Happy birthday to you, my sweet 9 year old girl! Tonight you are sound asleep, exhausted, happy, and completely waterlogged.
Your birthday party yesterday was a hit. We'd been planning it for months, ever since that weekend back in January when you asked how old you have to be to go scuba diving. I didn't know, so we googled (what did my parents do without google?).
You have to be 10 to get scuba certification, but if you're 8, and under the supervision of an instructor, you can practice scuba diving in a pool. And even better, there is a dive shop in town that does scuba birthday parties for kids.
Your friend Taylor's family was nice enough to let us have the party at their pool, and all you kiddos had a chance to try on the gear and swim for a while. Grown ups could play too, and I loved swimming around with you, sharing the tank and the two regulators.
Today, we had a family birthday celebration with Boo and the Kartunens. We planned this party around a pool too because we knew you'd want to use your new present - a shiny blue mermaid tail and matching swimsuit.
For a girl who loves to swim and loves to play make-believe, this was the perfect gift. Also, it's packable so we can take it to Costa Rica. You only had a few minutes to flip your fin around in the water before an afternoon thunderstorm interrupted our fun, but I see lots of mermaid pool time in your future.
So while mermaids are definitely "in," I've learned that princesses are now "out." You are teetering between two worlds right now - one foot is still firmly planted in the realm of little girls, but the other is creeping toward the tween phase.
Just last week as you were getting dressed for Girl Scout camp, you moodily came into my room and announced that you had no shirts to wear.
I know for a fact you have a dresser drawer FULL of shirts.
"But they all have frilly sleeves or girly things on them," you said, looking like you'd just sucked on a lemon.
I started thinking back to your recent wardrobe, and it's been almost entirely shorts and t-shirts. All your pretty dresses and ruffled shirts have gone untouched. You now despise the color pink, and anything having to do with princesses.
I overheard you and a friend talking the other day about how much you now dislike the movie "Frozen." It seems baby-ish to you now, and you've gotten quite adept at rolling your eyes anytime someone sings "Let It Go," which you used to play INCESSANTLY in my car.
But I think there's really a part of you that still loves the movie. That your disdain is mostly for show. We were going through your DVDs the other day, selecting some to sell in a yard sale. I pulled out the Frozen DVD and held it up for consideration.
"What about this one? Are we selling it?" I asked.
Your eyes got wide and you were quiet for a long moment. Then in a small voice, you said, "Maybe not yet."
And secretly I was glad. I'm not sure how I feel about you shaking off all these treasures of your younger years. "Maybe not yet" seems the perfect reply for now.
Here's another example of how you're vacillating between these older and younger phases in your life. This last month, you had your first opportunity to go to sleep-away church camp. I was one of the chaperones, and your buddy Ellanor came with you.
The camp was held on the campus of Converse College in South Carolina, and we slept in the dorms. You and Ellanor had one room to yourselves, while Lauren and I took the other, with a bathroom adjoining the two.
You girls were ecstatic and giddy when we arrived, and relished in the unpacking of your suitcases into your dorm room closet. You began "playing college," pretending to be roommates. I'd overhear snippets of conversation as you discussed signing up for classes and other important college matters.
But a little while later, I popped my head in the room to check on you girls, and your make-believe game had changed a little.
"I'm still in college," you said, "but Ellanor is my pet dog." And sure enough Ellanor was crawling around on all fours, barking.
I LOVED it. Because it proved to me that you're still my little girl for a while longer - a little girl who fantasizes that her friend is a puppy.
One of your favorite things to do over this past year has been to play with the Photobooth app on my computer. It allows you to take photos using the built-in camera, and then edit them with really zany effects.
So tonight, I'll wrap up with a few of my favorites of the past year, with some of your favorite people.
I love you so much. I've whispered prayers of thanks for you many times today, but I don't have wait until your birthday to feel gratitude for you. I love you so much, every day. Always.
As we prepare for our trip to Costa Rica, each week seems to bring a new obsession. Something new to keep us up at night, wishing for a crystal ball. This week, it's the question of visas.
We have two options regarding visas, and if either were certain we'd probably pick it just to be done. But uncertainties abound.
Option 1: The Perpetual Tourist
I wish I could take credit for the term "perpetual tourist," because I like it. But I didn't come up with it - it's a term people use in Costa Rica to describe folks like us, people who come and stay for longer than a typical vacation, but don't need permanent residency.
American tourists entering Costa Rica can get a tourist visa for up to 90 days. But don't even think about coming into the country without proof of onward travel - a plane or bus ticket that shows you exiting the country within 90 days. If you don't have it, you're headed back home.
