We were nearing the top of the pass, the trail winding up and through an earth bowl carved into the jagged peaks of the Northern Cascades. Clouds a quarter full of autumn snow swirled above, sometimes spilling white sprinkles around us. All the while, wind danced around the mountains’ majestic crown, shredding white clouds from gray, random splashes of the sky’s blue pouring through.

I could hardly catch my breath. It was clear that fall was preparing to depart the Pacific Northwest soon. Meanwhile winter was busy moving in. Together they were gracious in sharing the beauty of which they had created. The colors of the sky, like pastel chalks, were shades of soft baby blues, turquoises, and purples. The dark greens of the thick forest below had thinned to alpines turned chartreuse glowing with leftover sunlight. A few more upward trail switchbacks, the chartreuse alpines would climb no more, leaving the last few trees brave enough to live in a place called Cutthroat Pass, now dressed in coats of furry grayish-maroon and white…

We could have easily missed this. The make believe Battlefield of the Land of A story* that had begun four days earlier had ended. However as what sometimes happens in the Land of A, the battle had taken a turn for the worse on day three, despite my optimistic belief that a ceasefire had been called. Autism’s OCD over-and-over verbal warfare with demands to recite back word-for-word coded responses while stooping over to yell instructions in my ear finally did me in. My patience gone, I had strung my pretend bow with arrows of my lost temper, letting them rain down fast and furious onto the other side.

It must have something to do with the laws of the land but fighting never works here. Soon enough, disgusted with myself, I had thrown down my bow, breaking in two the rest of my pretend arrows. In the mysterious ways things happen in the Land of A, the battle died down and a truce was finally called. Both sides agreed to the terms of the latest peace treaty and I was left to redirect my efforts to heal fresh soul wounds that had been layered upon old ones.

I knew of a place that existed on the fringe of the Land of A. To get there, a road trip followed by a two thousand feet or so upward trek. On the top of a mountain pass, shards of light and in the peace that the light brings, there was a promise of healing for our battle weary scars.

A decision made and we were on our way. One-of-my-Own was mostly content to play Minecraft after making sure I bought him a special treat at Starbucks. He even shared his game at 10:30, the time he had allotted during departure, with his sister sibling who had joined us on our journey. No matter that he was so impressed with the time slot he had arranged, he made sure to remind us over and over again. And that was OK.

Too fascinated to move beyond the subject, One-of-my-Own’s conversation fixated on the Magic School Bus reboot. I think he felt I should know how it was that Ms. Frizzle had acquired a sister named Fiona who was the class’s new teacher for he asked why at least a hundred times throughout the morning The reality of the long drive must have begun to way on his mind as well. He presented the idea that it would be best to run halfway instead of to the top of the mountain that was our destination for that day. And maybe it was the memory of the ten miles we were to run that triggered thoughts of dinner because I was next obligated to answer over-and-over a question that went a little something like this, “How about that pizza that was my idea to eat for dinner?”

For all the need to revisit this Dialogue of Three, I didn’t mind. The urgent demand to have perfectly recited answers that he dictated to complete his questions a hundred times or more, was simmering on low. Real exchanges of conversation which had been silenced lately by Autism’s OCD and TICS appeared like a promise of a miracle and were celebrated by myself, his sister sibling, but most importantly… by One-of-my-Own…

There is a point on the trail, cradled by the King’s of the mountains all around, where I always look up. I know the saddle of the top of the pass is there in the steep slope of alpine hill sliding down. It awes and confuses me in my perception of how far away it is and yet really it is so very close. I stop to take a picture because for every other time I have been in this spot before, I have had to keep on running because of the race I am compelled to sign up for every year. One-of-my-Own consents to the photo as does his sister sibling. The camera freezes time and the memory of below is in the past. The present is climbing to the top and when we reach it, we wait in the middle of something incredibly profound. Everything is changing in split seconds. Blue sky disappears and than sneaks back, clouds erase the mountains only to draw them jagged again. Wind plays around and hides under the mountain pass, mischievously creeping up from behind, to whoop it up in circles and wild whirls. When the snow comes down sideways, we stand in the shards of light we find there, peace quietly filling our hearts in the middle of nature’s panoramic view of what our life is. And I imagine that we have found for a brief second of time, what it is we started this journey looking for in the first place…

chris….
*Battle of the Land of A story…
http://chrisfraser.org/the-battlefield/

A Before and an After
(Land of A)
Mountain Trail…

There’s a little mountain trail race in the Northern Cascades that runs along a trail that just so happens to span three states beginning and ending, depending on how one considers it…Mexico to Canada. This particular race begins at 4,875 feet elevation, in a place called Rainy Pass, along State Route 20. Participants will run through some of the most gorgeous scenery in this country. The name of the trail race is the Cutthroat Classic and for me, it is symbolic of years navigating life with my son John, who was diagnosed with Autism at the age of three. 

To be honest, in my wildest dreams, I never would have imagined being able to run such a race as the Cutthroat Classic. I was the parent who spent the best six years of my life, happily watching my two older children run high school cross country practices from the passenger seats of two of Washington State’s finest cross country coaches. Back than, I was of the opinion that most high school cross country runners, including my own two children, were borderline crazy thinking that running was fun, let alone running for hours each week.

High school doesn’t last forever and with the end of it for my son, he adamantly declared that he was done running. For so many reasons, this just wasn’t an acceptable conclusion. My son John needed the life style that running had to offer. But how to keep him running without a team or somebody to run with him proved to be problematic. It wasn’t long until the solution became clear and that was the beginning of a new lifestyle for me. That was summer that I started running with John.

Fast forward a year and more later and we were shivering at the start line on a frosty-cold morning in the third week of August. Through morning clouds that draped above us, peeked slivers of crystal-clear blue. Just enough to realize that the sun still hadn’t made it’s way over the jagged peaks of the exceptionally tall mountains we were expected to run to the top of. More than nervous about running 11 odd miles, the first five miles some 2,000 feet straight up, I hadn’t slept the night before. I was scared enough to entertain the idea of sneaking back to the yellow school bus that had transported us up to Rainy Pass a short time before, and hide out there for the duration of the run.

