Hike: A Guest Post by Kristen Rybandt

This week I got to guest blog over at Michelle’s Lipstick and Laundry! Michelle is a terrific writer and she’s kind and enthusiastic and, above all, the real deal. We bonded over a mutual love of old buildings and stories, and basically I want to be like her when I grow up.

The other night, I sat on my 7 year-old daughter’s bed and read the guest post about taking a hike and getting lost from my smartphone, like our parents used to do with us, and a curious thing happened. Both cats came out of nowhere, one squeezing all but her tail underneath a dresser, and the other settled in the shadows behind the bed to have a listen. Did you know cats like bedtime stories? Kids like them too, as my girl listened to the whole thing and declared “it was kind of long, but I really liked it.” Kid, you lived it.

Thank you, Michelle, for letting me guest blog and for being you.


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Click here to read: Hike: A Guest Post by Kristen Rybandt


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you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry

I'm the green one. This might be what is referred to as foreshadowing.

I’m the green one. This might be what is commonly referred to as foreshadowing.

At Pioneer Camp, we dipped candles and churned butter and made salad from day lillies. In the root cellar of a 200 year old mansion, we dribbled red wax at the V of an envelope and eased a stamp into it to form our own seals. I also blindfolded Gigi Dixon and sent her tumbling down a scrubby hill, so it wasn’t all bad. I’ll never forget how perplexed she looked climbing back up with all those briars and brambles in her hair.

I’m pretty sure that was the same day  another girl and I had been squabbling over something (candles? stamps? whether or not one should actually eat day lillies??) when prissy Gigi admonished us with a “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” The counselor smiled and patted her head so that her perfectly curled pigtails shook like they were snickering. I seethed and noticed the strips of torn bedsheet we’d just dyed with boiled elderberry would make perfect blindfolds.

There was also the great bookbag fight of ’81 – which I totally won because a  Strawberry Shortcake bookbag weighted with matching lunchbox wins everytime against someone who buys lunch – plus that unfortunate phase in middle school where I pushed friends into trees. Do I need to go back as far as the biting episodes in nursery school or doesn’t everyone go through that?

Anger and I are old friends, though I thought I lost him around the time I discovered alcohol, which seeped into and soothed the jagged cracks of my psyche. After alcohol came cookies. God bless the cookies.

The thing about addicts is we’re always addicted to something. Alcohol, cookies, blindfold tricks and bookbag fights…even Recovery. We’re hooked on the thrill of altered states, and the more painful the better! Anything to take the edge off excruciating boredom and loneliness and the dreaded feeling that yep, maybe this is all there is. And so the next bandaid gets ripped off and the festering wound underneath gives us something new to focus on. If I don’t wind up a perfect human being by this time next year, I’m going to be really angry.

Just kidding. But I have been addressing old issues with sugar and last week I felt terrific and this week I’m looking for things to use as blindfolds. Writing is a nice release. Phew. I feel much better. Thanks for reading.

Keeping busy

All the grand and great-grand children gather at my grandmother’s house. This hasn’t happened since, oh, so long ago that one of the kids wasn’t even born yet. Family math is complicated.

I keep thinking our visit is like a tornado, though not like the burst pipe and busted hot water heater that recently tore through her house. After we eat, I wash plates and glasses and move on to pick potato chip crumbs out of her kitchen carpet (carpet! in a kitchen!) and she shuffles behind and tells me to stop, that it will give her something to do this week. She keeps old messages on her answering machine and I wonder if crumbs on the floor are like that. Like, at any minute the party might start again.


These children are great, but it was my grandmother who filled the wheelbarrow.

On the phone later, my grandmother tells me she has to go out and break down the pizza boxes we put out by the garbage or the truck won’t take them. I picture her tottering at the curb with a tiny pair of sewing scissors – the only ones I ever seem to​ be able to find – and consider hanging up and driving hours to do it for her. Tomorrow she will vacuum the kitchen, she says. Or maybe this weekend.

It definitely won’t be tomorrow because tomorrow she has someone coming to look at a recliner chair she has been trying to give away. People hear free recliner and get excited, but I bet they don’t even know recliners were made back then. It’s even older than the console television set she’s hoping the recliner person also hauls away for her. I have a hard time imagining two burly men hoisting it above their shins.

