“Where will we be this time next year?” I tease my husband as we relax in our backyard surrounded by lush greenery, loud children splashing in the pool and three canines resting near our feet. Relax might by a strong descriptor for behavior that merely involves sitting in a chair. It is, after all, PCS time, which for the non-military readers means permanent-change-of-station-you-might-move-or-not-but-we-will-not-tell-you-for-months twisted torture.
“Maybe here. Maybe New York. I don’t know today.”
We play this mental head game during transfer season not because we are fortune teller wanna-bes, but as a way to expend nervous anticipation that builds up every day as we wait for news. For months.
Transfer season is a stressful wait and see process for active duty military members and in Coast Guard typically cycles every two to four years depending on rate and rank. When the military member has one year remaining at their current unit (kind of like a job), they submit a list of interested billets, or jobs, (called a dream sheet) chosen from a list of all available billets that will be open the next summer (called a shopping list) ranked in preference order. Once the list is submitted to the detailer (person assigning official orders to the open billets), the waiting begins to see which billet is assigned and isn’t considered confirmed until orders are in hand.
Sometimes you get lucky and are told where you’re transferring to early in the torture, or waiting period, verbally (called penciled-in) and sometimes you’re not special and instead find notification of orders in your email Inbox one day. Personally, I believe news of an impending major life change should be delivered via Fed Ex to your front door with an Edibles Arrangement basket and a short, but sweet, note that reads: Congratulations! You have won an almost all-expenses paid four year vacation in Anchorage, Alaska! Have a great trip!
Or at least that’s what I’d like our note to say. A neurotic girl can dream.
Then while I’m munching on pineapple stars and chocolate covered berries, I can research our next home base. You know, just the easy stuff at first like schools, dentist, pediatrician, neurologist, audiologist, physical and occupational therapist, orthodontist, ENT, psychologist, that sort of thing. Oh, yes, and a house, because a roof over our heads is important. Or so I was reminded by attendees at my ten year high school reunion in 2002 while we were in the middle of transferring from Mississippi to Kodiak, Alaska. People would ask for updates on my life and my truthful stock answer became, “Well, I’m currently unemployed and homeless, but we’re leaving for a 3 week drive to Alaska on Monday!”
My husband has been active in the Coast Guard for almost twenty years, so one might think we should be familiar with the PCS process and not find it stressful, but it’s the opposite. Our first experience with official orders was in 1997, before cell phones and fast loading computers. My husband had been in the Coast Guard Reserves for six years and we knew about the organization, but not every unit’s location. It’s kind of like how you know where your nearest grocery store is and which aisle has your favorite products, but you don’t know what is available on every aisle or how many types of cereal are actually on store shelves. We knew there was cereal, but we didn’t know how many types of cereal.
“Where do you think they’ll send us? What’s the farthest unit from us?” I quizzed my husband in June of 1997 as we waited to see what we’d be offered as he transitioned from reserves to active duty.
“I think there’s Coast Guard in Ketchikan, Alaska.” I laughed, not even able to geographically picture where this “K” place could be, and not believing for a minute the Coast Guard would pay to move a family from Louisiana to Alaska. That would be a waste of money when there were obviously units much closer!
Imagine my shock when my husband called a week later to say we had been given three choices: Kodiak, Alaska; Kodiak, Alaska; GEO bachelor tour. A GEO tour is only one year, but it is without your family, and since we knew I was pregnant with our second child, one year apart was not an option. So, we agreed to Kodiak. Our wait and see time was practically nothing.
Sometimes the detailer calls to say you aren’t getting anything on your dream sheet or, like in 2007, to see if you’re willing to take a hard-to-fill billet. I was a full-time college student commuting one hour each way and my husband was stationed in Mississippi. He called my cell phone one morning as I was pulling into the college parking lot with news that we couldn’t have the number one pick on our dream sheet, but that Kodiak was open. Open would also describe my mouth at that moment, because we had left what I deemed “Coast Guard Hell” just two years before and I’d vowed never to return. I struggled to find words of protest as I walked/ran to my first class, but did manage to blurt out, “Can we talk about this later? I’m late and can’t think right now.” I heard my husband mention needing to call the detailer back before my cell phone died. So much for modern freaking technology.
