Facial Recognition

“Did you know,” my mother starts, “that there is such a thing as facial blindness? It’s where people can’t differentiate between two faces, even if one of them is their child or best friend. Like color blindness, but with faces.”

It’s not the same thing at all, I am thinking. Who cares if you go into public wearing purple, while thinking it is blue? But faces? Forgetting your favorite faces seems like some kind of heart wrenching hell, for you, and the people who still know yours. It is one of the worst things, isn’t it? To be seen, and entirely unknown. To not be recognized by your own mother or spouse?

I am thinking, now, about my own children. They are the faces that I am always looking for, even when I know they are safely at home and I am on a trip out of town. They are as distinct, as they are distinctly different. Five perfect masterpieces. Five living works of art. Always changing before I am ready, always pleading when I am ready to go out, to please, just stay. Always lighting up and coming towards me, smiling, the minute I get back home.

Sometimes, I look at them, and forget how to breathe. They are so beautiful, that the air goes out of my lungs and pauses for a moment, before rushing back into me.

They are small, and warm, and so good at loving, that they are surely sacred. They have shown me more holy and more to live wholly than a lifetime spent in church. And while they bring me to my knees, they are my reasons for bowing my head in gratitude.

My boy. My sweet 11 yr. old boy, who is all blue eyes and heart. The child who first made my body contract, its muscles and sinew working together to expand and make my life big enough for him to fit. The first baby ever placed in my arms and called “mine.” This boy, who loves and fights with all there is inside of him, every single day. My Jonah- whose rounded face pinches my heart with its earnestness. His pink cheeks burn when he does something he is not proud of. His ears, glowing like otic lava lamps, as he comes to me, “Mommy, we have to talk.” His dimples, like little flashing beacons, that always guide me home.

He is my only boy, in a sea of girls.My little ladies in waiting. Waiting, to get their ears pierced. Waiting, to wear makeup in public. Waiting to have their own, too quickly approaching, adventures. My four girls. My March sisters- except without the Beth dying part, and the spoiling of Amy. All trying to be their own person, while staying tied to this life raft we call Family.

My Ellie- whose smile mirrors and magnifies the sun. Her sad, honest eyes, that look just like my great-grandmother’s. Her crooked smile, lilting, just so, to the right. Her green/hazel eyes, that make her seem like such an old soul, reimagined in a seven year old body. And her perfect smattering of freckles, dotting the landscape of her high cheekbones and fine nose. This one, who has a kindness about her, like an angora sweater, soft and comforting.

My Zoe Grace- who calls herself my little me. My dark-haired, passionate girl, whose arms and legs move with determination, and a fierceness that is like a fire, uncontained. Her olive skin and dark chocolate eyes reflecting the ways in which she views the world. She is all in, or all out, and needs deeply to know that she is loved. And she is, so much, this girl who looks so much like me, and like the little girl I dreamed of someday having, since before I was a teenager. This girl, who has my eyes and lips, and so far, my inability to control them when angry.

Then there is my Calliope. The most feeling four year old, ever made. My sweet, princess baby, who has the looks and delicate emotions of a china doll. Her golden brown ringlets sweep her lower back, her hazel eyes crinkle almost audibly when she smiles. Her rosy cheeks, still baby rounds, rise like hills on her beautiful face. This girl, who is always singing, always engaging, always ready to receive praise from me. She is as sweet as she is charming, and feels as special as she does fragile. I can’t wait to see what she does with her one, beautiful, life.

And finally, my baby. This dimpled, splendid creature, who calls me ‘Mama’ even though all of her siblings call me Mommy. This girl, who makes her own way, and makes sure there is always room for her, in every situation. My dark-haired, fair-skinned, bright-eyed, finale. My Naomi, who is so precious, I often marvel that she came from me. Her dark, coffee bean eyes, snapping. Her dimples, gleaming, as her feet bounce up and down, excitedly. This girl, who breaks something hard off of me, every time  she wraps her arms around my neck and says, “So much, Mama. So much.”

They are much. The Fabulous Five, my favorites of all people. These faces who break me, and build me, into something I didn’t know I could be. These faces, that yes, Jerry McGuire, complete me. They are who I want to see. They are all the things I know by heart.

Forgetting them is unimaginable. Even to someone as blind as I can be. These five little faces, are a part of me.