The first race waves had started, ours was next, and sneaking back to the bus really wasn’t an option. There was no choice but to be brave and run. –Just like the day when John was three years. Gulping back sobs, and through my tears, I heard the self-proclaimed Autism expert doctor state matter of factly that John had Autism and there wasn’t a whole lot to be done to help him. The visualization I had at the doctor’s words were of being shoved out of a flying plane, falling and hitting the ground hard. Than running…because I had a little boy that desperately needed a lot of help.

I began to run…

The Cutthroat Classic Race begins at the Rainy Pass entrance road into a stretch of parking lot, before meeting up with the trail that I mentioned earlier, which by the way, is called the Pacific Crest Trail. I was already sucking wind and frantically wondering how many shades of loco was I to have believed I could run such a beast of a race. The internal dialogue in my mind at war, the winning side currently determined to keep on going –I’d experienced this feeling years before, not knowing how I was going to help my small son. He couldn’t talk or communicate, sleep through the night, didn’t eat properly, and mostly just screamed endlessly throughout each and every day. Through the chaos of the world of Autism, somehow I managed to learn of an unique in-home program that I began with my son, working with him 20 to 40 hours a week in a small playroom that our family built for him. Endless hours of very slow, minuscule gains but eventually a glimpse here and there of the world making sense to my son. The tiniest accomplishment, learning a new word when his peers could hold conversations… huge.

I thought I’d keep on running…

The trail begins winding through many brilliant shades of green forest, steadily climbing uphill. The sound of water splashing, than my running shoes stumbling over slippery, wet rocks in streams that intersected the trail along the way. The amount of runners passing me… overwhelming and embarrassing. Snap shots of the sun rising over impressively rocky, mountain peaks through the trees….glimmers of hope. I can do this, I can get to the top. –I remembered the years of sleepless nights when my son screamed all night, the years of being housebound in isolation because he was unable to process the sensory overload his little body would go through being in public places, around strange people, or even riding in the car. Than in the midst of our upside down world, maybe he would learn another new word or eat a new food, tolerate a car ride…. new hope.

I knew I should probably keep on running….

The trees cleared as the trail hair-pinned higher, the towering mountain peaks forming a craggy nature bowl around the path being climbed. Moving flashes of many bright colors, the shirts of runners dotting the landscape high above and far ahead, I could hear their voices echoing in a downward spiral. At an almost 2,000 feet elevation climb, I was having a hard time breathing. Still more runners passed me. What had I been thinking signing up for this hellish run? Shuffling around a bend in the trail, I thought I’d landed in Ireland, with an elf-looking hiker eating a whole watermelon, the inside gleaming bright red. He smiled and nodded me on to a woman at the next hair-pin, older than myself, bundled up in warm hiker attire, yelling through a bugle of all things. “Almost there, you can do it…..” She waved her trekking sticks wildly. –My mind wanders off as I remembered hour-long episodes of my son screaming in the middle of the night, shielding him from ramming his head into the wall in frustration. His endless lines of toys placed carefully around the house, and God help anyone that dared to disturb his magnificent creations. A child who refused to wear shoes, no matter if the temperature was 17 degrees outside, snow deep on the ground, in the dead of winter. But one day, a triumph, for that child of mine would reveal to me that he knew how to read. He began to look me in the eyes, and would let me join in his fascinating, private world of play.

I was exhausted but clearly not about to stop running….

More rock and boulders than trees and still the mountain top seemed impossibly high and far away. Would I ever reach the top? The sun had come out warming the air, and the sweet smell of the alpine forest below was all around. More runners passed. Wow, I really was slow, and what had I been thinking to believe I could run this never-ending race? I felt incredibly defeated. Around another turn in the trail, and there was a photographer with a camera with a really big lens. A group of of friendly hikers had stopped to watch, clapping their hands as runners passed, and several race volunteers called out as they motioned onward, “Almost to the top…keep on going…” –I thought about the numerous meltdowns that my son used to have in public places, and the people that had stopped and stared in horrified disbelief, whispering with frowning disapproval that I must be the world’s worst mother ever. Flashbacks of a list of parents who had petitioned to have my son expelled from the part-time visits in normal classroom settings because of his strange autistic mannerisms. They never knew of the intricate characters he had built from legos, and the imaginative play that grew from having his colorful character collections interact. Years of effort, he had started to speak with more than one word, small sentences that started to include a question from time to time. Growing hope that he might someday be able to hold a conversation. Enough to realize just how much was going on in his solo-world of one.

A lot farther to go…must keep on running…

A burst of energy, my legs moving little bit faster, suddenly up and over the top of the Pass. At 6,800 feet in elevation, the Pacific Crest Trail keeps going, intersecting with a trail that leads off to the right. This choice will allow for one to drop down off Cutthroat Pass, onto a trail of the same name. This is the course of the Cutthroat Classic, with still another 6 plus miles to go. But for a brief second… the triumph of running 5 miles up, feels like a win. Second over, I start running downhill and realize that I’m only barely, almost halfway through. Maybe this race is never going to end. –It’s hard to breathe, because in the beauty of it all, this feels the same as the years spent searching for the elusive answer to the question of how to help my son with Autism. The feeling of hope when finding a new therapy, treatment, or educational piece that may be another piece of the puzzle in easing some of his debilitating behavior patterns. The feeling when hope dwindles because what was found really isn’t the miracle after all. What seemed like the answer was one that only created more questions. So the search must continue. The reality being that I am in this for life with my son, that I will always be looking for that miracle. God, how I wish for that day when somebody might state the impossible. That my son has recovered from the Autistic traits that are like a door locking him from living a life that he so wishes for. One in which he talks about having a girlfriend or a wife, children, maybe a career he can be proud of. A life that most have the choice to live but he does not.

There was nothing to do but keep on running….

