star-spangled.

I want to go to Fort McHenry, was what I said that afternoon, over beers, on my last day in America.

It seemed fitting. There we were, wandering around Baltimore, getting ready to deploy, and there was this perfectly fascinating National Monument, where our National Anthem was inspired and written within a measly 25 minutes.

If we’re going, we have to go now, I said, trying to be indifferent, trying not to totally lose my nerd shit over this seemly perfect opportunity. We’d have an hour, give or take, to explore if we left then, was what I told them, they who had already agreed to go with me. I was being unnecessarily persuasive, I knew, but couldn’t seem to stop.

DSC_6965

We jumped right into viewing the film when we got there, learning about the fort’s five-pointed star design, how it was built in 1798 and used continuously from then through WWI and then in WWII by the Coast Guard.

It was built to protect the Port of Baltimore, which it did. In 1814, Fort McHenry withstood 25 continuous hours of bombardment and still managed to bar the British from entering the Baltimore Harbor.

We learned that Francis Scott Key watched the bombardment from a nearby ship. Seeing the emergence of an oversized American flag on the morning after the bombardment, Key wrote the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” later renamed as The Star-Spangled Banner,” and adopted as our national anthem.

At the end of the film the screen rose, the Anthem started to play and there in the distance was the flag.

There have been decisive moments of patriotism over the course of my 32 years and that moment, standing there, watching the flag, all of what was to come weighing on my mind, is one of them.

DSC_6960

We walked to the fort. Examined the cannons, some prison cells used during the Civil War, and were called to the flag pole. We learned that, in 1948, President Truman signed a Presidential Proclamation declaring that a flag would always fly over Fort McHenry. In the mornings and at night, they switch the flag, flying a historic flag over the site during visiting hours and  the 50-star flag we know today when the park is closed. Being there at the closing of the park, we were able to watch and participate in the flag exchange.

First, the 50-star flag goes up, then the historic flag comes down. There’s never a moment when there isn’t a flag flying there, but there are a few minutes, those in between minutes, when there are two flags flying over the fort.

DSC_6984

I took pictures as the boys helped catch the oversized historic flag and then helped fold it with the rest of the crowd.

DSC_7030

I never know what I’m going to experience when I visit a National Park. I continue to do it, continue to visit because it continues to be special and I am continuously rewarded with each new visit, each new park. They always remind me of the beauty, history and magnificence of our nation, of the reasons I’m proud, of the reasons I serve.

This visit was treasure. It could not have been timed better, could not have taken place on another day of my life when it meant as much to be as it did that day. It was the perfect transition, the perfect reminder of why.

to kuwait.

wildflowers
We left Texas at the height of wildflower season. Every field we passed was splashed in color, covered in blues and pinks, yellows and reds. The flowers shoved themselves up through cracks in the sidewalks, along roadways, under trees and next to buildings. It was a dazzling array of color I didn’t fully appreciate until I got here, to Kuwait, to the desert.

We left in the middle of the night, because it’s the Army and the Army loves traveling under the cover of darkness, but also because our flight was out of Dallas, hours away from Fort Hood where we’d spent the last few weeks training. We were tired, bleary-eyed and hungry when we got to the airport, to the check-in line where we’d spend the next four hours.

First it was the luggage, the hundreds of pounds of stuff it takes to go far, far away and live there for a handful of months. Then it was the weather and the flight delays, the connections we’d miss and then repeated attempts to get us all on one plane and then several planes.

Hours later, hungry and tired, half of us left the check-in counter with tickets to flights that would get us in too late to Baltimore to catch our flight overseas. We didn’t have a plan, really, didn’t know when the next flight over would happen, we just figured we’d get to Baltimore and figure it out. We’re good at figuring it out, us Army types.

So we spent a bunch of unintended hours at the airport in Atlanta, eating, speculating and finally flying on to Baltimore.

It was past midnight when we got in. We gathered a few additional members of our wayward posse, made a spectacle of ourselves shoving, smashing and maneuvering our luggage into a too-small hotel shuttle and then, finally, bags unloaded at the hotel, all of us checked in, we wandered away to our rooms to find some sleep.

The next day we went back to the airport. We debated our options, made some calls and figured something out. We acquired tickets to Germany, which wasn’t Kuwait, but it was closer to Kuwait than Baltimore. We had a plan. The flight left late, so we went out for the day. We had lunch in the sun. I got a hair cut, bought a shirt.

