June is a good month for weather and books. And if you like to keep up on what military spouses are writing, as I do, this June promises to be particularly rich. From practical advice to poetry to edge-of-your-seat fiction, the landscape of milspouse writing is blooming like a wisteria that’s just feeling those first summer rays.
Let’s start with the practical: a fantastic guide for parents of military kids, Seasons of My Military Student, by Amanda Trimillos and Stacy Allsbrook-Huisman. It’s out June 1st from that big-hearted powerhouse of a press, Elva Resa, publisher of many military-family-focused books. Seasons aims to provide parents with tools to help their children through multiple moves and life changes, acknowledging the hardships of this lifestyle while also celebrating the unique resiliency of the military child.
I’m a Navy wife now, but as a kid, I lived in the same town for my first 18 years and, cozier still, my parents were public-school teachers who somehow managed to teach at every single school I ever went to. (My high-school math teacher would read embarrassing call slips aloud, to the snickering of my peers: “Andria, your trombone and your lunch are in your dad’s classroom.”) So to raise three children in a lifestyle that requires they move, on average, every two years (sometimes more and sometimes less), where schools and towns and teachers are perpetually new, has given me plenty of moments of worry and second thoughts: will my kids have no “sense of place?” Will they make only “geographical friends,” not the lifelong connections I was lucky enough to make?
Seasons doesn’t claim that any of this will be easy, but it does offer outstandingly warm, perceptive, and practical suggestions for making transitions as rewarding as possible for our military kids. It divides the average experience of a military kid’s move into four “seasons”: the Seasons of Leaving, Arriving, Growing, and Thriving. It lets parents know what to expect from their kids in these various times — the good and the bad — and how best to support them.
Central to this support is the creation of an Education Binder, and let me tell you, this was a revelation for me — I have paltry collections of documents, immunization forms and a few report cards and the like, but Seasons walks you through the creation of a bona fide Binder that could either be the most meticulously crafted tome you lug from one city to another over twenty years or, perhaps, a vital lifesaver, intercepting any of the many, many roadblocks that could be thrown your way. I’m now leaning toward the latter, for I certainly have arrived at many a new school with my kids only to find contested yet again that one booster shot my daughter missed at 18 months old (during, of course, a move) which the pediatrician signed off on because we made it up at three years — or — the Learning Plan that was made for my son when he was allowed to take reading at a grade level above his own — or — the list goes on and on. With multiple children, multiple schools, and moves coming sometimes as close as every 18 months — I’m a convert now. I am going to pay serious attention to creating binders for my three kids.
Seasons helps parents tackle not only these bureaucratic annoyances of military moves, but also helps them understand the natural feelings children experience during profound change, and provides solutions that are both practical and charming (help kids find creative and age-appropriate ways to stay in touch; plan goodbye parties because saying goodbye is an important and healthy part of transition). There is even a chapter that addresses those hardest of circumstances, the injury or loss of the active-duty parent. While nearly unthinkable, this is a necessary component of military life to face, and Seasons meets it compassionately and head-on.
Sometimes, I have found myself rushing over a child’s feelings during a move — not because I am trying to be callous, but because I can see the larger picture while they are focused on the immediate, and because I simply have so much on my to-do list. Other times, I focus too much on a child’s potential sadness when they are actually doing pretty okay! Seasons is an excellent reminder of the ways we can be particularly attuned to our children during times of stress, without either unnecessary drama or a brushing-aside of important feelings.
With at least a handful of moves still in store for my kids, I’m grateful that this book found its way to me. It is sensible, warm-hearted, and full of the exact kind of experience that we early-and-mid-career military families need to help guide us through these delicate, critical years — when our spouses’ active working lives coincide with the most memorable years we have with our children. I used to think, sometimes, that it wasn’t fair that so much dovetailed at once — kids’ first steps, husbands’ deployments, starting kindergarten, cross-country moves — but for military families this is the world we live in, where very big, disruptive moments live right alongside the quiet, cherished ones. Seasons of My Military Student allows us the emotional space to work out our fears while reassuring us that, while this way of life may not be easy, it has its own unique and hard-earned rewards.
