Trail Review: Beaver Lake Trail / Pocahontas State Park

Trail Reviews

On the way home from the babysitter’s last Friday, Kairi and I were going through our normal run-down of which grown-ups she would be with over the coming days. Saturday would be a mommy day. Sunday would be a family day. I asked her what she wanted to do on our family day, and she said “go for a hike!”

 

Well, that was easy. ❤

 

Billy and I had already planned on a hike at a state park on Sunday, since REI and Virginia State Parks are running a partnership right now where REI members get free entry, and Saturday night we decided to give Pocahontas State Park a shot. I haven’t been there since I was a girl scout (despite it being incredibly popular), and he had never been there. I think I tend to forget just how many opportunities there are for hiking in the Richmond area since I always look to the mountains when planning a day hike, and we are trying to get better at finding places that don’t involve such a long drive, for both time and environmental reasons.

 

We chose the Beaver Lake trail for a few reasons. First was length—most of the trails there are pretty short, and we wanted one that would at least give us time to get some walking in before stopping for lunch. The second was this was a hiking-only trail, so no worries about getting in the way of bikers. And the third was the lake—scenery that is more interesting to a little one.

 

We parked in the wrong place, which added maybe a total of a quarter mile to our walk, which I was okay with—plus we parked near one of the playgrounds, and Kairi really wanted us to go somewhere that had a playground, so this was not a bad choice at all!

 

The hike starts by the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum. We took the left route down towards the lake, and headed down a winding paved path until we got to the lake itself. Kairi immediately wanted to stop an eat lunch, and to get her feet in the water, and she was fascinated with the lily pads and wanted to wade out and touch them. After letting her get her feet wet, we convinced her to talk a little more before we stopped, and followed the trail around the left side of the lake, past a spillway, and uphill, briefly away from the lake (into the “deep deep woods,” according to Kairi.) A little over half a mile in we went ahead and stopped for lunch at a really nice overlook, where Kairi was happy to search for mushrooms, throw sticks into the water to create ripples, and we even saw a frog! Both kids really made my day as well. Sebastian was kind of toddling around when we first started eating, before walking over and plopping down beside me to stare out at the lake with the rest of us. He does things like that every once in awhile that show me he’s starting to view himself as part of the family unit—he knows he’s one of us, instead of us just being these people he loves who keep him safe and fed. I commented on this to Billy, and Kairi followed up by saying that she loved us, and that her favorite thing to do was spend time with her family. With us both working, I get very easily caught up in thinking about all the things we *don’t* get to do, that I often forget to appreciate the things we *do* get to do, or to see things from Kairi’s point of view. And she sees weekly family hikes, or trips to the park, or even just time at home, and she sees those as the highlight of her week.

 

Three-year-olds. Just when they get so frustrating you can’t even, they go and say things like that.

 

Back on the trail Kairi was starting to get tired and we had forgotten a carrier for her, but she did pretty well—splitting her time riding on daddy’s shoulders and walking. There is enough variety in the trail environment that it held her interest pretty well. After our lunch spot we walked beside the lake for a few tenths of a mile before heading uphill into the woods again, and then winding down to a stream—with tiny bright pink mushrooms, and a lot of sand! This was approximately the halfway point, and from there we started winding to the right, over several long footbridges. According to the Virginia State Parks website, this lake is slowly turning into wetlands, and will eventually be a forest again. So walking over the footbridge over the marsh, we saw a lot of neat bugs and a whole clearing FILLED with dragonflies. We all appreciated those, and the serenity of the whole environment, and Kairi thought the long bridges were really fun to walk over.

 

Most of the path back wound alongside the lake again, with a couple of forks where the path split briefly, before heading back up to the CCC museum—and then to the playground. 😊

 

Overall I would probably rate this trail 4/5. It’s kid-friendly, and is very well maintained—it’s almost stroller friendly, because it’s so wide and free of obstructions. It’s rated as “moderate,” which I think is a fair rating as far as central Virginia goes. Most of the trails in parks around the city are so flat they feel less like trails and more like, well, a walk in the park. This one had enough changes in elevation to actually break a sweat at one point (although that could have just been the humidity…), and while it did not feel as remote as Powhatan State Park, near the back of the trail we did get a good sense of being in nature—which is something else I find often lacking when going to local parks instead of driving out to the mountains. The trail is EXTREMELY well marked, and Kairi had a lot of fun running up to the trail markers and telling us which direction to go next, and that kept her motivated, especially towards the end. We would do this one again. What the trail lacks in isolation, it makes up for in length, view, and variation. I would love to come back in the fall or winter especially, where you can see more of the lake through the trees, or see the fall color reflecting off the water, and when there are fewer people in the park overall.

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Trail Review: Blackrock Summit

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I hiked this one years and years ago with my high school Venture Crew, and it stuck with me as one of the most inspiring views I’d ever seen on a hike. As a teenager, I remembered watching the shadow of the clouds move across the mountains, and the giant rocks we played hide and seek in. It’s a trail I’ve mentioned to Billy several times in our adventures together, but we never managed to get back to it—usually because we either wanted a longer hike, or didn’t leave enough time for it on the way home from a camping trip.