If we go the tourist visa route, we must plan to leave the country at least every 90 days - the expats call it the "border run." We could drive to Nicaragua, but the roads are gnarly at best, and we can't drive our rental car across the border. So we'd have to park and go across by foot and find transportation on the other side - not my idea of fun.
We already know we're making two trips back home, but we'll need two other international trips to comply. We'd probably fly to Managua, Nicaragua once, and Panama City, Panama another time. That could get pricey.
But where it gets really dicey is that you are not guaranteed a 90-day visa each time you come into the country. Just because you CAN get 90 days doesn't mean you will. The length of your visa is at the discretion of the border agent, who can be having a bad day and decide to give you a 30 day visa. Now THAT would get really expensive, having to leave the country again every month.
Are we likely to get a too-short visa? Probably not. I polled a group of ex-pats, and while their visa length varied, it was sufficient for their stay. But it could happen, which means some nail-biting each time we go through border control.
So the pros: we get to tick two more countries off our list of "places we visited."
The cons: the expense and hassle of the extra travel, and the uncertainty of our visa length upon return.
Option 2: Student Visas
Students who are coming into Costa Rica to study can apply for student visas. Since Camille will be attending an accredited school, she could apply for a student visa. Then the idea is that Lee and I would also get student visas, as parents accompanying a minor.
A student visa would exempt us from the 90-day border run, and all that border control nail-biting.
However, we've talked with four different attorneys in Costa Rica. Two say we can get student visas as parents of a student; two say we cannot legally do that. So who is right?
And the student visa will not be cheap - it'll cost about as much as those two extra international trips.
In addition, we'll have to send a big chunk of that money in advance to the attorney in Costa Rica to start the process. But what if we get denied? Then we're back to square one.
So the pros: no 90-day border runs, no worrying about the length of our tourist visa. Our fate would not be in the hands of border agents.
The cons: the expense of the student visa, the risk in sending money to an attorney I've never met in another country, and the chance that the visa will be denied and we'll be making border runs anyway.
Off to bed now, so I can pull the covers up to my chin, close my eyes, and fret about this just a little more...
Hello sweet Camille, my pipa, and Happy 107 months! Right now you're off on a movie date with your Daddy, wrapping up a great weekend of swimming, horseback riding and ... learning Spanish.
In the last month, we made a really big decision - one we'd been wrestling with for a few months now. We decided to move to Costa Rica for a year, beginning in August.
To be honest, you're not too sure about this whole thing. You knew it was a possibility, and when we finally told you we'd decided to go, you burst into tears.
I understood your tears completely, but my heart was still breaking as I sat with you in the dining room and let you cry on my shoulder. One of the main reasons your Daddy and I decided to do this crazy thing is because we think it will be WONDERFUL for you. You will experience so many new things, a new culture, new language, new school. You'll have friends from all over the globe. I have a feeling you will grow so much over this next year as your world literally expands. All the while, we'll still have the comfort of knowing we'll come back to the people and places we love at home after a year.
But from where you sit, the trip is mostly full of uncertainties. You're sad about leaving your friends, and nervous about starting a new school - particularly since some of your classes will be taught entirely in Spanish. And I understand - I am nervous about the newness of it all too.
I struggled with your tears because as your mother I want to dry them. If there are obstacles or challenges in your way, my first instinct is to remove them. To make life easier and more pleasant for you. No doubt, it would be easier to just stay right here in Savannah, where life has been good to us.
But I also know there is so much value in challenge. I realize, despite my instincts, that my job as your mother is NOT to clear all obstacles, but to teach you how to break through them. Rather than removing all challenges, I need to help you overcome them. I need to help you learn that you are strong.
So in the past several weeks, your father and I have spent countless hours working out all the logistics of the move. Meanwhile, you've been obsessing over one particular decision - which stuffed animals to take, and which to leave here.
You LOVE stuffed animals. We are a lot alike in that respect. I clearly remember going into toy stores as a child and seeing the sweet animal faces and feeling that they really and truly needed my care. Packing for our trip is going to be difficult since we're not planning to ship anything, so it all has to come on the plane with us. We said you could take three stuffed animals, which seemed generous to us.
But you have a different opinion. Three seems such a small number to you, and nearly every day you go back and forth on which ones you will bring. You've started sleeping with a different stuffed animal each night so that they all have a chance to sleep with you before you go. You're so sure their feelings will be hurt.
You commandeered an empty cardboard box and wrote "My Costa Rica Animals Box" on it, and put three animals in it. Then you'd change your mind, take those out and put in three different ones. Repeat.
I have to laugh at all of this, because you're putting as much energy into the "great stuffed animal dilemma" as we are into researching healthcare, banking, car rentals and insurance. Oh to be 8 years old...
