Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Forest Bathing

The summer I was 20, I lived and worked at a youth hostel and retreat center in Grand Lake, Colorado. An Indiana girl, I had before then only ever dreamed of living in the mountains. I spent much of that summer in Colorado wondering why I was born in the flat land of corn.

The job required me to spend three out of every five days running the registration desk, cleaning toilets, and cutting vegetables (not all at the same time, obviously). But, the other two days, I was free to roam, and little by little, I covered most of the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park, walking alone for hours surrounded by rocks, trees, and bodies of water whose grandeur was a constant reminder of how small and insignificant my life was next to the vastness of the universe and the expanse of geologic time.

My days on those trails were spent encountering unexpected wildlife and discovering new vistas around every turn. In the mountains, I was completely present. Everything seemed clearer. I felt like I could breathe for the first time. I left that summer in the mountains restored.

Me, Colorado circa 1992
One of my good friends from college spent the same summer at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. In those pre-email days, I was a fervent letter writer, and she was one of my most reliable pen pals. I wrote about my anguish at knowing my time in those mountains was limited since, come August, I had to go back to the stifling humidity and relentless flatness of the Midwest. She wrote back, "Breathe deep the mountain air and save it for the rougher days."

I'm not sure I've gotten such good advice before or since.

Back at college, I tried to live by those words and draw upon the lessons I learned during those hours alone in the mountains. And, when the last reserves of mountain air seemed to leave me, I drove along the lonely country roads of rural Indiana searching for any vista that could appease my wandering soul.

I've had chances to be in the mountains since then. Ren and I met and started dating because of our love of hiking. For three years I lived on the side of a mountain in rural Kyushu and rode my bike along rivers and rice paddies. I spent weekends with Ren exploring Kuju and Aso and Kirishima. But, our struggles with autism and allergies and the (god forsaken) spine have left us landlocked in a barren landscape. It's hard to imagine hiking and biking and camping given the set of challenges we face, and it's even harder not to feel completely hemmed in by the fears that these challenges bring. But, it has also become abundantly clear to me that I need the mountains and woods like I need the air in my lungs.


*****


Just after sunrise at camp.
As things have fallen apart the past few weeks, I've felt myself drawn to the woods (flat though they may be). Walking along creeks or lakes in the early morning or evening, I try to find some of that "mountain air" that makes it possible to breathe.

In Japan, they acknowledge the restorative power of nature by emphasizing the importance of "forest bathing" (shinrin yoku). Forest bathing highlights how simply being in the woods can heal our souls.

Sunset at camp.

I've started taking the kids with me when I walk or bike. It seems they could use some restoration, too. It thrills me to see them drawn to the trees and streams and rocks. They haven't lost their ability to let nature speak to them.
Near home.
We had already started planning a two-week road trip out West when we learned about the broken rods, so yesterday after we got home from the surgery consult, I had to tell the kids the trip was off. Their responses were quick and unfiltered; they were angry and sad and scared. They wanted to know why they have to spend so much of their lives waiting for their dad to have surgery or waiting for him to recover from surgery. They wanted to know if we would ever get to go to Florida or Colorado or Hawaii or any of the many places their friends visit in the summer. They worried about starting middle school and high school less than two weeks after the surgery. They know how much life turns upside down when Ren has surgery, and they were worried about what this seventh spine surgery would mean for all of us.


Whereas with previous surgeries, I could convince them (and myself) to look on the bright side, this time, I found myself at a loss for words. They're right. This is scary and unfair. None of us deserves this.
Near home.
Today, I decided we'd go to the mountains anyway. It will be a shorter trip, and we will have to fly instead of drive. I'm trying not to worry about the cost of it as we head into another avalanche of medical bills. Maybe forest bathing is what we need to get us through this time. I don't know, but it's certainly worth a try.



"The mountains are calling and I must go." 
John Muir

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Nerf Karate Panda Party

Stow has been talking about his birthday party for months. He kept suggesting grand plans that sounded, well, hard. And, expensive. He wanted to go to Great Wolf Lodge (So. Overpriced. Also, no way am I spending the night at a water park with other people’s kids. I know my limits!). He wanted to go to Chuck E. Cheese (This is my wish for you, dear blog reader; may you never, ever have to do a party at Chuck E. Cheese). He wanted to do a swimming nerf party (Gah! Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to, well, you know. Plus, the last time we tried to do a swim party on his birthday, it was cold and rainy and everyone ended up inside watching a movie they’d all already seen).

“Let’s have a karate party,” I suggested more than once, but Stow resisted the idea. The anxiety Stow developed during the basketball season had carried over into karate, and he missed a lot of lessons during the winter. This made it difficult to help him get back into the swing of it. For weeks, I'd been kicking myself for not anticipating the ways that changing his karate routine might mess up the awesome vibe he'd developed there.

Two equally compelling reasons drove my persistence with the karate birthday party suggestion, though. First, it would be a cheap and easy party. They provide the karate instruction and the space as well as a free (!) month of lessons for each kid, and all I had to do was bring food and decorations. After a long semester and a fifth-grade campout, I couldn’t imagine a better way to manage a birthday. Second, I hoped having a party at a place where he’s been successful would give him confidence and maybe even reignite his passion for karate.

So, I enlisted Pink’s help. Whenever the topic of Stow’s birthday party came up, she knew to casually say, “A karate party would be so cool! I wish I could have one.”

Up until two weeks before his birthday, Stow continued to change his mind about his party. He wanted a shopping mall party (???), a movie theater party, a Build-A-Bear party. It seemed that every encounter in his life held the potential of being the world’s best birthday party.

As he started to finally settle into and do well at karate again, I decided to ask one last time.

“What would be your favorite party ever?” I asked him on our way home from a karate class.

“A nerf gun panda party!” he replied, without missing a beat.

“Well, we can’t do a nerf party at our house, but I can ask about doing that at the karate place.”

“Yay!” He replied.

And, so finally, he agreed and we found ourselves hosting the first (and probably last) ever Nerf Karate Panda party:


Nerf battle.

Helping lead the karate instruction.


Makeshift panda cupcakes.
Party favors--Panda sleeping masks.
And, it turned out to be a perfect little party. The kids had fun. It was low stress for me. Best of all, many of the boys said it was their favorite party ever. The only downside?

Finn. He's been following me around the house ever since the party, staring at me with his flat affect and soulless eyes, oddly stiff arms and legs that don't entirely bend at the waist...Every time I turn around, there he is. It's hard to get things done when Finn stares at me like that.