My grandmother tells me they bought the TV in the early 70s after my parents bought theirs and she had to have one. She said they went to Luskins but my grandfather balked at the price, so she said it was her money too, even if she didn’t have quite enough of it. She said the fellas at Luskins didn’t give credit accounts to women back then, so she talked them into some kind of deal on paper and went home with her TV and stopped by with cash after work a few times. I have no idea how she got it home, but it’s only moved once since then and probably thought it was done.

About ten years ago, it started taking longer for the picture to appear. You’d turn the set on and see black or purple, maybe a zig-zag of rainbow at the edge of the screen, and my grandmother would say you just wait a minute. You’d wait a few minutes and get bored and put the kettle on and when you’d come back, Dynasty would be on the screen on some channel that probably didn’t even exist.

About five years ago, the picture stopped coming in at all, though the sound still worked. That poor old TV went blind and must have felt us scooting her across the room to a dim corner but thankfully never saw the wobbly Walmart flat screen that took her spot. Maybe the console set egged my 2 year-old nephew to pick up a cane and swing wildly in that direction. It’s possible.

When we all leave my grandmother’s house, we leave at once. It’s always like that. We finish our last minute tasks – my brother puts in a storm window, I check her smoke detector batteries – and depart in a parade of waves and honks until she turns to a tiny speck in the rearview mirror and disappears.

I feel guilty stopping at the reservoir a mile from her house, but the draw is stronger than guilt or desire to get home. The sun is setting and there are a handful of men fishing solo or in pairs. My girls and I walk a short path in the woods to get a better look and some pictures.
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When I talk to my grandmother on the phone two days later, I expect her to sound as exhausted as I still feel. Instead she sounds alert, invigorated. This, in fact, is when she tells me her plans to get rid of the bulky recliner and console and pizza boxes. I picture her hoisting them onto her back and dragging them into the distance until they turn to specks and disappear.

Whistler’s Senior Paper

I love hearing that sober people are still sober. Does that make sense? I mean when I read or hear celebrities and everyday people say something that lets me know they’re still sober. They’re background affirmations, proof that sober life works for those who, well, work it.

You may recognize Whistler from guest posts here or from comments on other sober blogs. He’s a rare breed who never set foot in a recovery meeting and never waivered in his commitment to stay sober and get the most out of his new life. He celebrates three years sober this month and wrote the following to share…please join me in congratulating Whistler on his three years.

I was given this assignment over a week ago. My teacher is very strict by the way, and I am feeling the pressure. I would advise anyone who wants to recall early sobriety details to keep some sort of diary or you can just take a chance, be like me, and remember next to nothing. I have always hoped for a brain like Hans Delbrück but I am very much closer to Holden Caulfield. So I will write this crumby paper but it won’t be like old Hans could have served up.

First off I should let you know that some things change after three years, some things don’t. Your body continues to change. It’s basically an uncontrollable Christmas present like the first two years so things like vision and skin continue to improve and you are able to do a little basic math in your head again.

But be warned some of the weight you lost in year one and kept mostly off in the second year may return (don’t worry the fat has morphed into something different than the booze fat and you just know it’s the kind of fat you could lose in minutes if you really wanted to). The thing that does not change – the thing that remains the gold standard of not changing – is that everybody on the roadway except you still cannot drive worth spit.

My assignment is supposed to be about what this third year of not drinking has been like. Maybe I can compare the last three years to high school.

Freshman year is just a complete swirl of confusion and second guessing about self and life in general. But it’s OK, everyone is still in braces at that point so we just keep our head down, do our homework, and don’t hang out with upper classmen.

Sophomore year. What can I tell you. Totally forgettable. But… one of the most informative years and you do some of your best work in year two. You learn lots about yourself and begin to get an idea of where you’d like to go when you graduate. You show signs of maturing.

And then comes the Junior year. My favorite.

The most serious year so far, you know enough to understand what it takes and you apply what you’ve learned. You become comfortable with yourself enough to begin to want to be a part of things. Rip Van Winkle stretching himself awake. A terrific year really. It serves as the foundation for what’s to come.