Although Costa Rica has taken up most of our mental real estate in this last month, it's not the only thing I want to write about. We also made our annual pilgrimage to Disney for Star Wars Weekend at Hollywood Studios.
Your costume request for this year was quite challenging. You wanted to be prototype Boba Fett. There are Boba Fett costumes out there, but "prototype" Boba Fett is something else. It's the costume the movie-makers created first as they were working out the details, and no one is manufacturing this version of the costume for the public.
But your Daddy loves his girl and he loves Star Wars, so he took on the task. He found a computer program that allowed him to scale the helmet to your size, then print out template paper that could be cut, folded and glued into the helmet shape. After that, fiberglass cloth and bondo were added to give the helmet strength and stability.
It took him many, many, many months. Then he and Boo worked together on the rest of your costume, which turned out better than any of us could have hoped. Here you and Ellanor were trying on your outfits at the beach before we left for Disney.
It was great fun taking both of you around Hollywood Studios, posing for pictures with the characters and even with random people who just wanted to be photographed with you.
One highlight was getting your picture made with Jango Fett, and the way you two stared each other down for a long time before striking a pose.
But I think my favorite picture is this one with Chewbacca and Wicket.
You were SO excited to see the little ewok, and after waiting in a long line you were thrilled to give him a hug. When it was time to snap the picture, you laced your arm through his and leaned in close. There you are, in a bounty hunter costume that is designed to look powerful and aggressive, but you're snuggled up to the ewok, looking gentle and even dainty.
That's my girl in there, for sure. So soft and sweet on the inside.
After Star Wars Weekend it was off to cousin camp, where you had a blast with Stella and Jane, and Nana and Granddaddy of course. I absolutely love this pic of the three of you - so sassy.
The rest of our summer will be spent in a few camps here in Savannah, and then filling our down time with packing packing packing.
I sure would love to be able to see in the future and to reassure you (and myself) that this trip to Costa Rica is going to be wonderful. Who knows, at the end of a year, you may have fresh tears because you don't want to leave your new Costa Rican friends. Or maybe you'll be so ready to get back home. But either way, my hope is that one day, you look back on this year and see it as a gift. Leaving your comfort zone isn't always easy, but adventure can be a marvelous teacher. I hope we will all learn so much, and best of all, we'll learn together.
I love you so much sweet girl.
In about 8 weeks, Lee, Camille and I are going to pack up some clothes, two computers, one dog, one guitar and a viola, and we're moving to Costa Rica for a year.
I know. I know. It's crazy. Even typing it now, I vacillate between being excited and wanting to throw up.
Where does the story begin? Two years ago, when we went to Costa Rica for a month? Or maybe it began when we came back home, and immediately started plotting ways to get back there again.
You could also say the story began when we put our house on the market last year. Not that we had Costa Rica in mind at the time, but putting the "for sale" sign in our yard set certain things in motion we didn't anticipate.
We had stumbled upon another house in the neighborhood we wanted to buy, so we put ours up for sale. But the process dragged and dragged, and we lost enthusiasm for it after 6 months of endless house showings but no offers.
We were about to pull the house off the market 3 months ago, when I got this text message from my mother.
"I just showed your house."
She was visiting us, and at first I was annoyed about the intruding buyer. We didn't have any showings scheduled for that day, so who had the nerve to just come knocking on the door?
Turns out, it was a priest. Specifically, the priest from the church across the street. The church is about to undergo a major construction project, and they need to relocate the parish offices for a year. He saw our for sale sign and wondered, were we interested in renting our property to the church?
At first, we said thanks but no. Renting our house would only displace us.
Then one night a few weeks later, just as we were slipping under the covers, Lee had an idea.
"You know," he said, "we could rent our house to the church for a year and go to Costa Rica."
Neither of us slept very well that night.
Or the next night. Or any night since. Because he was right - we could do that.
But should we? There were So. Many. Questions. rolling around in my head. Like:
- Where would Camille go to school?
- Could we afford to do this? The cost of living in Nosara, our preferred area of Costa Rica, is high.
- Would we need a special visa?
- Would we have stable internet, and would our business suffer?
- What would we do about a car?
- How would we get our medicines?
- How would we handle the separation from our family and friends?
But there were so many possible advantages too. We loved the time we spent in Costa Rica. If we went for a year, Camille would have a chance to really absorb another culture. And Spanish! She would totally learn Spanish. Moving to Costa Rica could be a terrible idea. Or a fantastic adventure.
I wrestled with all of this, and ultimately decided to leave it to God, leave it to fate, leave it in the hands of the universe. We would begin researching schooling, housing, internet, etc., and see if the doors opened to us or were shut tight.
