Saturday, February 24, 2018

Madrid: Day 1

This January, my friend Laurel emailed me and our friend, Christine, with the best idea. Laurel is an actress working on musical theater shows in London. She got a part in the opera, Street Scene, and was performing at the Teatro Real in Madrid. She had a flat for a month during rehearsals and the show run. "Come to Madrid," she said. "You can stay with me and we can explore the city."

I just didn't think it would be possible as we are trying to rebuild our house and I still have Winter at home. Brent was so encouraging and supportive and said that I should go. Christine and I booked tickets and eagerly awaited the trip.

On Thursday afternoon, Christine and I met at the JFK airport to fly the red-eye to Madrid. I haven't been in an airport by myself without a little person holding my hand in forever. It felt like a decadent luxury to walk through the airport shops without worrying about little hands breaking stuff. Our flight to Madrid was uneventful, though neither Christine nor I slept much.

We arrived in Madrid on Friday morning. As we flew over the mountains of Spain, it looked like the mountains and terrain of Wyoming with scrubby trees, rocky hills, and lots and lots of brown. Admittedly, Wyoming does not have Palm Trees, but otherwise, the two areas could be twins.

We grabbed a taxi that took us to Laurel's flat right in the heart of Madrid. The cab driver stiffed us on the price, which was a little irritating.

Laurel welcomed us to her second story flat and we dumped our luggage and ourselves on her couch, so excited to see each other. What followed was an epic girl talk/catch-up/therapy session. After hours of just hanging out, we decided to head out for some food.

Laurel's flat is right by Plaza Mayor, a beautiful square with shops and restaurants. We popped over to Mercado de San Miguel to try some gourmet tapas. First, we got a couple kinds or paella- seafood and sausage. We had some churros con chocolate, a fancy cheese tapas, and some cute yogurt shots (in shot glasses, but which did NOT contain alcohol).

After eating we walked around a bit, enjoying the sights. One thing that made me chuckle was the cereal bar restaurant, which apparently is a real thing.

We stopped at a couple small grocery stores to grab a few things. I found Kinder code eggs which I bought for my kids. They always got them in Sweden but can't buy them in the U.S. There are kinder eggs in the U.S., but the ones in Europe are different.

Laurel had to go to rehearsal and Christine and I were pretty wiped by then. Laurel left us and we went to bed. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 Was a Year for the Books

Holy Crap! What a year it has been! As I look back on the year, my primary emotion is relief that we survived and are moving forward. I only blogged a handful of times this year as life was so overwhelming and I could barely write about it, let alone process it. So here are a few highlights:

Our Big Accomplishments

1. I took the online Genealogy Certificate course through Boston University.
It was one of the best things I have ever done. I still love learning in a formal setting and this graduate-level course whetted my appetite for additional education. Not only did I absolutely love the research work but I learned that my instincts and research skills are pretty good. My final project was pretty amazing as I was able to uncover the story of a lost and forgotten ordinary Civil War soldier based on a letter he wrote that is housed in the Putnam County NY archive. Upon completing the course, I hung out my shingle for my own genealogy consultant firm.

NY 44th Regiment Monument on Little Round Top at Gettysburg. George P. Read was a private in the NY 44th and fought in the battle on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg in the summer of 1863. This monument has George's name listed on a plaque with the names of his fellow comrades who fought there.

2. Walter completed his Eagle project and earned his Eagle Award.
Walter had a crappy year health-wise but still managed to complete his Eagle project. With a group of volunteers, he photographed each gravestone in a pre-Revolutionary War cemetery that was in desperate need of documentation. Then he led a team of volunteers in transcribing the information on the photographs. The photographs were printed and put in an album along with the transcriptions. This summer Walter's completed paperwork was destroyed in our stupid house fire so he had to fill all that out again. He barely made the deadline before his birthday in October. At the end of October, we held his Eagle Court of Honor where he received his award.

3. Jonathan turned 8 and was baptized by Walter.

4. Winter finally figured out how to use the toilet and we are now a diaper-free household.
It has been almost 18 years straight of using diapers in our house so this is a BIG moment, perhaps the biggest of 2017.

We are still a traveling family, even if our travels are limited to the United States.

We went to Gettysburg over Independence Day and enjoyed watching a re-enactment and immersing ourselves in a pivotal moment in the history of the United States. While I had an amazing time, my offspring informed they are burnt out of doing historical things and would like to have more frivolous fun. (Ironic as I take them to fairs, carnivals, pumpkin picking, etc.)

