The Power of Dandelions

Each spring my mother handed flat-edge screwdrivers to her four children and ordered us into the yard for dandelion-removal duty. Many hours of my childhood were spent uprooting a flower that was only determined to be weed in the 20th century. Dandelions were beloved and revered for their beauty and medicinal benefits – until they weren’t. But despite our efforts to minimize their presence, they still appear each spring. Dandelions are resilient – they put down roots anywhere and everywhere, they bloom wherever the winds carry them, and they survive in a broad range of climates. Just like the children of those who serve in the armed forces.

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The dandelion is the official flower of the military child. Approximately 1.8 million children have a parent who serves in the armed forces. My children are just that – children. Curious, adventurous, stubborn, amazing, lovable, and terrific children. The fact that their father is in the Army doesn’t define them. Every family has their own story – the Army just happens to be a part of ours. Currently, their father is away more than he is home. And to them, the idea of home is somewhat of a unique concept. Our son has moved six times in his eight years and our daughter has moved four times in her four years. And we have no plans to settle in one place anytime soon. I’ve wiped away tears because they miss their father, I’ve held their hand as they walked into a new classroom full of unfamiliar faces, and I’ve comforted them as they processed the pain of missing the friends they left behind. It’s during these moments that I wonder if my husband and I are doing a disservice by subjecting them to this lifestyle.

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Our children are still of the age where they love to pick dandelions and give them to me as tokens of their adoration. When I see these simple flowers held by dirty little fingers accompanied by a beaming smile, I am reminded that they will be okay. Our children will emerge from their childhood without traditional roots planted firmly in an area with extended family and familiar surroundings. Rather their roots will be far-reaching and strongly anchored with love in our little family of four. They also have each other. And as parents, we will provide shade during the times of transition but eventually their own resiliency will allow them to bloom no matter the environment.

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Eleanor Roosevelt told us that “the purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experiences.” While our children may not have a traditional white-picket fence childhood, theirs has been and will continue to be full of rich experiences. They are learning just how small the world can be and how we’re all more alike than different. They are brave. They are confident. They are resilient. Just like dandelions.

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What it is Like to Return to a Duty Station

This isn’t our first rodeo living in the national capital region. During Clay’s almost 14 years in the Army, we’ve moved 7 times. And when we moved back to the area last summer, we checked off another square in the game of military bingo – we returned to a duty station.

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We were stationed at Fort Belvoir from 2012 – 2015 (a few months shy of three years) and throughly enjoyed our time in northern Virginia. Violet was born here, we spent our free time traveling up and down the east coast, and took advantage of all the sightseeing the area has to offer. That being said – we very much like moving to new places and we have no desire to spend a significant amount of time of Clay’s career stationed at one place. It’s not always easy leaving an established existence for a foreign one but with each goodbye, we’ve felt like we’re better for the experience. So while we’re back in the DC area, it’s not the same as last time. But as the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, so eloquently put “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

You have mentioned quite a bit that you hope to maximize your time with the military and live in as many different places as possible – so why did you go back to DC? We were San Antonio, Texas prior to this assignment. And Fort Leavenworth, Kansas before that. I’ve written about how I didn’t exactly bloom in Texas and neither one of us loved  our time in Texas. We made the best of it but it certainly wasn’t our favorite duty station. So when Clay applied and was selected for a position that involved a last-minute move to Washington DC this past summer, we were thrilled to call the area home again – at least for a little while.

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Do you live in the same neighborhood as last time? Same city? No to the first question, yes to the second. We absolutely loved our townhome community in northern Virginia last time we were here – so much so that we tried to live in the same community again. The rental gods weren’t in our favor but we ended up finding a great single family home down the road that is zoned for the same elementary school. We’re in the same township and have the same zip code as last time so in many respects, it feels like we came back home. We did look into living in Arlington, Crystal City, and Pentagon City for something different, but we loved living in West Springfield last time and couldn’t resist doing the same this time around.

Does Violet attend the same preschool Weston did when we lived here last time? Yes! Due to the last minute nature of the assignment, I knew securing a Pre-K spot for Violet would be an issue. The hour after receiving word that we would indeed be moving, I contacted the preschool Weston attended during our previous stint here and pleaded my case. And that is how Violet ended up enrolled in the same preschool as Weston attended despite not having official orders yet or having any idea of where we would actually live.