I googled schools. Here in Savannah, Camille attends a wonderful public Montessori school. Turns out, Nosara has an international bilingual school - and not just that - it's a Montessori school too.
But maybe they would be full? So I called, and asked the receptionist if there were available spaces next year for 4th grade.
"Ah, our current 4th grade is over capacity," she said. So I prepared for this door to slam shut, but then she went on to explain. "So we're adding another 4th grade class next year. We will have plenty of room."
We submitted Camille's application, did a Skype interview with the headmaster, and she was in.
School = Check.
We looked at housing, and narrowed it down to three homes. One was really nice but too expensive, so we asked the homeowner if he'd negotiate on price.
He cut his monthly rate in half.
Housing = Check.
We asked him about internet, concerned for our business interests. Did he have phone or cable internet (cable being preferred)?
He has both, so if one goes down, the other is usually up.
Internet = Check.
We decided we'd sell Lee's car and buy one in Costa Rica, which was giving me lots of heartburn. Buying a car there is a complicated process and involves hiring your own attorney. Did the homeowner happen to have any leads on a car we might buy?
Turns out, he has a car just sitting at the house, and he'll rent it to us at a fraction of what the rental agencies charge.
Car = Check.
And so on. Even though the prospect of moving to Costa Rica for a year is daunting and overwhelming, the universe seems to be flashing a big neon sign that says, "GO!"
I cannot begin to tell you how much work and planning we've already done, and how much more work and planning there is to do before we leave. We like adventure, but we don't like uncertainties. We dwell on the logistics, and there are still many unanswered questions and puzzles to solve.
A couple of months ago, as we were weighing all of this, I also happened to be filling out a questionnaire for University of Georgia alumni. One of the questions was about what advice we would give to UGA students today.
I wrote, "Always be a seeker and don't lose your curiosity. When a new challenge, opportunity or adventure presents itself, don't be afraid to try something new and bold. You may not always succeed, but sometimes you will, and no matter the outcome you'll grow and learn if you keep seeking."
And then I realized I needed to take my own advice. So we're going. I'll be updating the blog a lot as we prepare to go and once we get there, and Lee is creating a website for this trip too. Once it's up, it'll be at TemporaryTicos.com. Ticos are what the Costa Ricans call themselves, and we're going to pretend to be like them, just for a little while.
So send up a prayer for us, send us your good mojo, and for goodness sake please make plans to come visit!
Happy 106 months, love (8 days behind, but who's counting?)! Right now, we are mid-way through a week long beach vacation at Cape San Blas in Florida with Boo and your pal Ellanor. This is the first trip that we've let you bring a friend - I guessed that a whole week at the beach would be more fun with a beach buddy. I was right - you girls are getting along great!
You've spent hours and hours jumping waves, making sand figures, and collecting shells. We had a campfire on the beach last night, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows. It may not have been the most balanced meal, but it sure was fun to cook and delicious to eat, even with a side of sand.
You've also enjoyed outings to the nearby bay, where you two like to wade through the waist-high water with buckets and nets, looking for creatures. Sea slugs are abundant, and you love to put them in your bucket and then scoop them into your hands.
"They love me, mama!" you squeal, as they flutter against your palm.
We began this beach vacation the day after school got out. Your first official day as a fourth grader.
A FOURTH GRADER.
Third grade was good to you. You have a nice group of friends, you did well in your school work, and you really seemed to enjoy going to school. I got to help out during Field Day, and it's always a treat to see you with your school buddies and get a peek inside your school social life. From where I sit, it looks like a good one.
The end of the school year brought several other celebrations. You performed in the spring concert of the Armstrong Youth Orchestra, and then just a couple weeks later had your first solo viola recital, playing Bach's Minuet III.
I always want to remember how adorable you looked at the orchestra concert - so grown up with your instrument perched on your shoulder, but so young, with your feet swinging, not touching the floor.
Then it was time to wrap up your second and final year as a Girl Scout Brownie, and "bridge" over to being a Junior.
It was a month of wrapping things up, of closing chapters and opening the chapter of summer. I think we got things off to a good start, and I can't wait to see what's next.
I love you so much.
Happy 105 months my sweet girl! My nature girl. My animal lover.
We took a trip north to Asheville this month for spring break and a reunion with the Hensley family. You'd been excited about this trip for ages, because you so wanted to see buddy Sam and boyfriend (ahem) Will. You and Will have called each other boyfriend/girlfriend for years. I keep wondering when one of you will outgrow this elementary school romance and want to pair off with someone local instead. But so far, the two of you seem satisfied with seeing each other once a year, and always pick up right where you left off.