Cutthroat Trail gets a bit dicey with boulders, sharp and round rocks, slippery gravel and sheer drop-offs. The trail is in a downward zig-zag pattern going for what seems like forever. It’s a narrow trail and there’s no place to get around but they do. More runners pass me. By this time, I’ve really got to “go” but there doesn’t seem to be a place to stop. My legs feel like wooden logs, and I can’t seem to stop myself from tripping. The upside, I haven’t yet tripped over the edge of the narrow trail, which to my tired mind, would likely result in death. I can hear the sounds of the runners at the aid station whooping and hollering it up. Still very far from me and way down the mountain. Somebody was ringing a cowbell. –Reminds me of just when I thought Autism couldn’t kick my butt anymore than it had, my son developed migrating tics. Could that mean he was having seizures too? How many late nights, researching ways to help him? Finding new doctors, all of them scattered across the country, who were booked out for years. Knowing these doctors might be able to help my son but we couldn’t afford them anyhow. About that time he started sleeping through the night, a small miracle. He had finally grown to a point that sitting at the table in a homeschool environment, he could learn English and Math. Even though he had been hiding from the Instructor for years, insisting he was a very BAD man, one day, my son began Taekwando lessons, and years later, he became a Black Belt. There was hope in the chaos Autism brought…

There is no choice, must keep on running…

Arriving at that aid station is a joyous event. Gulping some water, tearing open a energy gel, looking around for somewhere to “go” but deciding not to. It was time to run again. I was thinking I was almost done… but I wasn’t. The trail disappears back into the forest, a beautiful thing, even if the remaining miles seem endless. Trip, stumble, almost fall again and again. Finally a volunteer standing past a fairly wide stream that crosses the trail, calls out, “Only 2 more miles…” I really thought that what she said was uncalled for. Words that mean the race is almost done, but not really. –I’ll never be done trying to help my son navigate his world of Autism, the good, bad, and sometimes really ugly of it all. Like the times he threw really big fits in pubic and he was a teenager. And those around him were horrified because they hadn’t yet figured out he was acting out in behavior generated from how Autism affects him. But the good, it doesn’t matter how small, we still celebrate it. Like the time he ran his first cross country race. No matter that he threw a monumental tantrum, throwing his body on the ground kicking his feet, fists pounding the grass because he wanted to get done. Afterward he got up and finished the race. And that was big…huge.

No quitting here, I’m still running…

I finally pass my first, and I think, one of only two runners. It wasn’t really something that I could feel proud of. He was limping, with blood running down his leg. A little farther along and there another runner, hurt as well, standing on the side of the trail. My feet were cold and wet from the stream I had tromped through and I decided to be extra careful, no use falling down now. I heard the sound of another cowbell and people cheering, just around the corner. -I think about how my son doesn’t want to grow up even though he’s 20 years old. Will I be taking care of him for the rest of my life? Probably. He’s obsessed with getting home in time to eat lunch and the whole day is ruined, for a while, if that doesn’t happen, and video game time is until 9:00pm every night, and he self-talks to himself, LOUDLY until 10:00pm or more. But he’s running this race too, and that is an impossible dream, and I know he must be way ahead of me…

I”m going to finish this race…

And I do.. and so does he. Somebody is still ringing that cowbell and a crowd is cheering. There’s a white sign with the red letters, “Finish”. Crossing a bridge over a stream big enough to be a small river, the mountains curving in a semi-circle, tall behind my back…I cross that finish line. With tears that won’t stop, I’ve done something I never thought possible. Small for most runners, huge for me. I ran that race. And so did my son… He’s waiting for me…

I think I will keep on running forever…

(After-more-thoughts.)
-Thank you and a huge shout-out to my daughter Alex who also ran with us that first year we ran Cutthroat. I will always have a smile on my face and tears rolling down my cheeks, remembering her voice cheering at the finish line, and the hysterical laughter episodes we had over the curious events that never cease to happen when we are together. Love you Al….

-Chris…

PTASD*’ing a day in the Land of A*…

I’m not sure why there is very little discussion on PTASD outside the Land of A but I do know nobody is really talking about it. Perhaps it hasn’t been discovered yet. Or maybe it’s something that professionals would say has no basis in fact since there is no scientific data to substantiate it. I guess it’s a reasonable to assume that PTASD is just a figment of my imagination. But here in the Land of A, sometimes, maybe just a lot of times, PTASD feels very, very real.

If PTASD is real, I wonder if it is like an illness that one can recover from. Perhaps it is like an allergy that crops up seasonally or an illness such as a cold or flu that heals after a couple of days. Maybe it mirrors a chronic ailment with good and bad days but something that never quite goes away. Or maybe PTASD is simply my way of explaining the sometimes feeling of being bone weary tired from exposure to everyday events that are normal only in the Land of A.

My imagined or real PTASD started out simple enough. This morning barely awake, enough to do some plank exercises to work out the stiffness in my back, I was greeted by One-of-my-own’s bugle cry, “CAN WE HAVE A GOOD MORNING?!” Genuinely considerate of making sure I heard what he had to say, he had leaned over to position himself three inches from my ear. “I… S*A*I*D*…CAN WE HAVE A GOOD MORNING?”

It is appropriate to speak when one is spoken to and in this case, I have it easy. These days One-of-my-own will meticulously formulate a fitting scrip in which I am to answer. “Now you say…. (insert mom voice), Yes, let’s have a good day,” What’s really cool is that if I don’t exactly recite the script correctly, One-of-my-own will happily correct me until I’ve got it right. Even if that is a hundred times or more throughout the day. I think I couldn’t have a better teacher.

I explained calmly to One-of-my-own that we had a very busy day. His younger sister had Cross Country practice at 9:00 AM. In the middle of my morning workout, breakfast still needed to be made, several summer school lessons were to be finished, along with making time for an important meeting at 11:00 AM in which the person that I was to meet was coming to the house. In addition, I also had six or more items on my to-do list that needed my attention, of which I hoped to check off at least a couple of them as being completed.