Had Things Gone Differently…

Today started out, like so many days do. The sun was still hiding behind its chilly grey blankets, refusing to come out from its cozy abode. My children were up early,their sweet voices chattering over cartoons in the living room. My head filled with to do lists, before my feet had greeted the carpet next to my bed. I sighed, as I often do lately, giving myself another moment to wake up and steel my heart for another busy day.

An hour and a half later, we were leaving. Seven clothed bodies, scrambling to find our places in the minivan that would take us to where we were going. My best friend had pleaded with me for all of us to go to her church in the valley for a petting zoo and Easter egg hunt. It will be so fun, she said, we’ll do it together. I am a sucker for togetherness, and so, we went.

But when we got there, we found that half of our fair city had decided to attend. And, well, crowds. There were so many people that we felt instantly overwhelmed. Our quaint, country church, eggy ideals were smashed by the presence of so many strangers, we felt overstimulated and underwhelmed. After a quick family vote, we headed on, to more promising pastures, Lake Coeur d’Alene.

We swatted at the moodiness of the heavy clouds, with a picnic in the park, a short walk, and the huge play structure. My children love this place. I want to love this place, but there is so much to it, that I cannot rest. It is well built, and imaginative, yet also filled with dark corners and beams that I cannot see all of my children around. Whenever we come here, and we come a lot, I am on my feet, walking and checking, and walking again. There are benches, but they are for the people who visit with one or two children, so they can sit while they watch their kids play right in front of them. My five children race around the structure as if they have something to prove, little Joshuas circling Jericho, curious to see how many times around they can make it, before it falls.

My husband and I divided who would be watching who, as I took pictures this afternoon. I am always watching, all of them. Always scanning, and counting, without letting my eyes or heart rest. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5….. on and on it goes. It is my rhythm, my lifeline. It feels as if my own heart waits to resume its beating until I have confirmed that they are all accounted for, that life is still worth living.

We played for an hour, maybe a little more. I took too many pictures, as I always do. Then, as we were preparing to leave, the sun came out from its dwelling. We couldn’t bear the thought of being rude guests, and so did not leave, when the sun had beckoned us to stay. The children slid down slides and pumped their little feet back and forth, reaching ever higher and higher on the swings. I aimed my camera to catch the way the light danced across their beautiful faces. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. I breathed. I basked like a sun-worshipper in the warmth of my children’s laughter, let it wash over the tired parts of me.

I forced myself to enjoy each moment. To be still and enjoy being fully present, reminded myself that I was exactly where I needed to be.

The sun, fickle mistress, stayed out in splendor, forcing the hands of time to wave their white flag in surrender. We had to go, we were already late. We rounded the children up, and let them say their goodbyes to the new friends that they had made, and would most likely never see again. I was thinking about the little red-haired boy, who had such a hard time accepting that my son was leaving, marveling at how attached he seemed to my child. It’s because my Jonah was so kind to him, I thought. I hope he has people in his life who are always kind. And then we were walking towards the exit/entrance part. Something is not right, I felt, and thought. 1, 2, 3, 4. No. That’s not enough. 1. 2. 3. 4.

Where is Ellie, I yelled to my husband, around the panic rising like a mountain in my throat? Is she with you?, I asked, or more likely pleaded and begged. No, he said, turning around. 1, 2, 3, 4. I could not breathe. My heart did not beat. Of this I am certain. Everything around me sped up, and I slowed down. The bark became quicksand at my feet. I could not see her. I looked and looked. We ran, four children in tow, all around, calling out for her, with no answer.

Ohmygodohmygodthiscantbehappening. All words flowed together, as the seconds stretched into eternity. Ellianah! I called, now frantic enough that parents went over to their own children and made sure they were safe, even if mine was not. Ellianah. I looked and looked. I prayed, dear God, I prayed so hard. I ran to the outside and looked around, my eyes straining to see a wisp of her flowered dress. My mind, thinking over the face of every man I had seen, trying to put together a description. She was no where. But she had to be. This one of five who mean everything to me.

I began stopping strangers and asking them if they had seen her. My other children calling her, and meeting only an aching silence in return. I will find her, I will, said her twin, and off she ran, as I stood there scaring a group of childless college girls, all dressed in black and trying to understand me. How long do I wait before I call the police, I wondered. This can’t be real, I thought, even though it felt very real. It felt like falling off a curb that you misjudged in height, suspended, but stumbling, without the ability to catch yourself.

