Princess (A True Story of a Little Girl I Knew Quite Well)

Once upon a time there was a little girl who wanted to be a princess.
It wasn’t just that she wanted a poofy pink dress with sparkles or a pony all her own that she could ride. It wasn’t just that she wanted to live in a big castle. It wasn’t just about dress up and make believe. She wanted to be royal. She wanted to be beautiful and graceful and noble and brave.

She wanted her father the king to dote on her and her subjects to love her and princes to come from far and wide to seek her hand in marriage. She wanted to rule wisely and bring happiness and also, obviously, to save her kingdom from some grave danger.

In her head she imagined many such scenarios.  She lived out the stories when she was alone, using all her brains and guts to solve as many crises as her eight-year-old brain could conceive.  She wasn’t any fainting flower princess.  She was a brave princess, bold and daring.

When October rolled around, then, and her mother asked her what she wanted to be for Halloween, there was only one possible answer.  Of course she would be a princess.  Of course.

The next few weeks were very exciting.  Her mother went to thrift store and brought home a lovely, filmy ball gown.  The girl’s eyes shone as her mother adjusted it to fit her small frame.  Another day, her mother found the perfect blue shoes to match the dress.  They even had a little bit of a heel.  The girl tried them on and walked carefully around the house imagining her future splendor.  Hair styles were discussed.  Sparkling jewelry was added.  It was perfect in every way.

The week of Halloween finally came, then the night of the Halloween carnival at school.  It was cold and grey and drizzly outside, but inside the little girl glowed with happiness as she put on her dress and her shoes and her jewelry.  Braided hair completed the transformation.  She was a princess, finally looking on the outside what she had long felt like on the inside.    

Of course, all these glories had to be covered up with a raincoat and hood.  The weather would not be concerned with the state of her dress.  The whole family piled into the station wagon and headed out.

In the back seat, the little girl looked out at the rain and felt her insides begin to tremble.  Slowly a pit grew in her stomach and worries began to crowd her brain.  As they pulled into the school parking lot, the girl could see dozens of families piling out of cars and running laughingly through the rain toward the school.  Light streamed out of the doors and the sounds of thronging people echoed out into the night.

The girl’s joy in her princess clothes was completely gone now, washed out in one terrifying thought.

Everyone was going to see her costume and then they were going to know.

All these strangers would be know her most treasured secret, her greatest longing, her innermost dream. They would see that this plain, ordinary redhead in a small town in Oklahoma dared to imagine that she was an actual princess.  They would see how silly it was.  They would find her ridiculous.

It was unbearable.

The little girl was silent as they went inside.  Her brother donned his giant cardboard-box robot costume. Her mother offered to help her take off her coat.  But the little girl refused.  She didn’t want to take off her coat.  She didn’t want anyone to see her costume.

The rest of the evening was excruciating.  The school was crowded, packed with laughing people playing carnival games and collecting candy and participating in cake walks.  The little girl, with her coat wrapped tightly around the costume that could betray her, was hot and uncomfortable.  She was in constant dread of people asking her what she was dressed as.  Many times her mother offered to take her coat, but the little girl just clutched it tighter.  

It was the only thing protecting her inner life from this crowd of strangers.

Finally, finally, the family had enough and they went home.  As they got into the car, the little girl could see the disappointment in her mother’s eyes.  She had worked so hard on that costume and in the end no one had seen it.  The little girl wanted to tell her.  She wanted to say that it was lovely, that it was perfect, that her mother had done everything just right.  She wanted to say the real reason that she didn’t dare show anyone.  But she couldn’t.  It was all too embarrassing.  It was all too ridiculous.  She just wanted to go home and forget that all of this had ever happened.  She wanted to go back to dreaming her private dreams, beautiful and alone.

But the princess dream was no longer beautiful.  Something about that night had made it lose its’ brilliance.  She could no longer pretend to be noble and gracious because she knew that she was not.  She was ordinary and selfish.  She could no longer pretend to be brave and daring because she knew that she was not.  

She was a coward, afraid to expose her inner life to anyone who would not understand it, and though she didn’t know words like vulnerability and candor, she did know that she no longer felt like a true princess. She did know she couldn’t pretend she was, even to herself.

Still, the little girl wanted it.  She wanted to be what she was not.  To be brave.  To be confident. To let was inside, out into the world.  To be free. To be true.

The little girl wanted to be a princess, and now she knew what it would take.


My Life In Trees

I don’t know how tall the tree next to the driveway really was, but it seemed like a giant to me.  I was five, and the streets of small-town California were my whole world.  I had already watched my father fall out of this same tree, but it didn’t stop me from loving it, from climbing up the little two-by-fours nailed to the trunk and stepping onto the branches and going higher and higher until it felt like I was all alone on the top of the world.

Or, mostly alone, at least.  My brother was usually with me, just a branch or two below. Being two years older meant he was bigger and more cautious.  He told me not to go up too high, not to step out so far.  Naturally, I didn’t listen.  Do little sisters ever listen?  Not the stubborn, independent kind.  I don’t recall exactly, but I’m pretty sure that’s what brought on the dare.  Me venturing out too far, ignoring his warnings, no doubt bragging that I wasn’t afraid.  If you’re so unafraid, he said, why don’t you crawl across the carport, over the roof, and down the porch rails on the other side?

I dare you.

