Fucking LEAVE

I just found out I never actually left the church, and this makes me angry.

“I’ve done this before. Several times. And here I am again.” Therapy is the actual worst, by the way. I have never felt this routinely devastated in my life. I basically just cry now. That’s my whole existence.

Today we’re talking about social justice burnout and paralysis. Specifically, Why I Believe Everything Everyone Says Is Wrong With Me and My Corrupt Motivations For Caring. “How do I keep cycling back here? I have determined, in the past, when a voice of condemnation was not meant for me, and I left. ” I am shamelessly begging her to give me credit for how badass I used to be. Nothing like this mess of a human she sees here today.

“I used to sit in church every week and every pastor– and I sat under so many pastors– every pastor would shout at us:

Why are you even here? Do you pray? Do you read your Bible? Do you even want to be here or do you just come to look good to your neighbors? Invest more. Mean it more. Work harder. 

For years I sat there, confused and ashamed, trying to try more. But finally I said ENOUGH. I do pray every fucking day. I spend every spare minute volunteering. I run a ministry. I’m a virgin who doesn’t drink or smoke or date and I’m housing three needy kids at any given moment. You can’t mean this more than I mean it. You can’t spend more energy than I’m spending. This is my everything. And you’re shouting at me to be more sincere. This sermon isn’t for me. I can’t listen to this any more.

So I left. I haven’t sat through another sermon since. I can’t keep sitting there hearing that I am not who I know I am. But here I am again, believing every voice that shouts at me that I should care more than I do.” My eyes fill with tears, surprise surprise. I breath through them.

My therapist leans in. “This sounds like what you were hearing from your dad as well: you can never be good enough, or quick enough, or anticipate enough.”

Deep breath. “Oh definitely. God, the only fights we ever had were when I had done everything he asked and shit still hit the fan. So unfair. If you want me to do all these things, and I do them, I should be okay. I should be good. I shouldn’t still not be enough.”

“I hear that you did everything you could to live up to the expectations of these voices in your life. And when that didn’t work, you left. But I don’t hear from that what you actually believe to be true.”

Fuck. I’m not going to like this, am I?

“I mean, I hear that you were promised, ‘do these things and you will be “good,”‘ but then you were never seen as good enough. And you’re still trying for that– to be good enough to be seen as good. But what do you believe to be good? What is enough to you? ”

A very expensive moment of silence, the heaviest silence I’ve ever born, fills the room.

“Tell me what you’re feeling.”

“I… I never left, did I?” My voice is sharp and loud. I decide she can handle it.

“I quit, because I realized that the game was rigged, but I never left. I thought I was pushing back against the expectations, but I was actively fulfilling every single one. I was just fed up of the uselessness of it. I felt defeated, but I didn’t feel… I mean, I didn’t even consider leaving just so I could be healthier, or so I could find out what I value. I just opted out because I couldn’t win–”

I stop dead in horrified silence. She sits still, waiting.

“If doing everything my dad asked had brought peace, would I ever have left? Would I still be in relationship with my abuser if he had said, ‘Good job’? Did I really only leave because of the futility, not because of the twisted world he created?”

Guess what else I just found out: I never left my dad either. Awesome.

My session ends and I exit with a snarky comment tossed over my shoulder. Her final question echoes in my mind as I walk over to Starbucks to meet up with T.

What do you want? What are you hoping for from your efforts?

“How was it?” T asks. It’s an invitation: He’s a therapy veteran himself, and we’re weeks into him holding me while I sob every Thursday at about 4:07.

“It was terrible. I have to pee.” And I huff off. I lock the bathroom door and stare at the mirror.

What do you want?

I lose my breath as a sob echoes around me, collapse against the wall and slide down next to the toilet. I cover my mouth with both hands so my sobs are muffled, squeeze my eyes closed and cry louder and louder in my head:







“Have I ever told you about our cherry trees?” My voice startles T from his first moment of sleep. He squeezes me close reflexively.

“I don’t think so?”