I was still talking, when I heard the shouting, and I tried to understand what happened. Zoe yelled first, then her dad. Did you find her? I yelled, but could not make sense of their reply. Did you find her? I asked again, fearing the answer more this time. Then everything stopped, as Zoe ducked out of sight, my husband running closely behind. If she’s there but hurt, we’ll make it through, she just can’t be with one of those men. And then she was there, dejected face and flowered dress, walking sheepishly towards me.

I could not move. I could not stay away. I felt knocked out to sea by waves of relief and torment, and the horrible what-ifs, and what could have beens. Thank you, I said, out loud, not caring who heard. And then she was in front of me, my hands on her sweet face, cupping the cheeks that I brought into this earth. Needing to touch her, needing her to be real, and here, and safe. I love you, I said, because isn’t that the most important thing? I love you, I repeated, because having her here with me is a luxury. “You scared me, so bad,” I croaked around a sob. “I didn’t want to leave yet”, she said, “and so I hid.”

I held her and cried. “I was so scared”, I said again. I was not mad, though my body shook. I felt no anger. I only felt, as if I was given a second chance. I felt, as if I was in the presence of something holy. And gracious. And good.

We are home now, and have been for hours. Can I confide in you that I am still not okay? I am holding and loving and parenting, but inside I am breaking for what could have happened. We have talked it out, and found comfort together. We have made a plan for the future. And we are all being so careful of each other, showing only the most delicate sides to this fierce love we share. But I am still struggling to shake the feeling that all the peace and happiness we share could have been gone in a moment, had things gone differently.

Tattoos of Maybe

So, here’s the thing, or several things. I have been told all my life that I am a large percent Aleut, and also Apache. It has become kind of a nursery rhyme in my head. I am Jessica Rae, I am made up of seven things, Irish, English, German, Dutch. Aleut, Apache, and French, this is who I am. This is who I am.

I have been asked, many times what my ethnic background is. And so I recite, the seven things that I am, again and again. People say, oh, yes, that they can tell that I am a combination of things, they just couldn’t put their finger on what. Some say this politely, some with fascination, others with a boredom that makes me wonder why they asked.

Last September, it was one of the first things my husband’s stepmom asked me, when we first met. “Where are you from?” she asked. “I’m from Spokane,” I said. “No, no, where are you from?” she implored. My husband, sensed my confusion and stepped in. “She means, what are you, honey,” he translated.  “Oh, well…” I said. “You aren’t a full blood, are you?” she asked. I was thinking that as far as I know, that I do have the regular amount of blood flowing through my body, but of course, that isn’t what I said. I told her my seven things, then acknowledged when she asked again about what kinds of Native American I am. She nodded, then said, “I knew when I looked at you that you weren’t a full blood.” And as if that settled something, she went to the table and took her seat.

I stood there, thinking, not knowing what to feel. Is that a put down? Or an attempt to understand where I came from, who I am? She’s a very nice lady, and very good to my husband’s dad. So, I’ve been telling myself for months that her comments were innocuous. And that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks about my genetic makeup, it matters who I actually am, what I choose to live like, not which of my relatives chose to procreate and with whom they chose to do so.

But it’s part of my identity, all the same.

In high school I wore a multiple strand beaded leather choker. It looked like everything I wanted to be known for. It was a contrast of light and dark, beautiful in a noticeable way, and exotic looking, at least to me. When our biggest choir concert came up in the Spring, I refused my new choir teacher’s commands to take it off. It was my heritage, I said. I wouldn’t remove it. I won the battle of wills, after she took the issue to the principal. It was a part of who I am. And also something that I bought at Claire’s in the Columbia Center Mall, on a different choir trip, but neither my teacher or principal needed to know that.

Later, in college, I got a third tattoo. A feather that goes from my ankle onto my foot. The tattoo artist I chose had studied tattoos on the Aleutian Islands, and promised it would be authentic. It is the tattoo that I lotion first, always wanting it to be perfectly preserved. I look at it every summer, and notice how it looks in sandals, with more than a tablespoon of pride in my genetic heritage. It is a permanent reminder of where I came from, of who and what I am.

Except, what if it isn’t?

A few weeks ago I joined ancestry.com and have traced one of the lines on my father’s side, all the way back to 1847, when that relative and his wife made the journey to America. From Prussia. Prussia. As in, Germany, not some secret part of what is now known as America. And while their story is a bold adventure, birthing their sixth child while crossing the ocean, before landing here where they hoped for freedom, and walking over mountains with all these little lives depending on them, it isn’t, what I thought I would find.