By the time I finished class and ran to my car to charge my phone and call my husband back, he said, with a little too much enthusiasm, “We got Kodiak! We’re going back!” Our wait and see time was mere weeks.
Sometimes the detailer emails with not-so-exciting news, like the year we were given a billet that was at the very bottom of our dream sheet making the old saying, “If you put it down, they will give it to you.” reality. That was a tough horse pill to swallow, even with a wait and see period of two months. Thankfully it was a one year GEO tour, so we didn’t plan a family move.
Planning moves when we started this Coast Guard adventure was limited to books, magazines, actual paper maps and not much contact with other transferring Coasties other than the ones at your unit. You couldn’t jump on the net and do a quick search for all units and their locations and be shocked to learn there was an actual place called Kodiak, Alaska that you being sent to. You didn’t have a way of knowing who was getting orders when and where in real time like you do now with FaceBook, emails, text, etc. The wait and see wasn’t flooded with news of others waiting less than you. Finding schools, doctors and a home was usually left until you arrived at the new location instead of the ability to compile stacks of information months in advance or even purchase a home before you arrived. Accessibility to data can be useful, but it can also be crippling with minute-to-minute reminders that you’re waist deep in the wait and see and no lifejacket is in sight.
In comparison to today’s resources, we were in the dark when we began this Coast Guard adventure, and maybe that was better.
Now excuse me while I resume my FaceBook stalking/data analysis to determine when we are getting orders and where our next billet might be.
Dear Visitor at My Front Door,
Hello and welcome to our home! Let me push these dogs and children back inside while I step out to the sidewalk with you for a moment.
I’m so happy you’re here, but we should discuss possible situations you will encounter before you cross the threshold into what we affectionately refer to as “Circus Vorholt.” Please ignore the high-pitched screaming and obnoxious bloodhound baying escaping my home while we chat. I can assure you no one, or thing, is being harmed in a way that requires an emergency room visit. Yet.
As you know, I have five children and three dogs. Yes, I know you adore Mabel the Bloodhound and find her antics posted on Instagram and FaceBook hilarious, but her slobber stains on your clothes may not be well-received in person. Yes, I know you love what you see about my children on social media, but Nick’s drool stains on your shirt when he hugs you repeatedly with surprising strength won’t disappear with the flick of a finger across a screen. Feel free to hold both canine and child away from your body with extended arms.
While we’re discussing Nick, I’d like to explain unusual cleanliness you might witness once inside our home. You see, my two oldest children are away at college, which means I’ve lost two housecleaning helpers. My remaining children aren’t what I’d call cleaners in any sense of the word, unless you count washing full buckets of dirt in the pool as “cleaning.”
Regardless, we’ve assigned them all daily chores such as vacuuming, folding clothes, putting away clean dishes and picking up their dirty clothes.
Between the three children, we find different levels of vacuuming: one has a not-so-clean habit of putting dirty rugs, shoes and dog beds on human beds, countertops and furniture while she forcefully slams the vacuum cleaner around, glaring in anger at anyone who passes through the room. In protest, she leaves the dirty rugs, shoes and canine-hair-dirt-crusted beds in their new, elevated locations. Every. Single. Time. So if you happen to find my kitchen rug on the counter, feel free to congratulate her on a job well done.
One child vacuums without ever looking at the floor and the other prefers to stay in one spot where he moves the machine back and forth, back and forth. I’m either repeating, “Look at the floor!” or “Okay, move to the next spot, please!” for an hour, which is why I look fried. If my husband happens to ask what he should get me for Christmas, feel free to suggest a Roomba.
