Juneau in August.

bella cran glacierBy what crazy accident of birth am I so blessed?

This is the thought that came to my mind in June, when I was making this trip to the Pacific Northwest for the first time this summer.  As our plane approached Seattle, I could see all the way down into California to Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta, on up to Mt. Hood in Oregon, followed by Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier in Washington state.  Five perfectly formed volcanic mountains, n all their snow capped glory, for me to see.  Now, maybe for other people this is commonplace, something they are used to, but as for me, it made me catch my breath and whisper a prayer of thanksgiving.  And ask the question I posed above.

And here I am again, asking that same question.  The Pilot has been making this trip to Seattle and Juneau all summer, and while I was able to accompany him back in June while our children were at camp, this is the first time the kids have been able to come along.  For me, there’s just something about being able to share these experiences with my children.  From the perspective of homeschooling, of course, it is indeed a unique educational opportunity.  We saw salmon spawning in the rivers, bald eagles wheeling and calling out overhead, and saw the flukes of humpback whales as they prepared to dive, all from a boat on one of the channels that leads to Juneau.  We saw seals vying for our attention, swimming and playing near the pod of whales that held us enthralled.  We learned more about the natural world around us in one afternoon than we could in weeks of reading and studying.  But I think the true educational value goes beyond that.  I hope that their hearts were stirred by what we encountered yesterday in a way that will change them forever, make them more connected to why we’re here and what our place in this world is.  I realize that may not happen for them right now, but perhaps it will in the long run.  I know that I am changed by what I saw and experienced yesterday.

I can’t imagine how you could be that close to some of the earth’s most amazing creatures and not have your heart, some part at the very core of you, moved beyond words…

So I’ll back up a little to the basics of how we got to that place.  Here I am again, in Juneau, Alaska, in the summertime, tagging along on one of the Pilot’s trips.  It has a very different feel to it than last time I was here, due in part to the fact that last time there was a Native Heritage celebration going on and the town felt more connected to its native roots, with both the good and bad that come along with that.  This time, the town was quieter, more connected with the intense beauty of the natural world around it instead.  The salmon are running right now, and I saw more than one person carrying a freshly caught, freshly cleaned salmon, wrapped up and cradled like the treasure that it is.  Impossibly green, the mountains around us rose into the crystalline blue skies, which was another of yesterday’s astonishing gifts since most of the time it is cloudy and rainy here.  The cruise ships weren’t docked on a Monday morning, so I had the town to myself, without the usual press of cruise passengers hurrying to shop and dine, as I walked around looking for a place with green tea and Wifi.

We had flown in from Seattle the night before, and after spending a little time in the local saloons (yes, they call them that) and making a late night stop for tater tots (not kidding, and they were delicious), we turned in for the night and woke up early to begin a morning of hiking for everyone but me.  I chose cafe sitting and people watching instead; I love my family, but sometimes I just need my peace and quiet.  But then, early afternoon, we met back up and caught a shuttle to the docks outside the town of Juneau, where we boarded a boat called Big Mike and met our curmudgeonly boat captain.  He then took us, at a brisk clip, out into the channels around Junuea in hopes of seeing whales.  We were assured that we would see some, either humpback or orcas, possibly both.

We were not disappointed.  Whales were everywhere.  I truly had no idea what to expect, thinking that I wouldn’t really be able to experience these enormous yet gentle creatures; they are underwater and I’m, well, not.  But then I saw the telltale spouting above the water of our first whale for the day… my reaction, completely involuntary, brought me out of my seat and caused me to squeal with delight.  All of us onboard (save the captain, who was obviously very jaded to the delights of whale watching) ran outside the boat’s cabin to try to get a better look.  As it turned out, there were about five of the cetaceans, hanging out together because that’s what families and friends do.  They would surface together, and five moisture-filled puffs of air would suffuse the air above the water.  They would spend a little time milling about there, giving all of us time to ooh and ah and snap photographs, and then you would see the “hump” of their backs flex and bend, followed by their tails lifting out of the water as they prepared to dive.  This was followed by several anxious minutes (at least for me) as we waited for them to return, keeping our eyes glued to the spot where we’d last seen them but knowing that they could come up anywhere.  Thankfully, they came up repeatedly, and we were able to watch them for at least an hour.

