terminatorThe first time that our family was invaded by lice, I discovered it after finishing our cross country road trip to see my in-laws. My kid kept complaining about an itchy head, but kids complain about EVERYTHING when they’re in a car for 8 hours a day, so it didn’t stop me from letting them try on every single cowboy hat across the southwest prairie. (Sorry about that, Oklahoma.)

There is nothing that sends me over the edge faster and with more force than lice. After that particular trip, when I had figured out that I had it too (there might have been some crying in a shower), I made my husband (Think: advertising executive, not hair stylist) cut my hair. Hearing somewhere that lice hate processed hair, I then dyed it purple. Picture it: I was a crying, neurotic 41 year old woman that looked like she had gone to the Hair School for the Blind for a makeover. Now, three years and several more lice invasions later, you can see why telling my lice story to anyone who will listen is not such an insane concept.

Our daughter Merry (grade 3) will receive her 6th lice treatment of this school year today. (Sounds like quite the accomplishment—like getting a black belt or 1st chair in the orchestra—but we Cooks are achievers of a different nature.) After finding lice on her on last week, I had a new nervous breakdown of a supernatural kind. In addition to treating us all AGAIN, and washing everything that was ever touched by human hands in my house AGAIN, and sending Mr. Snuggles and friends to go live in solitary confinement in the garage with the termites and black widows AGAIN, and then texting every girl mom that I had a phone number for in the 3rd grade AGAIN… I then made some phone calls and had some meetings. I have met with our principal and our school nurse. I spoke on the phone with the Director of Health Services for our school district, and the nurse for communicable diseases at the Department of Public Health. (Ok, so maybe I was a little more than just crazed. Perhaps neurotic to the point of mental illness might be more accurate. But a GOOD mental illness, right?)

Here is what I have learned…

WHAT ARE LICE:

how to get rid of head lice?Lice are insects that live in human hair (head, pubic region and… hold on to your lunch… even eyebrows) and are considered a transmittable parasite, but lice do not classify as a disease since they do not spread illness. A child can get an infection from scratching, but lice do not carry bacteria or viruses (like how ticks carry lyme disease) and are therefore not prioritized as dangerous by either the school district or the Dept. of Public Health. As I was told, “It is just the creep factor.”

Live juvenile and adult lice cannot live without food (human blood) for more than two days. If a live louse leaves the host, it will die in that time frame without food. 

Nits are the eggs of lice. A live adult can produce as many as 10 nits a day. Nits take one week to hatch. These nits are stuck with the equivalent of lice superglue to individual hair shafts. They are about the size of a strawberry seed, are wheat colored and are located on the shaft somewhat close to the scalp. Yes, they do look exactly like the pounds of sand already found in our children’s hair, but if you poke it with your finger or blow on it, it will not move. The only way to get a nit off of a hair is to scrape it between your fingernails, comb with the metal lice comb or use a special chemical. Truly gross.

Lice do not jump, run or fly (so I’m told, though I’m pretty sure no one is holding an Olympics of Lice) so the only way that they can get from one person to another is through contact. That’s right, all of that hugging, cuddling, sharing (brushes, hats, hair bands, helmets, pillows, stuffed animals, blankets, shirts, jackets, etc.) are how our children spread their love and bug infestation! (And don’t forget selfies!)

Lice can hold their breath for an insanely long period of time. They don’t care if your child spends hours in the ocean, they will find a way to make it work. You cannot drown lice. Period. They love clean hair, but they are bugs and not really all that choosy, so if you think that your little sand crab is safe, you are mistaken.

HOW TO FIND THE BUGGERS

Itching always seems to be the big indicator, but my niece had a full blown infestation and she never had one itch. If your kid isn’t scratching, they could just be numb in the head. (Totally kidding. Fairly sure your kid can feel things. You’ll quickly see when you use the lice comb!) However, if you have a kid who won’t leave his head alone… start looking.

Look for redness on the scalp in the hairline at the base of the neck and behind the ears. Again, some kids have eczema or bad dry scalp, so this might not be a definitive answer. And, if your kid does have a super dry scalp or eczema, they can still have lice. So sorry for that kid.

The best way I’ve found to see if your kid has lice is in the shower. Once they have showered and theoretically washed their hair with shampoo, pour in a TON of conditioner in and lather it generously about. Then take a comb with the smallest teeth possible (lice combs are best) and start combing out the conditioner. Start at the base of the neck and behind the ears. As globs of conditioner gather on the comb, spread them out onto a tissue or paper towel. Only the lice comb will produce nits, but a comb with small tines can generally pull out the live lice as they get stuck in the conditioner. And use your reading glasses! Live lice are about the size of sesame seeds. No one has arms long enough to see that.

Once you find them you must dispose of them carefully. Put the paper towels into a bag, tie it and dispose of it. Soak that comb in bleach and hot water (after you’re done using it on the kid, of course). And keep washing your hands. Lice are a live, moving target and the nits are a bomb waiting to go off in a week! This takes some special tactical maneuvers and even, yes, a bit of neurosis.

HOW TO GET RID OF THEM:

(Ok, so you are trying to hold down your last meal because you’ve found an insect walking around in your child’s hair. Breathe. It is going to be ok. Take a sip of something calming. I like to lock myself in the bathroom for a tick or two. Once you’ve called forth your strength and put on your Thunderwear, it is time to get to work.)

The Host: Sadly, your child’s world is about to rain down with everything a kid can’t stand—hygiene. Even sadder is that you must now treat everyone in the home. Don’t think so? I have a friend whose kids had lice treatments three times over the course of four months. They just couldn’t get rid of it. Then the mom figured out that SHE WAS THE ONE THAT KEPT GIVING EVERYONE LICE.

TREATMENTS THAT WORKED FOR ME:

DIY 

Cetaphil treatment – This treatment is exhausting but works and way less expensive in money, but high cost in time. You put Cetaphil in dry hair (combing out nits and lice as you go) and then blow the hair completely dry. This takes close to an hour on short hair. The idea is that the Cetaphil dries and shrink wraps the live lice suffocating them. This does not kill the nits, so you have to do the entire treatment over again in a week. And, you get to walk around with hair that looks like you’ve used salad dressing to wash it. Bonus.