Back at the airport later that night we were ready to go. Our bags were once again loaded on carts, we’d called our family and friends and said goodbye. It was time to go.

But then we weren’t allowed on the flight to Germany because of a paperwork issue.

Army travel is neat. Really.

Germany being denied to us, we inquired about other destinations that might be open to us and lo, there was a flight to Qatar and it seemed that our paperwork – while barring us from Germany – would indeed allow us to fly to Qatar and that, most definitely, was closer to Kuwait that Baltimore or Germany.

So we left the airport again, playing another fantastic and rousing game of the Duffle Bag Drag, loading and unloading our shit onto hotel shuttles and the vehicles of some family members who had come up to see us off.

The next day – day three – we dropped our bags at the airport, rented a car, promptly got into a minor fender bender before we even left the rental car garage and then set off for Baltimore. We didn’t have a plan this time either, but we figured going to Baltimore was far superior to spending any more time at the airport.

Following our Baltimore adventures, which really were quite fantastic, we headed back, again, to the airport where we successfully checked into our flight to Qatar which was leaving very late and which, by the way, would be stopping for fuel in Germany and also in Kuwait, which we all found endlessly amusing.

We got to Germany early evening the next day, hauled our carry-on bags off the plane so they could refuel without all of us on board and were all corralled into an over-warm Air Force terminal and then, on day four of our travel adventure, it was announced that our plane had to stay in place for 24 hours. In Germany.

We were assured it was nothing mechanical, that the delay was purely because of paperwork.

We waited another hour and then a few hundred of us loaded up on a handful of buses and embarked on an 1.5 hour adventure through the German countryside, which really was quite lovely, until we arrived in Bitburg where we spent the night.

The next morning, we went to Trier for a bonus adventure, toured some mega-old ruins, got back just in time to board the bus back to the airport where we boarded a Kuwait-bound plane that we weren’t allowed to get off, but we did peer out the windows as the sun came up and wonder what it was like out there, in that place we soon hoped to be living.

When we got to Qatar, it was travel day number five or six.

We spent two full days there, in Qatar, mostly wandering around the housing area for transient military members like ourselves, playing a rousing game of Trivial Pursuit and drinking some novelty beers since you’re allowed three a day there and none in Kuwait so it seemed reasonable to take advantage of such an opportunity and  then we woke up on a Sunday, a full week after we’d left Texas, turned in our linens, got on maybe the 17th bus of the week-long adventure, waited around in another Air Force terminal for six or so more hours and finally, thankfully, miraculously got on a plane that took us to Kuwait.

DSC_0420

Better for the bruises.

Let’s carve ourselves out of a hollow, make a new me, a new us. We can douse ourselves in renewal, call it some sort of self-immolation, and we can emerge, khaleesi-style, from the flames as a different sort of us, a new being, emerged from our rumble, this new thing. Soft wings, tender feet.

We are what we are, what we were, what we will be.

We burn each other every single day. Flame-tipped wings tapping against each other, leaving these scars that we’ll drag behind us forever.

It’s like an umbrella-soaked street, all of us vying for this space, some sort of dry in the chaos of a hurricane.

Me, I come with baggage. Blame the absent fathers. Blame the husband who left, blame me, blame you, the moon, the night, the music, the every-fucking-thing.

We can call it what we will, but we are crashing and crashing hard, always, against these things.

I want to believe. I want it with every bit of me, that love is the cup to drink from, the life-renewing thing that will sustain us and I am ever-angry that I approach that cup with hesitation, that I catch a shimmer over the shoulder and have to look, to see if it’s the foreboding, the screen falling to reveal it was never what I thought it was.

I want to trust. I want to know. I want to let it all go, to lose myself to love, to stop holding this and that back. I want to go all in, flip the switch, let the bottom give out and give zero fucks.

I wish we could all love – every time – like the first time, like the scars aren’t there.

It is an unfairness the way the past settles over us, the way it throws obstacles into our future, giving us so many things to overcome.

I want to give him a fresh me, show him the not-broken version of who I was once. I want to come to him unscarred and renewed, fresh from a fire or flood, burned or bathed of all the filth that came before. I want to give this man the best parts of me without brushing off the dust, without pulling the curtains over the broken bits.