If you should need a kitchen towel to dry your hands on during your visit, please remember who folded those items and refrain from expressing a “WTH” look when you open the drawer. At this point, I’m simply satisfied if the kitchen hand towels make it to the kitchen and in the drawer. All that really matters is that they are clean, which I’m 80% sure they are. I can’t always be there to ensure a snotty face isn’t wiped in transit, but hey, that mucus is probably dry by now and it’s allergy season.
In this house, we aim for job completion. I think you’ll be impressed to know that all three children are great at putting away the clean dishes. They get in the kitchen and empty the dishwasher within minutes! Yes, there are occasional real-life knife fights, but no one has been sliced yet and the knives are never misplaced in the wrong drawer. The same goes for the spoons and forks, although I should warn you to inspect any silverware for dried food particles before use. One child in particular requires all of his brain capacity to stay on a single task, so expecting him to ensure proper visual “is this really clean?” thought in addition to knowing where the fork goes isn’t consistently successful. The same inspection rule holds true for plates, bowls, cups and anything else you might use.
Speaking of inspection, these children have no concern for hygiene or clothing cleanliness, so you may notice a lovely BO smell if you visit later in the day or you may see dirt or food stains on their clothes. One child doesn’t care to wash her clothes weekly, one prefers to wear the same outfit every day without washing and usually hides it in his bed and one could care less what he has on and would actually prefer to not wear anything at all.
Which leads me to another topic I should warn you about: naked children may appear at any moment during your visit, so to help protect your emotional well-being, I will shout, “Look away!” at the top of my lungs if one of my 12 year olds starts to streak past. I fully encourage you to do just that, look away FAST, to avoid a therapy session devoted entirely to special needs boys with toddler IQs and pubic hair. I promise, that is NOT something you want coming across your eyeballs. It took me MONTHS to process and I’m not sure I’ll ever recover.
Do you have any questions for me? Again, I’m so excited you are here and I have your alcohol of choice waiting in the kitchen in a glass I cleaned myself, so you’re safe.
Come on in and let’s get this party started!
A tropical breeze gave movement to the sheer curtains as I entered the dark bedroom in search of love’s embrace. A familiar silhouette was visible in my bed, something I’d fantasized and longed for the entire day. As I undressed and slipped into my evening attire, I was already imaging the blissful feelings I would experience in mere minutes. Carefully, with teenage giddiness, I pulled back the sheets and lay down. As my head softened into the pillow, I could sense the day’s work practically flow from my body. My hands and fingers found their way to the deliciousness next to me, the second pillow that I pulled close. This was the moment I’d dreamed of since waking at 5:00AM. This was it! This was going to happen!
I closed my eyes ready to release myself to the Costa Rican night. I was in a missionary position, part of a team that had spent it’s first day building a church alongside Spanish-speaking construction workers, and I was EXHAUSTED.
For readers who began this article hoping for a 50 Shades of Grey story, you can click your back button. Sorry to disappoint.
In July of this year, my oldest daughter and I traveled to San Jose, Costa Rica with our church’s mission team. We knew no one past first names and some fellow travelers were complete strangers to us, although we find ourselves in the same religious building each Sunday. Lodging and food for this mission trip was provided primarily through the Episcopal Diocese of Costa Rica in a large house with bunkrooms and several smaller bedrooms for four people in bunk beds. I was assigned the latter with three women who quickly became my friends thanks to late night laughs, commonalities and inside jokes.
Our mission team’s task was to help local construction workers erect and finish a new church while a smaller number from our group livened up a second church’s school house with new paint. No one’s job was glamorous or better than. We all smelled of sweat and body odor at the end of the day. We were all learning through service to others and we all wanted to be there.
For myself, the lessons learned during this week as a missionary proved to be life-changing and valuable and numerous, so I’d like to share just a tiny few as encouragement for others to seek a similar experience.
