Out the Porthole

You’ll notice a different look to this blog, which has been incorporated into my new website in anticipation of the publication of HER OWN TWO FEET on October 1, 2019. It’s the same place-just remodeled.

We took a trip to Antarctica during Christmas break going the only way tourists can – via cruise ship. We booked with Quark Expeditions and boarded the Ocean Adventurer with 120 other passengers, a great number. Not too big, but plenty of interesting and well-traveled people to meet. Our family spread out in two cabins on the second deck, one with three beds and one with two. Benji got the top bunk, even though he’s now bigger than Alayna. Old habits die hard.

Each of our rooms had one tiny porthole that framed our view of icebergs, islands, and lots and lots of water.

One afternoon we got an announcement that there were humpback whales off the bow. We all raced up the stairs and down the narrow walkways to the front of the ship. There was, indeed, a humpback whale. There were lots of them.

I found a spot at the rail and admired their shiny black backs cresting out of the water as they ambled along beside us. I heard a gasp from port side and rushed over to hear people on the deck below yelling, “he’s going under the boat!” Back I ran to the right and sure enough, I could see the whole shape of the giant humpback as he passed from beneath. It was so close I could see the bright white of the side fins, and marvel at the size of the blowhole. I could fit inside that blowhole if I fell. I held on tight.

The whales stayed with us for quite a while. When we got an announcement to go to our cabins and bundle up so we could go out among them in the zodiacs, I was afraid they would leave before we were ready. It takes a while to get 120 passengers loaded into their parkas and hats and gloves and then onto the little black inflatable boats. We raced back to our cabins to add waterproof pants to our long underwear and fleece pant layers, and find all the little bits of winter gear. Clay got his camera, including the waterproof bag he rigged with a Ziploc, just in case.

The passengers were divided into five groups, and our group would be last to depart. I glanced out the porthole and noticed a guide in a zodiac floating just outside our room. He was scanning the horizon, and he looked disappointed. I was sure the whales were gone, but then he looked down and started pointing and yelling. A giant black humpback head come up right next to the guide’s zodiac.

Clay and I both freaked and ran out of the room with no parka or hat or gloves. The ship decks were almost entirely empty, everyone in their rooms getting ready for the excursion. There were five or six zodiacs in the water, empty except for guides. They were waiting for passengers to be loaded, and the humpback was curiously going from boat to boat. He was so close the guides could reach out and touch him. At one point he spouted out of his blowhole and coated one of them in mist.

I was jumping and cheering each time the whale came up to them, as if I was at a sporting event and my team was winning.

Eventually, the Shackleton Zodiac Group was called to board. We got into our boat and found another curious whale. He poked out his head to take a look at us, and splashed the water with his giant back tail fin.

He came so close we could see the white barnacles clinging to his back and his white side fin stretched out impossibly long towards us, revealing its massive size. If his side fin was that long, his body was three times longer!

He was so close we could smell his fishy smell and hear the breath exhale from his blowhole. I had no idea when I saw the whale come up under the guide’s boat that we would have the same experience. Even if that’s all I’d seen, that whale encounter framed through the porthole in our room, I’d still be writing this post. It was that cool, and then it was that much cooler.

I’ll share a few more Antarctica stories in future posts, and more news about the publication process for HER OWN TWO FEET. This is going to be an exciting year, and we started it off well as we said goodbye to 2018 under the bright Antarctica sky, the sun still shining at midnight.

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Chance Comes Once

Alayna is in her last semester at Texas A&M, preparing to graduate in May, 2018. It wasn’t easy re-integrating back into life in College Station after spending a semester in Grenoble, France.

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It wasn’t just the language and culture shock. It was the fact that most of her friends graduated last spring and life was going to look really different. She had one friend who remained, and a room in that friend’s apartment where she could put her mattress on the floor, and live out of cardboard boxes for a few months. I think we all figured she would grit her teeth and endure but hey, you only get one last-semester-of-college in life, and Alayna has never been one to pass up a chance at a new adventure.

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she flies through the air with the greatest of ease . . .