It probably seemed like a safe dare, so outlandish that he could prove his point without fear of any danger.  Let’s just say he learned two things about me that day (and maybe that was when I discovered them myself): 1. I truly wasn’t afraid (not of things in the real world, at least) and 2. I would always take a dare.

I held my breath on hands and knees the whole way across that fiberglass carport roof.  I scrambed nimbly and much more sure of myself over the sloping shingles of the house roof.  I was assailed by a moment of doubt at the thought of swinging my legs over the edge to climb down the porch, but the thought of that dare pushed me to action.

I was just climbing onto the porch rails when my mother came out the front door.  Now that I am a mother, I am truly sorry for the heart attack I gave her.  Everyone was amazed.  Shocked.  Angry.  Terrified.  But amazed.  I was pretty impressed with myself, to be honest.

I’ve been daring myself to do terrifying things ever since.

You know that girl will do absolutely any crazy thing.

I still remember when I discovered the little stand of silk trees behind our neighbors’ houses. They were a whole land of imagination all by themselves.  We were really living in military issued housing, a tile-floored ranch on a little housing development plopped in the middle of some fields on an Oklahoma Army base.  But across that quiet street and behind that row of boring yards was a magical world.

The branches swooped low and waved their fronds of fern-like leaves.  The blossoms were pink puffs of softness, perfect for decoration or for gathering to be woven into magical garments.  The long seed-pods hung down in clusters to be gathered for stews or to be stowed as provisions for all sorts of adventures.  Even now when I think of the endless private world of wonder that is childhood, of long afternoons outside, of skinned knees and twigs in my hair, of sun and shade and the smell of honesuckle, those silk trees are the picture I see.

There I learned to create worlds and to be rich while owning nothing at all.  I played in those worlds alone and I also brought friends in to play along, only to discover that nothing seemed the same through someone else’s eyes.  So there it was that I came to the sad conclusion (childish, but then, I was a child) that I should always only hug my magical worlds close and keep them safe from prying eyes.

For the record, this is the only time I can ever remember my mother holding a gun, but if those red pants and that pointed hood don’t say “doesn’t fit in this all too real world” I don’t know what does.

Later the tree was in our back yard.  For as much as it was my favorite place to be, for as many hours as I spent in its branches, I couldn’t now describe even a single branch to you.  I know it was off to the side, up against the neighbor’s fence.  I know that the bottom branches were low enough that I could reach up and, holding on tight, walk my feet up the trunk until my whole 13-year-old self could scramble up into the tree and disappear among the leaves.  I know that somewhere up above the roofline was the perfect forking branch where I could settle in, leaning back against the trunk and reaching up to the perfect little branch above where I kept the box.

I’m not sure when I thought to start keeping the box in the tree, but I do know once I put it there, it stayed there for a long time.  It was only an old cardboard shoe box, but inside I could keep a few treasures, things I thought were beautiful and should be stowed in a secret hideout in a tree.  A rock.  A pinecone.  A few faded flowers.  And a book.  Always a book that I could pull out and read, sitting on my branch, hidden from the world that contained middle school and poufy bangs and acid washed jeans.

I could just be me, in a tree, where things were green and other lands were just a page-turn away.

How did that book get wet? my mother asked.  Did you leave it outside?

I just nodded, not wanting to explain that I hadn’t really considered the ineffectiveness of a cardboard box as protection against the Oregon rains.  But the book dried out.  And I loved it all the more because it had had its own treetop adventure.

It turns out a book can take you away from your adolescent self and drop you in someone else’s life and also be a wrinkly-paged reminder that rains will change you but never stop you from being who you are inside.

Not long after, I sat up in that tree while a gentle rain fell down and felt that life was a pretty beautiful thing after all.

It was an awkward time.  You would have hidden in a tree, too.
The Indiana tree was miles down the road, tucked away in a park only a few a locals ever visited.  When I just had to get away, to be out of the dorm life of college friends and the pressures of trying to be someone grown up and headed somewhere, I sped down the country road to the empty park and stared at the lonely little trees and breathed.

Breathing really only works when you’re looking at trees.

Then I would drive back, get on with life, be social again and enjoy the thrills of becoming.

As college neared its end, the panic began to grow.  The visits to the out-of-the-way park became more frequent.  The breathing became more determined.

One day in a burst of desperation I got out of the car and strode over to the nearest little tree.  With great difficulty, I pulled myself onto the bottom branch.  I scraped my leg.  My shoulder ached.  I climbed one branch higher and had to stop.  I wasn’t sure the poor tree could handle my weight.  I stood there, clinging to the trunk, feeling huge and awkward, and it hit me.

I was a grown-up.

Without trying or achieving or performing any sort of ritual, I just was what I was.  An adult.  Too big to climb little trees.

A wave of sadness came over me.  I couldn’t be as light and care-free as I once was.  I was all grown up now, weighed down to the earth, confined to the realities of my real-world age and size.

And then I relaxed.  The breathing got easier.  Because just living had gotten me here to this place, so just living would get me through it.

I got back in my car and went back to my living.

A few short weeks later I sat in a different car looking at that same tree when the man who would become my husband gave me my first kiss.  The tree waved in the wind, just being a tree, not trying to be anything else.

All felt right with the world.

