Whenever I start to get overwhelmed with the thought of moving yet again when Matt gets a new assignment, I think about some of the most amazing opportunities that military life has afforded me. There are so many. High on the list: a five year stay in Montana where I put down roots so wide and deep that I still hold them close daily. The chance to be part of Cheyenne Frontier Days in a way that causes us to shake our heads in amazement. Two treasured years just five minutes from Washington, D.C. and the opportunity to witness centuries of American history and culture—and the 2009 Inauguration of President Obama, which I can remember in such perfect detail it feels as if it happened yesterday. Breathtaking access to hot air balloons. Mountains, zoos, and zoos on mountains. A year in Alabama, the most civil rights history-rich place I've ever experienced. Today seems like a good day to share one of the most emotional adventures I had there (or anywhere).
Because of the Great Alabama History Portfolio Project, in November 2014 Gracie, a classmate of hers, his mom, and I made the 50 mile journey to check out the Selma To Montgomery National Historic Trail and walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge so we could retrace the footsteps of so many brave Americans in 1965. It's a beautiful stretch of road that has seen courage and devastation alike.
Selma is small, with a population hovering around 20,000. It sits on the banks of the Alabama River; one of the first things you see when you drive into town is the now-closed Craig Air Force Base, its old housing crumbling and deteriorated yet still partially inhabited with rents under $200 a month. It's a town that has seen hard days and even harder days, yet stands proudly to welcome visitors coming to learn about its role in the Civil Rights Movement.
We visited both museums/interpretive centers as well as the outdoor memorials. As much as I loved seeing the traditional photographs, documents, and ephemera in the buildings, these rocks and walls were perfect.
And then we walked the bridge. If you've seen the movie Selma you have a wildly accurate idea of what those marchers saw and felt on their multiple attempts to cross the bridge and move on toward Montgomery. You cannot see the base of the bridge from the middle: the hill is too steep. It was physically upsetting to walk across it in real life and to watch that scene in the movie, knowing what was waiting for them on the other side. Walking the bridge is not like standing in front of a well-thought out collection of twelve rocks or a painted brick wall or a set of black and white photographs. It is retracing footsteps, and it is an unforgettable and eerie feeling that I highly recommend to everyone.
We stood on the steps of the Dallas County Courthouse and tried to imagine the scene that unfolded on the small street out front when black residents tried and failed and tried and failed to register to vote. It's hard to imagine. And yet.
On the way back to Montgomery we stopped to pay our respects to Viola Liuzzo, the white woman who traveled from Detroit to assist in any way she could with the March—and was shot to death by the Ku Klux Klan at this spot on the highway while shuttling black marchers in her car. We tried to imagine leaving our families hundreds of miles behind to act on a belief too strong to be ignored. It's hard to imagine. And yet.
Fast forward to March 2015 and the 50th Anniversary of the third (and only successful) attempt to march those 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery. Matt wasn't able to come with us, but the girls and I headed over early to catch the shuttle over to City of St. Jude where the last leg of the original 1965 march began. We were there early enough to chat a little with friendly strangers, people watch some more, spot a couple of people we knew, and consider the significance of putting one foot in front of the other to retrace even more sets of footsteps.
The streets are narrow in this part of Montgomery, and we were right in the middle of a wall of people. Some were singing, some were listening to headphones, many were taking pictures and recording video. Everyone was taking it in with wide eyes.
Into downtown and down the last stretch—three miles passed in a blink of an eye. Maddie talked with a woman who told her all about how she had been around the same age in 1965 when she marched the first time, and urged her to remember everything she could so she could tell her kids and grandkids one day all about the time she marched to the Capitol building, too. I hope she will remember it, though I don't know how you could forget. We stayed for some speeches and performances before calling it a morning well-spent and heading back to the car, knowing how lucky we were to have experienced something so meaningful. Right place, right time.
Alabama is a difficult, complex place. It isn't a perfect place. It's hard to imagine the Alabama of 1965 in contrast to the Alabama of 2015. And yet.