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in Rwanda, she’s always ready to engage with strangers who become friends

Last summer when she interned at Explore Austin she began to rock climb at a nearby climbing gym. What started out as a hobby turned into an obsession. Upon her return to College Station, she tried out for the Texas A&M competitive climbing team, the Craggies, and made it! For Spring Break she went climbing with friends in Arkansas.

 

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climbing in Arkansas

Since then she has competed in several competitions and most recently qualified for nationals in speed climbing!

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She is officially hooked. She makes multiple trips a week to Katy where they have a regulation speed-climbing wall where she can practice for nationals. She inhales climbing documentaries, and is asking for climbing gear for a graduation present. I am so proud of her for taking on this last semester with gusto, and re-inventing her life in College Station with this new passion. She’s met new friends, and she’s earned some gnarly callouses.

I know about re-inventing. I’ve been re-inventing my Rebeka book for almost a year now, revising and revising again. I’ve built up some tough callouses, taking constructive criticism and cutting some “darlings” to get to the heart of the story. My most recent revision was coming up with a new title when my agent wasn’t entirely happy with the first two. I had sent an email to a friend in Rwanda, asking her if the phrase “seize every opportunity and make the most of it,” was common in Rwanda. Something like “Carpe Diem,” or “seize the day.”

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Rebekkah in Rwanda, who gave me “chance comes once”

She responded that in Rwanda they say Amahirwe aza rimwe, which means “chance comes once.” The phrase captures perfectly the tension in Rebeka’s life. Many times she was given opportunities where saying “yes” wasn’t easy. At age five, she stayed alone at a clinic for eight months to receive treatments for her feet. She left family and friends and all that was familiar to come to America where she endured painful surgeries and challenging physical therapy. And when she returned to Rwanda, Rebeka left her family yet again to attend a prestigious boarding school located several hours away by car.

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Rebeka’s bed at boarding school the year she returned

They were all tough “yes’s” to once-in-a-lifetime chances. These two girls impress the heck out of me. They suck the marrow out of life, pushing themselves as they pursue new opportunities and continue saying “yes” to life’s adventures. I am forever grateful for the time they got to spend together.

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Chance comes once. Sometimes we get only one chance to take advantage of an opportunity, and these two girls embrace their chances with gusto. I did the same when I took the chance to tell Rebeka’s story, now titled CHANCE COMES ONCE: BASED ON THE TRUE STORY OF A RWANDAN GIRL’S JOURNEY, and I’m so glad I said yes.

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Baby #2: No Operating Instructions

I introduced baby #1 in June 2017. Baby #2 came to our family in September of 2017. She was much different than baby #1, partly because she wasn’t a baby. She was a thirteen-month-old bundle of energy and destruction and yes, cuteness. The cheeks, the chunky thighs, the poofy pom-pom ponytail that sprouted from the top of her head in a fountain of black curls, were so very different from any of our biological kids or foster baby #1.

She came as an emergency placement in the wee hours of a Friday morning and we knew very little about what she ate, when she slept, or whether or not she had a lovey (she didn’t arrive with one). As the caseworker went over paperwork she sat in my lap, rested her cheek against my chest, and was content to be held.

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It was soon apparent that we had received a child with no operating instructions. She had arrived with only the clothes on her back and a blanket supplied by CPS, a can of formula, and some diapers. We discovered baby #2 loved bananas. And screaming. And opening all drawers and cabinets, and pulling all books from bookshelves and dumping the dog’s food and water and yanking blinds and smacking dogs and picking up anything and everything that wasn’t a toy and putting it in her mouth. Clay and I spent hours following her around and trying to toddler-proof what we thought was a pretty safe house.

 

We knew she was exhausted, and most likely afraid, bewildered, and anxious. So was I. She clung to me and I tried to keep my composure and not break down into tears. Our sweet, quiet home had turned into a disaster zone. Over the next few days it became apparent that while baby #2 was awake, one of us was one hundred percent on duty.

But Baby #2 had no interest in books.

Baby #2 had no interest in stuffed animals except to body slam them to the ground and chew on their noses.