At one point, they were so close to our boat that I could hear one of them groaning in some sort of communication with his friends.  Wouldn’t you love to know what they were talking about?  Because I know that they were talking.  I just know it.  I’m not one of those arrogant humans who thinks that we have the corner on the market on communication.  No, these guys were enjoying their day, just like we were.  Who knows- maybe they were watching us right back!

But as they moved around us in their quiet choreography, our group became progressively more hushed.  What had inspired leaping and shrieking in me initially gave way to a more meditative state of mind, and I didn’t want to talk or even really to take any more photos.  I just wanted to revel in the feeling of something larger than me, something that would get me out of the crazy swirl that my thoughts can sometimes be and certainly have been lately.  The ocean always does that for me, but this took it to a new level and I sensed my body and mind slowing down, as I felt the ocean and the whales inhaling and exhaling right along with me.

For the first time in a long, long, time, I. Just. Breathed.

The best part?  At one point I glanced at my children seated behind me, and I could see from their faces that they were feeling the same things that I was, even if they didn’t have the words to give those feelings voice.  And that is the most valuable type of education that I could ever give them.

Learning how to be.

Learning how to breathe.

 

 

 

Alcatraz.

Alcatraz ArrivalBeing married to an airline pilot has its perks.  In fact, I kind of think that the Pilot has the Best Job Ever, and I should know, since after all he’s spent 17-plus years in the military as well.  Why is it the best job ever, other than the fact that it means he no longer has to spend months on end in places like Afghanistan or Iraq?

Because sometimes he gets trips to terrific places and his family can tag along.

So recently, tag along is exactly what we did, on a trip to San Francisco, California.  We didn’t fly out with him- we went out a little earlier so that we could meet up with family and have dinner with them, which we did, at an Italian cafe in North Beach, not far from our hotel.  (Okay, well, we didn’t actually eat there- we ate Chipotle before we got there.  That’s one of the bummers of being gluten free…  most Italian food is effectively ruled out, but the glass of wine I had was delicious!)  And do you know what the best part of the evening was, besides seeing family?  That we walked everywhere we went.  At night.  And were (mostly) safe because everybody else was out there walking too.  I love Atlanta, you know, but a walking city it is not.

But San Francisco is very much a walking city, and I’d bet you we probably put in about 10 miles in our two days out there.  I could certainly live that way!  And one of the things we did while ambling about the city was to go on a tour of Alcatraz.  Now, touring Alcatraz is not something you do on a whim.  We had to order tickets about a month in advance- apparently, everyone wants to tour the place, making it a very popular tourist destination.  Which typically makes me not want to do something.  But, this is an exception- one of those things you really have to do if you’re visiting San Francisco- kind of like going up the Eiffel Tower if you’re in Paris.  Yes, everybody’s doing it, but that’s because it really is that cool.  And so, into the very long line we shuffled, and onto the boat that takes you out to the island.  In my opinion, anything that gets you out onto the water is worth doing- I love being on the ocean even for short rides in the harbor (I have been known, back when we were spending lots of time up at Whidbey Island courtesy of the US Navy, to ride the ferry boats just for fun).  And this one is a very short ride out to the island that houses the famous prison.  In no time at all, you are stepping out onto where some of history’s most notorious criminals were housed in the early part of the 20th century.  That the ride is short is in itself significant:  these criminals really were being kept very, very close to the city, teeming with normal life, all happening right there almost in front of them.  But they were also worlds away.  You could see how strong and swift the current was, and feel the chill of the cold, cold waters of the Pacific.  They are pretty sure that nobody who tried to escape ever actually made it.

The prison itself is a fascinating place to walk through.  You are given a headset to guide you, and you get to learn about the cells where the different individuals were held, where they ate their meals, and everything about their strictly controlled lives.  You learn about who tried to escape, who was held there, and yes, that does mean Al Capone.  And the best part of the tour for us was the fact that we just read a book together called “Al Capone Does My Shirts” by Gennifer Choldenko.  Things don’t always come together that smoothly for me- it sounds good in theory to read about a place and then go visit it, right?  Actually making it happen, however, is more complicated than that.  But we pulled it off this time, and as we walked around the island, we were imagining Moose and his sister Natalie and where they might have lived and what they felt like, living there on the island with all those convicts, taking the ferry across to the city in order to go to school or whatever else they needed to do.  Having just read their story brought the island to life for us.