Quit Nits – This is a homeopathic treatment that does not use harsh chemicals. You put the solution into dry hair and let it sit for 4-8 hours, then wash it out. The idea is that it dehydrates the critters. This treatment does claim to kill the nits. (I think this is true.) It also claims that no combing is necessary. (I think this is stupid.) You can get Quit Nits from Whole Foods and generally any other natural grocery store as well as the Internet. A kit costs around $17 and comes with a bottle of cream solution (one bottle will get you two treatments for short hair, one treatment for thick long hair), a plastic comb (doesn’t work) and a small bottle of preventative spray (maybe works). You should know that most places sell out quickly.

**UPDATE: Two VERY important things to note. I wrote this piece two years ago so pricing has changed. Today a complete Quit Nits lice kit costs $69.95 on Amazon. Second, after about the 9th treatment on Merry that year (there were 10 in all), I realized that Quit Nits no longer worked. Seems the lice strain at our school had evolved beyond. See “Lice Whisperers” paragraph below for the actual result producing effort.

Rid – This is the old school, buy it at Walgreen’s treatment. Rid has one of the best lice combs: red handle, metal teeth. The comb used to come with the kit, but I don’t think that it does anymore. The Rid solution goes into dry hair (see the pattern forming?) for 10 minutes, and as the box says “no longer”. (Of course, I was busy washing every sheet in the house so my girls may have had it on for a little longer… like half an hour. They seem normal enough now though, right?) You then rinse it out in the shower. It lists itself as a “shampoo and conditioner”. Shockingly good curl enhancer.

**THE TREATMENT I USE TODAY – OIL AND COMB

 combLice Comb – I cannot stress enough how important this comb is. If you were Luke Skywalker this would be your lightsaber. If you were Indiana Jones, this is your whip. 

The best and only surefire way to get rid of lice is to remove them personally with that comb. Yes, it takes hours. Yes, the comb hurts (especially on old lady hair), but it works and they are gone. Even after you treat the hair, there is no guarantee that you covered every single egg, every single bug with the treatment. If even only ONE egg or bug is still alive, you will have another infestation sometime around the end of next week. The only way to get rid of lice from a person completely is to comb and then comb again. 

My recommendation for the BEST is the Nit Free Terminator lice comb. It is stainless steel (yup, you can boil and bleach the bejesus out of it) and has tiny grooves in the super tight tines. Available on Amazon for $10.30 (not inc. shipping, 2017 prices.) 

Again, there are other metal lice combs that are out there (like the metal comb in the Rid kit), but this is the one that has worked best for me. A lot of the kits come with a small tined plastic comb. These can help you search the hair for live lice when you use conditioner, but don’t bother trying to clear the nits out. Useless.

Herbal Oil –  I now create my own proprietary blend of herbal oils after experiencing years of chemical testing. Don’t get me wrong, the chemicals can work (and I’d venture to guess more so in geographical locations that have cold seasons than in places like Southern California where all our critters are bionic), but if you’re ready to put in the time with that comb, this is the tried and true method. In addition to combing through the head meticulously, I wrap the head in a bandana and leave the oil on overnight. If the bugs can’t grab onto the hair, the eggs have no hope.

OIL: (A spray bottle works best.) Blend with almond oil any combination of the following: clove, rosemary, eucalyptus, frankincense, cedarwood, cinnamon. I like to make two different versions so my kids experience the illusion of choice.

METHOD – If you love to Zentangle, this might be your new jam. Prep your kid with the most engrossing, stay-in-your-seat activity you can find. This is NOT the time to make them do homework or read. This is the good side of digital devices.

You’ll Need: a bowl of water, paper towels, lice comb, lice oil, hair clips

Section off all the hair so that you’re only working in 1” sections. 

Spray the oil into the hair at the scalp for the first section only.

Insert the tines of the comb where the 1” section meets the scalp and draw the comb slowly out of the hair. Expect the comb to move jaggedly and catch on the hairs a bit because the tines are so tight. Buckle in for LOTS of shouting.

After you’ve pulled the comb through, dip it in water and then wipe across the paper towel. You are looking for adult lice (the biggest and easiest to see), juveniles (smaller) and nits (tiny strawberry seed-sized spots). 

Now comb through the same section from underneath. Do it again from the side. Do it again from the other side. Think of this as a “Lice Doe-See-Doe”. Do it all again until that comb comes out clean.

Take that method, do the entire head and kiss goodbye to the next two hours of your life.

Do this treatment again in 7-10 days if you want to guarantee the infected is absolutely clean.

CALLING IN BACK UP

The Lice Whisperers – (UPDATED VERSION) At the time of the writing of this doc, Merry was still infested. It actually took 10 treatments to rid our house of lice. The final treatment was professional help to the tune of $265, one hour of my child sobbing in a chair in front of a stranger and $35 for a good bottle of red wine for myself. These organizations are a franchise that hire contractors to come to your house and comb your kid’s hair out while you pretend you can’t hear the screaming from the other room. So fun. They use a ‘proprietary blend’ oil in the hair and the Terminator comb. They also recommend a return visit in 7-10 days to guarantee their work. 

TREATMENTS THAT DIDN’T WORK FOR ME:

Nix – Nix is another one of the buy-at-any-grocery-store toxic kits. This stuff is crap. My first clue was that you could put the solution onto damp hair. Warning. The second was that after washing it out (10 minutes later?) and combing through Merry’s hair there were still live lice walking around. If you find anything alive after a treatment IT DID NOT WORK. Of course at this point, she had already had enough toxicity on her head to melt crayons, so I couldn’t exactly make her sit through another treatment… which meant she and all of us went to bed knowing we still had lice… in the house… until the next day. That doesn’t screw with your sleep at all.

I have heard of many other treatments (the Vinegar/Oil Treatment, Something from Somewhere in Mexico Treatment) but I haven’t tried them. I’m not saying that there aren’t others that are effective out there, I’m sure there are. The good news is, that if this problem keeps up, we’ll get our chance to try all of them!