 

For Father’s Day yesterday, we made a tentative plan with my mom, who was leaving in the morning to head back to her house, to drive with her as far as Afton and have lunch at Blue Mountain Brewery, and then my mom would continue on to Tennessee and we would do a hike. My plan was Crabtree Falls since I’m pretty sure Kairi would love it, but my mom decided she wanted to go ahead and hit the road, so our goodbyes meant we got too late a start to do a trail that far from home. Between that, and the ominous forecast of thunderstorms over the entire western part of the state, we decided to have lunch and then do a shorter trail closer to Afton. Billy was all for Blackrock given its overall length, and I saw it as a good opportunity for us to finally get out there.

 

The trail itself is very easy. From the parking loop you connect with the AT and follow that for a little less than half a mile to the summit. It’s uphill most of the way—it levels out for the last tenth of a mile or so—but it’s a pretty moderate grade. Even in the extreme humidity, while carrying Sebastian, after a full meal, and being more out of shape than I’ve been in my entire life, we were still able to carry on a conversation the whole way, and Kairi kept us moving at a pretty quick pace since she had the promise of brownies once we got to the “big big rocks.”

As for the rocks themselves—it’s a lot more of a rock scramble than the massive boulders I remembered, but that made it a little easier to climb, especially for me since I was still wearing Sebastian so was staying fairly upright the whole way. Kairi loved the rocks and did great climbing up them. She has really good instincts for where to place her hands and feet, and she loves climbing. For a girl who struggles on the rock wall of her friends’ swing set, being out on real boulders really brings out a fiercely determined side of her that’s wonderful to watch. I was surprised at the level of pride I felt watching her right after she learned to pump her legs on a swing, and it’s a very similar feeling watching her tackle rocks when we go out hiking. I see a trip to Peak Experiences in our future!

Because of the humidity, the view wasn’t quite as spectacular as it could have been, but it was still gorgeous. We enjoyed our beer and brownies, and watched the kids play around on the rocks—we let Sebastian climb around for a bit in a space where he wasn’ t in danger of falling off anything—and in general took in the majesty that comes with sitting on top of a mountain.

 

We retraced our steps on the way back down since I had failed to note the trail wound around the rocks and came down a different route, but it looks like the recommended return route is about the same length. Not sure of the grade, and the next time we come we’ll be sure to do the whole loop. There is also an option of adding part of the Trayfoot Mountain trail to extend the hike to 1.6 miles, instead of the .75 to the summit and back. I wanted to do that, but the kids were starting to get restless and Billy still isn’t feeling the greatest from his recent surgery, so we’ll have that for another time as well. We did see a little spur where thru-hikers have obviously used as a camping site, and when we got back in the car Kairi asked if we could go camping there sometime. We haven’t taken them out backpacking yet—Billy hasn’t even gone with me—but if not this year, then I think next year an overnight trip may be in order somewhere!

 

Overall family-friendly rating: 5/5. Easy, short, gorgeous views, and rocks to keep the littles entertained.

 

 

fathers day

The Urban Nature Fix

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REI recently posted an entry by Florence Williams on their blog, titled “The Nature Fix: The Three-Day Effect,” about studies being done on the neurological benefits of unplugging completely and spending time outdoors. This is on top of multiple studies done over the last few years, and a recent Time article, also by Williams, suggesting that even 15 minutes of time spent in nature–and not just the wild, but a green area–is beneficial to memory and anxiety.

Anecdotally, I can say that my depression absolutely got worse when I moved away from natural spaces.

I grew up largely in a rural environment. When I was very young we lived in suburbia, but my late childhood and adolescence were spent in a place where I couldn’t hear any highway traffic outside, we could see the neighbors houses through the trees–in the winter, and if you forgot something at the store, you just did without. The only way to get cable was through satellite, and that wasn’t available until several years after we moved, my parents were on dial-up internet until I was in college, and by the time they moved out of that house you still had to go outside to get decent cell reception. Realistically we weren’t super-remote. We were still 15 minutes from town, and half an hour from major shopping and dining areas. But my childhood was defined by the freedom of (mostly) unsupervised outdoor play.

But then I look at my life now, and I wonder, how have I gotten so far away from nature?

Some of it is me. But a lot of it is a cultural problem.

Work, for one. If people were expected to take their work with them when they went on vacation before smart phones, now the expectation is as simple as muscle memory. We have cell reception and data service in many remote wilderness spaces now, so “going on vacation” still comes with the responsibility of checking emails–even if you just forward it to a coworker, the attachment is there. Myself and nearly all of the working adults I know have said they prefer checking email while on vacation because otherwise they come back to so much backlog the week after vacation is so stressful it feels like you shouldn’t have even taken one. That’s the ridiculous working culture in the United States right now.

The speed of information for another. I frequently have to take breaks from Facebook–whether it’s for the length of my workday, the length of the calendar day, or several days at a time–just because the constant onslaught of breaking news, memes, and occasionally even updates on people’s personal lives just becomes overwhelming. But that’s the speed that we move at. Whenever I take those breaks, I feel like I have to spend just as much time catching up on everything I missed, or just stay permanently out of that particular part of the internet (which is more often than not what I do–sorry tumblr friends!).

And as easy as it should be to fix that second one–I’m in control of my own internet usage after all, aren’t I?–the internet is such a permanent fixture of communication that it’s hard to step away completely. Whether it’s habit–grabbing my phone to look at the weather forecast and then mindlessly opening a social media app; pleasure–I want so badly to participate with the Richmond chapter of Hike-It Baby, but hikes are posted online, and up-to-date information about meeting places are discussed on Facebook; or business–in order to communicate with clients and try and network and build a reputation, Facebook and Instagram are as essential as email is to my desk job–our world is now build around digital communication.