Baby #2 had no interest in sitting still. She crawled or cruised from place to place, stopping only long enough to throw or hit or somehow destroy whatever was in her path.

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she loved pulling everything out of cabinets

Those were the first two days. Hour by hour we began to figure baby #2 out. Clay thought music might help distract her and calm her so he told Alexa to play some jazz. Baby #2’s hand shot up like a conductor and she began to beat perfect time with the rhythm, shaking her hips and shimmying her shoulders. We had made our first breakthrough!

We decided a warm bottle right before bedtime might help her sleep through the night and lo and behold, she slept over twelve hours. We learned that sometimes she just needed to wail in her crib for a while to wind down. We’d give her a few minutes and she’d roll right over and sleep twelve hours. She grew to tolerate, and then love, her bath. She started reaching for Clay, and allowing me to the leave the room without breaking down.

We got baby #2 at an exciting time in her development. She went from cruising along furniture to letting go and taking her first independent steps.

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She went from saying one word (“gog”, everything was “gog,” from the dogs to her cup to Clay), to ba (bottle?), guh-gog (same as gog?), cuh-cuh-cuh (cracker?), and mama. Oh, that one was hard. I was not her mama, but when she was sad she would cry “mama” and reach out for me. And I would take her. Because for a time, hour by hour, I realized I was the mama, in all it’s scary, frustrating, rewarding glory.

She was placed with another family a few weeks after we received her. I sent her onward with a few operating instructions, notes about what she liked to eat, when she slept, and the small victories of learning not to pull the dog’s nose hair.

I have to admit we were a bit shell-shocked, being thrust back into the toddler years, and not just any toddler years but the life and times of a distraught little girl who had been through too much in her short life. It took a Vulfpek concert with Nate and some of his buddies . . .

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A big bag of Larry the Cable Guy Cheeseburger Tater Chips at the airport . . .

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And a trip to visit Alayna, who spent her fall semester abroad in Grenoble, France, plus a giant pot of melted cheese . . .

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to fully recover. What did I learn from this whole experience? Baby #2 reminded me I’m never really in control of my life. She reminded me to delight in small victories like discovering jazz and watching first steps. She reminded me I am flawed. I still have a lot of growing to do, just like baby #2. I am grateful for the reminder, humbled by the experience, and fully re-integrated into “normal” life. Until the next phone call . . .

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Rwanda Revisited

In July of 2017 I made my first solo trip to Rwanda to do interviews for my most recent project, based on the true story of Rebeka Uwitonze. I had been to Rwanda four times previously, with family and sometimes teams, but traveling alone for the specific purpose of interviewing Rebeka, her family, and others who know her brought a new level of intimacy and understanding. It was a privilege, and I learned all sorts of things I never knew. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Augustine, who made room in his busy schedule to translate for me and shuttle me around. We dug up old files and found treasure.

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Augustine was my translator and general “make it happen” man

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left is Rebeka’s sponsorship photo, right is Rebeka when she returned from US

Rebeka’s two youngest sisters have grown big enough to wear the clothes Rebeka once wore in Austin.

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left to right: nephew, Ooweetayka (sp?), Medi and me

Rebeka’s parents were gracious and invited me into their home two days in a row to tell me the story of Rebeka, starting with her birth.

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I got to see beyond the living room where we usually sit to the bedroom Rebeka shares with her sister, and the small dirt yard out back where goats and a cow hang out and maize dries in the sun on a blanket. I heard for the first time that Medi, Rebeka’s younger sister, was the first to go to school, before ANLM moved into the community, when the family only had enough money for one tuition. She would come home with chalk and teach Rebeka what she was learning by drawing letters and numbers on the concrete floor of their home. I saw the learning continuing with chalk letters on their back fence, scrawled by her little sisters.

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I met some of Rebeka’s friends who went running to find Rebeka when we arrived at her boarding school. She had no idea I was coming!

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left to right: Grace, Rebeka, Sharon and me

I had to break the news that it was just me visiting this time, and then I got to ask her a question that made a lump rise up in my throat. I couldn’t wait to tell her about writing her story, but what would she think? Would she want to tell it with me? Because I wasn’t going to tell it unless both our names were on the cover, side by side. It is truly her story. I just wanted to help her write it.