Never underestimate the sacred right to vote. Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
As per usual, May is steamrolling over us at breakneck speed... the stories of interest are stacking up in a seemingly endless holding pattern. I drove to Birmingham with the dog for an hour this week (sigh, yes, that would make for a four hour trip in total—long story) and while there, I spotted this man painting in a field on the outskirts of downtown. There was something so lovely and calming about it: I don't know what he was painting, or why he chose this spot, but it made me happy to see him for the one minute I was walking the dog. It was a good reminder to pay attention even as the month screams by all around us : )
Spring is like a perhaps hand
by E.E. Cummings, 1894—1962
Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere)arranging
a window,into which people look(while
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here)and
We joke that Gracie earned a PhD in 4th grade this year. It was an unexpected PhD in every way: while most families that attend the school where she goes have years in advance to prepare themselves for the looming 4th grade Alabama History Portfolio project, we had the distinct disadvantage of having it sprung on us in August as the new family in town. And really, I didn't fully grasp what it all entailed until open house night, when all these ginormous examples were spread throughout the classroom for parents to gawk at.
IT WAS A BIG PROJECT.
The ending first: in many ways it was a great project, and Gracie is feeling both huge waves of relief and accomplishment from finishing. It was just A LOT. 9.3 lbs, 135 pages a lot.
She was required to complete a minimum of ten entries in the following areas: Maps and State Symbols, Notable Alabamians, Transportation (both past and present, 10 total), History, Government, Places and Events, Current Events, and Journal Writings (based on field trips they took—she actually has two more to include but those field trips aren't until next week). A summary and table of contents were also required. Most everything needed to be written in cursive. The majority of journal writings were completed at school, and everything else was an at-home endeavor. It didn't replace homework or other at-home projects, but was on-top-of.
I didn't do a good job taking work in-progress photos throughout the year, though I do have this one—taken before the first of four checkpoints, when both Gracie and I were close to nervous breakdown. We both learned some time management after that one.
So here's the thing: with a handful of exceptions, I kind of loved this project, even though I think some of the sections could have been smaller and some bigger. I love Alabama history. In college, my (puny compared to this) capstone project for my methods class was a comprehensive unit about the Civil Rights Movement, and it has always been one of my favorite eras to read/learn about. This portfolio was not just about the Civil Rights Movement, but she did spend a lot of time learning about it and I think it made a big impression on her. The other thing I loved: we went A LOT OF PLACES, and she went to even more with her class. Dauphin Island! Huntsville Space and Rocket Center! Peach Park! Edmund Pettus Bridge! Governor Bentley's Inauguration party! The Shakespeare Garden! Tuskegee National Forest! Alabama Book Festival! and so much more. We turned a whole lot of our year here into sightseeing for her portfolio, and that was fun. There is a lot to do in Alabama.
Stories always seem to circulate (partially because there's always a true one) about parents who do their kids' homework/science fair project/Alabama History Portfolio/whatever for them. Let me tell you: it would have been easier to do Gracie's project for her, indeed. She used pictures from my camera, and I helped her print things, we paid for supplies and gas (I'm glad I didn't keep track) but otherwise—this project was all her. The key: it was important for me to teach her how to do stuff, then walk away. That cool Alabama title up there? She had to make a computer-generated cover. We talked about ways she could do it, and she liked the idea of making the letters include photos of places we'd been. So, I taught her how to do that with a set of letter frames from Design Aglow that I've used for other projects. And she did a great job. I taught a number of mini-scrapbooking lessons that really sunk in: namely, that you don't need to reinvent the wheel every single time. We worked on sketching out page designs, how to flip and rotate them for variation, how to choose a color scheme that can apply to an entire section, etc. What's the point of a project of this scope if you don't learn some new tricks? It is possible to be involved and useful and hands-off at the same time.
It also taught us a few things about ourselves. For Gracie: that big projects are like a big bag of bricks hanging over your head all the time. (See? She is totally ready to write a dissertation.) This made for some great days of productive-Gracie and some truly horrid days of I-CANNOT-DO-MORE-Gracie. This was magnified by the fact that she is at gymnastics so much, so she really had to follow The Mama Plan of Time Management to work here and there to avoid leaving too much until the last minute like we did in October. I should note: I am not the best at distributing a giant project over a reasonable timeline, so I had to really work at developing my skillset on this.