Can you break free? Yes. Should you? Also yes. Probably.

 

Sometimes it feels like, being an urban resident, that I have two lives. I have my regular life, reliant on technology and never more than a few feet away from my phone, and I have my outdoor life, filled with deep breaths and the sound of the wind in the trees.

What I need to do, is to stop craving the outdoor life and seeing it as something separate, something I have to plan for and escape to, and work out a way to find it during the day.

And I think for me that means leaning how to use social media as a business tool rather than as a personal tool. Something I can leave behind, when I’m not actively working.

What is it for you?

 

Review: PATC Pocosin Cabin

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Back in January we walked the short Pocosin Mission Trail, and decided we wanted to come back and stay at the Pocosin Cabin once the weather turned nicer. Since Sebastian’s birthday is mid-April, that’s a perfect time to start the camping season, so we booked it, and headed up a few Sundays ago.

 

This was our first time in any of the PATC cabins, so we didn’t really know what to expect. The website listed supplies in the cabin—mattresses, cookware, utensils, etc…, but without the chance to see any of it, we wanted to bring in our own gear just in case. Did cookware mean a full set of pots and pans? Or did it mean a couple of dinged up backpacking pots from the 1970s? I have absolute faith in the volunteers that keep the trails and cabins maintained, but everything costs money, and the cost of the cabin is so low we wanted to be prepared for anything.

So onto the review.

Accessibility:  

5/5 – Depending on your expectations. We chose this based on accessibility, and it was perfect for us on this trip. It is less a quarter mile from the parking area, and the trail in is a fire road. There’s a mild grade downhill on the way in, and a bit rocky heading off the fire road up to the cabin, but we took our collapsible radio flyer wagon and had no issues getting in and out with it. You cannot drive up to the cabin, but I suspect if that is what you are looking for you are probably looking for a campground rather than one of these cabins anyway. But it is an easy walk, so if you are looking for a the cabin as a payoff after a good day hike, there are a lot of other cabins in the PATC network with longer hike-ins.

Woodburning stove, interior picnic table, and one of the sets of bunks

Amenities:

5/5 – We were WAY overprepared. Without going into a lot of detail about what we brought and didn’t need, you can easily get by at this cabin by only bringing food and a change of clothes. However for a little more detail:

Cookware: They have pretty much everything you might use, from frying pans to soup pots to a cast iron skillet, along with a few prep utensils and a paring knife. There was even a percolator! (Although we couldn’t find the glass piece for the top so we used our own)

Diningware: Utensils, plates, bowls, mugs, glasses. The only downside to this is that it’s all breakable, which I don’t recommend with small children, but for adults or older kids, there would be no reason to pack in your own diningware.

Bedding: EXTREMELY comfortable mattress pads, and heavy wool army blankets. You’ll need pillows and probably your own sleeping bag, but definitely no need for sleeping pads.

Firewood: We had plenty of firewood. The PATC asks that each guest leave at least as much cut wood for the next guests as they found, and there are hacksaws, a sawhorse, and wood splitters provided to do this. And in early spring there’s no shortage of felled wood. Even while keeping track of the kids we had no issue replenishing the wood supply without having to go far. Also of note: there is a woodburning stove INSIDE the cabin. I was a little unclear on this before we booked it, and it made the April nights much nicer to be able to bank some coals and have a little extra heat during the night.

Water: There is a spring about 80 yards away from the cabin where you can collect water. We did not use this; since we had our wagon we packed in plenty of water, and we replenished at Lewis Mountain Campground which is about 2 miles away on Skyline Drive, since we did not bring a purifier of any kind. However several hikers we spoke with said the spring was flowing nicely.

We brought our camp stove and I’m glad we did, as we still used that a lot. I’ve gotten spoiled with car camping and being able to rely on propane for a lot of our cooking, and we planned our food around being able to use the stove. I would bring it back to this cabin since it’s close enough to make multiple trips/wheel things in, but if we went to one with a longer hike-in I would still want to bring a backpacking stove, if for no other reason than I like having coffee in morning a lot faster than the time it takes to get a fire going hot enough to make it over the flames.

Cleanliness:

5/5: I feel weird even mentioning this about a primitive cabin, but I was so impressed by how clean and well-maintained the place was that I want to point it out. Even the privy was nice and clean, and as we were getting ready to leave the regional manager of the PATC showed up to pour a bunch of water into it, to soften it up before they drained it later in the week, so we apparently saw it at its worst. There are brooms and a few cleaning chemicals on hand to clean the inside of the cabin, and the occupants before us had done a great job before they left. And since I guess it fits best into this category: there are mice. They will eat your food.  There’s a nice steel box inside the cabin provided to store food that kept them out, but we completely forgot about something we had in the baby backpack—fortunately it was nothing we were sad to lose, but we do now have a small hole in one of the mesh side pockets. But it was our fault for forgetting about it, and the cabin is sealed enough that I don’t think any other wildlife could get in overnight.

That cabinet houses the plates/bowls/glasses, and the little box on top has the cabin library in it. As you can see the bunks are pretty wide and the mattress pads cover the width of them.

Privacy:

3/5: This also depends on your expectations. I was expecting to see hikers during the day, having done the Pocosin Mission trail before and knowing it wound around the cabin, however the AT run immediately behind it, and because of the spring, we were kind of a hot spot—a group of four actually took a snack break right on our front porch.  A couple of birdwatchers we saw our second night there told us there were some thru-hikers camping close to us, though we did not hear them at night. You can also see a lot of lights from the various towns below the mountain at night—this is not a drawback for me, but if you want a complete feeling of isolation you won’t get it here. However, it’s still FAR more private than a campground, and there is no light pollution from other people’s lanterns or bathhouse lighting, and you can’t hear any vehicle traffic, even with the proximity to Skyline Drive.