Speaking of which, here is the #1 way to get rid of lice at school. Ready? Really easy and extremely important…

Tell the school. What I learned from our principal, from the nurse, from Health Services and from Public Health is that because no one is telling the school that they have a confirmed case of lice, the school doesn’t realize that there is a problem and can’t deal with it. If the school doesn’t know, then parents don’t know and no one is looking for it. As soon as you find it, call your school nurse and tell him/her. Every school has a different policy on lice when it comes to when kids are allowed in school (A ‘no lice’ policy means a kid can return when no live lice are found in the hair. A ‘no nit’ policy means a kid can return when nothing is found in the hair.) and how many reported infestations it takes before a notice is sent home. Be clear and ask what your school’s policies are. If you don’t like them, work to change them. 

Tell everyone. I don’t mean call up your husband’s boss and set her ear on fire, but do send a lovely little note to everyone who’s house your kid visited in the last two weeks, the babysitter that snuggled on the couch with her, the mom of the kid that is her seat partner, the coach at the gymnastics facility… anyone who could help stop the spread of this infernal annoyance. Even the families of your child’s sibling friends. No one will think less of you and actually will most likely want to help you. You have no idea the amount of wine I’ve been offered when people find out we have lice.

Ok, so about now your kid is doused in some form of poison solution and eating up battery life on a digital device while waiting for the bugs to cook. Time to hit your house.

LICE REMOVAL IN THE HOME:

This is actually the part of lice removal that snaps the even-keeled, totally chill me into a raging psycho banshee from hell. It cannot be stated enough: Lice are a time bomb waiting to go off over and over again. In order to completely eradicate them, you must clean/dry/disinfect EVERYTHING.

The Bedding: All sheets, blankets, and comforters need to be washed in hot water and dried on high heat. When you take them off of the bed, fold them carefully and place them into a garbage bag for transport. (These little stinkers can’t fly, but they can fall. You lose a few live ones onto the carpet and your kid lays on their bedroom floor… boom. You’ve got lice again.) Pillows that can’t be washed can be thrown into the dryer on high heat for 40 minutes. And guess what? You have to do this to EVERY BED IN THE HOUSE. I like to do the big wash the first day, then just toss the child in quarantine’s bed things into the dryer on high every day for the next week.

The Toys: Mr. Snuggles has two choices: into the dryer on high for 40 minutes or into the garage in a plastic bag for two weeks. And all of his friends go with him. My girls love to keep mountains of stuffed animals on their beds. I cringe every time they get another one for the collection, because guess what—that fennec fox is awfully soft and cuddly when he comes home from the store, but one tour in the dryer and Foxy looks like she has the mange. Don’t let stuffed animals out of the house… don’t let other kids’ animals into the house. And those cute little ones hanging off of backpacks? Lice hand grenades.

The Carpets: Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum. Every day. Period. Once you vacuum, get rid of the bag. You can either dispose of it or you can spray inside with an insecticide—but I totally don’t recommend that because then you are just filtering toxic chemicals throughout the house every time you turn the thing on. Get those filthy buggers off of the floor.

The Furniture: Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum. The couch, the chairs, anything with fabric upholstery. If you can wash pillow covers, now is a great time to do so. If not, into the dryer with them. We’ve done this so much, I have the pattern from the inside of our dryer burned onto the surface of one of my couch cushions.

The Linens: Bath towels, bath mats, washcloths, hand towels, dish towels… toss all of it into the wash. Bath towel hanging on the wall next to the other towels? Wash them all. That towel that your infected kid just used after getting the treatment? Wash it. That hoodie that your infected kid just dropped onto the vacuumed couch… then walked off with and dropped into that clean basket of laundry you just folded? WASH IT. WASH AND VACUUM ALL OF IT AGAIN. 

(Incidentally, this is the part where my husband takes me by the arm and marches me into the bedroom, closes the door and speaks to me in hushed tones. All of my friends who’ve had lice get this little quiet talking to from their husbands. It will happen to you too. Welcome to our club. Just listen to what he says, nod in solemn agreement, then go disinfect his pillow when he isn’t looking.)

The Clothes and Accessories: Any article of clothing that your child has been wearing or anything that has been touched by something that he/she has been wearing needs to be washed and/or thrown into the dryer on high. (Think: hoodie hanging with the other coats on the coat rack—everything into the laundry). This includes (but is not limited to): jackets, pajamas, hats, scarves, backpacks, bandanas, headbands, hair ribbons, hair clips… the list is endless. I take a pillowcase and dump every hair accessory into it that could have possibly touched their head or touched something that touched their head and run it through the dryer. Lost an entire package of headbands that way. Try to remember that plastic melts at high heat.

Brushes and Combs: Anything you use to comb hair (yours and theirs) soak in boiling water and/or bleach. Before that lice comb touches another head in the house, bleach it and/or toss in boiling water and do it again in between each combing. (In my earlier days I was so wary of chemicals that I would boil water and pour it over the combs and brushes. Cracked my porcelain bathroom sink that way. Bleach works, just remember that it also corrodes. So I like to alternate between the two. And I use a metal bowl for the boiling treatments.)

The Car: If you have fabric upholstery (and yes, fabric on carseats most definitely counts) you are driving around in a lice mobile. Great news! If you live in cold weather, you’re probably safe and don’t need to do more than a quick vacuum of your seats. If like me your temperature rarely drops below 65 degrees, you’ve got some work to do. Vacuum everything and either wrap your newly treated kid’s head before getting back into the car or vacuum again tomorrow and the next day and the next day…. ad infinitum.

If your head isn’t spinning by now, you really aren’t taking this seriously enough. Sure you can get away with just treating your kid and washing a pillowcase or two, but sit with the idea for a moment that after taking those limited steps, that sometime later next week… right between the soccer tournament and the birthday party… you’re going to figure out that your kid still has lice… and so does his or her brother or sister. And so do you. Is it worth that risk?

KEEPING THEM OUT: 

Ok, so now your children are treated, you are treated, and maybe you’re still trying to convince your husband that he needs to be treated, but anyhow it is time to lock down your squeaky clean house (it never looked so good!) and try your hardest not to let them back in.

Here’s how:

Comb daily. Before this year, I rarely did lice checks on my kids. Then it hit school and just kept making the rounds through the classrooms and on my kids’ head. I started checking every week and am now going to do it daily. I’m sure that once the amounts of cases reported drops I can go back to once a week and maybe even fewer in the summer, but for now, the sooner you catch the problem, the easier it is to deal with. 