She said yes! She is excited to share her story and she answered my questions patiently. One of the things I have been curious about since she left in 2013 is how she described America to people back home. When I asked, she didn’t say anything about the fireplace that turned on with a press of a button, or the trampoline, or the grocery store filled with food. “I tell them about the ocean,” she said.

“What do you tell them about the ocean?” I asked her.

“I tell them it’s very big.”

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Clay holding Rebeka in ocean-California-Sprint Break 2013

The ocean is a great image, a great metaphor, for Rebeka’s time in America. It was big, from the surgeries to all her new experiences, including her first glimpse of the big blue ocean in California. Writing this book about Rebeka has been a little like wading out into the ocean. I’ve been knee-deep in facts, there have been some waves of uncertainty, but on the horizon is a big old story I can’t wait to share.

 

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Baby #1: A Strange New World

We are not allowed to share names or identifiable pictures of the foster children we care for, aren’t allowed to share details about their backgrounds. What I can share is how these tiny bundles of flesh shape and change my family and me personally. How they make us slow down, realign priorities, and inspire us to be better people.

Without further ado, I’d love to introduce you to Baby #1.

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After a lot of prayer and discussion, Clay and I decided we would only foster babies, taking in children ages 0-6 months. We could have these children anywhere from one day to two years, and we weren’t ready to care for children over two. Let’s be honest, I don’t know if we are ready to care for children of any age that aren’t our own. How do you prepare for potential brokenness coming through the door? How do you prepare for the unknown? This will be an exercise in letting go on many levels.

We were officially licensed to foster babies on Friday, May 12, 2017. We were told we may not get a call for months – not many babies in the system recently. That was fine. We were busy with the end of year senior activities, thesis week and graduation, plus Alayna was coming home to intern and Benji needed to practice driving . . . basically, we were busy. There was a crib in our exercise room/library, and a bouncy seat and foldable bassinet shoved behind a chair in our bedroom, but they had blended into the tapestry of graduation gifts and laundry. Fostering a baby had been pushed to the far corners of my mind, something to be dealt with in the summer, once school was out.

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We got a call Monday, May 15th. That’s right, three days after getting our license. I was sitting in a senior’s thesis presentation when I saw our caseworker’s name pop up on my watch. I hit “ignore” and tried to keep listening, but it was impossible. I figured it was most likely a problem with paperwork or something, but the possibility lingered that it could be something more. Indeed, I discovered after listening to her message and then a quick phone call, that there was a baby who needed a home. It happened fast, as it often does. By that evening, Baby #1 was in our home. We were told it was respite, we’d have her no longer than two weeks.

We stepped into the unknown with equal doses of fear and excitement. We had to borrow a car seat. We had to google how much a twelve-week-old baby eats, and how often, but none of our ignorance mattered once I saw her. I swooned as she was lifted from her car seat. She came out in the classic little baby pose, her arms bent by her head, elbows to ears, her legs folded up and her diaper-padded booty sticking out. She had the most darling elf ears you ever did see. They stuck out from her head like little sonars, perfect dishes of pink flesh. She examined the world around her with wide eyes. I could already tell she was exceptionally observant and intelligent.

She was passed from friend to friend in our community those first few days, she was loved well by strangers and marveled at by our family as we hovered over her. But eventually, it got real. When babies are tired, why do they cry? Why can’t they just go to sleep? Apparently, lots of parents have the very same question. They congregate online, everyone asking the same desperate question, bastions of disillusioned parents. She woke up around midnight, again around 4AM, and then she was up for good by 6. Even splitting the shifts between Clay and Alayna and me, it was rough. During the day, she was happy in the same spot for about fifteen minutes and then she wanted moving, or holding, or maybe she wanted to sway and bounce, or we tried going outside, a stroller ride, a car ride.