“SAY, can we have a good day?!… Mom, can you answer my question? Mom, just say yes. (Insert mom voice), Yes, One-of-my-own, we can have a good day. Do you want me to take a shower? Just say yes, I want you to take a shower. MAN…. ! I FEEL CALMER today. Mom…I said.. Mom, what time is Mr. A coming over? HEY MOM! CAN WE HAVE A GOOD DAY TODAY?!!!! WHAT TIME IS SO-AND-SO COMING OVER!!!!??? This is the last time I’m going to say it….MOM, C*A*N W*E H*A*V*E A GOOD DAY?!!! …… *

How can I complain about the conversation that One-of-my-own is having? After all, his words are a mantra of positivity. He’s got a smile on his face, and his voice is booming with enthusiasm. So enthusiastic is his mantra, that two hours later, the mantra is still being verbally over and over’ed, has progressively gotten louder, and I’ve been graciously asked to take a bigger part in reciting the responses that he has prepared for me. So involved is his mantra, essentially grinding to a halt any forward motion of our daily routine, I’m starting to think One-of-my-own would do well as a film director in the way he is scrutinizing each and every word coming out of my mouth to make sure I say exactly what is on the script. I close my eyes imagining him holding up a clapperboard, adding in the verbal loops of “CUT!” or “TAKE 2017… Action, ok now let’s replay that scene… C*A*N WE HAVE A GOOD DAY!

For whatever the reason, I simply didn’t want to play by the rules of today’s version of normal events that happen only in the Land of A.  I didn’t want to join in the over-and-over that One-of-my-own yelled from the other side of the bathroom door while I was taking a shower. My brain was overloaded by the constant input of non-stop dialogue, volume on ultra-loud, when he followed me around every second of my workout verbally repeating the day’s mantra. I didn’t want to loop again and again with him as I walked to my car, he running to catch up with me, leaning over to carefully roar into my ear so I would be sure to hear him. Most definitely, I didn’t want to play along when Mr. A arrived for our meeting and One-of-my-own wanted to join in our meeting by asking if we could have a good day, and than asking if we could replay the morning by going over a varied version of his conversation of earlier. “Can we have a good day? What time is Mr. A coming over? M*A*N, I FEEL calm today!”

Slumping in my chair after the meeting that didn’t really get beyond the “Can we have a good day” loop with Mr. A, I thought of all the things I still needed to do. After being coached for hours by One-of-my-own on how to reply to the conversation over and over’s and in my imagined PTASD state, I was at a loss for how I was going to complete the rest of what I had to do that day. Meanwhile as One-of-my-own leaned over the table, still engaging me in his positivity mantra, I came to the conclusion that PTASD was definitely real and promptly self-diagnosed myself with it.

I gathered everybody together and we went out, the younger siblings on their bikes, while I ran with One-of-my-own. Surely this would get rid of my newly self-diagnosis of PTASD. However, that which happens often when running, One-of-my-own’s over-and-overing continued, not making for any, by this time, much needed down time. Amazingly talented, he is able to talk the whole way through our run, never once running out of breath. His exuberance at vocalizing during the run went a little bit like this. “MAN… CAN WE HAVE A GOOD DAY? What’s for breakfast? Mom, I said, what’s for breakfast? I need to retrace my steps. What time is Mr. A coming over? Let’s refresh this day and have the rest of the day a GOOD day! How come you’re not answering me? Ok, I’ll answer for you…(interjects mom voice), Yes One-of-my-own, let’s have a good day…”

Throughout the duration of the run and into late afternoon, I refused to play the over-and-overing game. I gloomily contemplated my self-diagnosis of PTASD. By this time I was one hundred percent sure I had it, there could be no mistake. Three fourths of my day had been a swirl of never-ending loops of verbalization ringing in my ears. I couldn’t make myself attend to anymore tasks I had planned for that day. Something was definitely wrong with me.

“Mom, can I talk to you in private?” My thoughts were interrupted by the voice of my younger son and all my attention was suddenly focused on the earnestness of his expression, an ageless wisdom in his eyes. “Let me hang with my Bro,” he said. “He’ll be fine, you’ll see. We will have fun together. He’s my Bro, I love him and I will watch over him.”

Everything spiraled from slow motion to a grinding stop and time momentarily ceased in the Land of A. I considered the greatness in my younger son who had unwavering faith in the greatness in his older Bro, despite witnessing my intolerance for his need to over-and-over all day. I marveled at my younger son’s lack of judgment, the level of acceptance during the moments of his big Bro’s intense OCD verbal loops, and the unconditional love that he offered instead.

In the Land of A, where one’s career is basically 24/7, on-call for life, with little to none retirement benefits, breaks are rare. The evening breeze floated down the hillside cooling the warm summer air as it circled through the swaying tops of the pine trees in the forest all around the yard. Enough of a quiet moment in the summer night, it was the break I wish had been written as mandatory into my Land of A contract.

It fed my soul like the recent visit I had had with a friend visiting from Texas. Not a resident of the Land of A, she and I have common ground in a completely different and unrelated life journey that we both are on, that of being parents of children born to us through adoption. Listening to her story gave me validation that what I’m living is not always easy. That there are others who share similar or different life paths and that most of the times, when life gets tough, they are simply doing the best that they can, with what they’ve got in the very seconds that the tough happens.

Listening to the peaceful way the cool summer breeze made the trees move and talk in their own secret language, I realized how important it was to have that break.  Like a night that happens several days in the future when I unexpectedly find myself out on an evening run on my own. When I’m able to run in solitude and silence, alone with my thoughts, able to plug into the summer night sunset, like a battery on empty, desperately needing to be recharged.

My recently self-diagnosed PTASD melted away. Not completely but enough. The conversation with my younger son was the trigger that allowed me to mentally step back from my frustration in navigating the cyclone of One-of-my-own’s verbal loops that had swirled like a storm around me all day. The bone weariness I had been feeling had been fueled by a lack of acceptance and feeling of being uncomfortable with the latest never-ending rounds in which I was required to say or answer exactly what I was told to say or answer a thousand times a day.

It’s true that there seems to be nowhere in my house or even in the Land of A to punch a timecard, job done for the day. There are also no regulations in the Land of A that call for simply receiving a break. In such circumstances, it seems I must learn to outsmart the system. Twenty plus years, I’m still figuring out how to do that. For now, it’s the short amount of time that I sit on my front steps, my two golden retrievers flanking me on each side.