I wanted to go on and on. There are probably half a dozen more significant trees in my life. But time is short and memories are hard work. Thanks to Lil Blue Boo for the idea. It gave me an excuse to think about trees, which is another way of saying, it made me happy. More of life should be spent on things like remembering trees. Especially since, as you can see, I have no pictures of those places. This is my snapshot, probably as poorly lit and unevenly colored as all old snapshots are, but what’s the use of memories if not to be slanted in just the way you want them?



We just wanted a tire swing. 

After spending the winter sitting behind my big brother singing songs as we rode the Wonder horse in the garage, I was ready for some outdoor fun. He was six and knew everything. All it takes is a rope and an old tire, he said. Dad could hang it from a tree branch. 

I picked out the perfect one.

In one of the shining victories of childhood, Dad agreed! This was a good idea. He had the rope in the garage. It was a sunny afternoon. Oh, the fun we would have.

I pressed up against my brother and watched as Dad tried to toss the rope over the branch I had chosen. Too high. Too many other branches in the way.  He wouldn’t be deterred, though. He climbed.

My jaw dropped. My big strong father shimmied up the tree, rope over his shoulder.  He pulled himself out on the branch, a little further, a little further. He didn’t want us to swing into the tree trunk.



The branch snapped.

My father fell, straight down, onto the hard ground, flat on his back.

He lay there. Eyes closed. Not breathing. Not moving.

A new epoch in my life began. 

From that moment on, my whole world was different. The ambulances came. It was too late. The neighbors stared. The pretty little girl down the street with the shiny brown hair  pitied the weird fatherless redhead.

There was a funeral. My mother cried. My brother had to wear that suit he hated. I was the little girl in the black dress who had killed her father.

Sooner or later everyone realized, of course. They knew I had picked out that branch myself. They knew who was to blame. Murderers do not get sent to jail when they are only four years old, but no one wants them in Kindergarten either. 

No Dad meant no job. We were penniless. We had to move out of our house, in with my grandparents. They never forgave me for killing their son. 

My mother still loved me, of course. She still tucked me in a night. Nothing could change that. But she was tired now. She had to work all day. There were no more thin pancakes for breakfast. No one to listen to my stories.

My brother understood. The tire swing had been partly his idea. He bore some of the blame. But he had to be the man in the family now.  He aged before his time. He never rode  the Wonder horse again. We had to sell it anyway. My grandmother hated the squeaky springs.

No thin pancakes. No Wonder horse. No Dad to make up stories or sing silly songs he claimed were from his childhood. 

I wasn’t me anymore. I was some half-orphan murderer I didn’t even recognize.


I screamed.

I ran into the kitchen, where my mother stood washing dishes, still unaware that she was a widow. I pulled her hand, dripping water and suds everywhere.

She sprinted behind me to the garage, beginning to realize the severity of what had happened.

My dad was sitting up, shaking his head. Got the breath knocked out me, he said. That branch was too thin, my mom pointed out. I think you gave the kids quite a scare.

Her hand was on my shoulder. My dad was standing up now. I barely noticed either of them, too busy unliving the life I had just passed through. 

There has never been any period of time in my life when I was fatherless.

As far as anyone knows.

We Jump

But I still ultimately disagree with the concept of saving people from themselves. Individuals have the right to pursue dangerous activities, as long as those activities don’t affect the lives of people who do not wish to be involved — and that extends into the realm of activities for which the downside cannot be predicted.
-Chuck Klosterman (in The Hazards of Other Planets)

I have been thinking a lot lately about the Mars One colony.  And yes, I know the whole thing is super iffy and there is reason to believe it will never actually happen, but the idea of colonists on another planet, not in the pages of a book but in the real world, captures my imagination, and I have the luxury these days of spending time with things that capture my imagination.

The thing I love about Mars One is the daring of the whole thing. Daring to say that such an incredible thing could happen and daring the world to laugh at it. I don’t even care if money is the sole motivator. It’s a gutsy move. And all those people applying to be colonists. Knowing full well that they’d be heading out on an expedition they’d never come back from.  Knowing full well they could die in some horrible fashion or (worse?) live a long time locked up with a bunch of crazy people.  Knowing full well that they could be mocked mercilessly if the whole thing turns out to be a ridiculous hoax.  I don’t care if they’re nutballs. It’s a gutsy move.

More people should be this gutsy.


Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
-Helen Keller

I still remember the first real risk I took.

I was 22. Sitting in a black Ford Taurus, next to one of my best friends in the world, late at night. It was Halloween.  Deep breath. Pounding heart. Unable to bear the idea of just swallowing everything I felt and going home to bed, safe and miserable. So I said it. I hedged a little. I worded it cautiously. But I said it. I suggested that maybe, just possibly, it was time to be more than just friends.

Sixteen years later that risk is still paying off so big it’s hard not to be reckless every minute.


We are the curators of our own lives. Curators make choices. Like when I was 21, 22 years old, I was selling vacuum cleaners, and probably making $125 to $150 a week. But when an opportunity came along to act in a play in Hollywood making $50 a week, I took it readily. That’s a curator’s choice. I felt my selling vacuum cleaners wouldn’t do anything for me as an artist.
-Leonard Nimoy (from an interview with Esquire in 2013)

All art is inherently risky. I’m taking this part of myself and throwing it out there into the world where anything can happen to it.  It can be criticized. It can be mocked. Or (worst of all) it can be ignored.

Not can be. Will be.

We’re too old to go into this with illusions about that.