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Babies require a great deal of attention. I knew this, we were ready to give this, and yet no matter how willing you are, it is still exhausting. We began to wonder if we would be  “one and done,” as in one baby, and call it quits. We were only kind of joking. Don’t get me wrong. We loved her, oh how we loved her. We took dozens of pictures and videos I wish I could post. We lost our minds when she rolled over, tummy to back, for the first time. We laughed uncontrollably, giddy and in love, when she had her first belly laugh. Clay discovered Baby loved rasberries. He made a fool of himself and got the biggest smiles out of her.

Once a week we took Baby to see her biological mom. We gradually learned, from various sources, a little more about Baby’s history. We were asked if we would be willing to have Baby for longer if things didn’t work out. It could be a year, maybe two, if right were terminated and she was adopted. We said yes. We went there. We went beyond babysitters to something more, and then we got a call. It was Wednesday, June 7th, a little more than three weeks after Baby came to live with us. The woman was from CPS.

“Can I pick her up this afternoon?” she asked. I put her on speaker so Clay could hear because I was certain I hadn’t heard right.  “The judge has granted kinship care,” the woman said. “I can be there in a couple hours.”

My stomach dropped. My heart flipped. Major organs rearranged. While Baby napped peacefully in our exercise room/library/nursery, Clay and I cried on the couch. We got it all out. Then we woke up Baby so we could hold her, and play with her, and feed her one more time. We packed bags, did laundry, washed bottles, and by 5PM, she was gone. Whisked into a stranger’s car, gone to live with her aunt.

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By the next afternoon, all the baby stuff had been packed up and put in the attic. Our house was quiet. We slept all night. We got all those things on our lists done. And we scrolled through all those pictures and videos of Baby. We did it. We brought her in, loved her well for as long as she was with us, and we let go. She made us slow down, and it was good. She made us be patient, and it was good. She reminded us that we aren’t really in control, that it’s okay to let go of calendars and to-do lists, and it was very good.

I want to say we are ready for the next call, whenever that call may come. Maybe months. Maybe tomorrow. But I don’t know if you can ever really be ready for the unexpected. You can just be willing to step into the unknown. The world of fostering is a strange new world, but we’re willing to keep stepping for now. Towards Baby #2, and beyond.

 

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The Next Adventure

Although my last post was from August 2014, that doesn’t mean nothing has happened in the past two and three quarter years. Alayna has weathered the college years with great success and looks forward to studying abroad this fall in France and graduating from A&M next spring.

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Nate just graduated high school and is taking twelve hours this summer and another full load in the fall at ACC with the hope of transferring into UT in January. His playlist is diverse, his friends are plentiful, and he makes a mean omelet.

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Photo credit: Courtney Cope www.courtneycopemedia.com

 

Benji has grown, he is no longer a tiny little guy but taller than both Alayna and me. He’s into acting, and soccer, and friends, and he’ll be driving a stick shift by the end of the summer.

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Photo credit: Courtney Cope www.courtneycopemedia.com

Clay still works at LiveAnew, plays some golf, and is currently growing extremely hot habanero peppers at a rapid rate. He is my biggest fan and my best friend, we recently celebrated 24 years of marriage and adventuring together.

I am still writing stories for children, and for the last few years I’ve also had the opportunity to be part of the Austin Stone Story Team. I’ve learned how to interview and I’ve worked with some amazing editors. It’s been awesome to see my stories come full circle as they make their way into the world.

There will be some particularly interesting “stories in the street” in the coming months and years. It seems adventures come in cycles for the Davis family. In 2007-08 we traveled around the world for nine and a half months. In 2012 we hosted Rebeka from Rwanda for almost a year while she had surgeries on her feet.

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When Rebeka returned home we started asking ourselves what our next adventure would be. I don’t mean to say that we do these things for the sake of having an adventure, but it’s what ends up happening when we say yes to big things. It took a while for the path to materialize, but here we are in 2017, our path strewn with diapers and pacifiers alongside diplomas and driving permits. The Davises are stepping into foster care, willing to take a baby for a day or a year, maybe two. It is a world just as foreign and strange as Morocco or Vietnam. A world of plastic, vibrating bassinets and tiny tubes used to suck boogers from teeny noses (I refuse), a world of massive paperwork and massive heartache, a world that is broken and filled with everyday heroes. I hope to tell you about some of them here. These are the kinds of stories where real names can’t be shared, and pictures can’t be posted. I hope I can do them justice.