“Right up the hill from our house– the house that burned– we had two cherry trees and a mulberry tree. The mulberry tree was half splayed over the chicken coop, so every year for a little while the chickens ate like kings, and the area around the door was a mess of smooshed fruit that was nasty to walk on. They were white mulberries. Or purple.

One of our cherry trees had big, sweet cherries, but the tree was really small and didn’t produce much.

Our other tree was big, and it grew pie cherries that were small and tart. I hated them. But Saturn liked them. I think that’s why we called it her tree. Well, also she was the only one allowed to pick from the ladder, since she was so much older than me.

Every year when the cherries were ripe we would take milk jugs, cut them open to make buckets, lace our belts through the jug’s handle and go pick cherries. I loved it. It was so exciting and rewarding. And then we’d make cherry pies. Cherry pies were my dad’s favorite– he always asked for cherry pie for his birthday; he didn’t really like cake.”

I realize I used past tense to talk about my father again. I pause to take a breath, and T squeezes me tighter.

“I like your cherry trees.”

I smile in the darkness. “One year we made cherry cordial. Can you do that without alcohol?”

“I’m not sure.”

“We made cherry juice at least. I think we borrowed a juicer? I remember there being a stovetop involved, and a spout. I’m not sure. But we made cherry juice, put it on the tinted jars, with a rubber stopper you kind of fold on? Then we dolled it out in ‘juice glasses,’ 3 or 4 oz servings. Rationing it, you know? But that was okay: it’s rich stuff.”


“Once– wait. This is a happy story if I stop now. Should I stop now?”

“Either way. It’s your story.”

“I’ll stop.”

I nestle in and close my eyes. Cherry pies and chickens and frozen buckets of water in the winter. Bunny rabbits and horned worms and welcoming smiles when I burst through the shop door.

Tonight I dream of a childhood in Eden.


*harassment *rape *misogyny

It wasn’t the bad men that made me this way.

I always knew there were bad men in the world. No question of that. Rapists, child molesters and homosexuals. Drunkards and promiscuous jocks. Lots of bad men in the world. They didn’t scare me. There were other men who kept me safe. They made sure I didn’t carry myself too loosely, show too much skin. They let me know if I was out of line, putting myself in danger. They helped me guard my heart and my body so that I would be ready when the right man found me. They kept me safe from bad men.

The men in my life worked hard. They took care of their families. Made the money. And the decisions. And the advances. And the assumptions.

 Men have always been really good to me, actually. My mantra in my twenties. I haven’t been raped, after all. Someone always stops to change my tire. And if I am careful enough in how I carry myself, I’m not that likely to be harassed, usually. Except sometimes when I’m walking to the grocery store. Or strolling on the trail. Or walking my dog. But those are the bad men. And I always knew there were bad men in the world.

I mean, sure. When I took my car in to get repaired the mechanic wouldn’t acknowledge me, instead addressing every inquiry and explanation to my random male friend. But you know, men assume women don’t know about cars. I get it.

I mean, sure. The pastors assumed I would step aside in ministry leadership as soon as we found a man for the job. And the other church re-baptisted all our kids because they had been baptised by a woman, so it didn’t count. But there is that one verse in the Bible about women in leadership… I get it.

I mean, sure. I got lectured for walking too fast, getting to the door first, and opening it for myself. But guys like to be gentlemen, and that’s hard when I don’t let them. I can walk slower. I get it.

I knew my fair share of bad men, I assure you. The man who shoved me against a wall, all smiles and eye contact and power, until I was so scared I couldn’t breathe. The man who grabbed my thigh in the back seat of a friend’s car, and wouldn’t stop when I pushed him away, then years later started stalking me on Facebook. The man who nicely offered to overlook my underarm hair as long as my pussy was “maintained.” Obviously, bad men.

But it wasn’t the bad men who made me this way. It was the good men who ruined me.

These men didn’t manifest by holding open a door for me. They came to me with open minds, and asked me about my experience of the world.

These men didn’t helpfully pull me aside to let me know the shapes of my nipples were visible through my sweater. They looked at me, in whatever state of dress or undress I chose, and asked me, “How do you like to be treated? What are you hoping for?”