Somehow the rest of the evening will smooth out. A video game party will be arranged between One-of-my-Own and his siblings, followed by a giant family slumber party. “MOM, CAN WE HAVE A GREAT DAY? LET’S HAVE A GREAT DAY! CAN WE HAVE A GREAT DAY? WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO TOMORROW? M*A*N I FEEL CALM TODAY! Eventually everyone will be asleep and in the rare quiet I will pick up where I had left off on my latest writing project…

Sitting on the steps, not yet aware that the night will end as it does, I make a decision. I may or may not have PTASD and yes, there are many times I am bone weary. But my younger son’s actions reminded me of what I’ve forgotten this day, to be loving and non-judgmental towards One-of-my-Own. I hear the sounds of laughter from the siblings inside the house. I’m going to make a choice. I’m going to end this day great…

Break over, I get up, open the front door and walk back inside….

-Chris….

*PTASD- (definition- Post Traumatic Autism Syndrome)

*Land of A* (A stands for Autism)

Moviestar’in Costco

One-of-my-Own usually wears sunglasses when we stop into Costco. It helps to keep the other customers from being distracted from his near movie star status. This way they can keep on with their shopping without having to stop to ask for autographs. It also helps them to not run into other shoppers with their carts when they recognize his familiar crowd-stopping, amazingly strong and clear voice and turn around to stare.

Today however, it couldn’t be helped. One-of-my-Own was recognized.  It happened as I was rounding the corner of the refrigerator section and he was flying to the baked goods section looking for hoagie bread all the while talking his way through it. “Where is the hoagie bread? Are you sure we are going to have meatball sandwiches? But what about the pizza? Why can’t we have pizza? What? I’ve eaten it for the last two nights? What did you say again? Why can’t we have pizza? Where did you say the hoagie bread was again?”

“I just LOVE when you bring him in…”

In my mission of finding the Tillamook cheese that we are out of at home, the words catch my attention. Yes, somebody had spotted him. I was sure of it when I look up to see one of the Sample Ladies smiling at me.

“Thank you. Always good to hear when somebody says such kind words,” I smile back at her and roll my cart on. It’s best that way, I don’t want to draw too much attention or more of a crowd than was already starting to form, hoping to get a glimpse of One-of-my-Own.

He catches up with me on my way to the aisle that I’m sure contains the organic sweet and sour sauce I am looking for. In his exuberance, he takes giant strides to catch up, catapulting me frozen in mid-stride as he steps on the back of my flip-flop.

My flip-flop is stuck to the cement of Costco’s floor but my foot is not. Pain shoots through my foot as the front part of my flip-flop rips into my toes. I’m caught in mid-air, silently screaming all sorts of my go-to cuss words in times of stress. I’m pretty sure I’ve become famous in my own right as more people stop to stare.

“I CAN’T FIND THE HOAGIES! Mom, are you alright? I am so sorry. Hey, let’s have pizza instead. Why can’t I have pizza again? i’ve only asked three times, can you answer me now?”

I’m able to choke out that I’m ok, it wasn’t One-of-my-Own’s fault and point him in another direction. As he flies off once more, i park my cart and put my head in my hands, waiting for my foot to stop hurting.

“Hi…”

I look up. A lady stands in front of me. Her face mirrors my own, her expression full of understanding, I get that we must be souls sisters somehow.

“I’m one of those moms,” she says to me. I don’t want them too but my eyes well up with tears and I take a deep breath and grab her hands. She goes on to explain that she knows how it is, that’s she is having one of those days. The kind where it takes one to the edge and one looks off into the abyss of the Land of A. She points over to her daughter, age 27, holding onto a cart nearby. We sit there in sisterhood, holding hands for a moment. As she walks away, I’m thankful she took the time to connect.

My foot is still hurting but I march on, collecting the rest of what’s on my to-buy list and make my way to the checker lines to pay. One-of-my-Own is still missing, looking for the hoagies, but I know he will find me. I can only hope he won’t be mobbed by his fans.

He appears as I get in line, flinging a bag of bagels into the cart, happy with his substitute choice since he can’t find any hoagie bread. “YOU WANT ME TO BUY YOU A MOCHA FREEZE? Sure mom, I will buy you a mocha freeze. Do you want me to get in line? Do you want me to get in line? What did you say? Ok, mom, I’m going to go get in line.”

He flies off, oblivious as the adoring crowd of shoppers watch him in wonder. They stare in envy at me, maybe because they can’t believe I am lucky to be a part of his life. I keep my cool, because sometimes it is hard to attract so much attention. With a smile I joke with one of my favorite checkers as he hands me the pen he knows I’m going to ask for.  I pay for my things, than head toward the food court, giving a friendly wave to those who are still looking One-of-my-Own’s way.

He finds me as I’m almost to the door. “MOM, HERE’S YOUR MOCHA FREEZE!. HERE take your change…” He shoves it at me but I ask if he could just hold onto it as I’ve got my hands full with the cart. It’s easy now. The crowd parts in a way that for some reason reminds me of the final scene out of Titanic (the movie). The one where Rose is young again and walking up the ship’s stairs to meet young Jack and all the fellow passengers are lined up watching with smiles on their faces.

For a busy Sunday at Costco, certainly a blessing as we walk out easily without having to dodge other customers and make our way back to the car. One-of-my-own happily helps me place the groceries in the back, hands me the mocha freeze before sitting down in the passengers seat. As I back out of the parking spot, I was glad to see that crowds haven’t gathered around the car. I’d been afraid that might happen. I glance over at One-of-my-Own who was still wearing the sunglasses, a smile on his face, content in the treasured moments when he is at peace in the Land of A.

His smile was enough,
I smiled as well….

-Chris…

It’s Summertime. Blue skies, warm weather, and the Pacific Northwest….

The perfect day for a road trip. It was an easy choice for me and I knew exactly where we would go. I completed my morning chores, filled water bottles, and packed my camera…

“But what about my illustrations?”  