I’m also traveling to Rwanda solo in June 23rd to interview Rebeka and her family for a book I’m working on. There are many adventures ahead, and many in the rearview mirror. Stay tuned for more stories in the street.

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These Shoes Are Meant for Walking

I’ve been reading this great book by N.D. Wilson, called Death by Living.

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I want to quote the whole thing, my highlighter will run out of ink before I finish it, but here’s just a taste: “Drink your wine. Laugh from your gut. Burden your moments with thankfulness. Be as empty as you can be when that clock winds down. Spend your life. And if time is a river, may you leave a wake.” (p.117)

These words struck a chord with me. They reminded me of Benji’s shoes. See, our kids wear uniforms to school, and at the beginning of the year they get nice, new shoes. Regulation brown shoes like these:

Benji's 2014-15 school shoes.

Benji’s 2014-15 school shoes.

As we were getting ready for school this year, I discovered Benji’s old pair of shoes from last year.

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Benji’s 2013-14 shoes

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Benji’s 2013-14 shoes.

Benji lived a lot of good life in those shoes. He played a lot of gaga ball, chased friends, hurried to class, and wore a path to school and home again. He spent some life, and he left a few wakes. I loved finding those shoes. And I loved finding this shoe.

The shoe Rebeka wore when she arrived in the US, summer 2012.

The shoe Rebeka wore when she arrived in the US, summer 2012.

Talk about a shoe representing a life. I shadowboxed one and sent it with Alayna to college, and kept one for ourselves. Rebeka’s is a life filled with struggle and fight and victory, and we got to see some of it unfold on our own home soil.The shoe looks tiny because it only needed to fit the top of Rebeka’s foot, contorted and curled. The shoe represents such a big story, on a grand scale. Ten-year-old Rwandan girl travels to Texas to live with a family she’s never met and undergo painful surgery, unsure how long she’ll be here or if the surgeries will work. She learned how to speak English, how to read, how to turn on a light switch and a water faucet. That’s drama. But there’s drama in Benji’s old Sperry’s, too. Much to be thankful for in both of their stories. Here’s one more quote from Death by Living.

“Imagine sticking your finger on your pulse and thanking God every time He gave you another blood-driving, brain-powering thump. We should. And we shouldn’t, because if we did, we would never do anything else with our living; we wouldn’t have the time to look at or savor any of the other of our impossibillions of gifts.” (p. 108)

“Impossibillions.” It doesn’t matter what’s going on in our lives, whether life is good or life is hard, we have much to be thankful for. We take breaths, “pie smells like pie and hangnails heal and honeycrisp apples are real and dogs wag their tails and awe perpetually awaits us in the sky.” (p. 108) I framed Rebeka’s shoe, but I wonder if I should have framed Benji’s shoe, too. To remind myself that time is always passing, life is always being lived, no matter how “blog-worthy” it is, and it should be appreciated even if it can’t be held. Benji bought another pair of new shoes this summer, lacrosse shoes.

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They hold all the hope and promise of a wild, passionate time of his life as a new season begins. These particular shoes are made for running, playing, and stating to the world, “I am Benji, hear my turquoise roar.” And by the end of the season, may they be ragged and worn through, soaked with sweat and striving and learning and living well.

Benji's 2012 lacrosse team.

Benji’s 2012 lacrosse team.

 

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Catching up with Rebeka

For all the Rebeka fans out there, the ones who followed her journey to Texas, her surgeries and casts, those who prayed for her and cheered for her and loved her story, here’s another little chapter. My dad, my sister, and her three kids recently traveled to Rwanda and while there, they were able to visit Rebeka.

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From left to right, Wyatt, Leslie, Rebeka, Emma, and Claire, with my dad in back.

I asked my dad if he could make sure Rebeka wasn’t wearing her braces anymore. Her physical therapists had stressed before she left that if she wore the braces after she had grown out of them, they could rub blisters, and because of the arthrogryposis, she may not feel them. These blisters could get infected and . . . well . . . my imagination filled in enough scary details to make me just a wee bit worried. I knew she had been wearing her braces recently because a friend had seen her in them at church, and I knew she must have grown out of them by now because her toes were at the ends of them in November.