But I’m in a rare position in history and geography.  I’m here in a place where I am free to create. I’m educated enough to create.  I’m safe and well-fed and warm enough to create. I have all the tools I need to create. I have no excuses.

I will lay it out. I will tell stories that only a few will hear. (Not no one. Just not enough. Never enough for my fragile ego.) And I will remind myself why I do it.

I do it because I can.

I do it because I’m alive and because I want to keep being alive.

mountain“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

It gets harder to take risks as you get older.  Life has rubbed off your boundless enthusiasm and confident optimism.  Consequences are real to you because you have seen them and felt them.  More is at stake.  Those consequences won’t just be your own. Small lives depend on you.

But to stop risking is to stagnate, to cease forward motion and begin to circle. Any scientist can tell you that orbits are dangerous. A little bit of drag and your orbit decays, your crash is inevitable.  (Or what’s the better option really? Endless circling?)  Those consequences won’t just be your own. Small lives depend on you.

Not risking is not an option. Now we learn to risk differently. To choose our risks with open eyes, counting the cost. To commit ourselves to old-fashioned hard work, to following through, forcing the ephemeral into reality with the bleary-eyed doggedness of 5 am.

We dedicate ourselves to sacrifice our own needs to achieve our dreams and to never demanding that others sacrifice theirs. We take a deep breath and we accept the probability of failure. We stare it down and we plan more carefully than we ever have in our lives for how to survive it.

We hold our responsibility and our daring in constant tension and we hold on to each other to keep it from pulling us apart.

We choose our mountain and we climb it day after day. Hand in hand we approach each new chasm and, not daring to blink, we jump.

“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”
― George Bernard Shaw

My Story, Their Story

It started with an innocent comment about the difference in our ages. 28 years. And yes, my daughter is 10, so there goes all the mystery about my age.

Somehow that led to the question why. Why 28? Why was that the age I finally decided to have a child? And how long had I been married? And how old was I when I got married? And speaking of getting married, what was that like anyway?

Questions like that don’t have a succinct answers. Questions like that have stories.

I was sixteen, far from home, super excited about a summer of working hard with other teenagers, super nervous to be sitting in the big group of them, super self-conscious and wondering what they all thought of me. Was my hair too frizzy? Did I look calm enough? Why didn’t I wear the other jean shorts? When they asked people to talk about themselves, I started planning. Be genuine. Tell the truth. Sound confident. Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t act like you aren’t trying to say anything stupid. Some guy in the row behind me stood up for his turn. The minute he started talking, my eyes got big. He was earnest. He was impassioned. He used big words and made no effort to sound cool. He talked about why he was there and how much he wanted to serve people. And I sat in my chair and thought, “What is with this dude? There is no way this guy is for real. No one actually talks like that.” And I looked around the room. And I wondered which of the people I saw were going to be my closest friends.


The five-year-old completely lit up. She is the princess of stories anyway, but these stories were real. These stories were true. These stories were about her favorite people in the whole world.

These stories were also pieces of fantasy. These stories were about people who don’t exist anymore. These stories were about people she could only imagine.

It was my sophomore year of college and I had a job off-campus waiting tables. It was hard to squeeze in the hours between classes and rehearsals and homework, but college wasn’t going to pay for itself. On my way home from one long shift, still smelling like pizza and the bleachy spray I had used to clean up the salad bar, the back tire of my little car blew out, leaving me stranded in the rain. Making a phone call meant walking to the nearest gas station and popping quarters in a pay phone.  I considered calling my brother, but I couldn’t risk wasting my quarter if he was too busy, so instead I called the one person that I knew would come no matter what else he was doing. I called my friend Nate. He came. He changed my tire in the middle of a mud puddle. He followed me home. And then he brought me the patched up tire the next day and spent an hour showing me how to change a tire by myself.

Even the ten-year-old couldn’t roll her eyes too much. I refrained from lecturing. I refrained from offering dating advice or mentioning the best age to get married. (I’m not sure that I have any. I’m not sure that there is one.)

She’s heard a few of these stories before, but somehow they just don’t get old. Not when it’s your parents. Not when it’s the story of how you came to be.

That summer was the hardest one I had ever spent. The next year would be my last year of college and I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when it was over. I was living with my parents, but they had moved to a new town in a new state, and I didn’t know anyone there but them. I waited tables every hour I could get, and I hiked the mountains alone on all my days off.  My mom asked me to go with her to a funeral. A lovely family in their church had lost a baby. Stillborn. I didn’t know them. I went anyway. It was as heart-wrenching as you could imagine, but the love the little family felt for each other was palpable. I sat there and thought that if I ever had to face such an incredibly horrible moment, I would want Nate to be with me. I mean, I would want my husband, whoever he was, to be there, too, of course, but I would hope that m friend Nate would come and visit me. I thought that seeing him at a time like that would make something so painful a little more easy to bear.


The conversation came to a natural end. We dropped the oldest off at a birthday party. Back in the car a few minutes later, my little girl asked for more stories. “What else would you like me to tell you about?”

“Maybe you could just give more details,” she said.

We didn’t stop talking all the way home.