And that is what a good story should do.

 

Comfort zones.

This is our neighborhood, which has made the drive all worth it.

It’s good to leave comfort zones, sometimes.  To stretch yourself a little.  You’ve probably heard that quote by Eleanor Roosevelt- “Do one thing every day that scares you.”  Well, I’m certain I don’t hit the every day mark, by any means.  But I think that yesterday’s adventures should stock me up for a while, or at least I’m hoping so.  You see, yesterday we flew in to Charles de Gaulle airport, just me and the kids, and I rented a car and drove out of Paris in rush hour traffic, made my way through the French countryside, and found our house that included directions like “look for the 1 kilometer marker.”   It’s funny- such things never used to worry me before, but with kids, well,  there’s just something about being responsible for two more lives that makes me a little more nervous than I used to be.  So yesterday, I definitely stretched.

Renting the car- no big deal.  The initial drive from the airport to Paris- also no big deal.  And then, driving the loop around Paris in order to continue south wasn’t a big deal.  Not really.  Unless you’re completely jet lagged, and driving a manual transmission at approximately an average of 20km an hour.  It took me absolutely forever just to skirt AROUND the city, and my foot began to go numb from holding in the clutch for so long. It was the rush hour part that was the most awful, though the crazy French road sign thing was also a challenge.  I never truly knew where I was going- it’s merely by the grace of God that somehow I made my way to the correct autoroute.   And the car does this trick when you put it in neutral and let out the clutch- it dies.  And then restarts when you push it back in.  Which, since the car is not a hybrid, I did not expect, and which worried me. But oh, this car had even more surprises in store for me, this tiny little Ford.

When I finally cleared Paris, which I had begun to doubt I would ever be able to do (I started to hate Paris- who hates Paris??), life improved.  I made progress, and in reality the drive wasn’t that long if you don’t count all the time sitting perfectly still while in Paris.  The countryside began to get more and more beautiful, and those lovely signs that the Europeans put along their major highways began to appear- the ones that show you what interesting thing that each town has to offer.  I started to see lots of warnings about the possibility of wildlife crossing the road, but noticed that they had built wildlife bridges over the autoroute in several places, which is a fabulous idea as far as I’m concerned.  Finally, I saw the sign announcing that I had entered the region of Burgundy.  Just as I was wondering if I’d be able to see the vineyards, I came over the top of a hill and voila:  grapevines as far as I could see.

And then, finally I left the autoroute for the smaller roads that would bring me to our town.  The closer I got, the more vague my directions became.  I found the town, but my directions said to leave the town heading south, and my darling little Ford has no compass, so I had no earthly idea which way south was (and this marked probably the hundredth time that I wished that the Pilot had been able to come with us at the beginning of our journey- he joins us in a few days).  I did the only reasonable thing, since I am a woman:  I stopped to ask directions at a bakery in the town center (and bought a baguette as well, of course).  While two women attempted to make sense of my directions (and could not, which made me feel better), the third took a look and said, “Oh, I live two houses away.  You can just follow me!”  Thank the good Lord in heaven above for sending me THAT blessing, because I was beginning to have visions of never, ever finding our house.  We both bought our bread, and she got in her car and I got in mine and started to back out… and couldn’t for the life of me figure out where reverse was on the car (that I was beginning to despise more and more by the moment).  Yes, indeed:  Surprise #2 of the tiny Ford was that reverse apparently involved a secret handshake that I was not privy to.

And that is when I was able to make my dramatic entrance into French life, into the town where we are staying.  The aforementioned surprise for me that my car had in store for me (I didn’t mention that I couldn’t roll down the window at the first toll booth I came to, did I?  The window controls are in the center console… Surprise #1).  I was in the town square, after all.  Not exactly empty.  Several men came over and tried to help me find reverse.  The kind lady that I was supposed to follow gave it a shot.  No good.  Not one of us could figure it out.  And so, my newly appointed French-speaking guardian angel issued an order to the gentlemen all around:  they were to push my car backwards out of its parking spot, which they promptly did (my guardian angel, who I would guess to be about 60, helped as well.  Unbelievable).  At last, I was going to make it to the house.  And thank goodness everyone in town knows we are here.