These men didn’t remind me to smile because  “You look so much prettier when you smile.” They saw when I was sad and asked, “Do you want to talk about it?” and “Is there anything I can do?”

These good men ruined everything.

I have been valued as an equal; I can no longer view asserted protection of my presumed delicacy as good.

I have been spoken to as a partner; I can no longer settle for being “granted” a seat at the table of my “superiors.”

I have been respected as sole voice in my own sexuality; I can no longer settle for not getting assaulted.

I have been seen for my strengths, experiences, insights; I can no longer pace myself by the man ahead of me.

I can’t feel ashamed when I have big feelings, feel flattered when I am cat called, feel valued by gestures that reinforce my role as  the weaker sex.

It is not gentlemanly to decide my proper relationship to the world, to a busy street, to sex, to family life, to cars and power tools. It is not respectful to help me keep my virginity, to flatter my delicate emotions, or lie to keep me feeling good about myself.

I’m not bitter because of bad men.

I’m not cynical because I’ve been burned.

I’m not angry because of, well, anything. I’m not angry.

I am elated! There are spaces in this world where I am seen without being accosted, heard without being patronized, where I lead without slowing, and calculate my own damn risks. There are men who are gentle.

The good men ruined me for the status quo.


*Harassment *Misogyny 

I pull my shirt off over my head, arms high, underarm hair on full display. Next comes my sports bra, the tight elastic smashing my breasts then releasing them. I unbuckle my shorts and they fall easily. I wonder if I look self-conscious. Then I change my question: I wonder if I am self-conscious? I turn around and smile at the dozen or so people already in the soaking tubs. I see two bikinis, a pair of swim trunks, and other than that all skin. A few pleasant smiles in return but honestly, most people don’t seem aware of me. My near-nakedness feels irrelevant– even to me. I am not self-conscious. I am powerful and safe.

I choose a tub and slip in, T settling beside me. I love that I know he is proud of me, loves my power and comfort in my own (exposed) skin. I love that I am safe with him– but not because of him. I want him beside me enjoying our evening, but I don’t need him to defend me or my right to opt out of clothing in this consensual space.

Last week I came to rest on a phrase that so encapsulated my footing on the complex relationship between sex positivity/ body positivity and push back against harassment. It has been echoing in my head and smoothing away the last barbs that have been keeping me from relaxing into my own beauty:

You can find me attractive without making me feel unsafe.

Chatting comfortably with my fellow hot tub occupants, I lift myself half out of the water, elbows resting on the ledge behind me. Having lived in this body for a while now, I know this presents my breasts. You know what else it does? It helps regulate my temperature and allows my arms to support me, giving my thighs a break. It also exactly mirrors the posture of the two other men in the tub. I am mid-sentence when I rise from the water and I see their eyes follow… my eyes. With conversational ease they continue our chat, looking at me, each other, the sea and sky.  It is natural, safe and lovely. Of course they see my body, and I see theirs. Maybe my breasts enhance the view for them, but then, the moon enhances my view. Beauty is nice. We are all happy.

“All you fuckin’ hippies and your nakedness! I’m not used to all these naked bodies!” In the tub next to ours a loud, disheveled man holds court. He stands squarely in the center of the pool, hands on hips, penis on display, somehow violating everyone’s personal space simultaneously. He’s been there for nearly an hour, his abrasive voice never quite fading into background noise as he lectured a young couple about their relational fate. She’s planning to break his heart, this random man confidently warns the boyfriend. She should appreciate what she’s got, some day she’ll realize. He should be careful. He should watch his back… The young couple has given up attempting to respond and has long maintained the frozen polite smiles of those trapped but needing to earn their Good Human badges by never disengaging or seeming uncomfortable around the apparently less privileged. With this abrupt shift of topic they try again to make this a conversation.

“Oh, is it your first time here?”

He doesn’t bother to answer as his gaze locks on a naked woman emerging from the shower and entering their tub. “You are fuckin’ beautiful.”

She chuckles uncomfortably. “Thank you.”