And you'd think Sam might feel left out in this trio, right? But it just seems to work - the three of you pal around perfectly.
This year we rented a cottage on a real, working farm nestled into the Blue Ridge mountains. The pack of enormous, muddy, friendly farm dogs were constant sources of fun for you all. You named them and hugged them and fretted over them and even tried to ride them like horses. You loved swinging on the trapeze by the creek, or walking the hanging bridges to an amazing treehouse complex.
The farm was a place of great freedom and liberation, as we felt free to let you all wander. Off you'd go up the gravel paths together, in search of the family of peacocks or to visit the horse. We wouldn't know exactly where you were or when you were coming back, but we knew you all were ok. Better than ok, we knew you were having a wonderful time.
Our trip encompassed the Easter holiday, and the location was idyllic for an Easter egg hunt. We hid more than 100 eggs in the tall grasses and shrubs, and enjoyed watching you three dash about for the prizes.
So, about Easter ...
The night before Easter, we were all lounging in the living room of the cottage, talking about Easter traditions. When I was growing up, the Easter bunny would send me on a scavenger hunt for my basket. I'd wake to find a post-it note on my nightstand or headboard, and I'd follow the clues upstairs and downstairs until finally finding my basket of goodies in the dryer, the pantry, or some other covert place.
Without thinking, I said aloud, "I wonder why I've never done that with you, Camille? Maybe I should."
To which your Daddy replied, "Don't you mean the EASTER BUNNY should do that?"
Whoops! We both looked at you for your reaction. I knew you were already suspicious about the whole Easter bunny thing, but you'd never asked us for the truth. Had I just outed myself as the Easter Bunny?
"Yeah mom," you said with a sly smile, "Don't kill the magic."
Ha! So it appears you do know who's behind your Easter morning basket, but you want to keep playing the game. Sure thing love - we'll keep playing!
It's always hard to say good-bye to these great friends, but at least our trip wasn't over when we left the Hensleys and the farm. Our next stop was Tennessee and Nana and Granddaddy, and a visit to the aquarium.
The animals were fascinating, and each time one swam in your direction, you were sure it was coming to visit you. You've always felt a connection with nearly every animal you see.
Dead or alive.
Last week, I was standing in our driveway before church when I saw a dead baby possum near the garage. I knew you'd want the chance to see him up close, and he didn't look grotesque yet, so I went back in the house and told you what I'd found. You quickly slipped on shoes and ran out to see for yourself.
"Oh!" you squealed. "He is sooooooo cute!"
I told you repeatedly not to touch him, and you didn't. But you knelt down close, looked into his vacant eyes and said, "I feel so sorry for him! Mama, can we bury him in the backyard?"
Oh good grief. It was a Sunday morning and we were all in our church clothes. We were not about to go digging a hole in the backyard for a possum who was not a pet, and I told you as much.
"So what are you going to do with him?" you asked. A pause. "You're not going to just put him in the trash, are you?!?"
Which of course, was the plan. Your Daddy and I tried to reason with you. We couldn't bury him in the backyard - what if the dog dug him up? Maybe we could just put him in the alley and let vultures eat him - circle of life and all?
But the more we tried to persuade you, the more heartbroken you were, until you finally collapsed in your Daddy's arms with uncontrollable sobs.
Honey, you get it honestly. I remember as a child looking at a dead fly that had been killed in my house. The more I looked at it and contemplated its short life, the more upset I felt. So I had a funeral for it. I found a container, dug a hole with a spoon and buried it.
So I was secretly relieved when your Daddy sighed and said, "What if we bury it in the alley after church. Will that make you feel better?"
And so you did. After digging the hole and covering up the possum, your Daddy asked if you wanted to say some words over the animal's grave, but you didn't. So he summed it up with, "Hey possum. We didn't know you, but we hope you were nice."
My sweet girl with a tender heart - that sensitive side is going to cause you some pain throughout your life. But it's also going to allow you to experience great love and joy, so I'm glad it's part of you.
I love you so much.
I may not have the solution for peace in Israel, but going for a run may be - quite literally - a step in the right direction.
After several days of touring (and eating and eating and eating), it was time for us to burn some calories and fulfill the original purpose of our trip - to experience the Jerusalem Marathon series.
The day before race day, our crew of writers joined many others on the roof of the Mamila hotel for a press conference with Mayor Nir Barkat and several other race and tourism officials. The race is a big deal for Jerusalem, and 25,000 runners were descending on the city at that very moment. Some of the elite runners were invited to the press conference too - these folks who could finish a full marathon before I could finish a half. Here they are, with Mayor Barkat (also a runner) in the middle.