Vacuum daily. If you have carpets, you need to vacuum. And if you don’t have a vacuum, borrow one. (Incidentally, how do you have carpets and no vacuum?)

Preventative lice shampoo: Some people swear by the stuff. Since September my kids have been using a rosemary and tea tree oil shampoo. When Merry started bringing home lice, I upped my arsenal to Fairy Tales Lice Shampoo. She still gets lice. 

Preventative lice conditioning spray: For a while I was using a leave-in conditioning spray in their hair that I got from our natural food store. It sort of worked. While one kid had lice the other didn’t seem to have it so maybe that was why it didn’t spread… that time anyway. Once this year got really bad, I invested (oh it ain’t cheap!) in the Fairy Tales Lice Conditioning Spray and threatened my kids with making them drink it if they didn’t use it every day. They do. And they still get lice.

Everyone in the house gets their own hair brush: This also has the added benefit of you being able to check who actually is brushing their hair (brush with lots of hair) and who does not (other brush hidden under the bathroom sink behind the toilet bowl cleaner.)

Ponytails, Pigtails, Braids and Hats: If you have a sweet little girl with long blond hair (Hello California!) then now is the time to master that Elsa from Frozen hairstyle. Spray it down and then tie it up. Lice are less likely to enter into a locked down situation. If you have boys, and you are positive they don’t have lice, send them to school with a hat they won’t take off. The school nurse is very wary of hats and rightfully so. She is concerned that if your kid has lice, wears a hat and then removes hat or shares hat it is a spreading situation. True. But if your kid is lice-free then throw the equivalent of the Great Wall of China on their head.

Take a break from play dates and sleepovers: Totally sounds harsh and it kind of is, but your kid is a gift that keeps on giving, in all of the good ways and one very very bad way. Just until the kid is absolutely all clear (no nits or lice), how about avoiding play dates and sleepovers. What a great time for you to bond with your kid and to brush up on those Minecraft skills you’ve always wanted to master?

ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY DO NOT DO THIS:

Panic. You are not alone. Much like jury duty and termites, almost everyone has experienced this and if they haven’t then just wait. Lice does not mean you are a bad parent. Lice does not mean that you have dirty children. Lice happens. I’m surprised that hasn’t been made into a bumper sticker already.

Hide. Please, please, please do not hide the fact that your kid has lice. Call school and tell them. Call other parents and tell them. I have heard horror stories about people anonymously calling a school to tell them that their kid has lice but refusing to tell them who their kid is. That is so not helpful. We won’t lock you up in stocks we set up in the courtyard or mock you behind your back if your kid has lice. Promise. However if we DO find out that you hid the fact that your kid has lice, we will find you and we will be sure the punishment is swift, severe and appropriate. Like giving you bed bugs!

Blame. Clearly your kid got lice from someone else’s kid. And your kid most likely gave lice to another kid (and his sister and his brother and you, etc. etc.). When it comes to transmission this is no different than a cold or a stomach bug. You aren’t about to punch out the person that gave your kid a cold, so it is best to be equally as calm about this. And just think… their house is in as much chaos as yours is right now. The one truism of lice: We’re all in this together!

Punish Your Kid: Not their fault. Even if they tried on every hat at school, they really have no idea. After our first bout, my kids became so afraid of my wrath that THEY ACTUALLY LIED ABOUT NOT HAVING IT AGAIN. And to this day, as soon as Merry knows I’ve found lice, she slumps down into the shower and sobs because of how crazy I can be. Worst parent fail ever. Learn from my parenting mistakes. Make my insanity your Mother/Father-of-the-Year moment.

ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY DO THIS:

Laugh: Sounds insane, but this is your only saving grace. YouTube the South Park episode on lice. Call a girlfriend who’s been there/done that. There really is something magically surreal about this experience, so rather than let it bring you down, try to step aside and find the hilarity in the insane.

Let It Go: Fingers crossed you won’t get it again… but you might. Try not to obsess over who your kid is hanging out with, staring at them when they scratch their head, interrogating them about their seat partner. Yes, I’ve done all of these things and it doesn’t help. When asked what’s Mom’s signature saying, my kids respond, “Does your head itch?” not “I love you so much.” I know. Gross.

Best of luck. Know that you are in a special club now, and we’ve been waiting for you. Before you pick up that comb, give us a call. We’ve got some stories and a special etched wine glass just for you.

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Two families wait

A mom in her 30’s cradles her son
Two elementary school girls sit by her side
Silent on the concrete bench
Hair pulled back tight
Pale pink lace dresses, two pairs of new sandals
One red, one white
A miniature white button-down man shirt on the baby
Tucked into pint-sized pressed navy shorts

Baby boy bounces from knee to knee
Tiny fingers pop bits of cereal into hungry mouths
Immaculate, contained, quiet

Greying father and mother sit in the front
Two pre-teen girls sit with their chocolate puppy behind
Parked at the curb in their restored vintage van
Hair wet and stringy tossed everywhere
Damp bathing suit underneath a faded junior lifeguard sweatshirt
A cat t-shirt stained with spots of paint and food
Over outgrown blue shorts
Hand-me-down flip flops, bare feet

Dog wrestles in the back seat
Hands shove sandwiches dripping with shredded lettuce and mayonnaise into uninterested mouths
Relaxed, loud, bored

Both families wait for permission slips to roam over borders and return home

Numbers are called
One family enters
One walks away
One White
One Latino

Which is which?

(Word Count: 101)

Melissa wanted us to “eat our truth” at Wednesday’s potluck supper club.

Darlene brought hand-milled oat bread, churned butter and garden-grown kumquat jam. Self taught skills acquired as a new wife because her mother was never around.

Annie brought pints of butter pecan, chain brand ice cream. Growing up poor, she walked two miles to sample the thirty-one flavors. Free birthday cone every year.

I brought soup: oil slicked dishwater combined with a crumbling granola bar found at the bottom of my bag, yesterday’s coffee grounds and tears of exhaustion sprinkled throughout. Who knew my truth tasted so much like Mom’s?