Talk about the big moments and the quiet ones: for a more lyrical take on these, I recommend the beautiful recent collection of poetry from Lisa Houlihan Stice, Permanent Change of Station. Any military spouse will chuckle instantly at the title, a classic military misnomer that dubs as “permanent” a military family’s temporary move to a new locale.
Stice is a Marine wife with a preschool-age child and a knack for mining the fissures and pretenses of military life. Whereas her first collection, Uniform, concentrates on the strangeness of military culture– the fancy-dress balls and BBQs and martial rituals that feel so odd to those raised outside them — Permanent Change of Station is a more focused meditation on homefront life in all its sweetness, ennui, and sharp moments of clarity and change. A reader gets the sense that the poet has settled into a parenting life that is both more cooperative and collaborative — her daughter is older now, no longer an infant — but that she is also deeply conflicted about what it means to parent and create within a culture whose touchstones don’t line up with hers. In what is both a nod to and a complication of the “seasons” of move and change, she names “Our Nine Situations”:
…3. contentious ground
where we want to be forever
waits until retirement
4. open ground
we can say where we’d like to go
and just hope it’s assigned
…6. serious ground
relatives are voices on the phone
people we see twice a year
…9. desperate ground
we call this our home
even though it isn’t
Oh, man, I know that feeling — the strange hollowness of a lifestyle acquiesed to and yet, sometimes, resented. Couple that with the heady, once-in-a-lifetime emotional swell of early parenthood, and you have an onslaught of observations that feel deeply familiar to me. But these poems are far from bitter: they are knowing and smart and sometimes self-protective, sometimes vulnerable; the heartbeat of everyday life runs through them.
As you read, you can begin to feel the rhythm of the poet’s days: walking familiar paths with her daughter and her dog; playing games; reading bedtime stories. “My heart beats/ to the tune/ of glasses,” she writes, “the chime/ of a simple life.”
Other times the understated beauty of this seems to startle her, become fierce: “we are raising fire,” she writes, in “Daughter:” “a shock-headed girl/ in this cold season.” Her husband is away: “…Daddy patrols/ someone else’s night.” Meanwhile, tucked into their own, faraway night, are the poet and her daughter and her dog, whiling away hours that are both endless and precious, days that move too fast and too slow. Stice writes, “if only we could/plunk minutes, seconds,// into mason jars…
if only we could
open those jars
when we need the time
but we can’t
Permanent Change of Station is a satisfying, moving, bittersweet collection of poems that feel entirely real and lived — like reading the journal of an intelligent, thoughtful soul and joining her in her days. If writing and reading are acts of empathy, both, then there is surely much worth to be found walking in the poet’s shoes in Permanent Change of Station.
Finally, as we approach June and all its promise of reading in lawn chairs and enjoying late evening sunsets that stretch a little later every night, here’s a reminder that Siobhan Fallon’s beautiful, funny, riveting novel The Confusion of Languages is out in paperback on June 5th.
It’s the perfect, engrossing read for your beach afternoon or sunset evening or even just sweating in a car waiting to pick your child up from some fatiguing summer activity. You can pound it back in two nights like a Long Island Ice Tea or you can just sort of sip along like a little glass of amaretto — I’m not going to tell you how to do it, only promise you that this tale of two American military wives in Jordan during the Arab Spring is intriguing, perceptive, and funny as hell, and feels so real that you’ll be desperate to know what happens at the end. My own mom, not a military wife by any stretch, could not stop commenting about how much she was enjoying it, and how she was just “sucked in.” I was sucked in, too. Fallon is a master storyteller and her quirky, believable characters could practically walk right into your living room. Pre-order now, anywhere books are sold.