WHY do we thank people for uninvited editorial comments? Why do we humor the absolutely inappropriate? WHY does he get to continue unchecked, while the rest of us pretend we aren’t miserable? No. We don’t have to be polite. No. NO.

I meet eyes with a woman in my tub– she looks ready to vomit. She covers herself with her arms and pulls her knees up to her chest.

NO. He cannot have our safety. This space is not his. She doesn’t have to disappear so he can remain large. NO. 

“Excuse me,” I abruptly interrupt my conversation and hoist myself all the way out of the water. I walk directly to the loud man, who has not slowed down.

“All these fuckin’ naked women! I just can’t even–”


He looks at me and I realize for the first time that I am naked. I am confronting a bully in my panties. Standing on the side of the tub I am towering over him, and he is seeing my face through the curves of my breasts. And I don’t care. My nipples do not make me vulnerable.

“Hey,” I say again. “One of the courtesies of places like this is that we do not comment on each others’ bodies. We do not talk about nakedness or stare at each other. It makes us feel unsafe and uncomfortable.”

“Oh, it was just a compliment.

“This is not a place for comments on other peoples’ bodies.”

“Fine, I won’t compliment a beautiful woman,” as if it’s our loss.

“Don’t. It makes everyone feel unsafe.”

I slip back in beside T and he squeezes my shoulder. I’m shaking, but taking deep breaths and begin to thaw. The other woman mouths thank you and we cringe together. “I’m tense in a hot tub,” she whispers.

Clothing is optional, harassment is not.
This is not his space.
I don’t have to be polite.
I don’t have to hide my body.
I don’t have to leave.

I am powerful.

I curate my own safety.

Ulimate Decision Maker

I will marry you.

I will stand amid friends and family and I will marry you. You will be my husband and I will be your wife.

But I will call you my Partner.
Because we are doing life together. We are walking in step. We are blending– equal parts you and me.

In Partner there is no gender.
No gender roles.
Just you and me. Strengths, weaknesses, experiences. Tag team and having each others’ backs. Safety.

No gender roles.
The available hands at dinner time cook.
The available arms cuddle and nurture the children.
Whoever remembers the laundry moves it along.

“Grow old with me?”
“Yes! God yes. Without a doubt.”

But soon… “T, I don’t know if I can be a wife. I don’t want to be a wife.”
“Don’t be. Never be A Wife. Maybe be my wife? Does that feel okay?”
“That does sound better. Lovely maybe. I can be your wife.”

Then we went car shopping.

“Does your wife want… You might want this for your wife… If my wife ever caught me…” That word heavy with assumptions– me the dependant, you the Provider; me the back-stage bitch, you the haggard ‘yes dear’ sayer– But then you look at me, see me, check with me. And we decide together. Fuck that guy.

Partner. Partnership. Togetherness, where the Ultimate Decision Maker is whoever has had the most sleep that day, whoever has done the most research, whoever can make the best case. The shape of our body doesn’t grant or remove authority.

In Partnership there is no “submission” and no “head.” Except in bed, maybe. If you’re both into that. With enthusiastic consent.

Speaking of which, in Partner we are both allowed to want sex. And we are both allowed to decline it. The shape of our body doesn’t grant us assumed access to anything. Because in Partner there is no gender. Everyone has up and down days. We are all allowed to feel all the emotions on the spectrum, and feel them deeply. And talk about our feelings. Or not.

In Partner there is safety to say, “I hear you. I feel differently.”
There is, “You feel that? We must be different people!”
There is, “You lead, you are smarter than me in this,” spoken by anyone, any time.
And my Partner doesn’t snatch tools from my hands to “show me how” to do what I already know.

In Partner  the only “complimenting” is “Damn I’m glad you’re you, and damn I’m glad I’m me.”

And if half the time I say “my partner” people assume we’re queer, well, maybe that’s more true than not. And if those people are surprised my Partner is a man, well, so are we some days. But what a man. But then again, what difference does that make? Because in Partner there are no gender roles.

I will stand with you, amid friends and family, and I will marry you. Then we will resume our partnership, already in progress, which has been, is, and will be beautiful.

I will grow old with you. Fully me.