(Word count: 100)

For sale: BlyssOut titanium-plated professional flat iron, slightly used. Paid $139 at high-end beauty store with odd make-believe salon in rear. Purchased for Navy Gala. Left to heat while in shower. Lost water pressure mid-shampoo, half rinsed and naked dealt with smoke alarm and burned Spaghettios…usual Mom Night Out bullshit. Rushed, threw damp hair into flat iron. Instant burning hair/plastic/scorched sugar smell. Strawberry Shortcake doll beat me to the iron, melted red hair fused to mine. Scissors and screaming. Lots of screaming. Removed all bits of Shortcake from blade, good as new. Only $80.

ISO: Used wine refrigerator, hat collection

(Word count: 100)

He shuffled past my bumper. The shopping bag handles bloodied his swollen fingers, an entire life in plastic at the ends of his sleeves.

I first saw him under the overpass at Sanjon two weeks ago. Backpack on clearance gave me the idea.

“Excuse me? This is for you.” I held out my gift. Same bag as mine: pockets for iPhone, sunglasses. Waited for a smile.

“Why?” he stuttered.

My head swam. Who was I? Savior? No. Shithead.

“Please. For you.”

He took the bag, managed a smile that hurt him to make.

“What can I do for you?” he said.

img_2162

Delaney stopped picking at the skin on her pimply nose to give me the stink eye in the passenger visor mirror. She’s Mom’s accomplice, but after their fight this morning, who knows.

“Lily Bear,” Mom said. “I can’t believe you’re nine years old today. Has your mustache started to come in yet?”

“Funny Mom. No one gets a mustache when they turn nine years old. Especially girls.”

Mom looked at me in the rearview mirror like I’d told her I had a cough or a splinter. “I can’t believe Delaney didn’t tell you. Ask her. Girl mustaches are silvery whiskers, sort of like a cat, you can sense danger with them. She made us shave hers off.”

“Really Delaney?” I said. She threw Mom a glare, then stuck her tongue out at me, which either meant Mom lied again or Delaney didn’t want to tell me the truth. I hated Mom’s lies. She added in enough truth, so I never knew what to believe. Like the time she told me my blue birthmark was a permanent ink stamp from when I arrived as a baby on a cargo ship from Madagascar. I’d never met anyone with a blue birthmark, not one with squiggle lines in the shape of a ‘3’ and a ‘W’. Maybe I wasn’t born in Connecticut, but on a mysterious island with friendly lemurs and those giant trees that look like carrots growing upside down. Sometimes I wished her stories were true.

“That’s your idea of a birthday gift, Mom? Dragging her around Ventura for the hundredth time on your made up history tour and freaking her out about facial hair?” Delaney said. I closed my eyes, waited for mom to comment. I heard Delaney whisper, “Fail”. The car moved faster.

I ducked my head behind the front seat, pretended to pick something up off of the floor, touched my fingers to my top lip. Smooth like velvet. No prickly hairs. Liar.

“Get ready,” Mom said, raised herself up in her seat. “We’re coming up on the first stop of our Magical Ventura Tour.” The groaning sound from the steering wheel made me think maybe the car didn’t want to be on the tour either.

“Mom, can’t we do something else for once?” Delaney said. “We know all of your ridiculous stories already. I bet Lily doesn’t even want to be here and it’s her birthday.”

“Lily Bear, is this true?” We sat curbside in front of City Hall, the engine coughed like a bear with a cold. Mom rammed the shifter into park, peeked around the front headrest at me. I turned to the window. The weird smiling marble faces carved all along the front of city hall laughed down at me. I hate birthdays. I wished Dad were with us.

“No, it’s okay,” I said. “Tell the story, Mom. Reminds me of when we moved here.”

“Well, few people know this but Ventura City Hall was built on top of an ancient Chumash burial site.”

“Not true,” Delaney said. “I asked my social studies teacher, he’s from here. He said ‘no’.”

My stomach hurt. I thought about my cake in the fridge with my name written in blue cream cheese frosting. Dad and I both loved carrot cake.

“Mr. Carver?” Mom said, brushed Delaney’s bangs out of her eyes.

“Yeah.”

“Honey, Mr. Carver drinks. He can’t be trusted. Grab yourself some Midol from my purse. You’ll feel better.”

Mom turned back around to wink at me. Delaney sighed like a movie star, crumpled into a sulking pile.

“Anyway, Lily Bear, the city planners built city hall on an ancient Chumash burial ground, then carved the faces of the Franciscan friars who founded the mission on the outside of the building. They did this to honor the men who wanted to civilize the native Chumash right out of their own culture.”

“What’s wrong with civilizing someone?” I said. Two girls in my class, Annabel and Janie, were in cotillion. When I asked, they told me they went to dances to learn how to be civilized. I tried to imagine the Chumash natives ballroom dancing together in grass skirts and white gloves.

“Depends on your definition of civilization. But the Chumash people got revenge. Know what they did?”

I did know, but I wanted her to tell me like she did every birthday. Mom started the Ventura “Her-story Tour” the first year we moved here, on my fifth birthday. In first grade, I had to write a special report after I told the class pirates put up Serra Cross, not missionaries. Mom made me a cross birthday cake that year, with vending machine toys baked inside.

“Nope,” I said.

“They cursed the land. When the rare blue moon rises in the sky, those friar’s faces come to life and tell all the secrets kept within the walls of City Hall!”

“When’s the blue moon? Has anyone ever seen them come alive?”

I felt the familiar thrill rise up inside. My mother’s magic held me.

“I have a question since you know about all things secret and mystical.” Delaney’s voice jabbed at our mother. My palms started to sweat. Unlike her usual pouty, dramatic self, a new Delaney voice came out.

“Where’s our father?”

Dammit Delaney. It’s my birthday! You need to do this now? Awesome.

“Excuse me?” Mom said, her voice like a policeman instead of a tour guide. She turned, faced Delaney head on.

“Our father. The one who used to live with us but one day never came home again. Where is he? And no more made up stories. How about some truth this time? Where’s our father?”

I stopped taking full breaths, picked at the scab on my elbow. The sun poked out above the trees. I felt the beams burn on my shoulder, but unsticking my bare legs from the car seat meant ripping at my sunburn from yesterday, so I stayed still. I made a birthday wish my window wasn’t stuck closed. We never talked about Dad, just like we never talked about earthquakes, the great white sharks spotted around the river mouth or the drought.