Are most of your friends from last time still around? No. Even though there is a lot of familiarity living in the same area again, driving the same roads, and also shopping at the same stores – it is also quite different. A lot of my previous friends have moved away and the ones who haven’t, I don’t see as often as I’d like because we’re not longer true neighbors and our busy lives get in the way. But on the other hand, I’ve made new friends to chat with as our children play on the playground after school. And one of my dearest friends in the whole wide world from our Fort Drum days 12+ years ago is stationed here and only lives two miles away! Our children have become fast friends and we get together all the time.

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Are you trying to stay there as long as possible? Despite loving it here, we will not try and get a follow-on assignment in DC once Clay is finished with this job. Our kids are young and in elementary school – now is the time to move around and explore as many different places as possible. We will likely try and stabilize when they reach high school but of course, only time will tell!

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Why do you like living there so much? On top of the incredible history, there is just SO much to do. There is always something going on in the city and when we want to escape for a bit – we’re just a short drive away from one of our favorite hiking spots, Great Falls Park, and the rural farmlands in Loudon County and Prince William County. There is no shortage of breweries, wineries, fantastic restaurants, and everything else that accompanies a big city.

What don’t you like about the area? To be honest, we’re not huge fans of the pressures placed on students in our area. Yes – it is one of the ‘best’ school districts in the country but schools that boast high test scores and college acceptance rates aren’t necessarily producing adults that have a grasp on what is essential for true success in life (hint – it isn’t getting into a Top 10 university). In this area, I encounter so many people with outward signs of success. Happy people are harder to find.

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I admit that is a little surreal to be stationed at the same place twice. As much as things are the same, they’re different too. We will be bidding the national capital region adieu next summer. Due to the nature of Clay’s career, it is likely we will return yet again in the future. Of all the places we’ve lived, this area has felt the most like home. But that may just be because we’ve lived here more than once. After all, as the famous Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, wrote, “Everyday is a journey, and the journey itself is home.

 

6 Honest Tips for Surviving a PCS

The late spring/summer is traditionally PCS season for the military community. For those unfamiliar, PCS refers to Permanent Change of Station aka moving. There are hidden expenses that always seem to pop up along the way, but for the most part, we’re not financially responsible for the move but we are responsible for coordinating the process.  Seeing as how psychologists routinely state that moving is considered one of life’s most stressful situations, it’s absolutely imperative that military families develop a system to help schlep their worldly processions from Point A to Point B.

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This past summer, our packers told us that our framed Billy Joel concert poster is the whitest thing they’ve packed yet. True story.

This blog post will not be an article about the need to put together an important documents binder, nor will it advocate for developing a color-coded system for boxes to assist in the deployment of said boxes into the new house. This blog post will not talk about the best resources for researching schools, veterinarians, and hair stylists. And this blog post will not discuss the importance of documenting high-value and moderate-value items is because stuff will inevitably break during the moving process.  This blog post is going to talk about the really important stuff when it comes to PCSing.

6 Honest Tips for Surviving a PCS

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1. Keep a Winged Butterfly Corkscrew Near You at All Times

Rumor has it that there are a few unicorns out there who are able to resist alcohol during PCS season. I am not one of them. It doesn’t matter if you’re calling preschools begging for a slot or searching for the cast iron skillet that you’ll eventually find in the box marked ‘Downstairs BATHE towls’, it is imperative that you keep a winged butterfly corkscrew near you at all times. Not only will it open bottles of wine, it can assist with the opening of an assortment of beers and mini-bottles. It can also be used as a box-cutter and while not preferable, the arms can be used to spread peanut butter. And in a fit of desperation, it can also be a toy. It wasn’t my proudest parenting moment but once, I gave my then three-year-old daughter a winged butterfly corkscrew and told her it was a metal doll in order to keep her occupied as I frantically opened boxes searching for her prized pink elephant that had somehow managed to be packed earlier that day. The winged butterfly corkscrew was all I had within reach.

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2. Don’t Forward Your Mail to Relatives with the Same Last Name

Learn from our mistake and you will avoid a lifetime of political mailers and AARP membership requests. Many moves ago, we had a transition period of about 30 days before officially reporting to another installation 2000 miles away. Obviously, we took advantage of this ‘free’ time and traveled our little hearts out. Because of this, we had the not-so-smart idea of forwarding our mail to my husband’s parents. It has been 6 years since that particular move and all parties involved are still suffering from the consequences of our ill-informed decision. When it came time to forward our mail to our new duty station a few states away, all of my in-laws mail somehow ended up at our new place. For months. And months. And we have lived in three different states since that particular move and yet we still receive the occasional piece of junk mail addressed to my in-laws. On the positive side, we always have something to use to start a fire. #glasshalffull

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3.  There Will Always Be Someone Who Hates Where The Military Is Sending You Next

Facebook and other forms of social media are invaluable tools during PCS season. Yes, there is a seedy underbelly in the world of military-related Facebook groups and there are some that certainly #leanin into the military spouse stereotypes. I’ve even personally witnessed a close friend get hit with the ban stick because she accidentally posted something twice that was deemed self-promotional (it wasn’t). And being the great friend that I am, I didn’t take a stand and leave the group in solidarity because it really is a great source for information. The joke is on the all-knowing administrators though because I sometimes post questions on behalf of my shunned friend. Muwhahaha.