I love you. Fully you.

Note to my readers:

Welcome. Thank you for wanting to hear my story.

Until very recently I was writing in a void, very few people aware of my tiny voice in the vast internet universe. A lot more eyes are suddenly here. That is an honor. As the story teller I will continue to do my part: to tell my story honestly as I know it. Due to its heaviness I have blogged anonymously. I have changed the names of friends and family whose stories are intertwined with mine. I don’t mean to be their voice, to portray their experiences or assert expertise in their needs. I tell of them only as they bump against me, my story being the one I  can tell with authority.

If you know, or think you know, any of the characters in my stories please respect their anonymity, both in your sharing and in your comments. I recommend using the names as given in this blog for the sake of internal consistency.

Do feel free to share this blog freely. Do so with consideration to those whose story is being bared.

Thank you.


Tomorrow is my dad’s birthday.

It’s also the one year anniversary of the last time we spoke.
“My wife and I will leave you the hell alone.”
He’s been as good as his word. I wonder if he uses my name or if, like my mom, I’m “Someone” in his stories.

My body remembers anniversaries. I’m trying to speak gently to it, to let it feel what it needs to feel. I’m trying to get through the next two days without another panic attack.

“I never expect my body to remember things, but it does.” My friend gets it. She says what I need to hear. “I try to speak gently to my body, to let it know it’s okay that it’s upset.”

I laughed when she said that. “Really? I usually let it know I’m pissed it’s interfering with my day.” I’m trying her way. I’m trying to be gentle to myself, to let my body have a mind of its own. “We can do this. Two more days. Breathe, girl. Breathe. I’m sorry this happened to you. You are beautiful. Breathe.”

Anxiety attacks are terrible. I’ve spent all week feeling anxious about anxiety attacks. Helpful, I know.

It was cold last week. I got home from work not too late and set about fixing myself some food. My partner had made himself comfortable in bed as I chatted away loudly, voice carrying through our open bedroom door. Drink in hand I wandered in to join him. Mid sentence I faltered. I tried again, repeating the last word and pushing ahead with my story– and stopped. I sat down, took a deep breath, tried again. My story dissolved into pointlessness and tapered out. T looked at me attentively.

“I’m sorry, I can’t finish my story while you’re wearing those.” Unceremoniously and without hesitation I removed his white thermal pants. I hoped I was playful when I tossed them on the floor, but I was afraid it was too clearly a banishment.

“Those were keeping me warm.”

“I know. I’m sorry you’re cold.”

He took a long look at me. “You have…. interesting triggers.”

I love that he knew a trigger when he saw it. It keeps the wounds clean. I tossed my fuzzy blue PJ pants at him. “I didn’t mean to make you naked without asking.”

White thermals: my dad’s go-to in cold weather. Camping, fishing, working, stacking firewood, Christmas tree hunting. They were ever present. They were warm and comfy and rural and sensible. The happy times are triggers now? Great. Didn’t see that coming.

“I’m having a hard time being inside my body.” It was only a few minutes after I’d hurled them away but the thermals were out of sight, out of mind. I didn’t know what I felt, or why.

“What does that mean?”

“That’s… that’s all I’ve got.”

“What can I do to help?”

“I– hold me?” My body took control. It clenched itself into a fetal ball to keep itself inside my skin. He squeezed me, but not hard enough. Not frantically enough. Not like he wanted me not to explode. My body twitched, it sobbed. I didn’t know why my body hated me. I didn’t understand why he didn’t know he needed to save me. I pushed him away hard, left him behind and threw myself onto the couch, squeezed myself into an even tighter ball.

Clench. Twitch. Twitch.
Remember to breathe.
Mindfulness. Breathe. Why do I feel afraid? Why am I angry? There is no danger. There is no harshness. Breathe. Relax. Relax your spine so you can breathe deeply. Relax your fingers. Uncurl your hands. Breathe. You’re so cold. Stand up. Go rest.

Those damn thermals.

I melted back into T’s arms, pulled the blankets tight. He squeezed me hard– loving hard, not world-is-ending hard. Because he loves me, and the world isn’t ending.