It was the best and the most exhausting summer of my life. Study abroad. Two months in Argentina, speaking nothing but Spanish, wandering the streets of one of the greatest cities in the world with one of my best friends in the world. Really good bread and really horrible sinus infections. Adventures and misunderstandings and a World Cup win against England. Plus a few visits with our really good friend Nate who was living as an intern on the other side of the city. Those visits were really something. Eating churros with chocolate and watching this person I’d known so long completely light up from the inside out. The work he was doing. The people who were teaching him. The new ideas. We talked for hours. It was thrilling in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. Until three months later. Back at home. A cold and rainy night when the blankness of my future rose up and threatened to swallow me whole. A long conversation sitting in his car. The mere suggestion that we could…maybe…in some possible reality…be more than friends. “I’m going back to Argentina,” he said. “I know,” I said. And everything in my world fit together.

How do we talk to our kids about love? How do we talk them about growing up? How do we talk to them about dating? About marriage? About sex? How do we talk to them about becoming a parent?

There are no right words. There is no list of rules that ensure they’ll walk the right path. There is no adequate way to explain the complexity of life.

But there is our life. Our triumphs and our mistakes. The things that fill us with pride and the things we bitterly regret. Those things are real and they are alive.

And here’s the real kicker about our stories:  unlike our lectures, our kids actually want to hear them.

What on earth are we waiting for?

Undefined Truth


Let me tell you a story.

Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 in Germany to a non-religious Jewish family.  She grew up, went to the university and studied philosophy, but was prevented from becoming a teacher because she wasn’t allowed as a Jew to complete her teaching prerequisites.  She spent time researching anti-Semitism before being arrested by the Gestapo in 1933.  She was only in prison briefly and then left the country for France.  At the beginning of the war, she fled with her husband and mother to the United States, having been given illegal papers by an American diplomat who aided Jewish refugees.  After the war, she returned to Germany and worked for a Zionist organization that rescued children and settled them in Palestine.  She began to write books.  She became well-known as a philosopher, though she didn’t like being called that because she said philosophy was concerned with individual man.  She considered herself a political theorist because she focused on the fact that “men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.”  She became a college professor and lecturer (the first female lecturer at Princeton, in fact.)  Hannah died in New York in 1975.

The man who helped Hannah and her family get to the U.S. was named Hiram Bingham.

Hiram Bingham was born in 1903 to a distinguished Connecticut Christian family.  He graduated from Yale in 1925.  Bingham’s career in the foreign service took him to Japan, China, Poland, and England before landing him in Marseilles, France in 1939.  When Hitler invaded in 1940, the French government put foreign refugees into internment camps and the U.S. government discouraged diplomats from helping these refugees.  Bingham didn’t care.  He cooperated with rescue workers to help over 2500 Jews flee from France as the Nazi’s approached.  He aided the emigration of Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, and novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, even sheltering Feuchtwanger in his house for a while after aiding in his escape from the internment camp.  As a consequence of all this, the US government pulled Bingham from France and transferred him to Portugal and then to Argentina, where he proceeded to help track Nazi war criminals in South America.  Naturally, he was passed over for promotion, and resigned from the foreign service in 1945.

Lion Feuchtwanger was born in Germany in 1884.  He fought briefly in World War I, but was released for health reasons. He was a playwright and later a novelist who was very influential in the life of famous playwright Bertolt Brecht. Feuchtwanger was among the first to recognize and expose the evils of the Nazi party.  His Conversations with a Wandering Jew was published in 1920 and already described the anti-Semitic fervor that would overtake his country with eery accuracy.  You can read more about the story of his persecution by the Nazi party and the many, many people who helped him escape here.

You can read about Bertold Brecht here.

You can read about philanthropist Martha Sharp, who worked with Hiram Bingham, here.

You can find your own meaning in these true stories wherever you want.

(All this information comes from the hallowed lines of Wikipedia. Yep, that's research.)




By the Full Moon

When I was a little girl, I lived for just a few years in a little house in the state of Oklahoma. It was a normal sort of house in a normal sort of neighborhood, probably not unlike the one you live in now. I was friends with the little girl next door, and the other neighborhood kids were friends with my brother and used to come and play basketball on the hoop in our driveway. We all rode bikes and ran back and forth and had general good times on our safe, quiet little street.

There was only one yard we did not go to. It belonged to a large house, set back off the road and half hidden by overgrown trees. This house was always dark, which caused a lot of talk among the kids, but it wasn’t abandoned. The red car that was parked in the driveway was sometimes on the right and sometimes on the left and sometimes gone altogether, so someone must have been driving it. Whoever it was didn’t show his face much, though, or mow his lawn. The grass grew tall, sometimes as tall as our knees, much to the annoyance of the retired army sergeant who lived next door. Sometimes the sergeant would come over and mow the grass down himself, cursing under his breath all the while, to keep the neighborhood from looking ridiculous.

I avoided this yard, the same as everyone else, but I felt a strange fascination for its owner. I couldn’t help wondering what sort of life it was to be always in the dark and to come and go without anyone seeing you. An unseen life. The idea made me sad.

Once when I was wandering slowly by, keeping to the sidewalk but gazing steadily at the half-hidden house, I thought I saw a face starting back. It wasn’t at all like the face I had been imagining. It wasn’t at like any face I had ever seen, mostly because it was under a shock of wild-looking hair, and also was spotty and only had one eye.

I thought I must have imagined that last part. I told my brother about it, just to be safe. He laughed and said that I was a silly little girl. He said he had seen the guy who lived there coming out his front door and getting in his car one night just before dark. He said he looked like a normal guy and probably just worked at night. This sounded very rational to me, but I didn’t believe it.