I went to Wyoming with Winter in May and July. In May my sisters and I attended the temple with my youngest sister who went to the temple for the first time. In November, my sisters and I surprised my dad for his birthday. It was so good to be with all my sisters and parents.

We had a lot of fun in New York this year and I have gained a deeper appreciation for my adopted home state. Here are some of the places we explored: New York City, Jones Beach, Peekskill Civil War monument, Intrepid, the Adirondacks, Cold Spring, Untermeyer Gardens, Muscoot Farm, Dubois Apple Picking Farm....

After our stupid house fire, I took the kids to Wyoming for a month. We enjoyed visiting Yellowstone National Park, Thermopolis Hot Springs, Cody Nite Rodeo, Cheyenne State Archives, Old Trail Town, Petroglyphs outside of Ten Sleep,  and experienced a 98.6% solar eclipse.

The Stupid House Fire
Our most pivotal moment occurred on Monday, July 24th, where a house fire wreaked serious havoc on our home and our lives. We lost about 98% of our physical possessions, the entire interior of our house has to be rebuilt from the studs up, and we are living in a temporary home.  The process has been slow and there have been significant hiccups, but we are doing okay. My kids have been remarkably resilient, responding to the loss with courage and strength. I'm so proud of them. I don't know how or why, but Brent and I have been so blessed with extraordinary children. We have also been blessed with wonderful family and friends who showered us with love, support, money, clothing, food, furniture, pots and pans, scrapbook supplies, and help in every conceivable way possible. I'm sad about our losses and frustrated by the delays, but I know we are going to be okay. Most importantly, I am grateful that the children and I escaped the fire without harm and were even able to save the structure of our house.

I am so excited to be saying farewell to 2017 and even happier to say hello to 2018, the year our house gets rebuilt (cross both fingers and knock on wood). 

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Blogosphere May Be Dead, But Blogging Is Worth It--Dang it!

I started blogging in 2007 when our family moved to Israel for a short period while my husband conducted some collaborative Physics research with an Israel scientist. We lived in Rehovot, Israel at the Weissman Institute. I needed a way to share our adventures with people while recording them long-term for myself.

 I kept blogging when we returned to Sweden and recorded the events of our last year living in Lund, Sweden. I blogged through our move back to the United States, recounting the mundane, tragic, and triumphant events of four years in New York. I closed the door on that blog when we moved to Saudi Arabia. It was a new chapter and I wanted a new home for our desert adventures.

For eighteen months I recorded the highs and lows of life in the Middle East. Many other women recorded their experiences much more eloquently and more insightfully, but my blog was personal and real. When we returned to New York, I felt like I had adequately recorded and preserved our lives in Riyadh.

Back in New York over the past four years, I write on my new blog sporadically. At one point, I blogged daily and then fell off the wagon as events spiraled out of control in my life with my children. I couldn't physically write because it was just so hard.

Today I went back to my original blog to pull some blog posts about a Happiness project I conducted. You guys, I loved reading my old posts. I am so glad that I recorded so much. I am glad I wrote essays about things I pondered. I shared personal things and challenges we experienced. I don't regret one blog post.

I am going to keep blogging, not perfectly or daily, but as much as the mood strikes me. Writing is good for me and I love the record that is made when I write. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Telling Your Story Prompts

I belong to this amazing Facebook scrapbook group called "The Scrap Gals" run by Tracie Claiborne and Tiffany Lowder. Tracie and Tiffany host a weekly podcast called "The Scrap Gals" where they discuss all things scrapbooking. They have a fun, easy rapport and laugh a lot as they talk about the importance of memory keeping. The conversations continue in their Facebook group as we talk about their podcasts and discuss challenges and triumphs of scrapbooking.

I have noticed that a lot of women struggle with scrapping their own stories. They wonder what they could scrap about if they don't have kids or if their kids are grown up. Sometimes their lives are relatively simple and they wonder if they have enough to scrap about it if they don't travel a lot. I have actually noticed this phenomenon for many years among the scrapbook community. It is easy to understand. A lot of women start scrapping when they marry or when they start having children. It kind of has the hallmarks of a mom hobby. Which is fine. I scrap a lot of stories about my kids and with six kids, I have a lot of fodder.