Two more days. We can do this. Two days.

I miss my dad.


I lean against my partner’s shoulder as we stand close– partly because we’re in love, partly because there’s only a small patch of floor safe for standing. His arm is warm around my ribs, his quick squeeze makes me flush. Boxes and chaos: the price of our decision to live together. “Moving sucks,” is the common thread of public sympathy. Seems a laughable understatement at this point.

“They’re lovely,” he says. Our floor-to-ceiling IKEA shelves are all snapped into place. “Not the hand-made hardwood boxes we’d hoped for, but this’ll do.” I nod my acceptance.
“The boxes would have been gorgeous, but we don’t have time for the project. Or room. Or tools. We’d need a lot of tools.”
“Well, I know at least 5 men at church with all the tools we’d need. … if we were still welcome at church.” Sometimes groups of people don’t know how to be present with hard changes. Losing community sucks.

I snuggle in a little. “Historically I’ve had access to Dad’s shop. And lumber. And tools. I feel really… Isolated. I miss my resources. I miss my dad. This was what he’s good at. This was a safe space. I keep wanting to call him and say ‘Hey! I’m building shelves!’ and let him talk at me, pretend to be close. Too bad he’s halfway across the country. Oh yeah, and he doesn’t acknowledge me anymore.”

Having a shitty father sucks.


We’re taking him to the ER.” Latest in a weekend-long series of texts Saturn and I have exchanged. I’m so glad she’s there; a dozen states away all I can do is stay informed and tell everyone I love them.

A missed call from Pewter. Heart racing, I hit call-back. He’s crying. “I don’t want to die. I don’t. I’ve worked too fucking hard to make it to today to check out now. I don’t want to die. I love you guys more than anything and I can’t do that to you. I just don’t know how to keep going. I don’t know how to survive this. I wish to God Dad had had the balls to get help. But I’m stronger than him. I’m doing it, and I’m going to get better. I love you.” I love him too. More than life. And I couldn’t protect him. No one could. I sit and stare at the closet. I want things for Pewter. Good things. Healthy and beautiful things. Like a whole new childhood. For tonight I’ll settle for basic physical safety.

Saturn calls me back– our brother has a bed in the psych unit. I wish I felt relieved. The System isn’t known for offering much to those I love. But he’s alive. A step.

Saturn and I spent a decade working together on the fringes of the mental health system. I had to tap out, but she’s still there. She has the connections Pewter needs. She’s his best ally. “I’m looking for a DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) trained therapist in the area. DBT is so much about being able to still yourself, be present, gain perspective and respond intentionally. To trust your own voice. Pewter knows what he needs, he just doesn’t know how. He needs–”
“Yeah. Tools.”
Tools for surviving Dad.


Moving projects seem infinite.
“Would it be safe to assume you don’t have a metal file somewhere?” T asks, waving his hand across the box-covered desk.
“I have a collection of metal files. What size do you need?” T looks at me with amazement.
“It wasn’t a safe assumption. I’m sorry. You are awesome!” I shrug away my partner’s adoration.
“Dad gave them to me for jewelry.”
T’s silence draws my questioning glance: he’s waiting for my eyes and doesn’t let them go as he responds:
“Your dad gave a good gift– to an awesome person.”
Slowly T’s words are informing my inner voice, a gentle voice, the one I must learn to trust.

Fire (part 2)

I woke up disoriented and displaced. The hotel walls slowly came into focus as I heard Mom and Dad talking in hushed tones. Confusion gave way to memory and bile rose in my throat. Tears came and I choked them away. My home was gone. Forever.

I don’t know why my parents decided to go to church that first day after the fire. Maybe they needed routine. Maybe they needed community. Maybe it was check out time at the hotel and they needed somewhere to corral five kids while they tried to stay sane. I don’t know. I do know exactly how warm and rough the sidewalk felt on my bare feet when I stepped out of the van and headed into Sunday School. The hot February sun that had dried the fallen leaves into tinder was still at it, and the pavement was summer to my winter soft toes. I was wearing every scrap of clothing I owned: panties and a baggy T-shirt. Dad assured me it was long enough to be a dress but I tugged on the hem self-consciously.