I clamor for renewal, I beg for a reset, a process to smooth the sharpened edges of my hesitant heart, but I still can’t help to wonder, are we better for the bruises?

Almost Half Our Life.

You were 16 when you died. A single day older than I was. I suppose I caught up to you in the dizzy mayhem your death left behind and in the 15 years that have passed since.

Your death colored my entire existence. You jumped, all those years ago, without me. Newspapers the next day, unaware of your adolescence, declared you a man, saying you’d jumped, headfirst it seemed, after trying to drive your 1987 Honda Civic off that overpass.

I fucking hate Honda Civics. Still.

It didn’t stop me, at your funeral, from picking up bits of that car from the street. We were a hoard of teenagers, crossing that street, draped in black, pierced and broken, bits of neon sparkling from our wrists, ears and fingernails.

What I remember most about finding out about you is the floor tile I stared at, trying – at 16 – to comprehend what you had done. It’s the tissue box they sent me home with, the kind I still see at hospitals and on tv, the kind that still feels like some fucked up security blanket I clung to in the aftermath of your death. I remember tiny details about that night, the way the carpet felt on my legs in my room when I collapsed in tears, the hug the girls wrapped me up in later when “Jumper” came on mid-cleaning frenzy. I remember the weather at your funeral. The way your jacket smelled.

There’s a burden to being the last person to see you alive. I know you didn’t mean it. I know you’d take it back if you could. But I’ve tattooed your memory on my back, and you have to know that I carry you with me always, that what happened to you has shaped me.

I can’t stop the blame. I’ve tried for 15 years to let it go, for almost half my life, I’ve tried. I remember you, that afternoon, literal minutes before your death, asking if I wanted a ride the next morning and I said no, more than once, that I’d take the bus. I remember that last cigarette, bummed from my ex-boyfriend’s older brother as we walked to your car and still, I kick myself for having smoked too much of it.

I know you’d made up your mind. I know that. But I can’t help but drag myself though the what ifs, can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I’d said yes to that ride, if you’d smoked more of that cigarette, if we’d made plans to get together next week, next month, next whatever. I wonder if it would have kept you here, among the living.

Maybe it was an inevitable eventuality, your death. Maybe I could have stopped it, could have helped save you. I don’t know. I’ll never know.

I just miss you, 15 years later and all. I still miss you.

7. | 8. | 9.10. | 11. | 12. | 13. | 14. |

2014.

januaryphotoblogMidnight. Jan. 1. Richmond, Virginia.
There’s a hobo fire. We’re all around it when the clock hits midnight, when 2014 rolls itself out in Virginia. I’m solo this year, watching the other couples kiss, returning a squeeze around the waist received from a friend. She knows I don’t know where my husband is, don’t know what he’s doing, who he’s with. Knows that the only thing I know is that he’s not where he said he’d be. There’s a magnified silence in my brain – there’s so much to say in that minute, that first, fresh minute of the new year but no good place to start. I grasp at words – different, okay, change, go, leave – but they’re incoherent and out of step and so I just stop, smile, lie.

I’m ok. I’m good. Really.

febheaderblogDinner. Feb. 14. Holbrook, Arizona.
It’s our third night on the road and we’ve already made it Arizona. We’re spending the night in a concrete wigwam, me and her and the dog, a Route 66 holdover, perfectly kitschy despite the showerhead that’s positioned at nose level. We try the diner up the street, but it’s closed, so we cross the street and head to a Mexican place, realizing we wanted tacos anyway. Maybe it’s the altitude, the beers or a cross-country road trip-induced madness, but we can’t stop giggling. The man at a table across from us – to be played by Willie Nelson in the movie about our trip – engages us intermittently, stands to leave, tells us to go to Winslow, that there’s a park where you can stand on the corner. We’re polite – smile, nod – he repeats himself, says it’s only about 25 miles up the road and in the direction we’re heading and then I burst into song, belting out The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” in a tiny Mexican restaurant in Holbrook, Arizona, giving absolutely zero fucks.

We download the song on the two-minute ride back to our wigwam, singing it loudly and probably off-key and it’s the happiest I remember feeling in months. Back in our wigwam, I stick the iPhone in the sink to amplify the song, and we sign it over and over again. We turn off the lights, turn the music off, but still, we spend our bedtime hours throwing lyrics back and forth across the room at each other.

