The mountains are bigger today

I live on a jewel of an island flanked by two mountain ranges. In the morning, the sun peeks over the Cascade Mountains, igniting the snow on the Olympics in shades of pink. And in the evenings, the sun slides behind the Olympics, bathing the Cascades in golden light.

The thing is: The mountains move. Not side-to-side, but forward and back. Some days, they look like they’re right on the shores of Puget Sound. Other days, they seem teeny and distant.

Why? It turns out that the mountains look close because of a temperature inversion. Warm air sits on top of air cooled by the frigid waters of Puget Sound. Light rays bend toward the colder air, causing the mountains to appear above or taller than their actual position. The greater the inversion, the bigger the mountains seem. 

The point is: The mountains seem bigger because of something in my environment.

And so it is with my grief. My beloved little brother Tom Roush died earlier this year.  We were born a year, a month, and a day apart, and we were a set.

Tom and me sitting on our grandparents’ steps in Ossweil, Germany (photo by Irmgard Roush)

This planet is teeming with 7.7 billion people, but in the absence of a single human being—this particular human being—my world feels hollow and empty. It was so, so much richer when he was in it.

Some days, I’m OK. Some days—lots of days—I’m not. Today, I was taking the garbage out and heard a single-engine airplane overhead. Then I saw a passenger jet flying low over the horizon. Tom would have known what kind of planes they were just by hearing the sound of their engines.

I went inside to make lunch for my partner’s birthday and realized that I’d never get another birthday card from Tom. I was never much of a card person, but he spent time picking just the right one, and we signed cards in a way that only we found amusing.

Like the mountains, my grief looms larger depending on environmental conditions, and my loss seems  bigger on those days.

Tom and me in May of 2016 (photo by Stephanie Himmel)

But sometimes, the mountains are invisible. At night, for example, I become blissfully unaware of my loss, only to rediscover it in the disorientation of morning, when I feel the weight of sadness in my body. Other times, the mountains are obscured by clouds, hidden by my need to attend to the banalities of life. But when my task is complete, the clouds part, revealing the mountains again.

There is no moving these mountains. But in their mercy they grow, they shrink, they disappear altogether and, in so doing, they help me learn how to live without Tom.

Header photo shows the Olympic Mountains from Ebey`s Prairie on Whidbey Island and was taken by Steve Halverson  (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.) Thank you, Steve!








Life, and how we move through it

As I walked through the forest on my son’s birthday yesterday, I reflected on how challenging life has been since the moment, 12 years ago, when he was born. At the same time, I’ve grown weary of thinking about how hard it’s been. Weary of feeling sorry for myself. Weary of My Story.

I realized that the past twelve years have felt like walking through chest-high water, which is something I used to do on purpose for exercise. There’s a much more efficient way to get through water. It’s called swimming.

Walking through the water of my life hasn’t exactly been a conscious choice. I do it because it’s all I’ve ever known. But I’m ready to find a more efficient and joyful way to move through life.

I’m going to sign up for swimming lessons.

What’s a nice girl like you doing at a land trust?

We lived on a 50- by 100-foot lot in Seattle’s Crown Hill neighborhood when my son Adrian was born. He was only weeks old when I noticed that he stopped crying if I took him outside, and I soon realized that I couldn’t raise him in the city that I’d called home for 20 years. We had to move. This child needed to be in nature.

My husband did not feel called to parenthood as I did, nor did he feel called to move to the country. The day came when I had to choose between my husband and my child, and our divorce was final when Adrian was 18 months old–three days after my father died.

I was doubled over with loss, but Adrian’s needs kept me putting one foot in front of the other. He inched me through the valley of the shadow one diaper-change, one feeding, and one nap at a time.

I set my sights on Whidbey Island and began the search for a new home. It was difficult for the people who loved us to understand this, and some took it personally. How could a single mom leave her support network behind and move with her toddler to a strange place where she knew only one family?