When I accepted my husband’s marriage proposal (which involved a plaid fold-out couch and a satirical book – try not to be jealous ladies), it didn’t take me long to learn that in addition to raving about favorite assignments and duty stations, people love to complain about the places they’ve hated with the burning passion of a thousand fiery suns. You may be excited that you have orders to Hawaii but there will always be a Debbie Downer who chimes in with school data, traffic patterns, and the threat of nuclear holocaust. Delighted about going to Germany? Negative Nelly will likely talk about the gray skies, ridiculous recycling standards, and the abundance of wursts. No matter where you are going, there will always be someone who hated that installation/assignment. It’s best to ignore them and not let them get you down. On the flip side, you will also find people who loved assignments that are traditionally looked down upon. So for every person you meet who despised Italy, you’ll someone who really enjoyed their time at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Keep that in mind.

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4. Make Sure The Truck Driver Locks the Back Door of the Truck

The load-out from when we PCSed from Washington DC to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas was quite disastrous but we emerged with an important PCS lesson – always make sure that the truck driver locks the back door of the truck before driving off. On the night of that pack out – around 11:05 pm, my husband and I sat on the front steps of our townhome and watched the truck holding all of our worldly possessions drive away. And at 11:06pm, my husband took off running toward the truck to alert the blissfully unaware driver that the back door flew open (pictured above). The driver’s response? “Oh, it’s been doing that a lot lately.” We’ve moved two times since then and have incorporated checking the lock of the truck as part of our move-out process. You should probably do the same.

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5. Ziploc Everything!

While unpacking kitchen boxes after having the military move us for the first time, I was absolutely aghast at the amount of packing paper that was used to wrap a fondue fork. Four (!) large sheets to wrap one teeny tiny fondue fork. We have 16 fondue forks (I like fondue – don’t judge!). You do the math. From that move on, I learned to dump the contents of every drawer in the house into corresponding ziploc bags. My schedule may not be as demanding as Renata Klein’s (any other Big Little Lies fans out there?) but I am not going to spend the time it takes to unwrap every single wine cork I’ve saved over the years (trophies of my accomplishments) or each magnet from our travels. It’s not good for the Earth and it is not good for my sanity. Ziploc anything and everything that can be bagged. Toys? Sure! They have large ziploc bags available now – they even come in 3-gallon sizes. Office supplies? Bag ’em up! Clothes? Fold ’em and bag ’em. I recommend zip-ties as well. You may look like Dexter checking out with your haul but at least you’ll be prepared for your PCS.

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6. Flatten Packing Paper as you Unwrap and Unpack

Life is so much easier if you flatten packing paper as you unwrap and unpack the Target and IKEA showroom that is your house. Of course you can always request the movers to unpack for you but HAHAHAHAHAHA. We have moved 10 times in the last 13 years and it didn’t take me long to realize that shoving crumbled up pieces of packing paper into garbage bags was the least efficient method of packing paper removal. Perhaps you will be assigned the fabled moving company that will return at a later date to pick up your boxes and packing paper but if you’re like most of us plebeians, you’ll be at the mercy of your town’s recycling program and people ISO of packing supplies on Facebook. Make your life easier and flatten paper as you go so it can be smacked, whacked, and stacked to the max (oh dear – I’m now quoting Jon Scieszka’s Trucktown – this is what my life has become).

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So there you have it – my six tips for surviving a PCS and doing so with grace and aplomb (ha!). I’ve been a part of this rodeo for over 13 years now and I’ve learned that no matter how stressful the uncertainty, the planning, the execution, and the settling into a new life feels – it all works out in the end. Life has a funny way of doing that. A sense of humor is a crucial ingredient of the military lifestyle. Without it, life just isn’t much fun.

So what are you some of your tips for surviving PCS season? How do you handle PCS envy? How do you tell the kids – do you keep them informed of the process from the beginning or do you not break the news until orders are in hand? How do you say ‘see you later!’? And most important – what drink of choice is in your hand while tackling everything like a boss? Bottoms up!