But I think the reluctance to scrap about oneself also stems from centuries and centuries of women's stories being repressed and ignored. Many women authors in the past had to publish under pseudonyms or anonymously to be taken seriously. Women's stories and contributions to history were all but ignored--unless they behaved "badly" or outside of the cultural norm. Even within religious texts like the Bible, women's stories are hidden. Even today, we have many instances where the experiences and stories of women are not believed-especially when it comes to sexual harassment and assault. Is it any wonder that women are reluctant to share their stories?

The other aspect of not telling one's story is the perception that one's personal story isn't important or valuable enough to tell. How many women have you met that have said, "I'm just a mom. I'm not very special. I don't lead a very exciting life. I just work at a normal job. Or I just feed and clothe my family."  And the excuses go on and on.

I believe, so passionately, that every woman has an important story to tell about herself. Each woman has a unique set of circumstances and experiences that have shaped her into a distinct and important individual. I also believe in the importance and power of storytelling. I believe that storytelling affects generations and when we choose not tell our stories, we are depriving our family and friends of the wisdom and importance of our personal stories.

Back to The Scrap Gals facebook group. For the past couple of weeks, I have been posting a story prompt each day. I try to make these story prompts neutral so that everyone can share a story whether or not they are married or have children. It's my hope that they will motivate my fellow scrapbookers to see their lives as scrap worthy.

So far I have asked the following questions:

What are you good at?
What is the best vacation you have ever taken?
What traditions do you have for the fall season? Do those traditions vary from when you were a child?
Are you a pet person? Do you have a pet or a pet story?
Do you enjoy reading? If so what are some favorite authors or books you enjoy?
What is a special friend you have never scrapped about? What makes/made your relationship important and special? Are you still friends? Why or why not?
How did you get the job you have now?
What is something you wish you knew about a loved one who has passed? And how would you turn that question around to yourself?
Tell me about a time when you lost something like a competition, a race, or some object important to you?
What is your Sunday routine?
Have you moved a lot, a little, or never?
Exercise and sports: how do you feel about those things? Like, love, or hate them? Did you do sports in school?
What was your favorite toy from childhood?
What was a favorite food you enjoyed as a child? What is the story behind it?
What are you bad at?
What is a lesson you learned from going through a challenge?

I have so enjoyed the comments and discussions our group has had. The stories have sparked so many memories and ideas for me. I plan to start making 6x8 Project Life app pages to answer these questions for myself. At the end, I should have an amazing book about my own life.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

10 Tryon Circle

For two days we walked through a variety of homes for rent in upper Westchester County. Brent and I were eager to start our new life after living in Sweden for 5 1/2 years while he studied for a Ph.D. in Physics. With a new job at IBM, we felt like we were on our way. The first time we walked into the house at 10 Tryon Circle, we both fell in love. It was twice the size of our 700 square foot apartment in Sweden and was in a charming neighborhood. Even though the rent was high, we felt like it would be a good fit for our family. So we signed a lease and in a month moved our family of six (my kids were ages 8, 6, 4, and 1) into the house.

That first year in New York was unbelievably difficult. Trying to adapt to life in a new culture (even though it was my home country) was much harder than I anticipated. The cost of living with its impending necessity of serious penny-pinching, setting up doctors, helping my children adapt to a new country consumed all my time. I neglected my health and found myself in a serious health crisis with my thyroid.

On the heels of my thyroid crisis, which we stabilized, I became pregnant and spiraled down into another health crisis that was baffling to myself and the doctors. Unfortunately, we did not know I was pregnant because I continued to bleed at regular intervals during the first trimester. During this time, I discovered a lump the size of a golf ball in my neck. Alarmed, doctors ordered a battery of tests and my days were filled with doctor visits, blood tests, x-rays, and many questions. After a couple months we determined that I did not have cancer and we finally learned that I was pregnant.

During this time, I was incapable of functioning normally. I was so fatigued that I could not manage the normal demands of a growing family. I cooked only minimally and all too often dishes languished in the sink. My kids wrote on walls, threw their toys around, and the house was quite messy. I was also trying to potty train my daughter which added another messy layer to the situation.

In the midst of this, our landlord decided to place the home for sale. I cautioned him and his wife that I was really ill and pregnant and while I wanted to keep the house show-ready, I wasn't capable of keeping it in that condition. They said they understood, and I tried my best but wasn't able to manage it.