Then one hot afternoon near the end of summer, I wandered out of our back yard and left the gate open. I didn’t mean to leave the gate open. I meant to be as careful as possible, but I was reading a really great book, and I didn’t want to put it down as I moved around the house in search of better shade, and I pulled on the gate, just not hard enough, and it never latched. I knew better than to leave the gate unlatched because we had a puppy named Panda, and he was always looking for a chance to escape.

Sure enough, Panda got out of the yard. I saw him streak by my reading spot and realized my mistake at once. With panic flooding my stomach, I dropped the book and ran after him. He darted around trees and in and out of yards, following some scent and his own joy. I called and called his name, but he knew this was his chance, so he pretended to be deaf. Before I knew what was happening, Panda had trotted right up to the high privacy fence that surrounded the back yard of the UNSEEN house. He squeezed under a loose board and disappeared.

There I stood, overcome with fear, trying desperately to decide what to do. If I went home and told someone what happened, I would be in big trouble for leaving the gate open. And what if something happened to Panda while I was getting help? Summoning my courage, I sprinted toward the back gate. I tried the handle and found that it was unlocked. Hurrying, so I wouldn’t have to think about what I was doing, I opened the gate and went into the yard.

It was the strangest yard I had ever seen, so strange that I stopped short and forgot all about my puppy for just a second. Neon flowers grew in spirals all over the place. Purple vines with triangular leaves covered the fence and most of the back of the house. A glass fountain stood in the middle of everything, with orange soda frothing into the air.

Next to this mesmerizing fountain stood Panda, but he wasn’t alone.

As soon as the gate clicked shut behind me, the mound of fur hunched next to my puppy straightened up and I was looking at a monster.

It was at least seven feet tall and had bright purple hair over most of its body. On the top, the hair stood straight up, giving him the look of someone who had stuck a fork in an electrical outlet. His one large eye and the pink spots that covered his furry purple face left no doubt that this was what I had seen in the window that time.

I turned to run, but my legs wouldn’t move. I opened my mouth to scream, but nothing came out.

“Don’t be afraid,” said the monster in the very nicest voice you could imagine. “I won’t hurt you.”

I turned around and saw that he had knelt down again next to Panda and was stroking his back. Now that he wasn’t towering over me, the monster didn’t seem so terrifying.

“Is this your dog?” he went on in his pleasant voice. “I just love dogs. What is his name?”

“P…Panda,” I forced out, relieved that my voice did actually work after all.

“Panda…oh! Like the bears! I can see why. He does have just the right Panda bear markings on his face. Very clever.”

I nodded, unable to believe I was talking about names with an actual monster.

The monster must have been thinking something similar because he quickly ducked his head. He was still petting Panda.

After a minute I forced myself to speak again, though it came out very squeaky, “I have to take him home now.”

The monster looked up. “Oh, yes. Of course you must. I’m sorry. It’s just been so long since I got to pet a dog.” He paused for a moment and then rushed on like he was nervous. “Do you think he could come back sometimes to visit me? Just, you know, whenever it was convenient? He doesn’t seem to be at all afraid. And I would take good care of him.”

I didn’t know what to say. It was true, Panda looked extremely comfortable sitting next to that ridiculous fountain. (I wondered if it really could be orange soda in there.) The monster’s face, which should have been terrifying, somehow just wasn’t.

“I guess,” I said finally.

“Oh good!” The monster stood up and did a little dance. He looked so ridiculous that I couldn’t help laughing. This made him act even sillier, until I was doubled over with giggles. Finally he began to laugh, too, and tumbled onto the ground.

“Oh! You don’t know how long it’s been since I laughed. Maybe when your puppy comes to visit, you could come along, too.”

Before I even knew what I was doing, I agreed.

And that is how I came to be friends with Jax. On my second visit, he told me his whole story over giant cookies and glasses of orange soda dipped straight from his fountain. He was from a land called Solax. (I never did quite understand his explanation of how you get there.) Solax was full of people who looked like him, but he had been sent away ten years ago.

“It was because of my…affliction.” He said sadly. “At first people just called me names, maybe laughed, maybe kept their distance. But after a while, they began to worry that my affliction was catching. No one wanted to risk that, so I was sent away, never to return.”

Obviously, I was really curious about what his “affliction” was, but I didn’t think it was polite to ask.

Panda and I made several visits to Jax’s house that summer. Jax always had fresh cookies and he always had weird flowers to show me in his garden and he always had interesting stories to tell about Solax.

The only bad part about being friends with Jax was that I couldn’t tell anyone. Who would understand a little girl visiting a big monster? Who would understand a big monster living on a quiet suburban street? Who would understand a big monster existing?

On the last night of summer, I made one more secret visit to Jax’s back yard. When I got there, though, he wasn’t there. I went to the back door and knocked. No one answered. I was so disappointed. The sun was setting, and I couldn’t stay long. School started the next day, and I knew I wouldn’t be a able to come visit much once I was in class all day and had homework and early bedtime and all those school things that made September so annoying.

I was turning to go home when Panda gave a loud bark. He was wagging his little tail crazily. I saw a face quickly whip out of sight in Jax’s back window. It wasn’t Jax, though. It was a young man with brown hair and a sad look on his face. My heart pounded. Had someone found Jax?