As much as John knows I’m all for exploring and adventure and often load everyone in the car and go, he usually has to discuss, question, dialogue and process what we are going to do.

“What about “Sandman of Seaside?”

The name of our new children’s book, John has transferred his rough draft drawings to the computer and is currently working on editing and completing final copies for the story. I explained to him that if he wished, he could easily work on his illustrations in the evening when we got home.

“But what about our deadline?”

Taking his illustrations seriously, John has organized his work into a series of deadlines. His latest goal is to have his final drawings for “Sandman of Seaside” completed by the first week of August, sometime between the first and the fourth. I asked him again what he thought of working on his illustrations after our road trip?

“I’ve got an idea.”

John gathered several pieces of drawing paper and a pencil, explaining that he would work on illustrations for a third book I am currently writing instead of “Sandman of Seaside.” He suggested stopping at Starbucks in Sandpoint, the Idaho town he knows that I was planning on road tripping to. As it is often hard for John to move past what he is planning on doing when there is a sudden change in schedule, I was pleased that he was strategizing on how to do so.

“I’ll work on “Chesty and His Boy.”

Surprisingly that is exactly what he did. During our road trip, he talked about his ideas for the first page. It was such a nice day, I asked him to consider drawing at the beach park so his younger brothers could swim.. He didn’t like it but agreed to compromise. We would stop first at Starbucks than find a place to write and illustrate down by the lake.

“Do you like what I’ve drawn?”

Though it took two trips back to the car to retrieve what he had forgotten, first his paper and pencil, next the wooden board he had brought with him, a smooth surface to place his paper and draw on, John sat down and began to draw. A breeze cooled the afternoon, relief from the hot summer day. The lake with the mountains all around and the sky above were many layers of sun shined shades of blue. For a short time, we sat side by side, illustrating and writing in the quiet calm that nature sometimes brings. I watched him for the seconds that he was relaxed enough to be free from the OCD tics that make it so hard for him to formulate his thoughts and speak. A beautiful thing to see. I smiled and said….

“I love it…”

-Chris….

My daughter Dani likes to put books on hold at our neighborhood library. Lot’s of them…. Because of this I often receive email notices that the books have arrived and are waiting for her to pick up and check out.

Today she had a special one to show off to her brother John ….

“WAIT! Do they REALLY have Bean and Pocket at the LIBRARY?”

John yelled as he walked through the glass doors leading into the main room of the library. Dani was waiting on the other side holding a copy of Bean and Pocket that she had reserved as a surprise for John.

“I can’t BELIEVE Bean and Pocket is at the library!”

Several librarians immediately looked our way at John’s excited exclamation with raised eyebrows but kindly refrained from asking us to use our library voices. I however thought it best to remind John that with all due respect, we should speak quietly.

“I’m REALLY excited… IT’S here…!”

John whispered loudly. Several people looked up from books they were reading to find out what the commotion was about. The expressions on the faces of the librarians watching us turned to curiosity when I whipped out my camera to take a couple quick photos.

“Bean and Pocket is AT the LIBRARY!”

John’s smile lit up his face as he spoke. He had forgotten to whisper and the raised volume of his voice drew more curious stares. Dani proceeded to check out her stack of books, Bean and Pocket placed carefully on the top, her way of letting John know she loved him.

“IT’S a LIBRARY book!”

John said in awe. It was closing time at the library. One of the librarians locked the door behind us as we left the building. We stopped so I could take a couple more photos than off we walked to the car. John sat in the front seat, his blue eyes twinkling, a smile still on his face. It was easy to see that he was greatly pleased that our book had made it’s way to the library. I pulled out of the parking lot, the little yellow book sitting in John’s lap…

“BEAN AND POCKET was at the library…”

-Chris

*Bean and Pocket

sold on Amazon.com 

 “It’s Easy to Find…”

(The Coiled Dragon)

 “It’s easy to find…”

Jimmy explained as he gave directions on how to find the Great Wall. He pointed out where to go on a simple water-colored drawing that served as a map in the front room of The Great Wall Box House. The last thing I wanted was to get lost in China so I listened carefully, intent on memorizing the way, my eyes not leaving the map as he spoke.

After asking a few more questions of Jimmy, he must have felt it best to personally show us the way. His offer wasn’t something I was going to refuse so we all left together out the front door. Dani ran ahead as is her restless manner. Jake was content, walking alongside Jimmy as they spoken animatedly to each other in Chinese.

I walked behind them, examining my camera to make sure it was in working order. Satisfied that it was, I began to look around, not wanting to miss out on all there was to see in Gubeikou, the small village we were staying in.

To be honest, I had hoped to be well into our hike by now. My original plan had been to get up before dawn so that we could see the sunrise on The Great Wall. But when my alarm had gone off, I just couldn’t will myself out of bed that early. My mind had been ready but my body had thought otherwise. So I waited until Dani and Jake were awake. Once they were, the three of us quickly packed our backpacks with food and water, the binoculars and our cameras and headed on our way.
Deep blue sky rimmed the top of the buildings and walls that formed the small courtyard that our hostel room door opened out to. It was cold outside, the air fresh and clean, with the faint but delicious smell of smoke from the night before. I was loving the fact that we had bypassed Beijing and it’s gray overhead pollution of yesterday for the choice of being in the mountains instead.

Winding our way through narrow alleys, I listened as the loud honking of caged geese mingled with the sounds of hammers and electric saws. It sounded as if the village was going through a giant remodel but what we saw was a bit different. Workers were busy with what appeared to be adding on rather than repairing old and dilapidated looking buildings.

We passed people that stared at us curiously. Others stood in small crowds visiting with each other while watching the workers. Occasionally we also passed groups of three or four men gathered on the sides of the street around makeshift tables, smoking cigarettes while playing Mahjong and drinking tea.

There was a temple on a mountain that overlooked the village. Once we reached it, Jimmy again explained the way to the Wall. It seemed that there were two sets of stairs, one to the left, one to the right, with both sets ultimately leading up the mountain. We were to look for a person with tickets to buy in exchange for our access to the Wall. If nobody was around, we were not to worry, just continue on our way. Sooner or later, we would meet someone that would collect the fee.

