that draws you in by their gentle energy.

“Have you been to the Tall Ships?” he asks just as I’m about to continue down the hill.

“I haven’t yet, but I’ve seen the pictures,” I tell him. “It looks amazing.”

“Well, it’s not as good as last year. The ships from Argentina and Mexico and Germany didn’t come this year. Last year it was much better,” he tells me.

“I wonder why they didn’t come?”

“I’m not sure. Last year I went and talked to some of the captains and the owners. There was a woman from Germany who owned this great big sailboat. She was quite amazing. And it was great to talk in German as well,” he says as his voice trails off. Anyway, the parking is not great and the access is hard. I would save your money this year,” he warns.

“Okay, well thank you. I’ll take a look when I drive by later. You have a really wonderful day.” I smile as much as I can to show him kindness, that I see him.

“Thank you, you too,” he says with a wide smile. I continue on for a few steps and then turn around to walk backward so I can watch this beautiful man continue back to his home. I gather as much love from the universe as I can hold and send it all to him. I wish I could follow him, listen to his stories, and give him a hug. I wonder if he’s alone or if he has kids, where in Germany he’s from, how he got here to North Tacoma. I wonder if he’s thinking about past Father’s Days and if he has a favorite.

I continue on my walk feeling blessed to have been touched by someone who is closer to heaven than me, who lived well, who was loved, who lets his little dog walk without a leash.

The day feels  lighter.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 8)

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Once they leave with their dad, my house is devastatingly still and silent but for the sound of Sage’s nails clicking the hardwood floor on the way to her bed. I fall onto the couch for time-lapsed hours not sad or relieved or depressed. I feel nothing like someone who just returned home from Normandy, France the summer of 1944. My eyes are open to see my family room with beautiful paintings, purchased at art walks and festivals, of mountains and rivers that hang on every wall, yet I see nothing. I listen for sounds of walkers and runners outside on a Sunday afternoon but hear nothing. Even my mind is still of its normal scrolling and replaying of past events, hypocrisies, and transgressions. I can’t feel my heart beating or blood pulsing through veins. I’m not sure I blink or swallow saliva in my mouth. I’m not sure I’m breathing. Darkness overtakes me, and my house, but I can’t move my arm to pull the string on the lamp next to my body. I’m in a void between the vigilance of fighting for all I have left in an apocalyptic world and the smooth, white light the child in me associates with goodness, purity, protection, God. I stay here until Sage nudges me from my trance hours later, reminds me I need to still take care of her. I get up, turn a light on to chase the darkness away and feed my only witness.

Slowly, I make my way through the empty rooms of my now oversized house in the darkness. Yesterday we occupied every room, the lights twinkled, the house vibrant, alive, and the happy sounds of my children filled the playroom where puzzles and American Girl dolls and dress up clothes gather dust, next to the boxes that remain unopened from our move back home from Sun Valley. I will my legs to step up each stair until I get to the second floor, then scuff bare feet on the beige carpet toward the bathroom. The playroom remains dark now, play a luxury we used to have. I don’t recognize myself in the mirror. This person is emaciated. She has devastated eyes that don’t seem to open like they used to, she can’t choose to smile, she has more lines than the person I used to be. She looks old but for her dark hair. I don’t have the energy to do anything more, not even to wash the mascara smudges from my face. I fall into the king-size bed with the same clothes I woke up in. I occupy a quarter of the space. I sleep on the edge, dreamless and dead to the world I used to belong in. Just go to bed has become a mantra when there is nothing more to do or say or figure out.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 7)

Learning to fly the summer before sixth grade…

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“Hey, let’s go over to the other side of the lake with the guys,” Lisa says.

“Yes, let’s go. Do you want to go too, Janna? I think Jason likes you.”

“Sure,” I say, very unsure of what we are going to do over there that we can’t do right here. And unsure of what “likes you,” means, but I agree to follow nonetheless To be included in the group feels like lying on an air mattress with the sun shining on my face, splashes of cool water on my skin. I can’t remember when the last time someone asked me to come along. There is no way I would say no.

“Let’s go guys,” Monica calls. Eric follows Monica, Nate follows Lisa, and then Jason follows me. We walk the trail through the tall grasses and trees, over fallen logs and cross makeshift bridges covering small streams that funnel into Lake Annette.

“So, where do you live,” Jason asks.

“I live in Federal Way. How about you?”

“I live in Auburn,” he says. We keep talking as we make our way around to where our camp counselors can no longer see us. It’s easier to think of him as just another kid, like a cousin, when I don’t have to look at him. Monica, Lisa, and their companions have disappeared into the forest while I was preoccupied with keeping up in the conversation.