I couldn’t just leave without finding out. I crept forward and tried the handle of the back door. It was open. Panda and I slipped inside Jax’s kitchen. There at the little white table sat the young man. He stared at me without saying anything.

“Oh, um, excuse me,” I fumbled. “I….my…um…friend lives here. I just thought I’d say hi, but…um…I guess I’d better go.”

The man didn’t say anything, but Panda pulled away from me and ran over to him, wagging his tail and nuzzling against the man’s hand.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “He’s a really friendly dog.”

“I know,” said the young man. “It’s me.”

I stared.

“It’s me,” he said again. “Jax.” He buried his face in his hands.

I didn’t move.

“So now you know,” he said finally.

I didn’t know, so I didn’t say anything.

“Now you’ve seen my affliction.”

I thought I began to understand, but I was still afraid of saying anything wrong.

“It only happens once a month,” he said, suddenly sounding eager to explain. “At the full moon. NO one can explain why, just as the sun sets, I suddenly lose all my beautiful fur and grow a second eye and shrink down to…this. But don’t worry, by the time the sun comes up tomorrow, I’ll be back to normal.”

I suddenly had the urge to laugh, but I didn’t. He seemed so embarrassed to look like a normal person. Instead, I tried to make him feel better.

“You know, you could come meet my family now,” I said.

“Oh, I couldn’t,” said Jax. “I have to do all my grocery shopping on this one night….to last for a month. And…” He looked down.

“What?” I asked curiously.

“Well, I don’t so much mind strangers seeing me like this, but I’d rather not let anyone else know me looking so…” He trailed off, clearly not wanting to insult me.

This time I did laugh.

So Jax did his grocery shopping, and I went home to giggle about what the checkout lady at the grocery must think about the strange young man who showed up once a month and bought the whole stock of orange soda.

I only lived in that house down the street from Jax for two years, and I made sure I never visited him on the night of a full moon. When I moved away, leaving him was the hardest part. He made me a huge box of cookies, so big that I almost couldn’t carry it down the street, and you should have seen my brother’s eyes when I came in the door with that box.

I let him eat one cookie, but I didn’t tell him where it came from. Cause some things are for sharing, but some things just aren’t.

Food Fight at the Golden Corral

When I was about four or five, my family used to go out from time to time to the Golden Corral to eat with friends after church on Sundays. Back then (for us, at least) that was a pretty nice restaurant. For some reason, my brother and I started passing time in the car inventing stories about food fights that broke out at the old GC. Every time, the story was different, and they tended to grow larger over time, but they more or less all started with someone slipping on a banana peel and dumping their buffet plate on someone else. Yadda, yadda, yadda, chaos ensues. Just recently my kids discovered banana peels and their reputation for being slippery, and I suddenly found myself cast back 20 (oh, okay, 30) years. I don’t remember the details, but I’m hoping this recreation can be as entertaining to my kids as the originals were to us.

I’ll never forget the day my family first took me to the infamous Golden Corral. I’d heard of the place: endless rows of steaming vegetables and breaded meats, dinner rolls piled up to the sky, and mashed potatoes with that one-of-a-kind boxed taste. It was every kid’s dream, and mine was about to come true. When we walked through that second set of double doors, I stopped and sniffed the air. It was pure cafeteria. I had never been so excited.

I was halfway through my chicken fried steak and thinking about a second helping of mashed potatoes when I saw a woman walk in the front door wearing a dress so pink that it hurt my eyes and carrying a poofy little dog that reminded me of the end of my grandmother’s mop. I barely had time to wonder why anyone would bring a dog to an all-you-can-eat restaurant before the dog launched himself out of his owner’s arms and literally flew straight at a man who was passing by with a plate full of roast beef.

Seeing something small and white and furry flying toward his head, the man jumped back, landing right on the edge of someone’s table and sending two bowls of pudding and a banana split smashing down onto the ground. The man was clearly embarrassed, and he backed away quickly, apologizing and clutching his injured hip with one hand and his plate of roast beef with the other hand. Unfortunately, he didn’t see that the dog was now right under his feet. He tripped, dumping his plate of roast beef all over a dignified man in a nice Sunday suit.

The man jumped up, outraged, waving his spoon around and causing bits of noodle soup to fly in every direction. The longest noodle landed with a splat on the face of a nearby woman. It must have been hot because she yelped a really loud “Yeeeeeep!” and shot up out of her chair, immediately stepping on the peel from the banana split and sliding ten feet only to collide with a mother who was carrying three glasses of ice cold Sprite. The Sprite fountained up into the air as the two women tumbled to the floor.

The teenagers at the next table, now covered in Sprite, took one look at the chaos and gave each other big smiles. In seconds, two big handfuls of mashed potatoes were flying across the room.

Then two potato-splattered strangers were launching canned peaches back into the crowd. Then a little girl with peaches in her hair was running through the restaurant throwing handfuls of peas in every direction. Then a grandmother was pegging people with small pieces of corn bread. Then a family of four, huddled under a table, was firing corn and green beans at everyone in sight. Someone poured gravy all over the floor. Someone else was using a fried chicken leg as a sword.

I had never seen anything so crazy in all my short life. Pretty soon everyone in the restaurant was in on the fight. I may have thrown a handful or two of mini corn cobs myself. The last thing I remember seeing before the fireman burst through the door with hoses to clean the place up and shock everyone back to their senses was the little white dog over under a corner table, happily slurping up gravy with bits of chocolate cake floating in it.