Architect Ross Chapin once told me, “Whidbey Island is a calling.” For us, it was more than that. I felt as if we got caught in a sci-fi tractor beam–there was no way for us not to come.

There are times here on Whidbey Island, particularly in Langley, when life feels so idyllic that I’m afraid a Klieg light will drop out of the sky, as it did in the movie The Truman Show, and I’ll discover that I’m just living on a really big movie set. It feels that idyllic. And it’s my deepest privilege to raise my child in a place where he can fish, dig for clams, and whack nettles with a stick; where he’s had goats, chickens, and bees to care for; potatoes to harvest; and trails to blaze through the forest. But beyond being a beautiful place, Whidbey Island has redefined what the word “family” means. Our family has grown to include others who heeded the same call and moved here to provide the best imaginable childhood they could for their children.

I stayed home with Adrian until he was 10, which is when we finally overcame the vision problems that had made it so challenging for him to succeed in school. The businesses that I had been running from home did not generate enough income to support us, so I began looking for a job elsewhere. Having been employed as a technical writer before Adrian was born, I searched for writing and editing jobs on the mainland, completely heartsick about the 12 hours a day that I’d have to spend away from my son, and struck by the irony that I had to work off the island so we could live on the island. Moving was out of the question.

Then, one day, clicking the wrong link on Craig’s List led me to an expired listing for a communication and marketing position at the Whidbey Camano Land Trust. I read the description, and said, “That’s me!” But when I went to and saw this slide show below, I knew it was my job in the same way that I knew I had to move to Whidbey Island. The slide show represented everything we loved about our home.

Could it GET any better than working on the island, protecting what makes it so special in the first place? In spite of my late application and a total of 165 applicants, I was the one they hired, and I feel lucky to spend my days preserving a place I love so dearly.

Building from the heart (II)

I am sometimes baffled by the desires that consume me. Goats for one. Building a house on my own for another. But the truth is, I can’t imagine who I’d be if I hadn’t built our house. I had to make thousands of decisions in the process, and with each one, I discovered who I am.

The question “How do I want to feel in this space?” informed every choice I made. Most of all, I wanted to feel comfortable, and for that, I needed my surroundings to be imperfect. The cedar shingles on the outside of the house are varied in width and staggered, not lined up like little soldiers. The walls inside are earth plaster. Trim, shelves, floors, mantles, and window sills are quirky and full of knot holes because they’re made of lumber that came from our own trees. The tiles in the bathroom look hand cut and don’t line up perfectly. The floor downstairs is stained concrete.

Everywhere I look, I see beautiful imperfections, and in surroundings like that, I feel free to be who I am–an imperfect human being.

In our house, I wanted to feel happiness, comfort, safety, love, fulfillment, hope, creativity, pride, peace, gratitude, and inspiration. Once I knew that, it wasn’t too hard to create spaces that evoked those feelings in me.

There’s a little saying I live by that goes something like this:

The greatest gift I can give to others is my own happiness.

I stayed true to my own happiness as I created our house, and in the process, created a space in which others are happy, too. Everyone who visits feels at home.

A universal language

When I was 28, I traveled behind what was then the Iron Curtain with friends. You know the part in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy & Co. enter Oz, and the movie changes from black-and-white to color? Well, crossing the border between West and East Germany was exactly like that, only backward. Everything became gray and colorless, and it seemed like we went back in time about 40 years.

We stayed with several families there–people that my friends had met through their church. Sitting at their kitchen tables behind the Iron Curtain enabled me to confirm that Sting was right. The Russians (or in this case, the East Germans) really did love their children, too. They experienced joy, grief, and fear just like I did. And a Berlin Wall in my own heart came tumbling down.

That’s when I realized that our emotions are a universal language. No matter where we live or what language we speak, what we feel is exactly the same. And that makes us One.

Loving (platonic)

Kris Wiltse’s illustration for the “Loving” card from the Mixed Emotions deck.