Dad sent this video the afternoon they saw her. Notice the lack of braces. Notice how quickly and easily she’s walking around. How strong her legs have become. Notice how long her hair is, all braided and coiled into a bun in back. Notice how she wears those cute pink tights under her skirt (that’s our Rebeka) and notice that cute-patootie mousey  shirt that was one of my favorites. It makes me sad to think she’ll grow out of it soon, but this video, it makes me very, very happy.

I worry too much. I know that. Our oldest is about to leave for college and it feels a little like Rebeka leaving all over again. She’ll be far away and I won’t be able to check in and see what time she went to bed, if she ate a good breakfast, if she’s tired or needs a smoothie. Yes, she’ll just be a few hours down the road in College Station, but still. She won’t be here, sleeping under our roof, and I’ll miss her terribly. I know she’s ready, though. She’s ready to race into her future and meet new friends and learn new things and walk without the braces of our home and all things familiar. Rebeka was ready to fly. Alayna is, too. They were the best of friends, almost sisters, for about a year.

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There will always be something special between those girls. They shared a room, and their lives, and they learned a lot about each other and themselves. One of Rebeka’s old teachers came up to my dad while they were in Rwanda, and couldn’t wait to tell him about Rebeka’s transformation. The teacher said before Rebeka came to America, she never smiled. She had no friends, and kids at school called her a cripple. She spent a lot of time in the principal’s office, and she didn’t do well in her classes. But when she came back, she was smiling. She makes friends easily, and she’s respected by her classmates. She even finished second in her class!

It made me think about Alayna and her transformation. While not nearly as dramatic, she learned a lot from her time with Rebeka. She learned she could do hard things like take care of a leaky nerve block bag at 2 in the morning. She learned how to have perspective about getting braces after watching Rebeka get cast after cast after cast. And she learned that she might want to be a physical therapist, after watching Rebeka at her appointments. We may never know how much those girls shaped each other’s lives, but I do know this. Alayna has shaped up into a beautiful young woman, and we can’t wait to see where her path will take her. Godspeed, sweet girl. We love you.

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Something New

I was recently struck by a line in the book I Am a Pencil, written by Sam Swope.

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The book is Sam’s story of going into a third grade class and teaching creative writing. In one portion, the classroom teacher asks Sam if he has any homework for the kids, and Sam remembers what he calls “the best assignment I was ever given. One that changed my life.” He tells the kids that on their way home from school, he wants them to, “Notice something new, something you’ve never seen before, some little thing you’ll be glad you saw.”

The other day, I got home from the store, walked into the kitchen with my hands full of bags, and saw this out my window.

Look close . . . that's a parade of paddle boarders on Lake Austin.

Look close, all those little dots . . . that’s a parade of paddle boarders on Lake Austin.

This parade of paddle boarders was heading down the dead-quiet lake. There were at least a hundred of them, with boats escorts, and music, because all parades have music, right? I felt a little left out. Why didn’t anyone invite me? I googled and discovered they were a group benefitting Dam that Cancer, and they were paddling dam to dam on Lake Austin to raise money to help families dealing with cancer diagnosis. That’s over 20 miles of lake to paddle, and they’d  been at it since early morning.

It was easy to notice that particular “something new,” but some days I may have to try a little harder,  pay attention. I found this on the bathroom wall at BookPeople.

Graffiti on the bathroom wall at Bookpeople.

Graffiti on the bathroom wall at Bookpeople.

Wow. I’m in love with hash browns, too! There was more.

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Who knew such wisdom could be found on the bathroom wall? Then I found these in the bathroom at the new Royers Pie Haven.

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I love this “notice something new” idea of Swope’s. It reminds me of one of my favorite book characters. In Clementine by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Marla Frazee, Clementine is constantly being called into the principal’s office because she isn’t paying attention.