“Your father is out to sea.”

The car rolled away from the curb.

“For three years? How does someone go out to sea for three years?”

I can remember a lot from when I was six. I remember one time Delaney sat on top of me after I had eaten a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream, tickled me until I laughed so hard I puked all over her legs. I remember Tommy Leone from down the street threw my green Matchbox car into the sewer drain. And I remember when I won my goldfish Percy at the school carnival, even though he only lasted a couple of days. But as hard as I try, I don’t remember what Daddy’s voice sounded like.

“He got on the wrong ship,” Mom said. “He was supposed to be going out for an overnight fishing trip to Santa Rosa, but instead he got on a ghost pirate ship. This ghost ship was disguised to look like all the other fishing boats. Not his fault. Now he’s sailing around the world.”

We sat dangling at the stop sign on the top of California Street, below the sea stretched out like a silver blanket in front of us. Floating in the mist like scoops of whipped cream, were the Channel Islands. How fast would we have to go to fly out over the pier and the sea, to get to those islands?

“They say sometimes the ghost ships return to their original port, but I don’t know if that’s true. Your father always wanted to see the world. I guess this was a wish come true.”

We moved down California Street, headed for the beach.

Aside from wishing the car window open, I had also birthday wished for a new bike, a puppy and for Daddy to come home. I asked God to cancel the earlier three and put all my wish juice towards Daddy.

“No Mom.” Delaney’s voice sounded stretched like a balloon filled with water. “The truth this time. We don’t want any more stories. Please.”

Mom yanked the car over to the side of the road, we skidded a bit when the tires hit the sand. Thrown into park the car jerked forward.

“What exactly do you want me to tell you, Delaney? What do you want the truth to be? Does it feel better to know City Hall is built on nothing more than dirt? The truth is cold and boring and doesn’t ever go away. I don’t know where your father is. He told me he was going fishing, a man who never owned a fishing pole mind you, decided to go on a fishing trip with a suitcase in his hand. Then I never saw him again. There. Does that feel better or any more real than he’s on a disappearing ghost ship?”

Delaney burst out of the car, ran toward the massive sand dune in front of the water. Mom said the ‘f’ word, kicked her door open and marched across the sand toward Delaney.

When I caught up to them at the bottom of the dune, both of them sat in the sand. A scrunched up Delaney sobbed in Mom’s arms, Mom whispered into her ear, stroked her hair, rocked her back and forth. I wanted to pop the heavy empty bubble inside of me, so I squished myself in between them both.

We came up for air, a wet, snotty, sniffling mess and I birthday wished a box of Kleenex for us all.

“Come on,” Mom said. “The sea wants to give a girl a birthday kiss.”

 

 

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Be still. Think.

Rolling the words around on my tongue, they feel swollen, slippery and cumbersome

Like pieces born on the bottom of the ocean, they taste simultaneously sweet with pleasure and sour with decay

“What do I want?”

Sadness. Loss. Confusion. Wonder. Nothingness… like searching in the fog for the hint of an outline of a building or a tree.

Consider the act of wanting? Consider objects to want?

No. Consider me.

To know what I want suggests to know who I am.

Who am I?

Who is asking the question?

Who is answering?

A reflection of time. A compilation of 43 years of thought and action. A force in motion, moving not because of desire or motivation but because of habit, momentum and expectation. Ticking forward from minute to minute, second to second. Overwound on the day I was born and set in motion,       waiting for the movement to stop and another winding to start.

You do because you should. You enact because you’re here.

What do I want?

Do I want? Do I?

I do want. I desire. I aspire. I exist.

I want to matter. I want to be heard. I want to have meaning. I want to love without fear. I want to accept love without consequence. I want to know me and love me. I want to know what I want, and know that I deserve to want. I want to be creative and feel justified in my creative pursuits. I want to leave behind the hurt. I want to laugh more. I want to let go of pain. I want to forgive and forget. I want to sleep for a very long time, then wake up refreshed and happy to not be in the dream any longer. I want to know God and see Her everywhere, and feel Her within me. I want to believe that I too am God. I want to live as an inspiration for my daughters, so that they may never not know what or if they should want. I want to see me as my daughters see me. I want to believe that my husband is a good person. I want freedom from my judgements. I want to have an answer when asked what it is that I want.

What do I want?

I want to want.

Grandpa Joe, me, my sister Shannon, and the one and only Grandma Gracie

Grandpa, me, my sister Shannon, and the one and only “Gram”, Florida, 1983

My grandmother, my dad’s mother, was a fierce Italian woman who hugged too tightly and never hesitated to tell you what was on her mind. She fed us too well and despite the fact that she was only 4′ 11″, her footsteps were like that of an elephant’s (she was always in heels), and I swear that they based that TV commercial on how she would call my brother in for dinner (“Annnthony!”). She passed away last October, five days before I left for Nepal. I returned to NY to celebrate her life and then boarded the plane for a journey that would change my own.

In my backpack, I carried two of her prayer cards: a laminated version with a picture of the Blessed Mother looking down with love upon three children, and a paper one with a solitary image of the Virgin Mary. Mary was my grandmother’s lodestar, her namesake, and in her final years, who she remembered her own mother to be. It is because of my grandmother that my daughter carries the same name.

Two days after my grandmother’s funeral, I found myself crouching on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, the gateway to The Beyond for the Hindu community in Nepal. A continuous stream of funeral pyres burn here, releasing into the waters the remnants of the dead, and are then re-lit over and over again, burning at the base of the Shree Pashupatinath Temple. In my hand was the paper prayer card, Mary looking out into an unseen distance. I thanked my grandmother for her love and devotion. I promised to always remember that “blood is thicker than water”, and to keep my eyes out for a “decent” girlfriend for my single brother—and then I let the card be carried away with the ashes of so many others in the waters of the Bagmati.