When Mommy Climbed the Volcano

Yes, this rock that you see right here is called volcanic rock, which means that it used to be lava until it cooled and hardened into rock. I got it from the top of a volcano. That’s right, your very own Mommy once climbed a volcano (it was asleep at the time) and brought back this rock just for you.

Sit up, and I’ll tell you how it (might have) happened.

Once, a long time ago, before any of you were born, your Papi and I took a trip up into the mountains. The little town where we stayed was right next to a lake, with tall, tall mountain peaks on every side. In the town was a little old man, and it was he who told us about the volcano.  He took us right out into the street and pointed up at one of those mountains.  It wasn’t as tall as some, and it’s top was a bit rounded.  He said that was because it was a volcano.  It had been asleep for years, but it was a real live volcano, with lava at its heart and lava rocks on its top.  Some people climb it, he said.

I knew right then and there that I had to be one of those people.

The day we set out to climb the volcano was a lovely sunny day.  The trees at the bottom were beautiful and swishing a bit in a nice breeze.  The trail wound away up the hill just like any other trail.  We started off with high hopes of being at the top in time to eat lunch. We would have made it with time to spare if that darn volcano had just stayed asleep.

We were just getting to the part where the trail started to get steep when I felt a little rumble underneath my feet.  That’s funny, I thought, that almost felt like the mountain was grumbling. I knew it couldn’t be anything too serious, though.  After all, this was a sleeping volcano.  (I thought.)

We kept on hiking, feeling our legs get tired as we went, and every once in a while feeling  just a tiny little trembling of the ground.  It happened often enough that both Papi and I noticed and asked each other what it could be.  We should have been smart and turned around right then, but we wanted to see the top and to be able to say that we stood on top of a real volcano.  We kept climbing.  We were just getting to the part where there were no more trees and only rocks ahead when the ground started shaking for real.  It shook so hard that we both fell over and just sat there, holding onto the bushes that grew by the side of the trail.  When the shaking finally stopped, we looked at each other.  We were both thinking the same thing.  That volcano was not sleeping.

That would have been another good time to head back down the mountain.  But we were SO CLOSE to the top.  We thought we would just run up really quick and look around, and then get back down in plenty of time.  The first part worked perfectly.  We were at the top in five minutes.  The view was spectacular.   We didn’t have time to admire it, though, because right at the moment the mountain gave a tremendous lurch, and ground cracked open right by our feet.  The crack spread quickly and before we knew it, we were separated by a glowing chasm.  I did not at all like being on the opposite side of that opening from Papi, so before I could think I leaped across.  I could feel the heat rising up from the depths as I jumped over.

Papi and I turned to run, but the ground was shaking and the rocks rose up into the air under our feet.  A fountain of lava burst up out of the ground not far from us.  There was no way to get down quickly enough.  Lava was bubbling up out of the crack and already moving toward our high rocky perch.  Only a little way down the mountain, I saw two old twisted trees.  I knew they were our only hope.

Jumping down off the rock, we made a leap across the growing river of lava.  I almost didn’t make it.  As I landed on the other side, I slipped and grabbed hold of some rocks to steady myself.  This piece of rock came off in my hand, and without thinking I stuffed it into my pocket.  Then we dashed for the trees.  We each climbed a tree and prayed that the lava would go around.  We were not so lucky.

The stream of lava came straight for our trees, slow and steady as lava always moves.  We knew it would burn up the trees if it hit them.  Then another great explosion rocked the mountain.  The trees fell with a crash.  We barely managed to avoid being crushed, as we each scrambled to the top of the branches that were now skidding down the mountainside.  Clinging on as tight as we could, we rode those fallen trees all the way down the mountain.  The river of lava was right behind us, but we were moving faster.  When the trees finally crashed to a stop in the foothills, we jumped off and ran as hard as we could.  Rescue vehicles were not far away, including a helicopter which flew us a safe distance away.

Then we stood with the rest of the town and watched the mountain bubble.

Bus Rides

When I was a little girl, I would ride to school on a yellow school bus with lots of other kids.  Some years my mother was even the bus driver!  We went to a Christian School about 10 miles from the center of the valley where we lived.

But, when I turned 13 and was going into high school, I went far, far away to school on a different kind of bus – a Greyhound Travel bus.  Grandpa and Grandma Norris, your great-grandparents, wanted their daughters to go to a Christian High School and they met some nice people who were part of a school in Alberta, Canada.  Grandpa and Grandma decided this would be a good place for me to go.  For me that was like leaving Indiana and going to Argentina – except I wasn’t going with my family – only with my oldest sister, Ruth.

For several weeks Ruth and I helped our mom make new clothes, pack our trunk and suitcases and prepare for the long bus ride to our new school.  At this school we would live in a dormitory – sort of like a big apartment building – with lots of other girls.

When the day came, after a tearful farewell, we climbed up on the big, big bus and got into our tall comfortable seats.  Soon the bus roared away and we were off on our adventure.  We rode all day and saw lots of different towns and countryside and then we rode all night and we tried to sleep…Then we rode all the next day through more towns and lots of wide open spaces…and then we rode all the next night.  We did stop at restaurants every once in awhile to get something to eat and have a chance to walk around…but mostly we just rode and rode and rode…50 hours later we arrived at our new school and while we were glad to be there…mostly we were just very happy that the long, long bus ride was ended!!