Lesson 1: Breaking down old walls to build new walls transforms a metaphor into reality
Have you ever seen a group traveling through an airport all wearing the same shirts? Me, too, except I was a member of the group and wore the same light blue shirt as everyone else on my team. I could be identified as an adult female who owned a large green bag. Other than that, there wasn’t much anyone could use to stereotype me or my group. Essentially we were all the same, treated the same, with no division based on income, education, church membership length or other label. We had no walls for separation other than the physical walls of the house in which we slept.
Our days were spent hauling rock, mixing concrete, and laboring with tools. We chipped away old tile alongside one another and engaged in simple conversation like, “What was the first album you ever bought? First concert you went to?” rather than, “What do you do for a living? Where do you live?” We smoothed drywall compound on new church walls as we chatted about our lives, free from our everyday wardrobe and creature comforts. Old ways of relating to new people, or old walls, were replaced with new walls, both literally and physically.
Lesson 2: Wordless language is useful communication, no matter where you travel
Working with only Spanish-speaking locals was challenging for those of us without a full dictionary of Spanish. Several team members were fluent and could step in to translate, but we tried to communicate with the little words we knew and crude forms of sign language. Construction work was easy for wordless language. Everyday requests were not.
For example, one of my roommates saw the need for more toilet paper in the restroom shared by 16 females. She found a house assistant, but he spoke no English. She attempted to tell him her request, but was failing his understanding. So, this grown woman resorted to basic, wordless language and mimicked wiping herself sans actual toilet paper. He got the clue and our bathroom was quickly restocked. Problem solved and many laughs at her retelling the story later that night!
Humor aside, there is something primal and basic in wordless, or limited language, communication. You are challenged to think outside of the box, to express emotion with facial movements or body language, to struggle. Success achieved when the other person begins to understand what you are relaying feels huge, even when the idea might seem small. Isn’t it always the little joys that can make a difference in how we feel?
Lesson 3: Crappy vulnerability is better with friends
Crappy vulnerability is always navigated more successfully with friends, especially when they are sitting in the same dirt and hammering away at the same old tile with you. Kindred spirits perhaps, or at least for that hour. Connections are made, bonds formed, over smacks of hammers on hands or fingers. “Oh, that sucks! I know how that feels, because I did it yesterday. Want me to get you some ice?”
When you’re in pain or discomfort, knowing the person with you has been there, done that can be reassuring. Take, for example, one of my roommates (her name or identifying information will not be shared to protect her privacy) who felt uneasy relieving her bowels in any place outside of her home. (Disclaimer: this was me just a few short years ago) We were near the end of the week and she still hadn’t gone. For those of you who have been there, done that, I can almost see you wincing as you read this. Think about a week of fruit, beans and rice at every meal and no pooping….. Finally, late one night, we encouraged our non-pooper to at least try. I described a downstair’s bathroom that had an open window and Lysol spray and we all chanted cheers as she left the room. Her struggle with not wanting to poop on a toilet that wasn’t in her house was real and her sharing this fact was…… wait for it…… crappy vulnerability!
The process of being vulnerable, especially with people you’ve only met days prior, is like it’s own spiritual experience. Long days of hard labor, not enough sleep, struggles through communication and trying to lean in to living with 25 other people leaves doors wide open for vulnerable situations. Relationships and friendships were tested, but yet somehow we all came back to the states with positive outlooks and an appreciation for having been part of something bigger than ourselves.
Lesson 4: It’s important to be a jackhammer
On the very first day at the construction work site, I was assigned tile chipping and handed a chisel, pair of gloves and a hammer. As I began the arduous task, I remarked to a teammate that this job would be better served with a jackhammer. He agreed and we called our mission team host, Paul, over (English-speaking American) and offered to pay rental fees for a jackhammer that we figured could complete the task in two hours max. Paul chuckled a little and said, “You are the jackhammer.”