We may lose and we may win, though we will never be here again

marchheaderphotoMorning. March 16. Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Mile 9 of the 13.1 I intend to run. I caught up to the 1:52 pacers and I’ve been with them for miles now. I’m tired. This is fast, faster than I intended on running, faster than I knew I could run, and there’s this screaming bit inside of me that just wants to slow the fuck down and enjoy the view, but I can’t. I just fucking can’t. I’m a week into 30 and three weeks into knowing a truth I fought for nearly a year to deny and at mile 9 I’m fueled almost entirely by the darkest, most angry parts of myself, the scariest bits, the violent bits. It’s hate that moves me forward, past the pacers at mile 10, as fast and as hard as I can manage. For once, I let it go, let the anger take over every part of me, let the violence overcome me and I push, hard, against the constraints of my body, all the way to the end. To 13.1.

aprilheaderMorning. April 18. Occoneechee State Park, Virginia.
I have to pee. But it’s cozy in the tent and I don’t feel like moving. I’m at a campsite two hours from home, alone, cell service is nonexistent and I’ve managed, for a few hours, to escape everything. It rained all fucking night but it doesn’t matter. I’m dry. The tent – that I set up myself – kept me that way. The fire I built – the first fire I’ve ever built alone – kept me warm late into the night as I read The Mists of Avalon and lit marshmallows on fire. This is a success, this solo camping endeavor. I settled into the silence, leaned back into the comfort of solitude and I’m fine.

It’s the last time I wear my wedding ring. It’s the end of it. I wear it as a precautionary measure, so I can say that my husband is on his way should I find myself afraid, as if the invocation of a man will save me from whatever trouble causes me to invoke his nonexistence.

mayheader Late Night. May 17. Richmond, Virginia.
I’m a mess. I want to stop. I don’t want to play anymore, I don’t want to get out of bed, I don’t want to breath, I don’t want to do any of it. Fuck this life, fuck 30, fuck him, fuck me, fuck the whole fucking world. This is what the bottom feels like, crushed against my dining room wall, drunk of all the beers in my fridge, the rest of that bottle of bourbon, plus the remnants of some rum leftover from last year’s Halloween party. I’ve got my iPhone clutched in my hand, playing the saddest songs I can find on repeat, alternating between screaming the lyrics and singing them, throwing in some sobs here and there for effect. This is the bottom, kids. This is what it looks like when you reach the end of the rope, when you’re subsisting on booze, hate and heartbreak, the occasional pound of cheese, eaten out of spite more than hunger.

And here’s the scary thing about reaching the bottom: You’ve got a choice. Up or out.

juneheader10am. June 7. Nearing Charlottesville, Virginia.
My feet are kicked out in front of me and I’m comfortable in the back of a helicopter. There’s those mountains, my mountains, the mountains I was born in and I can’t help but smile when I see them. I feel good, but it’s been a busy week. A concert with Megan, the Head and the Heart, on her last night in Richmond. We sat in my car until past midnight, pouring ourselves out for one another, eating cheddar popcorn and me smoking cigarettes with the windows down. I went out with a man I’m wildly and terrifyingly attracted to. We wandered around a park, saved a toad from a walkway, brushed our hands across carvings left by lovers. And then there’s work. The 70th Anniversary of D-Day and today, an exercise with civilian partners, helicopters and me in the back, catching a ride to and from Charlottesville. Things feel different. Maybe it’s the time with Megan, a man’s attention, sleepless nights or a work schedule that won’t give me time to breathe, but I suddenly don’t feel like crying anymore.