Kid-Friendly:

 5/5: Overall, the cabin was super kid-friendly. Probably more than a campsite since without other campers right next door I didn’t have to worry as much about how much noise they were making. It was easy to keep anything we didn’t want them playing with out of reach, and there’s a decent area around the cabin for them to explore. I did see poison ivy, but that’s to be expected on any outdoor adventure, and Kairi at least seems to have inherited my immunity to it (I didn’t learn to recognize the stuff until I had kids because I one of the lucky few who is not allergic). Both of them tripped over the rocks a lot but that had more to do with their ages. I give it a 5/5 rating based on my own kids, their previous outdoor experiences, and our own expectations about what might be challenging—Sebastian had a tick on him when we got home, and the PATC volunteer told us there are often snakes in the tall grass in front of the cabin. But again, we didn’t go to a primitive cabin we had to walk a quarter of a mile to get to without the understanding that we’d see bugs and get dirty and would have to keep a 12 month old from trying to climb on everything he saw. Overall I spent a lot less time chasing him away from danger than I expected to, and that nets a 5/5 rating for me.

 

Would we go back? Absolutely. Billy was already trying to work out when a good weekend would be before we left, and Kairi spent a decent part of the day sullen and weepy because she “didn’t want to leave the cabin.” I don’t know if our next trip will be to this one—the PATC manager we spoke with recommended Range View as a good one to go to with kids since it has a lot of open meadow for them to run around in. I also really want to go to the Doyles River cabin one day, but since the hike-in to that one includes about 2/10 of a mile up a very steep grade, we’ll wait on that one until the kids are old enough to walk up it themselves, and can carry some of their own gear—that’s not one I would want to make multiple trips on!

 

*A lot of cell phone pictures here, since I had my camera out of reach of the kids a lot of the time.

To the Working and Pumping Mom

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It’s Monday, mid-July. You’ve just finished the tour of the building of your brand new job. The job you’re starting fresh off maternity leave from the job you had to quit because your postpartum anxiety made your chest tighten and your stomach knot up at the very thought of the work you were doing before. You have your breast pump tucked into a bag, and take a deep breath before you tell your new boss that you need a private room where you can pump breast milk on your lunch break. You hope she understands, and doesn’t simply stare at you, wondering why you don’t just give your baby formula.

It’s a Thursday afternoon, and you pick your older child up from daycare, and head to your mother in law’s to get the baby. You haven’t pumped since lunch, your breasts are full and sore, and you want to nurse your baby as much as he wants to nurse. You walk through the door, and as your MIL is telling you about her day, she tells you “there’s just a smidgeon of milk left.” You look in the bottle. It’s 2 ounces, and the bottle has been partially consumed so it must be used or dumped. “Well I can just give it to him now,” she says, not understanding why you seem so upset over two ounces. You feel the pain of your milk letting down at the sound of your baby’s cries, and mutter a response through tears.

It’s midwinter, and lack of sunlight is making the postpartum depression unbearable. You make a joke to a friend about going out after work to get your hair cut, or get your nails done. She responds eagerly; it will be nice to do something without the kids. You shake your head and remind her, you can’t. You have to go home and pump, and then it will be time for dinner, and then to get the kids ready for bed.

You’ve been at your new job for six months now. You are invited occasionally to go out with some of your coworkers for their weekly lunch date out of the office. “I can’t,” you say. “I have to–” “Oh that’s right. You’re still doing that?” They’re supportive. But you can’t help but hear the unspoken, why hasn’t she switched to formula?

It’s 6:00am and you are exhausted. Your husband has worked the last four nights in a row, you haven’t had thirty seconds to yourself in two weeks, and your baby will not sleep without your nipple in his mouth. You sneak out of bed, but hear him cry before you’ve even started your pump. And you sit there anyway, trying, knowing you probably won’t even pump a full ounce because he nursed all night long, but one ounce is better than nothing. You grimace at how bad your oatmeal tastes with brewer’s yeast added in, and add a bottle of fenugreek to your pumping bag.

It’s any given night of the week. Your baby is mobile now, and hasn’t seen you all day, and wants mommy now. Daddy takes him upstairs instead so you can pump while he cries for you. Half an hour later, you nurse the baby. And then get dinner started when you should be getting the kids into the bath. You hope that maybe tonight he’ll go to sleep easily, and won’t try and make up for that lost half hour by refusing to let you lay him down.

It’s a week before your baby’s first birthday. Your therapist asks you, “Couldn’t your husband just give him formula, so you can get a break?”

It’s all you can do not to laugh.

.

I hit a wall with pumping in December, when the PPD and the SAD formed a nasty marriage, around the same time Sebastian starting having trouble sleeping and I started struggling with supply. It felt so pointless. I was giving up sleep. I was giving up my lunch break–the only time in the entire day I otherwise would have the chance to do the Adulting I never can at home. I was letting my baby scream for me from the other room after work while I pumped, because he only wanted to nurse, but if I nursed him before pumping I wouldn’t get any output, and my output was already a constant source of stress.