One afternoon we got home from church and my landlord left a very angry message on our voicemail. We returned his call where he screamed at my husband for 30 minutes. My husband finally hung up. He went into problem-solving mode and worked out a solution to the situation. He hand-delivered a letter with his proposal to our landlord's home, leaving it in the mailbox. Our landlord responded by calling us and threatening to call the cops on us if we ever entered his property again. This was such a bizarre situation. After his threat, his lawyer sent us an extremely threatening letter promising to sue us and claiming all sorts of damages that did not actually exist.

It was horrible. We felt scared all the time that he would show up and get violent. We contacted a lawyer to see what protection we could get. In the middle of this, I was recovering from my health issues, I was pregnant and hemorrhaging, and we had four young children.

In this situation, we did the only thing we could, we broke the lease and stopped paying rent. We found a new home and then paid a settlement of a few thousand dollars to the landlord. Before leaving the home, we cleaned it until it sparkled. He sold the house just a couple months later.

It was so scary and overwhelming. The landlord had no compassion or empathy for our situation or my health. If he had been smarter, we would have probably tried to buy that home because we were eager to settle into our own home. With ten years of experience, I still think the landlord was out of control and shouldn't have responded as he did.

I wouldn't choose to experience that again, but that moment was a catalyst for change. My children attended a better school in NY  where the teachers were more understanding with my kids.  It pushed us to accept an offer to move to Saudi Arabia a few years later. We also grew and matured from that experience, choosing rentals carefully and looking for landlords with considerable experience.

I still feel sadness and a tinge of fear, even 10 years later, when I reflect back on that experience. We don't ever drive by to see that house because those last months were colored with so much trauma and difficulty. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

And Then, Our House Burned Down

On Monday evening, I started to fix dinner for my family. Halfway through, I went to my bathroom to grab something. (I don't even remember why). There were some grey wisps of smoke coming from the bottom of the sink cabinet. I was very puzzled, and started pulling out all the items in the cupboard to investigate. Nothing in the cabinet was on fire so I realized I needed to investigate in the basement. I thought perhaps our boiler was acting up. On the way to the basement, I mentioned to my son, Josef, that I thought we might have a fire. I was a little nervous, but wanted to get more information before acting.

I walked downstairs into our laundry room where our boiler is and saw more smoke, I crouched down to flip the emergency switch and then happened to look up. The door into the garage was cracked and I could see flames there. There was also a man in the garage shouting, "Your house is on fire!" There was a small fire on the workbench. He asked me to go get a fire extinguisher. Initially I agreed and started to get one, but my brain clicked on. I turned back and told the man that I had six kids and I had to get them out of the house right away.

I turned around and started running up the stairs, yelling, "The house is on fire! Get out of the house!" And then I dialed 911 and told the emergency service what was happening. I quickly ran through the house, turned off the stove and went outside. All my kids except Walter were gathered outside with the man who had been in my garage. I yelled, "Where's Walter?" and he came from the trees behind our house.

We were all startled and shocked as the fire amped up and explosions started happening. We moved farther away from the house and waited anxiously for the fire trucks to show. It felt like forever as the flames grew bigger, but eventually the trucks showed up and firemen jumped out and started getting their hoses ready.

It was so scary to watch. I cried in shock and fear as we watched everything happen. I called my husband and curtly told him the house was on fire and needed to come home right away. Later he talked to my son who assured him that we were all safe.

As the firemen worked I was hit with a ton of questions. First and foremost, they wanted to make sure that no one was still in the house. They also asked what kind of things we had in our garage. We answered their questions as they worked. They were very relieved that no one was in the house. Within 10 minutes they had the blaze extinguished and then worked on making sure there were no more hot spots in the houses.

My neighbors started showing up, checking on us, and offering us a place to stay. People called and texted and asked questions. Eventually my husband came walking up the road. He was stopped several blocks away and had to walk the rest of the way to the house. The kids and I were so relieved to see him.

Josef's friend, Sam, and her mother came to the house and asked if they could take the kids back to their house. It was getting late and we had no idea how long we would have to be there. We were happy to accept and the kids were taken care of.

We talked a little more to the man who had run into our garage when he saw the fire. His name was Michael Cola. He was kind to stop and help. He stayed with us most of the time. I got his phone number and plan to call him and send him a nice thank you.

Some of my friends that I work with on the PTSA for the high school called and checked on us and one of the women, Jenn Albano, started gathering donations, including diapers, for us. We had nothing but what clothes we were wearing. Half the kids had bare feet.