Sean met us on the steps all Sunday Smiles, but a gasp escaped her when she saw the state we were in. Without a word she squatted, unstrapped her Women’s size 7 sandals, knelt in front of me and slipped them on my skinny 10 year old feet. The toes flopped like clown shoes but the soles were soft and I felt less naked. As Sean entered church barefoot and I flopped along behind her smile radiated friendship. By the end of the day another church member had bought us all new tennis shoes in our sizes, but I kept those sandals until the toes broke off from tripping me with their ill-fitting length.

This is a story of when a community works– when grassroots is at its best.

The local radio station spent months airing invitations to donate to our family. A benevolence fund was established and cash poured in– not an insurance settlement by any means, but generous for the small working class town. In fact, the word spread so rapidly and thoroughly the donations came from not only our home state but from places as exotic as Omaha, NE, Portland, OR and far away France! A family friend opened their basement as the donation collection point and it filled so quickly with an almost comical mound of clothes-stuffed trash bags we had to ask the radio station to announce a moratorium on clothing donations. Still the donations poured in.

Even in the face of a life altering tragedy such as a total-loss house fire, access to a swimming pool is awesome. We spent the summer rent free at the lakeside condo of a business associate of Dad. It was a tumultuous summer for my parents, but for us as kids the pool, the patch of woods across the parking lot, and the balcony overlooking a motorboat-filled lake provided more adventure than we had ever dreamed possible. It was a summer long Christmas, sorting bags and boxes of new things, never a clue what would come next.

One special day a large box arrived from a homeschool family in Omaha. Their daughter was just older than me, so her hand-me-downs were a perfect fit. In this box was my world: Every Mandie book yet published (my adventuring soul sister whose stories I devoured) in pristine boxed sets, a beautiful collection of Lady Lovely Locks dolls, clothes and accessories (we were of course a Barbie-free home), even a complete Black Stallion collection for Saturn. Looking back I suspect some wish lists were shared but at the time it was a straight up miracle.

Box by box, bag by bag, friend by friend, we rebuilt our lives. Months passed and donations slowed as minds turned to newer stories. The condo was needed for other things, the benevolence funds were running dry and Next Step pressure grew crushing. With no energy to rebuild, no way to re-imagine his dream, Dad turned to other options, slowly accepting a mobile home as our best immediate plan.

So it was late one summer day that I climbed up the tall passenger seat of our van and headed on a road trip, feet swinging inches above the floorboards,  just me and Dad, to check out our probable new house on wheels. Just a quick stop at the Post Office on the way out of town…

There was an envelope in the mail that caught Dad’s eye. A church, having heard our story on the radio back in February, had been collecting donations for our family. But they’d never quite gotten that check in the mail until now, so with a profuse apology for the long delay we received another timely miracle: a check for within $100 of the price of the mobile home and the moving fee. God bought us a trailer.*

Surrounded by tokens of love and support, seven months after we drove away with only the clothes on our back, we returned to the farm. My family of 7, our amazingly refreshed library and more clothes than we could ever wear crammed ourselves into a 2.5 bedroom trailer 500 feet up the hill from the buried ashes of my childhood home.

And we began again.

*God Bought Us a Trailer is clearly going to be the title of my book some day. Dibs.


I’ve always loved fire. I am fascinated by it, as it flickers and crackles. I kick logs so they’ll spark,  sending glowing stars into the air to watch them disappear into the sky. So when the hillside surrounding my home was all in flame, I wasn’t scared. It was a beautiful, familiar danger. Every year the farmers surrounding our homestead burned off their fields. The tourists, drunk after time at the nearby public river access threw matches or cigarettes out their windows– some even stopping to be sure the grass caught, just for fun. Every year the countryside glowed. It was a common family moment to spot smoke on our way home from town and work together to calculate its distance. Every spring and fall we executed a proactive controlled backfire, then settled in, hoses at the ready.