Pumping moms don’t call it “liquid gold” as a joke. We call it that because that is the value that it has for us. Every ounce down the drain is our time. It’s our baby’s nourishment. I was lucky with my second child in that he has loved table food since we first introduced it, so he could usually be placated with a squeezie pouch or shared food for a bit of milk needed to be stretched to make it through the day. But it’s what we do. It takes our time. With our children. With our spouses. With our social life. With our beds. But mostly with ourselves.

Pumping mamas–I see you. I know you. Up until a week ago when my son turned one, I was you. I have felt the silent (and sometimes not so silent) judgement that comes from all directions. Colleagues. Friends. Family. In many situations, spouses.

Why don’t you just use formula?

I asked myself that. I never asked that with my first, not once. But with my second–I did.

So why not? I can give plenty of reasons, but the biggest is that when I looked at continuing to pump I wanted to cry. But when I looked at supplementing I felt in my heart that I would be more unhappy with that choice. Not because formula is the wrong choice overall. But it was not the right choice for me.

These things helped get me through:

Looking at a full bottle at the end of a pumping session and the complete sense of pride and womanhood that came with knowing I had created a full, perfect meal for my son using only my body. That I could give him some of me to take with him when I couldn’t be there.

A partner who understood my dedication, and picked up as much as he could in taking care of the kids while I was chained to the pump. I absolutely could not have pumped to twelve months without his support.

Supportive friends. One friend even gave me a few bags of frozen milk she didn’t need, and offered more if I ran out. I didn’t need to use them, but knowing they were in there gave me the peace of mind to accept a pumping session here or there where I barely got any output. And the others commiserated, or offered encouragement, and reminded me that it’s a pretty badass thing to work full time and still provide full time food for an infant.

A supportive office. Towards the end I could see the question in people’s eyes, wondering why I was still pumping when my baby was so old. But nobody ever asked, and the women I work with understood that regardless of our day, I needed at least half an hour in a room alone somewhere, and they made sure I got it.

There is nothing wrong with choosing not to pump. It’s hard. And when I say hard I mean hard. All moms have our own unique challenges, and there’s no benefit to playing “who has it worst?” But pumping with a full time job, then coming home and nursing a baby, strips you of your identity in a way no other part of motherhood has, at least for me. It reduces you to a pair of breasts, to a milk machine, to a human pacifier. The only true way I know of to push through when you really, really want to quit, is to look inside, and weigh whether or not it’s the right choice for you, and for your family. And if it is–grab hold of that truth, ask for help anywhere you need it, and dare anyone to ask you why you haven’t switched to formula.

And if it’s not? Don’t. You are not less of a mom. You are not less of a woman. You are a badass for making it this far, and whatever choice you make is the right one for you.

On Reading Slumps

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When I was a child/teenager, I read. A lot. R.L. Stein and Gary Paulsen were two of my best friends, and the big series books at the time–The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley are probably still to blame for why I stay up far later than I should. I was not snobbish in what I read, though I was not as voracious as many other readers I know. I was (because I know the term for it now) a complete fangirl. I latched onto things and read and re-read, and it took me awhile to really get into reading adult literature for pleasure. I think, in a backwards sort of way, because my mom was (and still is) a voracious reader, and it gave me a false sense of needing to wait “until I grow up” to read certain authors.

In college, my pretension really reared up, and I read mostly non-fiction (when I wasn’t reading fanfiction on the internet). I enjoyed comparative religion, and bought a LOT of books that I would go on to only read a few chapters each on mythology, philosophy, and social psychology. I enjoyed them, I just couldn’t sit still–every time I started reading something, a new interest would spring up and I would read something else. Or I’d buy a new book. Or I’d hear about something else in class and decided that was my true passion. (I also read a LOT of dramatic literature, being a theatre major.)

I didn’t realize it at the time (or didn’t have a word for it), but by the time I graduated from college, I was in a reading slump. I didn’t know what books I wanted to read. I still loved books, but there were so many I had missed, and I was spending so much of my free time (and oh, how that felt so infrequent in those days!) either working on cosplay, or spending time in fandom circles online. I wanted to read, but when I did, I could never get past the antsiness over not doing all the other things I wanted to do as well, or the worry that I was reading the “wrong” book. That there was another book I should be reading first, before this one. It was perpetual procrastination.

When I started working at Barnes & Noble a couple months after moving back home, that feeling intensified, but working with other readers, there was more motivation to Just Read. One of the women I worked with (who is now the executive director of Riot Media / Book Riot) was incredible at book recommendations. She would ask me if I’d read something and the way she lit up while talking about it made it impossible to NOT buy or borrow it, just so I could tell her if I loved it as much as she did. I didn’t read nearly as fast as I should have (Billy and I started dating during this time, and the addiction of new love tends to overpower all other ways of spending your time), but I did work my way through a few of her recommendations, and it paid off, as I discovered Audrey Niffeneggar, whom I now consider one of my top three favorite authors.

But the TBR pile grew and grew, constantly surrounded by books that called to me, asking to be read, and customers, so eager to ask questions and talk about new releases and old favorites alike.

There are a couple of things that, over the last few years, have finally helped me out of that reading slump that lasted far too long.

One of which, is having kids. Which is kind of a double-edged sword, since having kids also means I have less time to do ANYTHING for myself, and have to cram an entire day’s worth of Adulting into an hour or so (if I’m lucky) after they go to bed–but it also means I’m far more aware of how much time I spend on social media instead of with a book. They’re watching, after all, and I want to make sure I’m setting the right example.