We waited for several hours as the emergency personnel worked. We answered so many questions. Eventually, two firemen took us through the house and let us grab a few things. It was really horrible. The house was covered in soot and debris. The firemen had knocked holes in the walls and ceiling and pulled out the insulation to check for any smoldering. Our home was totally unrecognizable. Brent and I searched all over the house for Winter's blanket and Jonathan's blanket. They both love their blankets and sleep better when they have them.

Then Brent and I got into my car, which was fortunately okay, and we went to pick up his car. We then drove to our neighbor's house to be with our kids. We had to shower right away because we had soot on our hands and arms. I was so shook up and couldn't stop shivering. It felt so good to get into a hot bath and warm up.

That night, several bags of clothing and toiletries were dropped off for our family. Our community has been incredible. Donations are being collected of clothing and household goods. At some point, we will collect them and be able to use them. Several people sent us gift cards and money. We were bombarded with offers of places to stay.

Brent and I discussed our situation. My parents and in-laws asked if the kids and I could go to Wyoming while Brent handled the details back in New York. The idea was very appealing because it would be a secure place to relax until we could figure out our future plans. But that had to wait until we found out more from our insurance company.

The last few days have been a whirlwind of meetings. Several adjusters have toured our home and given their professional opinion about what needed to happen next. The good news is that the structure of the house is still in good shape. Unfortunately, smoke damaged all our possessions and very few items can be salvaged. We rescued a few things but the majority of our possessions will be replaced. The bad news is that it will take at least 7-9 months before the house repairs are completed. We are in the process of looking for temporary housing. We also learned that the fire was most likely caused by some battery chargers we had plugged in. We had Ryobi and Craftsmen battery chargers for tools like a cordless drill, leaf blower, weed whacker, etc.

Our family feels extremely grateful to all our neighbors, friends, and total strangers who have reached out to us. Several of my children's school teachers, principals, and school staff reached out to us personally to ask about our needs and welfare. I didn't even realize how much we have become a part of the community.

We are very sad about what happened, but feel so grateful that we made it out safely. Things can be replaced. It also feels good that so many people have reached out to us, making us feel wanted, loved, and cared for. With all that support, we are going to be okay.

Several people have asked about my scrapbooks. They sustained smoke damage and have some soot on the tops of the pages. However, I think if I pull the pages out--the most important part--we can do some things to remove the smoke smell and preserve them. If we can't salvage the pages, I can always photograph what I made and have prints made. I have 10 years of photographs backed up digitally in a couple of places. I also photographed nearly every layout I made in the last five years. Additionally, my older photos were stored in secure plastic boxes, so I hope that most can be recovered.

There were three news articles about our family and the fire. Most focused on Michael Cola and his role. He was very brave to stop and help and we are grateful to him. The only quibble I have is that I am the one who got my children out of the house and I had realized that we had a fire before I even saw him, but otherwise, the articles were okay.

WABC 7 News

Westchester 12

Friday, July 7, 2017

Walking on the Path of Uncertainty

Yesterday I received some difficult news at a doctor visit. I have routine eye exams because plaquenil, the medication I take to keep my lupus in check, can cause some rare and irreversible eye damage. These eye checks are meant to catch any problems quickly before they become too severe. The ophthalmologist asked me how long I had taken plaquenil and when I told her that I have taken it for 13 years, she got very serious. While I currently have good vision and she isn't seeing any negative effects, she said the risk of eye damage was much greater after being on the medication for so long. She was going to recommend to my rheumatologist that I stop taking plaquenil and start other treatments.

This is very disturbing news as plaquenil has allowed me to lead a very healthy, normal, active life for the last thirteen years. In fact, lupus patients who take plaquenil long-term show better health and life outcomes. They live longer and experience lupus much less severely than patients who don't take plaquenil. Additionally, other lupus treatments, like prednisone or immune suppressants have much worse side effects and problems than plaquenil. The current recommendation is to have regular eye exams and stop treatment if any problems are noticed.

This leaves me in quite a quandry and anticipating a very important conversation with my rheumatologist. I don't want to stop taking plaquenil nor do I want any vision problems. I am not certain what the future holds and I feel worried what will happen.

While pondering this today, I felt impressed to listen to a talk from the podcast BYU speeches. I came across the talk, "Waiting upon the Lord: The Antidote to Uncertainty," by Dr. Erin Holmes.  It was just what I needed to hear. It reminded me that I am not walking this path alone, that God is with me, and that there are lessons to be learned in this time.