I have heard it all my life. I am the descendant of Cochise, a distant but still somewhat honorable, Indian Princess. I have made sure to check that box on all the forms, for myself and all five of my children, though it said Alaskan Native/Native American, not Indian Princess. My husband is from Texas and we joke frequently about spending our life playing Cowboys and Indians. Being Native explains my olive skin, the placement of my cheekbones when I can find them, the connection I feel to the earth, my love of drums, sweat lodges, and smudging with sage, among other things.

But what if all of that was a lie? Because, well, that is not a part of my heritage that is in doubt. I come from a long line of bad men, and pathological liars, on my fathers side. I still have a long way to go, and a DNA test to send away for. But, what if?

What if it turns out that I am the Rachel Dolezal of Indigenous People?

I’m serious, you guys. For all of my raising my children to look only at the insides of people, at who their actions say they are, I feel a little misplaced. It could still be true. I could still have part of the genetic makeup I thought I had. I’ll be digging deeper and trying my best to find out. I’ll keep you posted, of course. But in the interim, I’ll be reminding myself that I, and not my ancestry, get to determine what I do with my life. That being kind, and honest, loving, and authentic, is more important than being any one type of ethnic. And that wherever I came from, I’m grateful to be here.



The Ahhhhh In Spa

Okay, seriously, you guys. I feel like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, without the whole prostitution, and having great legs and a tiny waist, part. Also, I’d rather sleep with my husband than Richard Gere, any day, or every day, of the week. But, other than that, I feel, soak in the giant hot tub listening to Prince, surrounded by the kind of opulence you have only dreamed about, with bubbles floating as high as your dreams, kind of ecstatic.

It is Sunday morning, and instead of getting five sleepy/slightly cranky children ready for church or a day in Coeur D’ Alene as a family (because both feel just as holy to me, because both expand my view, and both show me a perspective that I hadn’t considered before), I am in bed. Not in my bed, but a bed that will only be mine for the next few hours.

I have just eaten breakfast in this same bed, with the window open, overlooking trees that have been here longer than anyone I know. Watching as they wave to the breeze, swaying dancers, under a gray sky. Life feels as open as the golf course that surrounds this place. Sure, there are some sand traps here and there, but mostly it is rolling green fairways. I don’t golf, but I’m still excited.

Yesterday was the first day that I have ever spent in a spa, other than getting a pedicure in this same spa last December. I was nervous. And by nervous, I mean self conscious in a way that I vowed I would no longer allow myself to be. I felt like a big apology in a bathrobe, for the first half hour of the morning. But then reality set in and I realized that if I was going to really do this thing, I had to do it all the way. I most certainly did not arrange childcare for 5 children, and do all of the things that it takes to plan an entire weekend away, just to sit in uncomfortable emotions. So I stopped.

I drank my second glass of cucumber water, and laid down on the plushest chaise lounge I could find. I closed my eyes and let the calm music overtake the turbulence of my always on the go mind.  I guided my own thoughts towards what was open and true, and did not allow myself to make mental to do lists, or try to control anything other than my breathing. It was amazing. I felt more alive than I have in a long time. With nothing pulling at me, I allowed myself to just lay there and breathe.

Throughout the day, I enjoyed facials and treatments, a pedicure, and massages. I laughed and chatted with my sister and best friend, and also with others. I drank my weight in cucumber water. We had tea, and lunch delivered in a special room. We sat in water that is heated to 103.2 degrees, under a drizzly sky, and felt the dichotomy of the two. We drank champagne during leg massages, and yes, developed something called spa brain, even before that. Where you are so relaxed that you have a hard time standing and remembering how to put on your shoes.

Today, I’m trying to sneak in this blog before we go back down to the spa for more treatments. The truth is, as much as I anticipate that, I don’t want to leave this room. My best friend surprised me by booking the Presidential Suite. The dining room in it seats 8. Eight! The living room has almost floor to ceiling double doors that open, on both sides of a gigantic gas fireplace. The bathroom has a hot tub that could fit my family of seven. There is a bar, and kitchen, and too many things to mention.