Another, is the rise of reading sites like goodreads. Having a site where other people can see my activity also makes me aware of how much time I could be reading when I’m not, and I like being able to set my own reading challenges. I’m motivated by goals, and seeing what should be a reasonable number of books per year also reminds me that I Should Be Reading.

But more than anything it’s the realization that I have stories to tell that has helped me find my Reading Voice again. Reading for inspiration. Reading for motivation. Reading to realize what I hope to achieve as a writer, and reading to see what I hope to never replicate. Reading for that amazing moment when a book takes your breath away and you have to lay it down for a minute–when you remember to inhale again, and on your exhale you murmur a low, “fuck,” because using only words someone has reached through time to seize you by the throat.

As a young reader, I read because I bonded to certain characters, landscapes, tropes, and wanted to experience them again and again.

As an adult, I have bonded to the art of storytelling. And I have come out of a reading slump renewed, and ready to experience as many new stories as I can.

 

Slow and Steady

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I was going to write this post about religion, but every time I try to write about religion I realize there’s no way I can condense my thoughts on it into a blog post of less than 1000 words, so instead I’ll write about diet and exercise. And Neil Gaiman.

I read a response Gaiman wrote to an tumblr ask from a 14 year old about struggling to finish anything because he felt his stories were awful. Gaiman’s response was:

[…] Think of it this way: if you wanted to become a juggler, or a painter, you wouldn’t start jugggling, drop something and give up because you couldn’t juggle broken bottles like Penn Jillette, or start a few paintings then give up because the thing in your head was better than what your hands were getting onto the paper. You carry on. You learn. You drop things. You learn about form and shape and shade and colour and how to draw hands without the fingers looking like noodles. You finish things, learn from what you got right and what you got wrong, and then you do the next thing.

And one day you realise you got good. It takes as long as it takes. So keep writing. And all you need to do right now is try to finish things.

As an oldest child, an adult child of an alcoholic, and someone who was identified gifted/talent in elementary school, I don’t know how to practice anything. When I first started playing the piano, I took to it. Likewise with the violin. I gave up both of them in part because of committing my time to other things, but in part because I reached a point where I couldn’t get any further on natural talent. There were other things I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to take time away from those things to practice music the way I needed to in order to excel.

In a lot of ways I did the same with cosplay. I loved cosplay–and still do–but as it got more mainstream and the standard for what was considered “good” skyrocketed, I couldn’t skate by, procrastinating and taking shortcuts, and still be above average. In this instance, I got pregnant around the time I hit the “I’m going to need to invest actual time and effort into this to get any better” point, so I had a built in excuse to back out of it.

The depression doesn’t help. Depression tells you you aren’t good enough anyway, that nothing you do will ever be good enough, and that you don’t deserve good things, so it makes it a lot easier to give into that urge to cut and run once effort becomes necessary. “You’re not going to be able to do it anyway,” the voice says. Or if you try and something goes wrong, “See? You shouldn’t have even bothered in the first place. You’re useless.” And my favorite, which is when making an effort coincides with something else going wrong in some unrelated way, “This happened because you did something for yourself. You tried, and this is your punishment.” 

So how this relates to diet and exercise.

I think dieting is crap. It doesn’t work, there have been multiple studies proving it doesn’t work, and I firmly hold the belief that dieting culture is a business, and businesses are about making money. Plus there’s the whole idea that diet culture is based around convincing people–usually women–that they aren’t good enough.

So, as someone who already believes I’m not good enough, it’s something I should just stay the hell away from.

But I was talking to a friend the other night about this, and we were discussing how the real reason we hate dieting is that it’s about a goal that’s easy to corrupt. “I just want to lose 10 pounds.” “I want to fit into this dress by next month.” “I need to tone my arms before my wedding.” They’re easy to drop if progress doesn’t start soon enough, and they’re easy to talk yourself out of. We were talking about how making lifestyle changes is better–and different–than dieting, because the goal is the change itself, so as long as you’re doing something, you’re succeeding.

I’ve told Billy countless times that before he can be a writer, he needs to write. That he’s never going to be a writer, if he waits for it to be perfect, but that as long as he’s writing every day–or mostly every day–that he is a writer, and that he can always edit later.

Easy advice, coming from someone who is terrible at not being perfect out of the gate. but writing is different, somehow. Maybe it’s because, thanks to fanfiction, I have built a semi-habit before the depression really set it–because I was writing a lot until it got so bad I couldn’t write around the depression. But for me, the stories get jumbled in my head if I let them sit there for too long, and it becomes harder in the long run. Kids, work, the business of running a household, get in the way. But the habit was there, once, and it will be again.

I don’t know how to tell the depression that the goal is a lifestyle change. That the goal is doing 10 minutes of exercise every day even if it takes months to see results, even if the results are only visible in it being a little bit easier to hike uphill. I can tell other people, but I don’t know how to convince myself of this. Other than to just do it.

Clickin’ and Hopin’

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When Kairi was a baby, while searching for Halloween costume to make for a three month old, I got an idea to make her little faerie costumes themed after the four seasons as a cute way of tracking her first year. While the faerie aspect didn’t really stick (we ended up with a faerie, an angel, a ballerina, and a dragonfly), we have four canvas prints of our favorites from each session hanging proudly in our living room. I didn’t take any of those pictures—two sets were taken by one photographer [Shaun Goodman/IMG Photography] , two by another [Courtney Taylor Bowls Photography], both friends my husband made by being a very charming and charismatic barista. Courtney also took a set of Christmas pictures for us one year, as well as newborn and nursing pictures once Sebastian was born. (Check out her work. She is insanely talented and if you ever need a photographer in the Richmond, VA area, use her.)