I, on the other hand, learned in a much more intense way how much work it is to provide an environment in which the kid can do the work independently and successfully with a parent as resource. It made past science fair projects and The Giant Architecture Project of 2010 pale in comparison for sheer amount of work that needed to be done. We both did some throwing up of hands in frustration with each other this year, but in the end, she was just so happy to see what she managed to pull off.
I have some posts brewing to illustrate some of the cool things we did and learned this year. I'm still hoping very much to make it to Gee's Bend before we move, as that is a place I've wanted to go since I became a quilt appreciator back in college. Gracie gets to go to the Hyundai plant next week (no parents, hmph) and we're going to at least one Biscuits game before we move. Thank you, Alabama, for being such an interesting place to spend 4th grade for Gracie. And New Mexico—I better not find out that you do state history in 5th grade.
p.s. All three of these pictures are totally inside her finished portfolio. HA HA HA!
We had our first Rainy Day Pickup today at the elementary school, having somehow avoided rain on a gymnastics day for the entire school year. I failed spectacularly at Rainy Day Pickup. I got an F- in following the procedures (not because I wouldn't have, but because I failed to grasp them properly)(also—where I'm from rain doesn't do what it was doing today) and not only was everyone late for gym, at least four faculty members at the school went home extra-grouchy because of me.
Anyway, Bridget and I had a grand time forgetting Rainy Day Pickup Fail while Matt was retrieving the other gymnasts from Friday night practice : )
I think I've made it clear in this space over the years that there is a clear delineation in my life: B.R. and A.R. (before rodeo, after rodeo). Once upon a time I grew up in Ohio and had less knowledge of rodeo than... than... I don't even know—I can't think of a good example of someone who knew less about rodeo than me growing up. And then fast forward to now: I know a thing or two about rodeo. Some cowboy asked me to watch his horse once on the track. I can turn almost any outfit into western wear with jewelry alone. My first-born Wyoming native has been a toe. I've considered submitting a portfolio and application to become an official PRCA photographer. This is all to say: when we decided to go to the Southeastern Livestock Exposition Rodeo in Montgomery this past weekend, I knew what to expect. It wasn't my first rodeo, after all.
The Dillows dusted off their western wear—well, except for Maddie, whose boots were too small—and headed over to Garrett Coliseum for some (indoor) Saturday afternoon rodeo. The irony of Dillows feeling comfortable in their western wear at the rodeo never escapes me, because it wasn't so very long ago that we felt like impostors with a capital "I." These days, no one would accuse us of being impostors (unless someone handed one of us his horse and said horse decided to do something other than stand there). It was a small rodeo, but fun to watch even from way up high in our nosebleed seats.
Anyway. Somewhere in between bronco riding and barrel racing, the announcer got very excited to introduce one of the in-between events: Team Ghostriders. We've seen performers in the in-between events at the rodeo before—like this one, which we don't talk about in our house, shhh. He was insistent that everyone with a camera needed to have that camera ready, because we wouldn't want to miss it, whatever "it" was.
Then this truck cab came rolling out, giving away nothing about what was about to appear.
[Here is where I will add that I don't wear my glasses when I'm using my camera, generally. My eyesight isn't terrible, but wearing my glasses does make things like rodeo arenas appear a little crisper when up in a nosebleed seat. But I can manage fine without them, and manage better when I'm taking pictures, so they were in my bag.]
And then! Suddenly, everyone present started cheering as something else ran out of the truck at lightning speed. Dogs! Dogs to herd the sheep. Ellie would be so jealous, I thought. Except I couldn't exactly figure out what was going on, because something was on the dogs. Gracie was to my left, and she was squinting (with her glasses on) and said "Mama! I think it's kids! Is it kids?" And I was so confused. Because yes, kids would be more logical THAN MONKEYS, which was the image my brain was sending to my no-glasses eyes. The frenetic rodeo announcer was more and more excited about what was unfolding yet not exactly helping decode what the heck was going on. It was looking more and more like monkeys. Monkeys in chaps. If not for my trusty old zoom lens, I might not even have believed it.