In addition to filling us in on the race details, the officials commended us for our courage and our bravery in coming to their city for this event.
Wait - my what?
I'd mostly put safety concerns out of my mind up to that moment. But here they were, telling me I'd been brave to make the trip. Oh what had I gotten myself into?
All those runners and volunteers and spectators - what targets we could be. But I also knew the security would be robust, and truly I didn't feel brave or frightened. I just felt excited for the opportunity to run this race.
The race series includes everything from an 800 meter charity race, to a 5K, 10K, half-marathon and full marathon. Neither Lee nor I were adequately trained for one of the longer races, so Lee signed up for the 10K and I the 5K.
Race morning dawned sunny but chilly, and I was grateful for our press passes that gave us access to a tent at the finish line. We also happened to be next to the merchandise tent, where everything with a race logo was half-price. Lee and I snagged some matching race jackets and bundled up.
But by the time the 5K was ready to begin, the sun felt warm and the conditions were race-perfect. I lined up at the start, with live music to my right, costumed characters to my left, and surrounded by thousands of others runners. There were individuals and families and youth groups. There were people dressed like me, and there were others wearing long sleeves, long pants and head coverings according to their religious customs. I heard many different languages, but all spoken with the same excited energy that is always found at the start of a race.
There were runners from 60 countries present, and even racers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. We crossed the start line and began climbing the hills of Jerusalem, and I thought how wonderful races are for bringing people together. Races are a celebration of human spirit. Running is not a Jewish thing or a Christian thing or a Muslim thing. It's not an Israeli thing or a Palestinian thing. It's a human thing, and there we were, being humans together. Sweating and laughing and breathing and running together.
The police presence was obvious along the race route, but not in a threatening or unwelcome way. I love this pic by one of the other writers in our group, Dax of dirtyrunning.com. Their weapons were intimidating, but their grins told a different story.
The race was hilly and challenging. With the 5K though, you don't really go far enough for an expansive vista, but oh how I wish I could've been in shape for the half marathon. I've seen the pictures from writers on our trip who ran longer races. Yes, the course was uphill and difficult, but when you run to the tops of those hills you get some magnificent views. The longer courses also take you through the Old City of Jerusalem. To run on those streets steeped with so much history must be a thrill.
I crossed the finish and was pleased to collect a finisher's medal - not too many 5Ks give out medals, and this is certainly one souvenir I will cherish always. Then I saw Lee off for his 10K, and even got a glimpse of him later on the course near the finish line - he was one happy runner.
I totally understand why the Ministry of Tourism invited us on this trip. Jerusalem is in need of some good PR, of some displays of unity rather than the divisive images most of us see on the news. And if you've ever run a race, you know what happens when you're on the course - there's an instant camaraderie you feel with your fellow runners. Racing is an individual sport, but one that fosters a strong communal bond.
That's just the kind of thing Israel needs. The kind of thing we all need, don't you think?
About 5 weeks ago, Lee got an email. One of those too-good-to-be-true emails. So good it must be spam.
The email was from Israel's Ministry of Tourism, inviting Lee on a press tour for the Jerusalem Marathon. All expenses would be paid for the 1-week trip - all they would ask is that he write about it on Brew Drink Run.
My first response when he told me was, "You MUST go!" And then my next question was, "Do they allow paid guests?"
The answer was yes.
I was still dubious that it could be true, and kept waiting for the catch. The email claiming, "we just need your credit card and social security number..." It didn't help that four days before our departure we still didn't have flight information. To pack, or not to pack?
But then Lee's email box chimed with the message we'd been waiting for - flight confirmation from Savannah to Tel Aviv. It was real.
A couple of frenzied days of preparation, and three long flights later, we found ourselves in the passport control line at the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv behind two other Americans. My ears perked up when I heard one say, "I didn't get my tickets until Thursday! I really didn't think this trip was happening - I was kind of shocked."
I figured these must be our people - and sure enough they were two other bloggers in our press group. There were about 18 of us in the English-speaking group (more about some of them here), along with Russian and French contingents.
Past the border control we met our wonderful guide, Ori, who directed us to our bus to begin the drive to Jerusalem.
Our first stop was one of my favorites of the whole trip - the Mount of Olives.
I grew up in the church, and stories about Jerusalem and the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives are more familiar to me than any other tales from my childhood. We stood on top of that famed mountain, next to a group of tourists and a man with a camel looking for riders, and Ori pointed out the sites.
It went something like this: over there - that's where Jesus rode down on a donkey into Jerusalem before the Passover. That is the gate where he entered the city on a path lined with palm branches. See that church over there? That's where the Last Supper is believed to have been. Do you see that smaller dome over there? That's the church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on Golgotha and around Jesus' tomb.