It’s enough to sit and just be.

julyNoon. July 12. Richmond, Virginia.
I’m getting ready in his downstairs bathroom, door open, yelling obscenities at the other groomsmen and him – the groom – stopping in between curling chucks of my hair to take pictures of them posing with weaponry, buttoning shirts, pulling on socks, helping each other tie ties. There’s donuts and pizza and I declare, hair half-curled, that being a groomsman – or a groomslady in my case – is the best role I’ve ever played in a wedding. Fuck being a bride. Food, booze and guns is the groomsman’s game.

augustheader
2pm.  Aug. 11. Tulsa, Oklahoma.  
Sometimes you just have to put yourself inside the mouth of a dinosaur. There’s no good reason not to, really. I’m in Tulsa, for work. There’s a zoo, which I visit since I’ve got time and really, when alone at a zoo, you can do whatever you want. I spend 25 minutes next to the bears, scowling at children who bang on the glass, imagining Harry Potter skills that put those bears on this side of the glass, gobbling up snot-nosed, over-sized brats in Dora shirts, maybe growling under my breath, being that batshit single lady at the zoo and reveling in every minute of it. I curse at some penguins, catch a bit of the seal show, stick my head inside the mouth of a dinosaur, hide from some geese, eat some fries and ride a camel named Ella.

sept
Late night. Sept. 19. Napa Valley-ish, California.

I couldn’t nap and that first leg was all uphill, but fuck it. Here I am on the second leg, a nearly 9-miler, fully immersed in a Ragnar-induced sort of crazy. Six girls in one van, nonstop togetherness and we’ve laughed so hard I can feel my abs ache with every footfall. I didn’t think I’d have the energy to drag myself to the exchange, but when the van rolls by, the girls screaming my name, I’m hauling ass down the multi-mile downhill that starts this leg and I feel like I’m being carried by magic. This is insane, I think. This is perfect. 

I promise you, there’s nothing like finding yourself and some sort of god on the left shoulder of a road in Somewhere, California, hungry, tired and aching, with miles to run and drive and go until you get a shower or a bed.

octDinner. Oct. 7. Richmond, Virginia.
He doesn’t even like eating breakfast for dinner but poaching eggs is on my list so we’re making Eggs Benedict for dinner. He’s determined to help me cross things off, determined to make a memory out of each and every mark I make to the list. I poach the eggs while he hand whips the hollandaise and the feel of him beside me in the kitchen is almost more than I can handle – he’s like a dream, this guy, too perfect to be real, and if I could craft a man for me, it’d be exactly him. I’m stove-bound, poking at swirling eggs, and he’s across the kitchen, engrossed in hollandaise creation but I can’t stop looking at him, at those eyelashes, his concentration, the smile he’s got, the lines of him.

I wanted to be endlessly bitter. That was the plan. Then this guy shows up, this guy who coaxes me to egg poaching, who helps me make tortillas, endures the dog fur and the cat hisses. He’s ruined everything – my whole plan – this man who falls asleep with my hand in his.

novEarly morning. Nov. 10. Fort Meade, Maryland.
I’m in charge, which is fine. I’m figuring it out, learning as I go. We’ve got more than 3 miles to go until we can all stop walking. Nothing like a pre-dawn walk with a pack on your back to start off the day. I’m checking in with everyone, walking up and down, back and forth, driving them all crazy, I’m sure, asking if they’re ok, asking if they talked to their kids last night, how the wives and husbands are doing in their absence, asking if they finished the assignments due today. I’m in full Army mode at this point. I didn’t know if I’d be ready for this. It feels like a mask most of the time, the Army part of me, but when I get into it, when I’m here, leading a group of my peers on a five mile road march, it’s one of the safest, most comfortable places I’ve ever been.

I’m ready, I think later, post-ruck shower. It’s time.

dec
Evening. Dec. 16. Richmond, Virginia.
I’ve told him over and over how much I hate Christmas, how I spent the last two, how much they hurt, how lonely they were, but he’s determined. Relentless, really. He wanted this year to be different, so we’re Christmas tree shopping. He keeps picking up trees, shaking them out, holding them out for my approval asking what sort of tree I prefer, and I don’t even know, can’t even really form thoughts because he’s amazing and gorgeous and brilliant and his sole focus right now is making me happy, giving me a different sort of Christmas memory that doesn’t involve crying alone on the couch, and it’s working. I can’t avoid getting caught up in it all with him, can’t avoid being happy when I’m next to him, can’t stop myself from falling for him a little more each and every minute I spend with him.

In the middle, I wanted to burn 2014 to the ground, bury myself in some self-constructed grave and ignore the whole damn thing. Fuck life, I thought, more than I’d like to admit. But it got better, it got way better.

So cheers to 2015, to whatever it brings, good and bad and in between. To love, to loss, to more miles ran, more photos taken, more words written and more books read.