And then, I cracked.
I could not get a hold of myself. I started giggling, then full-on cackling. Because, monkeys! Monkeys on dogs! Monkeys on dogs herding sheep! It was so absurd. And they were good, too! Running around the arena like little old men cowboys, just workin' the sheep, all in a day's work. My cackling turned into that ugly laughing that only happens once ever seven years or so, and by this time Matt was giggling too—mostly because I was causing such a scene. Tears running down my face. A complete loss of awareness of the people sitting around me (to include my children) who were side-eyeing me with increasing concern.
Every time I caught Matt's eye I lost it again.
Just look at that one in the red shirt: "Hey, you wanna go outside and get a smoke?" Honestly, it's a wonder any of these pictures turned out at all, because I had a bad case of the crazy cackling camera shakes.
After the sheep were herded into their pen, their trainer gave a touching speech about his love for America, Capuchin monkeys, and Border Collies all set to a soundtrack of highly patriotic instrumental music. He is clearly a talented performer and devoted animal lover, but that did not stop me from losing it all over again. At least now I'll be prepared when I see Team Ghostriders pull up somewhere, and can say with absolute authority: well this isn't my first monkey rodeo.
We let Gracie and Bridget go down for the "calf scramble," another in-between event where we didn't really know what was going to happen... but you know, rodeo kids and all—they'd be fine. 200+ kids proceeded to run around like crazy pants chasing three calves with ribbons on their tails, with the object to untie the ribbon and take it to the center of the arena. It takes a lot to push this story to second place, but there you have it. They were both ticked that the girl who won first place was wearing FLIP-FLOPS.
Wondering what our life will be like in four months. WE HAVE NO IDEA, and that's disconcerting. The waiting game to find out where we've moving next is doing me in. Also wondering about: how the heck February snuck up on us with such force.
Cheering Matt's first cousin Rachel (and the flower girl in our wedding) on at her last meet ever as a University of South Carolina swimmer at the SEC Swimming Championships in Auburn this past weekend. It was so much fun to see her race. For reference:
I'm so old.
Listening to Maddie's District Honors Band concert in Auburn on Saturday night. It was an all-Auburn weekend, which is kind of funny to me. If you'd told me two years ago I would be spending so much time at Auburn in 2015 I wouldn't have believed it.
Finishing up two projects this month, with a possible Hail Mary pass at one more.
Hiking part of the Bartram National Recreation Trail in Tuskegee National Forest, where there are benches located here and there with lovely quotes from William Bartram, the first American-born naturalist.
Replacing my old hiking boots and water bottle with new, life-changing ones. I'll do a 15 second review soon.
Watching the Oscars. Lots of movies, of which I'm keeping track of this year on a list on my phone. The trees in my neighborhood, looking for one to adopt as my Phases of Spring Tree. The occasional Jimmy Fallon clip from The Tonight Show. Xanthe Berkeley's amazing mini-videos on Instagram (@xantheb).
Logging lots of miles every week with the dog. We passed the 900 miles mark last week... though a couple hundred of those miles were added to my Nike+ account before we adopted her. But still! For two old ladies we're doing OK.
Driving back and forth and back and forth and back and forth again. Repeat. Wherever it is we're living next, we're going to try very hard to live within a three mile radius of All the Places.
Giggling at Gracie's and Bridget's Box Troll costume. (It really was a suitcase box originally)
Gracie recently completed her research and presentation on a notable Alabamian: Zelda Fitzgerald, who was born in Montgomery, graduated from Lanier High School in 1918 (which is the same building where Maddie goes to school now) and for a short time, lived in a stately home on the (still) grand Felder Avenue. She was a complicated woman—born of privilege and fond of fun, but also full of creative vision that was generally overshadowed by her famous husband. There was some remarkable dysfunction in their lives, and they didn't end happily ever after.
The Fitzgerald home on Felder Avenue, Montgomery; I took this photo last week. Long live post-processing!
I encouraged Gracie to focus on the part of Zelda's story that helped to shape so much of young America in the 1920s. She has been called "the first flapper," after all.