And what’s still to come is that Senior year, when catching Senioritis and thinking you’ve become bullet proof can get you kicked out of school. Got to be careful, there will be moments. I will need to plan ahead, avoid traps. I am not going to worry it to death but I’m not going to take it for granted either. Other than that if it is anything like the last three years, it promises to be a slow steady gift box of surprises and revelations.

I guess everyone says this. I did not expect it to be like this. I just knew I had to stop. I had no idea what I was missing. No idea.

Auto train

Recently we took the auto train from Lorton, VA to Sanford, FL. The train somehow takes several hours longer than driving, but saves close to a thousand miles of wear and tear on your car and souls. Case in point: we talked to a woman whose husband ran over an orange traffic cone in the wee hours during their drive down, destroying part of their fender and rendering her unable to sleep the rest of the way. They were staying an extra night at Disney just to delay the return trip. 

We’ve done the Disney thing more times than I care to admit, but this time decided to save on airfare and spring for adventure by driving. Why not? I had fond memories of the 16+ hour drive from Northeast PA to suburban Chicago when our oldest was just a baby.  Actually, the only thing I remember was playing “the diaper game” in the backseat. (I feel I should explain the rules of “the diaper game”. Player one places a (clean) cloth diaper over their head and removes it suddenly, repeatedly and with pauses of varying lengths. Player two laughs, cries, eventually falls asleep. I  imagine some of you have played before.) 

About two months before our vacation, I had a sudden epiphany: Driving 34 hours round trip with two kids in the backseat was a terrible idea! I googled alternatives and learned about the auto train, which delivers you and your car 900 miles away, sparing precious wear and tear and sanity.  We booked two sleeper rooms for about the price of airfare. Train travel is not cheaper nor faster than flying, but it was a unique experience and interesting way to see part of the country.

We boarded in late afternoon and our kids took the room across the hall. I reverted to teenager and listened to sweeping cinematic music on earbuds while my husband watched old episodes of Mr. Show on his laptop. We shared a box of Mike and Ikes. It felt terribly romantic.

Yelp reviewers promised ugly, barren landscapes, so I was pleasantly surprised by sunlit bridges and marshlands brimming with life. We barreled past miles of graffiti, which I happen to love very much. I snapped picture after blurry picture from my camera phone, though some turned out. 

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I listened to sappy soundtracks, stared out the window for hours and ate candy. I finally know what my dream job is.

The dining car was pretty swanky. There were white linen table cloths and chinette bowls that looked real but cracked if you pushed too hard with your knife. There were real glass carafes filled with real iced tea and water. Best of all, there were four of us, so we didn’t have to sit with strangers.

That’s something all you introverts need to know about train travel. If you travel alone, you’ll be seated with strangers at meal time. Strangers! On a train! In the name of research and hunger, my husband and I sat with a mother and her adult daughter at breakfast the next morning while the kids slept in. We sat with a mother and her grown daughter at breakfast the next morning while the kids slept in. The daughter asked what side of the train our room was on and declared the views were better from the other side. None of us brought up “criss-crossing” murders, so the whole exchange was disappointing. I shall forever train travel in groups of four or else feign a medical condition to have meals delivered roomside.

Let’s talk about sway, shall we? You know how when you have to stand on the subway or bus and hold onto a filthy pole for dear life? Trains are no different except instead of filthy poles, you grab onto seats and sometimes the people sitting in them. It’s survival, done without much fanfare or apology. You falter, you lunge, you grab with high hopes and minimal eye contact. You mostly stay in your seat to avoid these matter-of-factly-horrifying encounters.

Let’s talk about sleep, shall we? I love to talk about it since I rarely see it otherwise. Sleep and I are like part time lovers. I don’t know what he’s up to otherwise, but we get along pretty well when he comes around. I don’t think he cares for train rides. I laid awake most of the night waiting up, even taking a homeopathic remedy in hopes he too would climb the ladder to the top bunk and smash his head on the ceiling. But I only caught a few dreamy snippets…him sitting across from me in that blue smoking jacket I like so much…him pointing out the picture window at a particularly homey looking hobo camp. Sleep was more snack than meal, but still better than trying to doze sitting up in a car while my husband ran over orange traffic cones.