It was a “red flag day,” February, 1995: a day declared by state agencies too dry and windy to even light a grill. I was 10 years old and as we drove along the familiar winding rural road we calculated the smoke was coming from our neighbor’s backyard. The whole world stopped. My father didn’t even change out of his dress shirt to go drag our neighbors out of their Saturday afternoon naps. Dad didn’t eat lunch that day—he spent the entire afternoon fighting with every bit of energy he had to save our neighbor’s house, to steer the flames away from his sheds, barns, hutches and garages full of farm machinery, to keep the fire from crossing the road, to guide the flames to the creek and starve them to submission. When the fire came onto our land I joined the ranks, rake in hand, my own controlled burn to watch, my own space to clear and protect. Emerald, almost 8, ran from neighbor to neighbor with cups of water and small snacks. I wasn’t scared: fire never wins.

Late in the day we gained the upper hand. Exhausted and ash smeared, some neighbors wandered home to eat, others spread out to rake away lingering flames. The small rural volunteer fire department’s tanks were empty, and the men sent them away to refill and recoup. Everything was under control.

Fire is beautiful. It’s warm and captivating. So when Mom rushed out of the bedroom clutching baby Pewter, scooped up toddler Rose and hustled us all into the car, I wasn’t scared. I didn’t even grab the bundle of my favorite things I’d packed earlier, wrapped hobo style in my comfort blanket. When she sped away, car horn blaring and echoing off the hills to call my Dad from the bottoms and alert him to the danger, when I caught a glimpse of bright flames licking out of our shed and reaching toward our house, I wasn’t scared. I should have been, I suppose, but it didn’t occur to me. I just watch the flames on the shed, the glowing ground and charred earth– A familiar danger.

Coaxed out of hiding by the evening breeze, a glowing ember had drifted onto the dry wood siding of our garden shed. Emerald and I played with our neighbor’s antique dolls while Saturn, just shy of 15, fought the fire alongside our parents, scarring her lungs with smoke and ash. They did everything they could. The fire spread through our sheds and animal pens faster than they could handle. I think the moment that broke my dad was when he had to shout, “Forget the house, save the shop!”

As my dad stood on the road and watched the flames engulf the home he’d spent his entire adult life building, one reclaimed window at a time, refusing aid or debt–the home he’d designed room by room and built nail by nail, the dream he’d wrapped around his family to provide for us and keep us safe– his soul turned to ash with it. Our neighbor, whose house had been saved, who had been by my dad’s side all day as he had been every year, took off his jacket and wrapped it around my dad’s shoulders. It was all he could do at that moment. But there was a coldness the jacket couldn’t touch. Nor the gesture of friendship.

When Mom walked back through the neighbor’s door I remember how quiet she was, and how her shoulders sagged. She sat down gently next to me and I knew. “We lost the house. I’m so sorry.” I threw my self into her arms and sobbed. Emerald cried and hugged the doll. I couldn’t stop picturing my favorite doll, all tied up in my blanket, laying in the living room on fire. I’m sorry, Karla, I could have saved you.

The Red Cross got us a hotel room that night– all 7 of us in one little room. I explored the care package that some school students had put together as a community service project. I swapped super balls with my sister because hers was blue and mine was pink and I don’t like pink. 3 feet away my Dad sat in a chair in this cold and unfamiliar room and sobbed. He was still wearing our neighbor’s jacket and smelled of smoke. After 20 years of building we were months from a completed dream home. Months from my own bedroom, from a sewing room for Mom. Months from his being able to give us everything he’d always wanted us to have. An uninsured dream, irreplaceable. I watched my dad sob and my mom cry with him, her hand on his back. It was the most intimate I’d seen them in years.

Our house burned to the ground that day. Not like those pictures of charred frames and bathtubs akimbo. The fire burned so hot that we found hardened puddles of metal we were sometimes able to identify as one appliance or another, sometimes not. When I revisited the site months later I walked in the crunchy black shadow of my parents’ bedroom, where 4 of the 5 of us had been born, I kicked up the dirt under my school room and wondered if I’d find any melted remains of my favorite toys or books– then laughed at myself for thinking paper would melt. There was nothing left.