Gracie definitely would have been a flapper, what with all the dancing-the-Charleston-on-taxis and flagpole sitting and dancing until the bitter end of a 1920s dance contest. (Just replace "1920s dance contest" with "2014 dance contest" and she's already checked that one off as a win)(as in she and her friends won a dance contest at the Christmas dance in December)
The best part? She worked in two photos of her people for her presentation.
Namesake great-great-grandma Hyacinthe Laura Belle, out doing silly things with her friends—we have a giant stack of photos to prove that girls and boys in the 1920s were out doing silly things and taking photos of it... kind of like today.
I never gave much thought to either Zelda or Scott until we moved to Alabama; I read Great Gatsby for the first time last fall and now I think I might read a little Zelda, too. Though truth be told, I actually think Scottie is the most interesting Fitzgerald of them all : )
p.s. We bought this flapper dress on clearance (and in the wrong size because that's all the sizes there were at the last minute in January, add "alter a fringe-y costume without knowing how to do it" to my skillset) from HalloweenCostumes.com. Is dressing up as a famous person in 4th grade a thing? Should we start thinking up people for Bridget so we're not so last minute on the costuming for her? Ha ha.
It's time for December All At Once™! If you don't like posts with 80 billion photos, just move along. : )
Unlike last year, we a.) didn't have a weekend of precious downtime early in the month and b.) spent most of the month sick as dogs, though not all at once. Ironically, only Ellie survived the month in perfect health, haha.
The weekend after everyone left from Thanksgiving, we headed to Mobile for the 2014 Alabama State Compulsory Gymnastics Championships!
Gracie competed on Saturday; she earned a silver medal in the all-around in her age division, as well as the gold medal on beam! It was a wonderful finish to the season—especially since she fell off the beam for the first time in more than two years at the previous meet, as she had a mouthful of blood and a molar that decided to come out WHILE SHE WAS ON THE BEAM.
Maddie competed on Sunday and earned a gold medal finish in the all-around, making her a state champion in two different states in the same calendar year! She and Gracie actually tied for the highest score on beam in any age division at their level, which is pretty darn amazing. They were super excited to share that news with their coaches in Shreveport, especially.
We only had minimal time to sight-see in Mobile (a whole lot of homework accompanied us to the hotel and in the van) but we did get to gawk at the Mobile Middle Bay Port a little, which is a fascinating place.
The big football announcement was made the weekend we were in Mobile, so we spent a lot of time gleefully getting excited for Ohio State to beat Alabama, hee. That was actually true for the entire month. So glad we had the foresight to take this picture just in case when we were in Tuscaloosa in November!
Gracie completed a ginormous book report project (pictured) as well as the first 80 pages of her Alabama State History Portfolio (not pictured). I've said it 50 times but I'll say it again: 4th grade is no joke at her school. Whew.
I accompanied Bridget's class to DeSoto Caverns, which was a long full-day field trip and lots of fun. I am kind of amazed by caves. This was not the crawl-on-your-stomach variety of cave, but rather a large and cavernous cave with a hokey lighting show. The cave itself was something to behold, though, and I'm so glad I went.
On the way home I took a quick detour and drove out to a very isolated grist mill (the Kymulga Grist Mill), one of the only mills in the area not to have been burned to the ground in the Civil War. It was at this moment that I took this picture on the covered bridge that I decided it was super-creepy out there and I hotfooted it back to the van. Heh. I'm sure it isn't creepy all the time, but on this gray afternoon it most definitely was.
The same day as the cave/mill adventure I had to race back to school (two hours of racing) to pick Gracie up at a 4th and 5th grade dance. This is a terrible picture, but I am sharing it because I want to remember how much fun she had—apparently she and her two besties won the dance-off between the 4th and 5th grades. I wish I could have seen it : )
We got our tree decorated, finally! It was Maddie's turn to put the topper on this year (we have to use the photo record to determine whose turn it is each year). Whoever puts the topper on wears the tuba caroling hat.
Bridget won honorable mention in a writing contest sponsored by the public library! She would have been happier if she had won first place but it was still lovely : ) The library did a fantastic job making the awards a fun big deal, I thought.