Bagmati River, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2015

Bagmati River, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2015 – photo credit: Sahadev Panday

Despite the fact that I was able to perform my good-bye ceremony in one of the most sacred places on the planet, it wasn’t until I was hiking through the foothills of the Himalayas that I encountered my grandmother in the afterlife. As we marched through one tiny village after another, we came across so many lovely, yet somewhat solemn individuals. Always smiling, they kept mostly to themselves, a resultance of not speaking our language I’d assumed. But rounding the corner one warm morning, we came across an ardent, ageless crone who we heard before we saw. We met what could only be described as my Nepali grandmother.

My Nepali Grandmother, Annapurna Range, Nepal, 2015

My Nepali Grandmother, Annapurna Range, Nepal, 2015

Also a nonagenarian, this woman called us over to show us her broken eyeglasses. Her fingers, bent by time and arthritis, pointed at each of us with aggression, while she animatedly explained to our guide that her daughter had left to go breed a bull in another village and she needed new glasses. She was hard of hearing, but sharp as a tack and had something to say about each of us. She had the same demanding attitude, the same crooked fingers, the same “what in the Hell do you know!” gestures as she waved us away, annoyed that we didn’t have any glasses to give her. I quietly sidled up to her and held her hand as she talked, expecting her to impart some wisdom or have a spark of recognition for me—for clearly she was my grandmother in another time and a very faraway place—but there was none. She took no notice of me and barely registered that I was touching her at all. I was okay with that. I had received far more than I ever expected and was grateful for the opportunity to see that my grandmother could live on in unexpected ways.

This past week, my grandmother’s cousin and her closest friend, also passed away. It was no surprise when I received the call. Nonina, as she was known in the family, was as fierce and Italian as Grandma, and together they had so much deliciousness to offer the world, and a lot to say about it too. Where Grandma held expertise in food (though Nonina was no slouch), Nonina knew her fashion, and thanks to her, as a kid I was dressed in the very best chiffons and polyesters that the 70’s had to offer. Her children were her life, as she would tell you over and over again, and there was not an award, a performance or a Halloween costume that would pass without her inspection. Now that she is gone, the world is a little dimmer, but I can only imagine the party happening now that she is home.

After Nepal, I am excited to see how Nonina will show up again. I look forward to the unexpected moment when I hear two older ladies arguing and instantly think of Grandma and Nonina. And I’m curious to see where I’ll encounter someone who refers to me as, “Doll”. While I miss them both very much, I can’t wait until they visit me once again.

Grandma and Nonina, Oct. 12, 2002

Grandma and Nonina, Oct. 12, 2002 – photo credit: Joseph Schuyler

 

 

Swayambhunath Temple, Kathmandu

Swayambhunath Temple, Kathmandu

(Two weeks have passed and I finally feel as if my brain cells are lining up again. At least, in a more American, Pacific Standard Time, conventional way. I have been feeling as if I were driving in the fast lane with everyone shooting past at 75mph, my gear shift broken off in second and I’m left maxing out at 30mph. After stumbling around wondering what day it was, and mumbling “amazing” over and over again like a mantra, I am starting to feel as if I am rising from the depths of another world, still somewhat floating and disconnected, but surfacing back into familiar territory. 

This is my attempt to put into words what there may be no words for. This is my leap at calling back a part of myself that will always remain behind.)

Along the Way, Kathmandu, Nepal

Along the Way, Kathmandu, Nepal

 

Maybe it was for the best that the trip started out in the most populated and crushingly chaotic city in Nepal. Maybe it was no accident that after a red-eye flight to NY, three non-stop swirling days of intense emotions and conversations with the ghosts of my childhood while I helped bury my grandmother, followed by a layover in a surreal landscape with red chalky dust sprinkled over sparkling silver buildings and a lashing Arabic tongue, that I am dropped onto the bustling streets of Kathmandu. I am met with a city piled high with neatly stacked textiles and copper pots, rows of marigold necklaces and strewn rotting garbage.

 

Roadside View, Kathmandu, Nepal

Roadside View, Kathmandu, Nepal

The air is thick with diesel fumes, alluring spices, burning garbage and the occasional assaulting whiff of sewage. Any residual melancholic thoughts that I have are shoved to the back of my being as car horns, the melodic caterwauling of music and police whistles jab their way in. It is the morning of our first day in Nepal and tomorrow is Dipawali, the Hindu Festival of Lights. In addition to the standard flood of tourists, shopkeepers, schoolchildren, cows, dogs, monkeys (monkeys?!?) and chickens making their way along the streets, extended family members are returning home, and everyone must stop to pick up festival supplies. Colors bleed out of the stalls and doorways. Rickshaws, scooters and mopeds ding, beep and honk as they whiz past close enough for me to feel a breeze on my skin. Kathmandu is a white water stream of demented consciousness and I am riding its mind.

8:00am Kathmandu Bazaar, Kathmandu, Nepal

8:00am Kathmandu Bazaar, Kathmandu, Nepal

We start at the Bazaar in the center of Kathmandu in order to get the full-frontal of what a city enmeshed in festival furor looks like. Movement in this city, whether it is the constant parade of people on the streets and in the alleys, or the transports that cough their way around town, is a study in controlled chaos. As far as I can tell there are no street signs, no traffic lights and yet everyone makes their way to their destination. It reminds me of standing on a bridge as a child and tossing sticks and leaves into the torrent of a bursting springtime creek below. Unseen currents carry the objects here and there, with some getting caught in invisible whirlpools in the center, but eventually everything makes its way downstream.

Diwali Necklaces, Kathmandu, Nepal

Diwali Necklaces, Kathmandu, Nepal

Storefront Symphony of Color, Kathmandu, Nepal

Storefront Symphony of Color, Kathmandu, Nepal

Bazaar Colors, Kathmandu, Nepal

Bazaar Colors, Kathmandu, Nepal

We meander and pick our way past open stalls that spill out wares, as shopkeepers cautiously eye the passersby. Some sellers are engrossed in stitching together flower necklaces for the festival, while others are hawking their best deals. Saris and traditional Nepali menswear hang from intricately carved entranceways, along with fleece pants decorated in Western world cartoon characters, t-shirts that say ‘I (heart) Nepal’ and hilariously misspelled American knockoffs such as “Galvin Klein.”  I try my best to pay attention to my group so that I don’t get lost, but I can’t help but wander around gaping wide-mouthed at the spectacle before me.