Jason and I reach the spot we all decided to venture to and sit down on a rock to wait for everyone to come back. Jason is almost as tall as my dad and a little heavier than the other two boys. He has light brown hair and a sloped chin. He seems kind of nerdy except he likes to talk about how great he is. The girls and I did a lot of collective eye rolling at the campfire last night. It occurs to me that I’m the only sixth grader in our group of eighth graders. He sits down inside my personal bubble but I don’t want to move or he’ll think I’m weird. I am weird, maybe awkward is a better word, but I’m trying really hard to not to let anyone here in on this secret. Everyone knows this at my school. It’s nice to just be one person in the group for a change. Jason asks questions and I answer while looking into the lake for fish or dead branches to hold onto or the Loch Ness Monster. There are long pauses while he thinks of new questions to ask. Where did Monica and Lisa go?

I haven’t been this close to a boy that actually wanted to talk to me, let alone spoken to one since Kevin in the second grade. Boys don’t like me—and neither do girls for that matter. I’m always the last one to get picked on a team in P.E. Dodgeball is the worst and most played game. The boys love it and are always the captains. I’m the last one picked—literally last—and then I stand in the very back with a bull’s eye on my head. Boys don’t want me on their team, they want me on the other team so they can practice their power shot. They certainly don’t “like me.”

I’m so busy thinking of what to say that I barely notice he’s moved his arm behind my back, scooted a little closer. “Are you warm enough?”

“What?” I turn away from the lake to find his face two inches from mine. Reflexes jump like a doctor tapped my knee.

“Are you warm enough?”

“I’m fine…” I say as I adjust my place on the rock, try to move further away without him noticing. The familiar dread sneaks up on me despite blue sky and big puffy clouds. Where is the Loch Ness Monster anyway? I feel like a deer on alert to rustling in the bushes.

“I really like you. You’re pretty cool,” he says. I look back into the murky lake for an answer. You make every hair on my body stand on end? In one motion he leans into me, drops his head down and puts his mouth on my mouth. I freeze like Bambi seeing hunters for the first time. The motor buried deep within starts trembling. His lips are touching mine and then his front teeth hit my front teeth. I can feel air coming out of his nose. There’s no air coming out of me. I forget to breathe, I forget where I am, and I forget that I can choose to move my body. My inside-self leaves the scene to figure out what I should do. I haven’t even seen the “Birds and the Bees” film at school yet. That’s sixth grade, next year. I had no bloody idea this is what was coming. I’ve been set up.

He scoots even closer to me. Just as I start to close my mouth to say that I think we should go back, his hand pushes my head forward and his tongue touches my tongue, stretches to my tonsils. It’s like a garden slug in my grandmother’s flowerbeds—slimy, thick, slow. The ones I pour salt on and watch curl up into a slimy ball. His tongue is writhing just like Morton’s has been poured down his throat. Peanut butter and jelly bubbles in my esophagus.

Instincts take over, my spirit reenters my body, and my head is yanked back by invisible forces. I am freed of the slug in my mouth. Luckily, I didn’t bite it off or throw up. That would have been harder to explain, embarrassing. “Um…we better get back to the camp. It’s probably getting close to dinner,” although the sun is still shining overhead. I put my hands on the rock and get up in one rapid movement like I’m doing a back handspring—if I could actually do gymnastics. I don’t wait for a response or even register his reaction. I want to wash my mouth out with the bacteria-laden lake water but secretly vow to spit this slime into the bushes as soon as it’s physically possible. Until then I hold it in my mouth. Mine has gone dry anyway.

“Wait,” Jason says. I stop to wait, to play it cool like I’m not so repulsed by what just happened that I can’t think straight. I concentrate on not letting his saliva drip out of my mouth.

“I’m waiting. I thought I heard Monica and Lisa, but it must have been a deer or something.” We walk back to camp in half the time it took to get here. I lead again. This time there’s no chitchat. I go straight into my tent and start reading my book, safe by myself inside my sleeping bag. When Monica and Lisa come back I tell them about what happened with Jason, at least the version of what could have happened if I were two years older than I am—not a kid who fell into a rabbit hole.

“You know, Jason is really nice but there’s another guy I like and so it was kind of weird.”

“Oh, tell us about this other guy,” Lisa says, her eyes sparkle, forgetting about her new backpacking boyfriend’s friend. Who knows what her at-home boyfriend is doing on the weekdays.

“He’s going into seventh grade next year. He has light brown, feathered hair. He lives in Kent and he’s really cute,” I say picking up details as I go. “I feel really bad about Jason. Will you tell him there’s someone else?” Words come out of my mouth like I know what I’m talking about. Being a reader helps everything, including instructions on getting through the most awkward of situations. Or maybe it came from watching General Hospital last summer. I’m learning how to do and say things like other people do and say things, like the characters in the books I read, television shows and movies I’ve seen. I’m learning how to watch, listen, and mimic my new, older more mature friends. I learn how to orient myself to the one who knows how things work.

“I will,” Monica jumps in. “It’s kind of weird that he just up and kissed you without warning.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t like that. That’s totally gross.” Lisa adds.

“Yes. You’re supposed to wait for signs that the other person likes you too, right?”

“Yeah, he definitely didn’t follow protocol.” I don’t say any more. In only twenty-four hours in backpacking camp I’ve learned it’s better to let other people fill in the details about what I’m thinking. The less I say the better. Just smile and things usually work out.