In a similar manner, Jimmy also explained the way in which we were to exit off the Wall. Evidently there were two sets of stairways, the gray or the white, each descending back into the valley on different routes. Either set of stairs would eventually lead back to the the small village.

We thanked Jimmy and he left to return to the house. Not seeing anyone who was selling tickets, we climbed the first and only set of stairs that we noticed and hesitantly began walking. There really wasn’t a trail so we trudged up the dusty slope hoping we were on the right track.

Stretched away and high above the valley to the left of where we were hiking were layers upon layers of craggy blue mountains. Laced and draped, something that stretches the imagination to no end as to how it’s builders may have constructed it, we saw at last, the Great Wall of China. It threaded its way upward through the mountains, formidable in it’s size and and the steep elevation gain that promised to be a difficult hike. With a large valley positioned between the Wall and where we were hiking, I soon realized we were hiking away from it.

I wasn’t sure what to think as we hiked in the opposite direction except to assume we would circle around at some point. But that’s not the way it happened. The trail we were on looped along the side of a ridge in a different direction altogether. After a while we began to see crumbled chunks of ruin. It was hard to imagine that what we were seeing might be actual segments of the Great Wall.

The sad thing was, that is exactly what the chunks of ruin were. As hard as it was to believe at first, it did make sense. After all, we were to hike the Wild Wall, the section of the wall that had not been restored. After following several faint traces of trail to dead ends, with debate and discussion on which grassy path to continue on, we had found the Wall at last.

I won’t lie. I was thrilled. Completely in my element, I could have hiked forever or at least all day. Dani and Jake, not so much. The cold air of earlier had warmed considerably and continued to rise in temperature. Dani was still wearing her down jacket, with four other layers of clothing underneath. She didn’t see any reasons to shed any of those layers even though it was obvious she was getting uncomfortable in the heat.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t very long before Jake began to ask if we were done hiking yet. Reassuring him that we were going to be hiking for a while, he than asked when it was exactly, we would be done hiking. He felt compelled to repeat this question over and over. Knowing running for Jake was like kryptonite to Superman, I thought maybe he was viewing today’s hike in the same way. Encouraging Dani to get her camera out and take photos while giving Jake a visual of exactly where we were to stop and turn around in our hike helped and we continued on our way.

As we hiked, the crumbled segments turned into a continuous trail of wall. Watchtower after watchtower began to appear, small in the distance at first, growing larger as we hiked closer. We all felt the same sense of accomplishment every time we reached a new one and excitement on how long it would take to get to the next one.
Hiking the Wall where it perched on top of one particular mountain ridge like a king’s crown, Jake was the first to spot a figure on top of a watchtower, the next in line from the one that we were climbing. In the distance, the figure held out his arms to the sky, standing still as if he was a statue. He stayed put as we drew closer.

The man was waiting for us when we reached the tower. Silent and alone, he reminded me of the Wall with his dark weathered face, framed by a blue stocking cap on his head. He smiled a welcome as he smoked a cigarette. Dani spoke to him in Chinese and we soon found out he was the Wall Keeper. We would pay him for tickets to continue our hike on The Wall.

He told us we only had to buy two tickets instead of three for a total of fifty yuan, approximately seven dollars total. I gave him the money and than we sat down with him while eating a snack. With great interest he spoke with Dani and Jake and I could tell he was trying to wrap his brain around the idea of two Asian children having a Caucasian mom.

The Wall Keeper told us basically the same thing that Jimmy had told us earlier. He pointed to the watchtower further up the mountain that would be the turnaround point in our hike because of the military base somewhere in the mountains. He than pointed out the two stairways in the distance, one white, one gray, both leading away from the Wall. Either one of which would take us down the mountainside to where we could follow along the river and find our way back to the village.

As we hiked on, it occurred to all of us that we still had a long way to go to the last watchtower. I wondered if we should just take one of the staircases and work our way back to the village. Dani, Jake, and I discussed this possibility but quickly dismissed the idea. We all agreed we weren’t stopping short of our goal without at least trying to get there first.

This decision was one that would be tested as the day went on. It was apparent why the area we were hiking was called the Wild Wall. Except in rare occasions, the Wall had been left in it’s natural state. Broken and hard to find, sometimes narrow with sheer drop-offs, steep stairways, and watchtowers that sometimes look no more than in the last stages of ruin, hiking was often times dangerous going.

We came to a big sign in Chinese, awkwardly translated into English. It was easy enough to understand that it meant danger. We took the detour indicated and bypassed the watchtower in question. The next watchtower almost brought an end to our hike and I questioned why there wasn’t a danger sign posted there as well.

The extra steep stairs, the only entrance to the tower and continued hike on the wall, were precarious at best. Jake scrambled up ahead, disappearing over the edge of the arched doorway, looking back with a wide grin on his face. Not to be outdone, Dani quickly climbed up after him. They both made it look easy but I still hesitated before following them. Gingerly making my way up the broken steps, I was relieved when I too, was safely over the edge, and standing beside Jake and Dani inside the tower.

Two remaining watch towers left to the turnaround point, we hiked uphill to the stairs of the first one. A big tower, the inside was heavily littered with trash. I remembered that Jimmy had explained that people often camped in or around the towers and that this must be one of them. Two of the walls were relatively intact while the other two were more than halfway gone, crumbled away in the passing of hundreds of years since it’s creation.

The second tower was so close to the first, it was easy to see the huge sheet of metal that sealed off the entrance to it. After we walked around the second tower just to make sure there was no way to pass through it, we retraced our steps and climbed back into the big tower to explore it a bit more.

The section of the Wall we had been hiking and which we now viewed from both sides of the tower was called the Coiled Dragon. It was easy to understand why as we sat in the ancient watchtower taking it all in. The Wall uncoiled from the direction in which we had hiked, on and away into the mountains on the far side. Not hard to imagine that it could go on forever, I was in awe of its sheer power and majestic beauty.