Prayers Over Incense, Kathmandu

Prayers Over Incense, Kathmandu

Pigeon Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal

Pigeon Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal

Our guide Sahadev (“Dave”) gathers us like the flock of chickens we are and directs us into a curved archway sandwiched between a mountain of copper pots and a curtain of spangly saris. We emerge through the darkened portal blinking with wonder at a spectacular hand-carved Buddhist pagoda-style temple looming above us, a handful of worshippers circling the sanctuary, and a stone-laid ground awash in the constant ebbing tide of a sea of pigeons.

Pigeon Square, Kathmandu

Pigeon Square, Kathmandu

Having lived in both Boston and NYC, I’ve strolled down many alleyways and through my fair share of random doorways, but this hidden celestial outpost was a shock to my urban consciousness. How can Buddha just pop up any old place? Just feet from a man prostrate before a statue of the Buddha is another hawking plastic necklaces. But isn’t that the lesson? Doesn’t The Divine exist everywhere and shouldn’t we be looking in all the old familiar places?

Buddha Celebrates Dipawali, Kathmandu, Nepal

Buddha Celebrates Dipawali, Kathmandu, Nepal

(‘What is the name of this magical temple?’ you must be wondering. And here we have the conundrum of the hosted overseas tour. I spent so much time trying to absorb and photograph, taking for granted the luxury of roaming place to place without having to research or map anything, that I barely ever took notes. Now, weeks later, I can remember the feel of the hand-carved prayer wheel beneath my fingers as I made my way in reflective circumference, but I have no name, no dates, nothing in terms of recorded knowledge that will help me share anything but the ethereal with you. And maybe that is the only way Nepal can be shared.)

Honoring Ma Durga, Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

Honoring Ma Durga, Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

Tourist Break, Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

Tourist Break, Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

Durbar Square Courtyard, Kathmandu, Nepal

Durbar Square Courtyard, Kathmandu, Nepal

 

From the Bazaar we move on to Durbar Square and Hanuman City, the location of the old royal palace and two large temples in tribute to Hindu deities, Durga and Hanuman. As we stop every few feet to discuss architecture, art or the reality TV-like history of the last royal family in power (disgruntled children, illicit love affairs, murderous family members… watch for it to hit cable soon), I notice well-dressed men on their knees in the square, digging out the cracked and crumbling mortar between tiles, their hands, resembling crows feet, curled around tiny sticks, work diligently, reverently to restore what was deteriorating. I try to remember when the last time was that I saw anyone using such crude tools to complete such an enormous task by hand. Or dressed so formally for such a dirty and unassuming chore. I cannot.

Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

Balancing Work, Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

Balancing Work, Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

Tourists trickle into the square stumbling about like foreign and confused paparazzi. They mostly stare at the workmen dangling precariously on handmade bamboo scaffolding 30 feet up in the air. One woman, standing almost dead center in the square, digs out her recent purchase: a Nepali singing bowl, an instrument designed to produce vibrations meant to soothe and heal the human spirit. With the plastic shopping bag tucked under her arm, she cradles the bowl in one hand, the striking mallet in the other. Tapping the bowl over and over again, a look of wonder comes over her face and she becomes absorbed in the vibration. Despite the fact that she is standing in a public square, surrounded by a slew of people, this seems to be the most natural and expected thing to do. I stand as close to her as I can get without invading her privacy and seeming like I am about to mug her. I close my eyes and soak up the moment… the sound, the light, the energy of the square… like a sponge. (I’m grateful there is no picture of my face in that moment.)

Alchemy Meets Electricity, Kathmandu, Nepal

Alchemy Meets Electricity, Kathmandu, Nepal

From Durbar Square we move onwards to lunch in a restaurant and B&B tucked back off of some alleyway that I try to memorize but fear I shall never see again. At the head of the alley, a group of men of varying ages stand around a cascading tangle of electric wires, some with exposed ends, watching one individual as he picks up one and touches it to others. Rather than a property of science, electricity still seems to be a matter of alchemy in Nepal. Electric power is illusive. There is no system determining when it is available and when it is not, or even where it can be accessed regularly. In addition to a lack of consistency, there seems to be a prevailing attitude of “Why the Hell Not” as the configuration of wires about the city is reminiscent of abandoned ice picks on the side of Everest.

As we pass, a couple of the members of our traveling group, specifically a retired engineer and a retired director of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), briefly pause to watch… fascinated and horrified.

Lunch is an assortment of traditional Nepali light fare—momos (similar to Japanese shumai or Chinese potstickers, are stuffed with a ground chicken, heavy on the cilantro and a ‘momo masala spice’, served with a tomato-based sauce featuring cumin and ginger), noodles with vegetables and a sampler platter of tastes of Nepal, including a vegetable curry, rice and a mint sauce.

This is the first real exposure to a Nepali meal for my lifelong friend and now foreign traveling companion Elena and myself. The Cliff Bars and tea the night before and the 12′ resort breakfast buffet that morning (featuring everything from yak cheese to waffles) really didn’t count. Prior to that we’d had a questionable experience with lamb wraps on our Fly Dubai flight into Kathmandu (Eating lamb should have been my first warning sign for how out of my mind I was. For a woman who barely eats anything that walks, especially if she hasn’t vetted the farmer first, this was a bold move on my part. Something about the cardboard standup signs set on the seats of the first row of the plane charging $35 to ride in their “first class” section said to me, “You go right ahead and enjoy that tasty adventure!”) and were now ready to take on some authentic food. So, we did what any overzealous and excessive American would do… we order it all.

Lunch is an awkward hour of trying to consume an irrational amount of food for two people in a land where food is lacking, while simultaneously presenting ourselves to our trip-mates, none of whom grossly over-ordered as we had. Faced with the notion of wasting food in a developing country, we force ourselves to finish it all (damn those lamb wraps!) and even sample the bowls of red condiment left on our table. (We quickly realize that this was ketchup and completely irrelevant to any of the food that has been served. The only reason it is there? We’re Americans.)

The whirl of recent events, moving physically across space and time to get to the other side of the globe, the frenetic nature of my surroundings and now the unreasonable amount of food in my stomach is getting to me. I’m losing the ability to move logically from one moment to the next. Our guide gathers us again. Time to go to Patan City.