We arrived whole and mostly refreshed at our destination. Our car met us after a lengthy unloading process and was all “hey what are you guys doing here?” We shook our heads and climbed in and drove him to Disney and later Hilton Head and Home.


The thing I liked best about this trip was the variety. We fought heat and crowds and bickering, but also found comfort and peace and quiet. We rode bikes on the beach and looked for alligators in lagoons. We laughed, we cried, eventually we all fell asleep.

9 months gray

It’s been awhile since I posted about going gray, though I think about it every day. It reminds me a little of going sober in that way, though one will give you your life back and the other is just hair, afterall. Still, returning to a color I’d never actually seen before has turned into a real eye opener and a much slower ride than expected.

I wasn’t prepared for how long it would take to grow out my old color, which was some variation of dyed brown with blond highlights. The girl who used to cut my hair said she had a client who grew her gray out in six months (and then promptly went back to color). What I failed to hear was her client also had very short hair.

Hair grows at a rate of about a half an inch per month, or six inches in a year. Shoulder length hair is longer than six inches on most people. Nine months in, I can see a clear demarcation line midway down my head, so I’d guess I’m about halfway through growing out the old color if I keep my current length.

I actually just had it cut a couple of weeks ago. I changed stylists to someone that doesn’t talk down gray and who listened and steered me towards a shorter cut that I really love instead of more highlights.


I’ve had a few people say “love the blond!” which makes me feel like a liar. I could counter with a lengthy actually I’m growing out my gray and dark brown and technically the blond is old highlights bleached out by the pool and sun but thanks anyway! But it’s just facebook.

Some days the gray makes me feel old and invisible. Did you ever read Flowers for Algernon? It’s a short story about a mentally challenged janitor and lab mouse who both get supersmart from an experiment, but later slide back to their former states and worse. What’s even worse is they know it’s happening to them.

Six years ago, I lost upwards of 40 pounds. Talk about finding newfound power and confidence. I went from feeling invisible to invincible. Graying reminds me of the invisibility I used to feel when I was overweight. When I’m out with my lovely teenaged daughter, I especially notice how we’re all captivated by youth and beauty. I know I’ll never look young again.

The unexpected side is how gray makes me feel more youthful. Since I don’t care about protecting expensive highlights from the elements anymore, I’ve been swimming more this summer than in years. I don’t cover my hair with hats in the sun and I don’t have to buy special color-safe shampoo anymore. Not having to color every 3-4 weeks is freeing, even though I admittedly gaze longingly at pictures taken less than a year ago when I had color.

I love the way the front of my hair is turning out to be streaks of silver. The young woman who washed my hair before my last haircut said her mother keeps hoping the few gray hairs she has will turn into a lightning bolt streak. She says she’d kill for what I have. It’s odd what feels like a compliment when you’re going gray. It’s wonderful how kind people can be.

My husband has been my biggest cheerleader from the start. Anytime I make him swear to give his honest opinion, he carefully tells me he can hardly tell where the old and new color meet. He has a fair amount of gray that he never considered coloring, and of course being a man, he wears it wonderfully. And really, anyone can.

I’m probably about halfway through the process and hopefully through the worst of it. I’d say months 4-8 were the hardest because I couldn’t tell what it would look like but felt the fallout of looking older. If anyone reading this is in that in-between place, hang in there. It definitely gets better.

Moon River

The road is shorter than I remember. The houses are closer together. Hell, they even look smaller. I drive slowly and a white-haired fellow half looks up from watering something with a hose and waves. He must think we’re neighbors. And we are in a way, just not for the last 35 years.

I turn the car around in a culdesac and notice the fellow’s mailbox has a familiar name on it. I wonder how they can still be alive and remember their kids were only a little older than my brother and I were then. Grown ups always seem older in memory, like how the camera adds ten pounds but in stooped shoulders and gray hair.

Maybe I should have stopped…said hello, I say to my oldest daughter as the car climbs back up the hill. She has taken earbuds out for this stretch. We’re taking the long way to see my grandmother, her great-grandmother.