On the same night as the awards ceremony, Maddie had her band concert. They sounded pretty amazing, and not at all like what I know many middle schools can sound like.
There is always a lot of driving downtown at all hours of the day and night no matter what month it is, but I'm glad we made a quick detour to check out the Capitol Christmas tree one night.
It wouldn't be December without Gracie's school birthday cookies. I'm telling you what: chocolate chip cookies are nothing exciting until you stick a stick in 'em and wrap them up in cellophane. Then everyone raves and gobbles. We've been fooling people into thinking this is an extravagant treat for years. Hee hee.
Gracie had her two besties from school over for a birthday gingerbread house decorating party. She is the shorty of the trio, ha. Gingerbread house decorating is not for the faint of heart even when there are only five girls participating, but it was great fun.
And then she turned ten! Her birthday deserves a post all of its own. We had a delightful Mama-Gracie date in Birmingham.
Matt and I made a small batch of chocolate-covered cherries for teacher gifts, but never got back to making more this year. They turned out beautifully, though, unlike last year's disaster.
I went to a Christmas tea in a very fancy and Christmas-y house. I wanted to take real pictures but decided that would be rude. Matt's seminar at school has an Australian in it, and the Air War College Australians have been cared for by the hostess of the tea for 30 years (which means the non-Australians get the same lovely care!).
Our traditional Christmas mail mess was made a number of times....
...and we made a whole lot of Christmas gifts. Kind of at the last minute, because that's how we roll. I have plans to share more details about this particular project later in January!
Christmas cookies didn't get made until Christmas Eve, because, see above. We delivered two surprise batches to local friends late in the day.
The sunset was absolutely stunning on Christmas Eve. And much-needed, as there weren't too many minutes where I just stood and stared at something in December.
The day after Christmas we piled in the car with our sweet dog (who has learned to go with the flow with her crazy adoptive family) and made the 13 hour drive to northeast Ohio. Hello, Cincinnati!
Christmas in Ohio is full of one family activity after another, so we did a lot of visiting and eating and catching up. The kids' table is a lot fancier now that the youngest Dillow grandkid is 7.5.
I think it's been six years since Matt's side of the family has been in the same place at one time.
Nana and Papa transformed their basement into fun activity room central: on various nights of the week, it was filled with Bingo, memory contests, Tripoli, marker-making, cards, and more.
We were able to attend Matt's extended family Christmas party, which we haven't been to in a long time. Pictured: Scott, Matt's first cousin and groomsman in our wedding (plus among the biggest Ohio State fans ever) opening a gift exchange gift. There is usually some stealing involved as the gifts are opened—both Gracie and I ended up with stolen gifts, which was fun.
Christmas celebrations continued with a brunch at my parents' house, where more handmade gifts were given.
We got to see the final chapter of The Hobbit with Grandpa, which means we've seen all three movies with him—in Wyoming, Louisiana, and Ohio. Not too shabby. Gracie and Bridget went this time, too; this is a terrible red-eye photo and Bridget looks like she is crying because she was (she took Thorin's death especially hard). But everyone was very glad to have seen it. Also, we are clearly out of practice for wearing appropriate cold weather gear.
Ohio gets an F for snow. Here is Bridget protesting the lack of snow for snow angels. Hmph.
I got to see Jesse!! Jesse was the matron-of-honor in our wedding and one of my oldest friends. It can be hard to carve out time for visits in Ohio but I'm so glad we were able to make a last-minute lunch happen. It's the best to be able to pick up as if no years have passed at all. Thanks, random Panera diner for taking our picture.
We spent a delightful afternoon in Hudson with Grandma and Grandpa for some bookstore time at The Learnéd Owl.
We spent the first half of New Years' Eve at the Marquettes' house, hooray! It was an aunts, uncles, and cousins party. The second half of New Years' Eve was spent with Dillow cousins, which also made it an aunts, uncles, and cousins party.
And that brings December to a close. It is important for me to keep this record so I will remember in December 2015 that we can, in fact, survive a busy month once again and live to tell the tale.