However…I got a little addicted to having professional quality pictures of my kids. But professional photography is expensive.

Fortunately, by this point I’d learned a little more about digital photography.

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October, 2016

When we did our fall session with Kairi, Shaun gave me an overview of some of his lenses, what his favorites were, etc… I ended up buying a lens for myself a few years later, a [lens], that would, unfortunately, be stolen when my car was broken into one night. So after Sebastian was born I decided to go for the lens Shaun had recommended in the first place, a 50mm, f/1.8. I chose [this one] after consulting with Courtney on it, since it was half the price of the name brand, and having just recently changed jobs, cost was a pretty big determining factor in everything we did. I only justified it at all, because I kept getting asked what I was going to do for Sebastian’s four seasons pictures, and I knew there was no way we could afford to book four sessions for him, and I wasn’t 100% certain of how I wanted to do them yet anyway. So I decided to buy the lens and take them myself. They wouldn’t be the same quality as Kairi’s, but if he cares about that when he gets older, I can point out that he had professional newborn pictures and hers were taken with a cell phone—and not even a smart phone at that.

 

Now, flashback: I took a photography class in high school, back before DSLRs. I used my dad’s old SLR from the 70s, and learned how to develop my own negatives, and print my own pictures. As a teenager, it was easy to believe that I would have a perfect bohemian life of a theater person, where I could write poetry and take pictures on the side, and not care how much money I made because as long as I had a roof and a place to sleep at the end of the day, pursuing my passions was more important than anything. I don’t have that life; instead I have a charming husband, two beautiful kids, a mortgage, a car payment, and an appreciation of expensive beer I’m not fully willing to part with.

 

But the older I get, the more time my kids take, the more I struggle with depression—the more I find I desperately need artistic outlets. For a very long time, this was fulfilled through cosplay—starting in early college and continuing until Kairi was over a year old, I took to costumes and crafting, reveling in the creation process as much as I did wearing the costumes themselves. But as she got older and time became harder and harder to come by, and as my body changed, cosplay became a chore more than a hobby, and cons were dominated by eating and nap schedules we had little control over.

 

Enter, writing. Which overlapped with cosplay for a long time. But lately the depression is eating into my ability to write much of anything, much less anything I’m willing to share with anyone else.

 

But I have a camera lens. And I enjoy taking pictures of my kids, which makes photography something that I can incorporate into motherhood a lot more easily than crafting or writing—at least while they are this little. And it’s something that is easier for me to accept being only okay with, because I am so far behind the curve with technology that no matter how much I might develop my own skills, I will never really be able to compete without spending money on new lenses, and on editing software.

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November, 2016. Not as much of a Pinterest!fail as it could be? 

I’m not sure what my next steps are right now. I’ve gotten comfortable enough with my camera on candid shots of my own kids that I want to start moving onto something else, but I’m not sure what. Posed shots, I think. And other people’s kids, for sure. It’s easier with my own children, because I know their moods, I can predict their behavior (a little bit, at least), and I know what environments they are going to be the most comfortable in. Plus there’s just the anxiety of “will these shots be worth this person’s time?” I’ve taken a couple of pictures for a friend—her daughter’s Christmas card pictures last year, and a couple of maternity shots for her this weekend, and while she claims to love them, how do I know she’s not just being nice? Taking pictures of my kids I can watch and wait, and take a picture when the moment feels right. Setting a time and place for someone else puts the quality of the shot entirely on my skill level—which is not that high. But the only way to develop that of course, is to just do it.

I’ll make money with it one day. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get over the anxiety hurdle for photography to be my primary source of income, but I think I can handle charging budget prices to bring in a little bit of extra income–and add a little bit more art to my life, and to the lives of others.

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September, 2016. Billy loves this shot. I see everything wrong with it, but it still came out better than I expected it to!

Trail Review – Pocosin Mission

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Last weekend (okay, a week and a half ago), we went up to Skyline Drive to hike the trail down to the Pocosin Mission ruins. I picked it initially since we’d never done it before and it was pretty close to the Swift Creek Gap entrance to Skyline Drive, and it was a fairly short trail. We stuck to this decision after reading that it walked past one of the PATC cabins, and, to quote Billy, “you had me at ruins.”

It ended up being pretty cold the day we went–not cold by winter hiking standards, but it was hovering around 32-33 degrees, which is pretty cold for us.

The parking spur is easy to miss, since it’s not a lot but a small road, but the trailhead itself is very obvious, as it’s a fire road. I’m not always a huge fan of fire road trails, since part of the appeal of driving out of the city is being about to hike on different terrain than the gravel trails of the parks we’re used to, but it is nice with Kairi, whose hiking stamina is still wildly unpredictable.

About a tenth of a mile down the trail, is the Pocosin cabin. We stopped for a snack (Kairi’s favorite part of hiking), and for me to try and take a few pictures of Sebastian for the ‘winter’ pictures of his First Year of Seasons pictures. I’ve wanted for years to camp in the Doyles River cabin a little further south on Skyline Drive because of the gorgeous views, but in my researching the PATC cabins I managed to miss looking up this one, and now that we’ve discovered it, we’re already making plans to spend a couple of nights there for Sebastian’s birthday. The problem with Doyles River, is that once you get off the Doyles River trail, there’s about a quarter mile hike that’s very steep to get to the cabin–with one of us wearing Sebastian (and possibly Kairi), trying to get enough gear/food/water up there for a couple of nights is something I’ve been hesitant to try while the kids are small, but because the fireroad leading into Pocosin is so flat and wide, this seems like a perfect place to start with small kids. (Don’t judge too harshly–it’s been years since I’ve been primitive camping even by myself, and we definitely adhere to the ‘better to be overprepared than underprepared’ philosophy. Especially when it comes to water.)