Disappointed, we returned to our chipping and soon shared observations of our work. It was slow and seemed unrewarding until you looked up and saw the large pile you’d amassed. We referred to the repetitive slamming of hammer to chisel as zen-like and mindless and surely we had the best job on the entire site. By days’ end, with a smashed finger (my teammate) and huge blisters (me), we weren’t so certain we were good jackhammers.
As the week progressed, teammates grumbled when assigned to chipping, but most discovered our secret of rewarding work in small doses. By week’s end, teammates had begun to work together with many chisels to break off large chunks of tile and cement. Chipping techniques made their way into dinner conversations. There was a drive to complete the work that just five days earlier had seemed impossible. We had learned how to be a jackhammer and would wear our injuries and scars home with pride.
The Big Lesson
Pastor Rob Bell said recently during a podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert that encompasses the biggest lesson learned in Costa Rica, “If you can pay attention in the valley, you will have no problem paying attention on the mountain.” What better way to be in the valley than a mission trip in a foreign country, surrounded by new people, learning to break down old walls with semi-wordless communication while trudging through vulnerable moments and tedious labor?
My mission team walked through a dusty, smelly, dirty valley without losing focus and, fatefully, one of our best evenings during the week was sharing a meal at a gorgeous mountain-top restaurant where each and every one of us spoke of small, but powerful, moments of gratitude as we stood around an outdoor fire overlooking San Jose. Darkness around us with the twinkle lights of the city in the distance below us might have proven difficult to pay attention, but we all saw the purpose and goodness of life. We all saw love and felt it’s embrace and isn’t THAT what it’s all about?
The following was written on a recent flight as an anxiety coping strategy. Enjoy my emotional breakdown and enter at your own risk. You have been warned.
Flying is a neccessary means for some dreams. It’s also the source of terror in many of my dreams. Actually, the physical act of boarding a flight, strapping myself into a chair and pretending to read a book isn’t the terror source, it’s more my lack of control during a flight. I compensate by trying to read flight attendant body language to discern if I should be relaxed, absorbed in my book or alarmed, bracing for a crash.
Usually I can allow my mind to wander in pages, placing myself in the main character’s shoes for short periods. I welcome the reality break, especially when the plot draws from my imagination. Unfortunately, not all stories are best read on planes.
While living on Kodiak Island in Alaska several years back, I was flying to sans children and husband to Anchorage for a few days. A friend had gifted me a “mindless read,” a book that wouldn’t require overthinking or processing, to enjoy. After securing myself in the assigned seat, I opened the RomCom and dove into the first paragraph. It was a description of a wife’s grief after learning her husband’s plane had crashed. I still haven’t forgiven my friend.
I analyze plane crashes as a hobby and secretly forecast the opening segment of tomorrow’s Today Show based on my flight’s number. I imagine Matt Lauer greeting watchers with, “Good Morning. We have disturbing reports of the crash of Alaska Airlines flight 731 from Houston to Seattle somewhere over Wyoming. All 115 passengers are presumed dead. More now from Abigail Spencer.”
I scan my fellow passengers to see if the makeup would enhance the dramatic headlines, “An entire family of ten!” or maybe, “An entire soccer team!”
“Surely,” my neurotic brain reasons, “the passenger type influences the plane’s ability to remain airborne. The more sensational the passengers, the more likely the plane is to crash.” Because, obviously passenger details override aircraft physics and turbulence encounters….. I travel soon with 26 other members of my church to Costa Rica for our mission trip….. Someone may need to sedate me for the nonstop flight…..
Rationally, I understand where my fears orginate: foreboding joy. Yes, it’s true. I am a full-fledged, card-carrying joy-foreboder. I have to deep breathe and gently lead my thoughts from the gloom and doom into the joy and happiness of being alive and beginning a new adventure. Until we hit turbulence. Or the captain deems conditions unsafe to move about the cabin and has the flight attendants take their seats.