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But Clementine is paying attention. She’s paying attention to the clouds out the window, or the fact that the lunchroom lady is sitting in the janitor’s car and they are kissing.  Clementine is constantly “noticing something new,” paying attention, just not to her teacher.

Now that summer is upon us, I hope to have lots of time to notice new things, at least one a day. And I hope it becomes a habit I carry with me into busier times. As a writer it’s essential, and as a human, it’s a pleasure. I’ll allow my eyes to gaze out the window, my steps to slow on the sidewalk. You never know what you might find.

I saw this critter out the window of my car while driving down Koenig Lane.

I saw this critter out the window of my car while driving down Koenig Lane.

Cactus blooms on a hike in the greenbelt.

Cactus blooms on a hike in the greenbelt.

Benji and his friends are masters of finding "something new." They found this little turtle and kept him "safe" in a shoe.

Benji and his friends are masters of finding “something new.” They found this little turtle and kept him “safe” in a shoe.

 

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The Cathedral of Junk

If someone were to look at the google search activity on my computer, they might be puzzled. Banana sticker images? Leila’s hair museum? A video uploaded to YouTube on December 20, 2010 about Marilu Henner’s superior autobiographical memory? These are all things I’ve researched in the past six months while working on a middle grade novel, and I love it. I love where my writing leads me. Today’s work led me to the Cathedral of Junk in South Austin.

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I took notes and lots of pictures and asked a few questions of the artist who made, and continues to make, it all happen, Vince Hannemann.

photo by Chaney Kwak, www.kwak.in/essence/

photo by Chaney Kwak, www.kwak.in/essence/

The Cathedral is 25 years old, and exists behind a quirky little house on a fairly ordinary looking street in South Austin. When asked to name one of the things he was most proud of, Vince said, “My building permit.” The structure seemed sound to me, as I crept all around, walking up and down stairs and under arbors made of twisting metal and repurposed mattress springs. It was solid.

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When I asked Vincent what his grand plan was, he said, “I can’t tell you that.” It is the line many writers will give you if asked about their current work in progress. I sense that Vince’s work in progress will continue to progress and progress, growing up and out and winding around his yard. But also growing in, becoming more dense as he adds something here and there.

 

The CD's that hang everywhere remind me of Christmas ornaments, and the silver duct tubing looks like giant tinsel. Bicycle tires, hubcaps, and an art deco light shade, it is unexpected and made me smile.

The CD’s that hang everywhere remind me of Christmas ornaments, and the silver duct tubing looks like giant tinsel. Bicycle tires, hubcaps, and an art deco light shade, it is unexpected and made me smile.

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And when I asked if he could tell me where Darth Vader’s head was, he nodded. “Sure.” He could tell me where pretty much every piece of “junk” could be found. After all, this was his creation, and he knows it intimately.

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I’m certain he could find the Simpson family, too.

In addition to getting some great ideas for my novel and my characters, I found this space required me to slow down. The slower I went, the closer I looked, the more I noticed. If I could only apply this to my whole life, not just the backyard at 4422 Lareina Dr. It is the purpose of cathedrals, I think, to encourage us to be still and notice and wonder.

Watch what you notice in these three pictures as I get closer and closer.

Watch what you notice in these three pictures as I get closer and closer.

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I spy toy cars, a meat fork, swing set chain . . .

I spy toy cars, a meat fork, swing set chain . . .

The entire place was an act of trust. While some items were secured with wire or concrete, others were just tucked in here or there. Hundreds, probably thousands, of people visit the Cathedral of Junk each year. Vincent trusts that they’ll leave stuff where they find, and for the most part, they do. To me, this place was about redemption. Things that would otherwise be forgotten were being used to delight and to inspire. What better place for that to happen, than in a cathedral?

Check out the crutches framing this throne.

Check out the crutches framing this throne.

A colorful nest of wires

A colorful nest of wires

Old mattress springs,  blue bottles and sunshine. A masterpiece.

Old mattress springs, blue bottles and sunshine. A masterpiece.

Research for this novel has led me all sorts of interesting places. What’s it about? I can’t tell you that. Not yet. But I’ll tell you this. I sure do love what I do.

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