And yes, it all makes me feel like a pretty woman. It makes me feel chosen, and cared for, humbled, and grateful. But I also identify with the part of knowing that this is not home, and not where I came from. I grew up just, so, poor, you guys, that this all seems surreal. And while part of me feels a little bit guilty for this birthday weekend, the rest of me is sitting here in amazement. What’s a girl to do? I’m going to enjoy the heck out of it.

Because life is short, but also amazing. Because my life is filled with others who need me. My life might be small, but it matters to some, so I’m going to take today to gather my strength. I will soak it all in, before I go back and wring what I’m learning out onto those I love. I will be pampered and coddled, given to, and nurtured. And I won’t waste a minute of it by apologizing.

Tomorrow I will go back to being mostly a mommy and a wife. But I’ll still remember that I was a woman, and maybe even a pretty one, first.

What I Wanted To Say…(an open letter to a dear friend)

I saw you, sitting there in the shadow of yourself. Saw the gray that seemed to cloud around your beautiful face. It was such a contrast to the bright yellow gold that you usually embody, that it seemed surreal. Like a first-time tourist in a country that has not been properly represented in the brochure. You, but not the you I so often picture.

And I just want to say, that it’s okay. (And that you are ridiculously beautiful.)

It’s okay to be you. I love you. And as much as I like the you that you usually project, I am your friend, not a white screen that you need to magnify anything onto.

You are safe.

You are safe to be angry, and scared, and afraid. You are safe to doubt. You are safe in your remembering the things that you know to be true, and also in your searching. You are safe to question, and safe to reject. Safe to move forward, and also to sit down and rest for a bit.

I know you are going through it. And I also know that you are going through it. I know that the valley that you are in is dark, and craggy, and littered with disappointment. That you are trying to walk, and that your feet cannot help but catch on the muck of disillusionment that is all around. I know that the tips of those sun drenched peaks almost seem to mock what life has thrown at you. Because, you have been there, and basked in that sun. You have seen others scale those heights as you looked on. And while it is warming to be up that high, it is also dizzying and hurts your lungs. Mountain tops are pokey and not easily lived upon. It might be hard to remember that from your view right now.

I know that you have tried to look up, because I know that you are one soul that is always looking around. You are a searcher, who has a gift for finding any kind of hope that can be found. I know that faith can be a treacherous climb. That from the valley, mountains seem to block the sun, and cast cold, lonely, shadows on the ground. I know, because I have been there. Have left my own too-big for a girl footprints in the mud. Have felt heart-sore and aching, even when surrounded by people that love me.

I have cried out, and crumpled like a dirty dollar bill, falling inside of myself so deeply, that I couldn’t see having the courage to ever get back up. I have questioned love, and seen life thumb its nose at justice. I have felt the hands of fate shake me, like a tree in a windstorm, until my own branches were stripped of their strength, hanging limply by my sides, hurting. I have felt pain, and anguish, and the empty nothingness ache that fills ones self when you are too exhausted to feel anything.

My situations were different, and I will not trivialize your heartbreak by saying that I fully understand. Because I don’t. Because I can’t.

But I will stay. I will sit with you here, however long this takes. Should years pass in this valley, I will be here, carving our names into the side of this giant rock, telling the truth when you need it. We are here, we were here, we might come this way again.

It has been hard, these last couple years. They have just been so hard, haven’t they? And while I know that you live life like it is one long, float filled, joy parade, I know that there has been an underlying what-if trying to spoil things. You have fought so courageously. I want you to know that it’s okay to be tired. It’s okay to lay your brilliant head down. Sometimes we are the knight, and sometimes we are the damsel. Shining armor is heavy, and weighs on you. If you fall now, love is big enough to catch you. Even if you’re in pieces, even if you’re spent. You are worth catching. And worth being held.

You, who live life knowing how to nurture. You, who inspire. You, who breathe, and weep, and laugh, and still dream. You, who just don’t know right now, and who are quietly flailing in life’s arms. You are stronger than you know, and brave. You are lovely and the kind of wonderful that most people don’t get to experience. You possess the kind of wit and warmth and effortlessness that can only alight on someone with pure intentions. It’s true. Even if you don’t feel it.

The walls are steep, out of this one, friend. They rise too swiftly to make a comfortable journey. There is danger with believing, and hoping, and trying. This life can be such a dangerous place. And while there is nothing I can say to even begin to make things better, I can offer my hand, for anything you need. To help you up, to hold you, or to flip off the unfairness with you.

You have it.

And you have me.