We stayed for a while, mostly sitting in thoughtful silence, aware that this was a place we might only see once in our lifetime. Eventually though, it was time to return to the village. We hiked back to the gray stairs that Jake picked as the way to return and the path quickly led us down to the valley below. Soon the Wall was no longer in sight, hiding behind the mountains it belonged to. Leaving it didn’t take away the gratitude that I felt in being able to share with my children the opportunity to see such an incredible part of China’s history. Thankful, at peace, and excited as well, I looked forward for the tomorrow that would bring with it another opportunity to explore the beauty of the Great Wall…..

-Chris-

photo credit: Dani Fraser

Joe’s Place

(The Great Wall Box House)

There was a golden square of light down the hill, framed by a set of solid wooden doors. The doors hadn’t been closed and locked for the night because we were expected, and they were waiting for us.

I let out a sigh as I heaved my backpack one last time for this part of our journey and slung it over my shoulder. Sleepily, Dani and Jake did the same. We silently wrestled with handles that twisted in our hands as the wheels of our second backpack-slash-suitcases, bumped and bounced behind us down the dirt path. The golden light growing bigger as we walked closer, a finish line that felt as good in crossing as what I imagined an Ultra race finish line must feel for any runner brave enough to run.

I’ll have to admit, when our driver first pulled up to what seemed like the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, I had a uneasy sense of trepidation. Trust issues are like my extra set of contacts. For years, I’ve been packing them along for the just in case. Two hours of a drive in a dark landscape to somewhere in the nowhere after a many hour flight, I was shell shocked by the passing traffic of beat-up work trucks with Character writings all over them. I was back in China and a really long way from home. And as much as I thought I was oozing independence and had this journey all under control, the reality of it was, this trip depended also on the help that others were to offer along the way…

The night air had a cold bite to it and it was hard to stop shivering, let alone stop the chattering of my teeth. So when our driver Pong, opened a modern version of a front door that was set inside the building a couple of feet from the wooden outer doors, it was a relief to feel the warmth of the front room that went along with the golden light.

Joe was behind a large tea table with two other men sitting on stools, sipping tea in their quiet companionship. I put my backpack down, and slid onto an empty stool, Dani and Jake doing the same. My brain was fast shutting down after twenty-four hours and more of no sleep except the head-bobbing, cat-napping that had occurred on the plane. But I knew I had several important arrangements that needed to be checked off my list for the next part of my trip in two days. And Joe, in our variety pack of internet conversations, (Facebook, WeChat, and phone calls), a few weeks prior, had offered to help with what needed to be done.

The room we were in was a contrast of new
blended with the old building that I had observed it to be from the outside. Walls of honey colored wood reflected the light and warmth of the room and there was a faint smoky smell of what I assumed must be someone’s outdoor campfire or maybe a wood stove. This made perfect sense to me because the air outside felt like the cold that the night brings to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest where the warmth of a campfire or stove would be more than welcome.

Joe’s Zen-like manner quickly put me at ease as he introduced his friends, and offered hot tea in a little glass cup that I drank in two gulps. With concern he explained that because of Qingming Festival, train tickets to Guangzhou were almost completely full for the following Tuesday, the day we needed to travel. He had managed to find three seats on a very early train and advised me to buy them that night. Joe and his friends didn’t understand why I couldn’t purchase my tickets via WeChat. I didn’t understand the why and how that could even be done at all. To make it all simple, Joe’s young friend Jimmy, who became our new friend in the following days, made the purchase for us.

photo credit: Dani Fraser

Relieved and oh so ready to meet with some sleep, I thanked Joe as he had Jimmy show us the way out a narrow side door by the tea table, out to a small courtyard. Too dark to see much, the smoke smell was stronger in the courtyard. In an odd way, it mingled with the cold mountain air. Surprisingly clean and fresh, I drew in a deep breath before ducking past Jimmy who held the door to our room open for us.

Our room had hardwood floors and there were several Asian antique-looking dressers that reminded me of the fact that we really were in China. But the very best part were two twin beds pushed together with snow-white, puffy down comforters. Jake sailed his way to jump on the bed, leaving his things in a heap in the middle of the floor. Dani was more careful, placing her backpacks in a corner, before leaping her own way to bounce at his side. Jimmy showed us how to use the heater, than said goodnight and we were left to ourselves.

Exclamations from the kids on how amazing our room was, the lights were quickly turned off and they were fast asleep. I crawled under the comforter and closed my eyes to the dark of the room. As tired as I was, in the funny way that seems to happen, my mind revved up, staving off the sleep I would have gladly welcomed.

I thought about how stressed I had been in the weeks prior to traveling. It had woken me up in the middle of many nights, sometimes to the point of keeping me up for hours at a time. But the minute I had walked out of my house and stepped onto the first flight of this trip, I had gone into a state of auto-pilot calmness.  I wondered about that and thought of the reasons why.

Sure thing, I had been unsettled when our driver was gone-missing when we landed in Beijing. But there truly had been a light shining on us when a lady approached to ask if we needed help. She was able to locate our driver and keep in contact with him until he found us.

Pong had that same light in his presence. Even though it was late, he was thoughtful in his offer to stop if we were hungry so that we might find something to eat. He was patient in my questions as to why he would live in Gubeikou, the village that we were on our way to.  His answers of clear blue skies and beautiful mountains, and concern for the ever increasing pollutants of our Earth, reflections of what I held to be of great importance as well.

Than there was Joe who gave us one of his best rooms at no extra charge because we had arrived late in the night. Inviting us to sit at his table, he had included us as if we were already a part of his circle of friends, and not the three strangers that we really were, having barely just walked in the door ten minutes before.

photo credit: Dani Fraser

The same light just kept shining through the people we were meeting, the places we were going. Somewhere outside and very close, was the Great Wall of China. I was excited for the morning and the adventure it would bring. In the silence of the late night I was also at peace, thankful that I could feel so safe in a place so far away from my home. Instinctively I knew we were staying with good people and that we were exactly where we were supposed to be. As the peace in knowing this eased my mind to rest, it was with trust that I finally
fell asleep….

-Chris…