After that, it was only another 3 minutes to the house.  Easy enough to find if you know where you are going.

And by the way, my newly appointed French-speaking guardian angel came by later that day and took us to the market so we could fill our pantry without having to back my car out of another parking space.   Now, how’s that for French hospitality?  And how lucky am I that she just happens to be my neighbor?

And how lucky am I also that the house caretaker is a lovely British man who quickly decoded the Ford’s secret handshake?  I can now drive in reverse.  Whew.

Chapter One.

“Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.  When you read you begin with A,B,C.  When you sing you begin with do re mi…”

The beginning is indeed a very good place to start.  Though with life as the story line, there isn’t always such a cut and dried beginning.  Or ending for that matter.  But a good choice for the beginning of the story of this particular family and for this particular journal is when The Pilot and I met.  That’s my husband.  It’s a good name for him since he is, in fact, a pilot.  So, many years ago in a little town called Montgomery, Alabama, The Pilot and I met while suffering through US Air Force Officer Training.  We met on Easter Sunday morning, though according to him, he’d noticed me long before that.  I can’t believe that to be true:  camouflage and combat boots are not how we women typically set about getting ourselves noticed.  But that’s his story.  Anyway, it was Easter Sunday morning, and in a moment of deep spirituality I decided to attend the sunrise service because of the free breakfast afterwards.  And there, between me and my second helping of biscuits, was The Pilot.  He tried to talk to me.  I said,  “Excuse me.  I’m trying to get some more biscuits.”  And I walked off  and that was that.

Thank goodness he kept trying.  We proceeded to date each other, from afar, for the next several years (the US Air Force is unconcerned with matters of the heart.  We never lived near each other till we got married, and even then we didn’t live with each other for a while).  We often made a mess of things- dating someone is hard enough WITHOUT a 1000-mile separation between you, but we muddled through and followed our hearts and what we believed God had for us, and here we are now, 2 kids and 13 years of marriage later.  Living proof that God uses even the biggest of messes to do His work!

As you could figure out from where we met, in my previous life I was in the military, and I loved my job.  I joined, among many other reasons, because I love to travel. And lucky me, I got to do lots of it.  Not as much as The Pilot, but we’ll get to him in a bit.  Of course, even before I joined the military I loved to travel and got to do my fair share of it.  My mother took me to Paris and London when I was 16, and that was it:  I was hooked.  I got to go to Austria and Germany with my college choir, and then when I was about 20, I got to go to Russia and Kazakhstan.  I decided that I wanted to learn to speak Russian after visiting the country, so Russian school came after that. It was in Vermont, and believe me, for someone born and raised in Texas, Vermont seemed like a foreign country.  After I finished college, I moved to New England for a year and then even further north for a year after that to Montreal.  In Montreal, though I was studying Russian, I picked up French on the side.  Which was enough to get me a fabulous job once I was in the military:  a temporary gig as a French interpreter working in the south of France.  Ha.  What an amazing deal that was- I’m still not sure how I pulled THAT one off…

As for The Pilot, he’s a very interesting guy.  He was born in Africa to missionary parents, and upon their return grew up mostly in the mountains of Colorado.  You’d be hard pressed to name a place in the world that he hasn’t been to or at least flown over.  When we first met (after initial training, of course) he was flying airplanes into hurricanes.  Yes, indeed.  Into hurricanes.  For purposes of weather research, you see.  Look up the Air Force Hurricane Hunters sometime and see what those crazy guys do.  They are saving lives, and it takes an impressive amount of bravery and skill, or insanity, or maybe all of those things.  When our daughter was born, he decided to do something safer, so we moved to California so he could fly U-2s.  Look that one up too.  Safer?  Hmmm.  Oh yes- and he likes to do survival training in the wilderness, especially the Arctic, and works out physics equations to relax.  See?  I told you he was an interesting guy.

And now he flies an airliner, which is a beautiful thing because it helps to feed our travel addiction.