Even in the cold, the kids loved playing around the cabin, and it still has a pretty nice view. I’m not sure how much you’d get in summer, since the gap in the trees looking at the mountain across the valley (not sure which mountain–anyone know?) seems like it would be pretty filled in when the trees have their leaves, but I’m optimistic that in April we’ll get some nice wildflowers, and the spring buds won’t have entirely obscured the view.

When we left the cabin we continued towards the ruins. You’re on the fire road the whole way, and it’s a gentle downhill trek. There was a lot of runoff on the trail from where snow and ice had recently melted that we had to watch for for about the first tenth of a mile, but after that it dried out, and we got into the sort of quiet stillness that makes me love winter hiking.

The ruins themselves were cool, but probably better for older children than our little ones. The old wooden structure is pretty dilapidated, and because of the cold Kairi wasn’t that interested in exploring it, but I can see it being more difficult to keep her away in warmer weather, and it’s definitely not something I would want a young child playing around in. Plus there was a lot of broken glass on the ground–I hope this is not normally the case, and we would have packed it out ourselves if I hadn’t thought she would try and “help.”

There were some stone structures that seemed sturdy enough to let her climb on however, and she enjoyed those–and it made for a couple of nice pictures.

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I’m pretty sure this would be her facebook profile picture if she were old enough to use social media. 

We just went down and out, but at the ruins there’s a connector trail that takes you, allegedly, to Swift Creek Falls. Maybe when we go to the cabin we’ll try that out, since we won’t have to worry as much about losing daylight by April.

The trip back out showed both of us how out of shape we are, but is really a pretty gentle incline for people who have spent less time parked under a nursing baby all winter long. Kairi would have been fine walking up it by herself if she hadn’t been so cold that she wanted to be worn (she walked up Dark Hollow Falls by herself last summer, so this would have been a breeze!). Back at the parking area I took a few more pictures–and it started snowing! Sadly Sebastian was pretty Done with posing around the time the snow started so I didn’t get any good shots with the snow, but it did treat us to a lovely trip back to the gatehouse–and I saw later in the day on facebook that Skyline Drive ended up closing two hours after we left, so it’s a good thing we didn’t try and add any extra miles to our trip!

Overall–definitely a trail we’ll try again, and we’re looking forward to our trip to the cabin this spring!

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No snow–but he sure was happy!

Lunch Break Activism 

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I made 11 phone calls on my lunch break today.

 Looking at my call log on my phone, this took 16 minutes, from the first to last call. And since I called for two different issues, it included the time when I was reviewing and coaching myself through the second round of calls before dialing that first number. 

I hate the phone. I’ve had jobs for so long where I have make a tremendous number of phone calls, but it doesn’t make it any easier every time I have to dial without knowing what kind of attitude I might be met with on the other end. And even knowing that the people who answer the phones of our elected officials’ offices take hundreds of phone calls a day and aren’t interested in anything other than ‘yea’ or ‘nay,’ I still get nervous. What if they challenge me? What if they ask me something and I don’t know the answer, and I completely discredit myself? What if I say the wrong thing? 

The first call I made today was to the chair of the committee overseeing a bill in Virginia that would require employers to allow reasonable time and space for new mothers to express breast milk for the first year of their baby’s life (while, I might add, I was pumping at work!). I stuttered. I said the wrong bill numbers first and had to repeat myself. The woman who answered the phone was very polite, and all she did was thank me, and said they’d had several calls about that coming in and she would be sure to pass my message along. 
And that was that. 

There are a lot of scripts available for what to say if you want to give more detail, and while those help, they also make me nervous. What has helped me is seeing the tremendous number of people commenting saying they called, saying how quick the process was, saying the person on the other end of the phone was polite, saying they only expressed approval or concern. And it really is that easy. And each time, each day, it takes less time to psych myself into pressing the ‘dial’ button. 

So call. 

But beyond that–call to say thank you, to the reps who have spoken up in agreement with you. Say thank you for staying true to their campaigns, for the reasons you voted for them.

And call the ones you voted for when you DON’T agree. I’ve heard far, far too many people–friends and coworkers and strangers on the internet–say “I’m socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” And that infuriates me. Because we’ve had a Republican majority congress for years now, and now all three branches of the federal Government are about to be run by the GOP. So if SO MANY PEOPLE really are socially liberal–why aren’t YOU calling? We need you to call and tell your Republican representatives that you voted for them, but you won’t stand for the way their policies treat women. Treat POC. Treat the LGBT+ community. Treat Americans with disabilities. We need more pro-life feminists who can’t bring themselves to vote for a pro-choice candidate to call and demand equal pay for women, and affordable, accessible contraceptives and comprehensive sex ed. For all the talk on divisiveness right now, we are being steamrolled by partisan loyalty in the people that we elect. ELECT. As in, we chose them. And yet, we seem to just accept that horrible social policies must go hand in hand with conservative spending. 

Call. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s something that can be done every day, on every issue that you find important.