I once heard Bob Goff speak in California about a flight he experienced where the captain announced they’d be making an emergency landing. Bob said he looked around, realized he was in the emergency exit row and celebrated that HE would get to rip the door open and help passengers. He expressed complete enthusiasm about his predicament. He’s one of my heroes. He embraces joy, even in fearful situations. I want to be just like him when I grow up.
Finding joy, rather than pushing it away, is a practice I will continue to pursue. Perhaps if I can channel my inner emergency-exit-row-enthusiast and find the joy in my next flight, maybe my imagination’s headlines will read, “Church Mission Trip Complete Success” with subtitle, “Zero Fatalities.”
Hey, my fear healing is a process, so small steps.
“Oh, FitBit. Where have you been all my life? Come on over here and let me strap you to my wrist, so we can make magic.” He obliges and folds himself snug against my skin. He’s small, but so cute, and I know he’ll be good for me.
For weeks, life was happy. FitBit didn’t complain once when I knocked him into things. He didn’t scold me if I didn’t make my intended 10,000 steps. Instead, he’d gently encourage me with little texts like, “You’re almost there! You only have 1000 steps left to reach your goal!” It was just the right amount of motivation and I was grateful for his companionship.
Life was so good that I decided to bring him along on a quick trip to Universal Studios with my five children. They knew he was in my life; it was hard to hide him. But they didn’t realize his power yet, so on the first day in the parks, I officially introduced him and pressed his cute little reveal side button to show the kids all he did for me. They were impressed and about an hour into day one, they asked for my adorable FitBit’s step count. We all wanted to see just how much we were capable of with FitBit on my wrist.
As I steered my son Nick, who has cerebral palsy, in his push chair through the parks, the kids would ask me to check in with FitBit. “What does he say? How are we doing?” I’d yell out the illuminated numerals and let FitBit motivate us through the crowds and heat toward more rides. It was exciting!
Then trouble entered paradise on day two when I noticed my little cutie wasn’t cooperating. He was physically there, obviously noticeable by the black strap on my pale wrist, but he wasn’t “there.” It was as though he was completely checking out and not paying attention to me. Maybe he was overwhelmed by the kids. I get it. They’re a lot to take on, they’re loud, but they’re mine, so he had to accept them. Just because I couldn’t take huge walking strides through crowds while pushing Nick’s chair didn’t mean I wasn’t walking! But there he was, not counting my shuffle steps. I briefly fantasized about not protecting him on the water rides.
I felt helpless. I’d brought him with me on this trip to keep me motivated and now he was checking out on our relationship. This was not fair to me at all! He was being a jerk for no reason, but I didn’t have time or energy to be mad at him. I had five children to keep happy, so I let him stay on my wrist (I mean seriously, how else was he getting back home?) and stopped pushing his button.
Day three was no better. He was a little responsive as we entered the parks, but then he started with the silent treatment again. While waiting in line for the Harry Potter train, I decided to test him. I would push his button, take a few steps and see if he noticed. Nope. Nothing. He wouldn’t even look my way. It was a though I didn’t exist.
Anger overtook my sadness and confusion. How dare he? Who does he think he is? Can he not give me credit for being the only parent on this trip who drove the majority of the 18 hours here? Through the darkness of night? Can he not give me credit for sharing ONE hotel room with my five children and not being alone in DAYS? Can he not offer extra numerals for my bravery of rushing roller coasters and extreme heat with complaining kids? Can he at least acknowledge the fact that I’m pushing a 60 lb kid around for miles each day? What a complete and total jerk!
I almost ripped him from my wrist and tossed his sorry ass in the trashcan outside Gringots. He deserved as much for ignoring my efforts on this trip.
Then I realized I didn’t want to breakup with him there in Orlando, Florida. I was angry and hurt, but he deserved a second chance. So, I brought him home with me and let him sulk and think about his behavior for a week in a dark drawer.
I am happy to report we found happiness together again, but I can’t say he’ll join me on my next vacation, especially since my husband will be there.