I could see it all in my mind's eye - I could see Jesus and his disciples there. It was as close to a feeling of time travel as I've ever had.
The next day took us into the Old City of Jerusalem. To walk the winding streets of the Old City is to weave your way through a labyrinth of cultures and ages. All of the walls and paving stones are the singular tan color of Jerusalem stone, and it's not easy to tell one street vendor or falafel shop from another. But if you look at the people, the differences are striking.
On one street, you may jostle for space next to a woman wearing a burqa as you hear the Muslim call to prayer echo off those tan stones. Turn a corner and you may find yourself bumping into a Jewish man with long sidelocks spiraling down from under his broad-brimmed black hat.
At any moment, you're likely to to see Christian pilgrims from all over the world walking the stations of the cross, following the last steps of Jesus before his crucifixion. Some carry crosses on their own backs, while others chant prayers in many languages.
I stood at the Western Wall of the old Temple Mount and said a prayer next to a woman who was rocking back and forth, cradling a holy book and repeating prayers in Hebrew. I tried to imagine Jesus driving out the money changers before teaching there - right there where I was. It was somehow so real and surreal at the same time.
As a person of faith, but one who also values peace and tolerance among the faiths, it was a lovely sight to see - this mosaic of cultures and peoples and religions. I never felt unsafe. I never felt threatened. It seemed there was something special here for everyone, and everyone was welcome to experience it.
But just read an article about Israeli politics - or better yet, ask an Israeli - and you find a real tension under the surface. Get outside the walls of the Old City, take a drive past the Palestinian neighborhood and see the imposing security fence erected around it. Take note of the black-charred sections of that wall, sites of some earlier violent display. See the traffic backed up on the interstate as people gather in central Tel Aviv for another political demonstration. Stroll a quiet marketplace, and notice the young police officers with automatic weapons, armed for a siege of a scale I can't fathom.
Here's what I understand. Israel is a special place. If you're Christian, Jewish or Muslim, the area is sacred to your faith. Even if you're not religious, but of Arab or Jewish descent, you claim an important history here. But it's been a tumultuous history for thousands of years - each group fighting for power and control, each sure this is THEIR chosen land. The pendulum swings first one way and then another, and it swings like a wrecking ball.
I have more I want to say about this trip - about the people and places and even the marathon. But it seems overwhelming to try to put it all down at once. So for now, here is what is on my heart.
Israel is a beautiful land and a holy land, filled with beautiful people. But it's so much more than that. I went into the trip with an open mind, hoping to understand more about the area's history and the politics, and hoping for a spiritual connection. I certainly got the latter, but as for an understanding ... I came home realizing that I don't know hardly anything. And certainly without a clear idea of how peace can be won.
Happy 104 months to you, my best girl, and happy spring! I love the way each season carries with it milestones from year to year - benchmarks to measure growth. I often find myself saying things like, "Is it really time for THAT holiday again?!," as the special dates sneak up, and are suddenly and unexpectedly close.
One such milestone is the annual Daddy Daughter Dance at your school. You've been attending this dance since kindergarten in 2012. On the one hand, it doesn't seem like that long ago. But then I pulled up a photo from that night, and was struck by how much you've grown in three years.
That first dance, I snagged several pictures of you twirling with your Daddy.
With each year though, you spend more of your time dancing with friends while all the Daddys look on. This is as it should be - just another sign of your growing independence.
The day of the dance you wanted to curl your hair, so we rolled your pretty blond locks on hot rollers and gave them a couple of hours to set. This was a good opportunity to practice viola, and I love this shot I snapped of you playing in curlers, looking enthused.
We took the curlers out and I even let you wear some of my lipstick, which of course made you look way too old. And of course you loved it. You looked beautiful.
You had another very grown up experience this past month - your first rock 'n' roll club show! Your Daddy and I are fans of The Gaslight Anthem, and you've been exposed to enough of their music that you're a fan now too. You love to pick Gaslight songs when we're in the car and belt out the choruses along with us.
So when they announced a tour stop in Charleston at an all-ages venue, we asked if you wanted to come along. I knew the biggest obstacle by far would be the late hour of the show - we've talked before about your inability to stay up late. We warned you that it would be well past your bedtime, but you said you were game, so we got three tickets.
When we arrived at the venue, our first stop was the ticket booth. The window was up high, and as your Daddy and I got wristbands to show we are over 21, you hopped and jumped and strained your neck higher, trying hard to see over the window ledge.
The women at the ticket desk said, "And you have someone in your party who is under 21, right?" And we laughed while your little head kept bouncing up, up, up. "How could you tell?" we asked.