My daughter says Go back. You know you want to. If you don’t, you might always regret it.

She has me at regret. I turn the car around and go back.

The white-haired fellow is still spraying something with a hose, a doormat I think. I turn the engine off and walk to where his driveway meets the road. He looks up, wary-curious, and then I ask if he’s Mr. so-and-so and he says yes, maybe makes a move for a pair of gardening shears.

I’m Kristen, I say. I used to live next door a long, long time ago.

His face loosens, he smiles and puts the hose down and walks over. He asks after my brother and I tell him he has two kids now, eager to prove who I am.

He says to me Wait right here. I have someone who has to meet you.

He disappears through the front door of his house. I wouldn’t recognize it. They’ve had so much work done. There’s an addition, a garage that wasn’t there before. The roof isn’t asphalt shingle anymore but corrugated red steel. The landscaping is exotic and lush and snakes around the yard.

The neighbor reappears with his wife. She’s holding a dish towel and looks concerned. I don’t think he’s told her who I am yet.

Of course she’s nothing like I remember at five. I remember a cross between Ginger and Maryann. Her hair isn’t fire-red anymore but frosted. She wears round glasses and I tell her who I am and her face kind of crumbles and she gives me a big hug. She’s so tiny I have to bend over to hug her.

She says to me I was real close with your mom. I never got over losing her.

She doesn’t mean when we moved away because my mom was already gone. We lived in that house a good four years after she died. She was 31. I was a little over a year old, my brother four.

The neighbor tells me my dad had to put a phone in my mother’s hospital room so they could talk every day. She says Let me tell you, Dolly and I could talk.

She tells me about the last time they talked. She says my mom asked her to come see her at the hospital. She was on a sterile unit so she wouldn’t catch anything and the neighbor was at home in her den with ten cub scouts. She said ‘oh I don’t think I should come today, Dolly’. And you know she died the next day.

The neighbor’s husband pulls an ipod out of his pocket and scrolls through aseries of old pictures of his children, his wife. There they are just as I remember, an assortment of heights and faded 70s plaid, plus the one boy with his dark, clunky glasses. They haven’t aged at all in his pocket.

I have him show my girls, who are sitting quietly in the car, taking it all in, so they can meet them too. The wife tells how my brother used to walk through their back door every day and announce I’m here and help himself to cookies in the pantry. He called her Mom, she says, and if he was over when the ice cream man came, she gave him money too.

She says that darned ice cream man starting coming a couple of times a day and my brother laid down on the floor and cried when she said but Jeff, you already had ice cream. He said My mom would let me have more. 

She gave all the kids more money. The ice cream man probably shook his head but started coming three times a day.

She says to me Your mom wanted to have you so bad even though she knew it was risky. She told me she wanted to fill that house up with children.

I feel a familiar stab of guilt. I already know this from my grandmother and from a manila folder of medical records my dad gave me when I was in college. I know her cancer came back when she was pregnant with me and that she had to wait to start radiation. I know her pregnancy was plagued with night sweats, fatigue and weight loss, but still she gave birth to a perfectly healthy baby girl.

I ask after who lives in our old house and say how nice it looks. They too added a garage and pretty landscaping. The wife says they’re real nice people but she’d still rather have us next door.

We catch up on their kids (four!) and grandchildren (six!) and which of the original neighbors are still around. They tell me another died from the same kind of cancer my mom had. He hung in longer, they said. Here we stand, scrappy testaments to good health and luck.

Dusk is settling in and bugs are starting to bite at our legs. My youngest boldly announces from the backseat that her great-grandmother is probably wondering where we are. 

I hug the wife again and shake the husband’s hand and they stand at the curb and wave like long-lost relatives as we drive off.

We wind through miles of horse farms and rolling, untouched landscape. I’d be hard pressed to point out anything that wasn’t there 35 years ago. Moon River comes on among hundreds of songs on a playlist and I tell my oldest daughter this used to be my mother’s favorite song. My grandmother told me this years ago when we were sifting through old records. We drive through the deep summer landscape to see her.


My old house – Then (both grandmothers and a milk box on front stoop)

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