Once inside, you got lots of stares - some of surprise, many of respect. We found our way to the perfect viewing location for you, up on a small balcony to the side of the stage. From that perch, you could see the audience and the band without having to be down with the crowd surfers and the beer spillers. We snapped on your noise-canceling headphones to save your ears, and enjoyed the people-watching.
There were two opening acts, and you waited patiently through both until it was finally time for The Gaslight Anthem. As the band members walked on stage, the lead singer looked up and caught sight of you. He motioned to the others and pointed, and then they waved at you. You waved back.
A few songs in, you leaned over to me and said, "The singer is cute. I need to get his Animal Jam login name so we can be friends," referring to a computer game you like to play with buddies. It amused me to think of you and Brian Fallon playing Animal Jam together - you in Savannah and he on a tour bus.
You were a total trooper, but as the clock approached 11 p.m. you literally began to fade, sliding down until you were seated on the floor, propped against my leg. We decided you'd had enough, and left just a couple of songs before the end of the show. You were so tired as you stumbled to the car, and I wondered if you were regretting staying up so late.
"So what did you think, Camille?" we asked.
"That. Was. Awesome." you said, in a voice that was tired but sure. And I admit, your father and I felt quite proud.
Last month was also bittersweet, in that your Daddy and I got to take a trip to Jerusalem, but you stayed at home. You were none too happy about this, but on the plus side you got to enjoy some quality Boo time. You also got to see your cousins before school every day and on the weekend, and I know they helped pass the time. I am so thankful that you get to grow up with those two nearby, who are like brothers to you.
I was glad the trip timed out so that we arrived home just in time for St. Patrick's Day. The schools close because everyone will be at the parade, so it meant we had the whole day to spend together as a family. We biked downtown to join friends on the parade route, and soaked up the warm sunshine and the festive spirit.
Thank you for another great month, sweet girl, full of familiar milestones and new experiences, too. I'm so glad I get to be along for the ride. I love you so much.
Happy one-oh-three, my sweet girl, the super-fantastic new acolyte at First Baptist Church of Savannah!
This last month contained a nice first for you - the first time you were given the job of acolyte at church. For a dozen years I've watched other kids march down the center aisle and light the candelabra up front. I've watched those kids grow and grow until they were too old to acolyte, replaced by the next group of young recruits.
And now, somehow, it is your turn.
The first Sunday in February, you donned a red robe and held your torch in the church foyer, enduring all the unsolicited advice about not tripping and not setting anything on fire that wasn't a candle. But you weren't too worried, because you weren't walking that aisle alone.
John Foxx is in the 8th grade, and would be your mentor. He's one of the kids I've watched grow up with every trek down that aisle. Somehow that sweet, small child is now tall, with a longer stride and a confident gait. He's always been a friend to you, and not just at church. He goes to your school, and when you first transferred there in kindergarten and were all alone, John Foxx came to your class to have lunch with you. It's not cool to be an upperclassman hanging out with a little kid, but no one seems to have told John Foxx this. He's always ready with a smile and a hug for you, and on this Sunday morning, John Foxx promised that if your candles wouldn't light, he'd be there to help.
I proudly watched you make your way down the aisle, and then you two split at the front of the church to go to your separate candelabras. John Foxx lit his candles quickly, while you more slowly and deliberately moved through yours.
Then that tricky center candle just wouldn't light. After several attempts, you finally gave John Foxx "the look," and he walked over and lit that center candle for you. I breathed a sigh of relief and felt a warm happiness, seeing again his kindness and friendship.
Kindness and friendship are two gifts that are so important to me as your mother. Yes I want you to be smart, yes I want you to be successful, but more than these I want you to be a kind, loving person. This world needs kindness and love, and I want you to add to the balance of good.
And that's why it meant so much to me when I got your teacher's email this month. Oh we've had several parent-teacher conferences. We've reviewed test scores and talked about your academic strengths and weaknesses. But this email was about your heart, and it was so lovely it brought me to tears.
It was the week of Valentine's Day, and the class was given a writing assignment. The instructions read, "Someone who has a 'heart of gold' is a person who is very kind and caring. Describe someone you know who has a heart of gold."
The children could write about anyone - a family member, a classmate, a friend. In her email, your teacher said, "I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that 8 children wrote that Camille has a heart of gold. I'm sharing this with you because I feel like it is important that you know how much your child supports and cares for other students in our class."
My heart swelled. How affirming it was to know that you are a friend and a peacemaker in your world. When your classmates think of kindness they think of you, and that's a fulfillment of so many of my hopes and prayers for you.
You bring so much light and joy to my life, and I am proud of the way you share that light and joy with others too. I couldn't be more proud of you. I love you so much.