It's a Beautiful Day in the Desert Again

October 26, 2018

Dear Family,

“It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary is dependent upon him not understanding it.”
—Upton Sinclair

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.”
—Bill Mollison

“The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door to all moments.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh



Ivy now rides a two-wheeler like only a super-skilled, daredevil three-year-old can ride, although she is often frustrated by her inability to write and draw and Do Things like the big kids. She can be a total pill and an adorable firecracker and she assures me that she is no longer a baby because she is HUGE.

Ivy’s running commentary in the back seat, concerning a handful of found objects: “These seeds are sticky! An they’re making me sweat. And they’re small and smooth. An I don’t actually know what kind they are…”

After being told to slow down her ride on a rocking chair: “When I grow up, I’m gonna have one of these that’s a supposed-to-be-FAST rocker!”

After a spiky foray into the desert thorns, barefoot: “My toes do NOT wike the very forny area! They are sad wittle feet. ...My wittle toes are happy now, acuz it isn’t so forny! But my wittle feet do NOT want to walk anymore.”

“There’s a VERY tiny airplane, high up in the sky, higher than anyone could jump!”

Ivy often refers to herself in the third person, as in: “The baby is NOT a baby now. Look at how tall it grew! It doesn’t still nurse.”

“Wah! Wah! I’m hungry! I want my fruit! ...I ate my food but I don’t want my banana.... Wah wah! Waaaahhhhh!” [Ten minutes of yelling.] I try in vain to thwart her tantrum, and finally say…Ivy, I’ll be listening to my podcast, but let me know if you need anything. I’m done with all your noise! “Wah wah wah wah wah wwaaaaaahhhhhhh!!” [More minutes of yelling and carrying on, until finally, blessedly, quiet.] How are you doing, Ivy? I say cautiously. “I finished my banana. But I wanted more food.” The sad, pitious face of a three-year-old peers up at me reproachfully. Ah. Well why the heck didn’t you say so? “I didn’t want to interrupt you!”

“If you had a blister, you would not wike it! It feels AWFUL!”

“Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama! cows eat grass? ...oh! I thought they didn’t. [Singing:] Da da da da da da da…”

Running across the yard: “It’s fun to touch your chest when it bumps! Does your chest bump? All people’s bump when they go wike dis.”

After a spontaneous dinner party: “All people come to ours campsite!”

“Did we bring ours camper? …Oh good! Cuz then if we are in a place where we want to live, we can.”

Concerning those changing tables in public restrooms which are strangely illustrated: “They show a koala with a diaper! REAL ones are naked with their fur.”

“I was goin’ so fast that I couldn’t even stop! Did you see? I wasn’t even scared! Not REALLY scared.”



We got back to Joshua Tree at the very end of September (more on that below), and ever since then Eliza’s fall schedule has been in full swing. The weather has been beautiful and Eliza is thriving in the desert. She’s taking a math class with a fantastic teacher and a lovely group of 1st and 2nd graders, plus she’s doing an art class, a kids’ choir, a rock climbing class, and piano. Plus, horseback riding, which is her new favorite activity and also possibly the best possible way to re-wire her little neuroplastic brain. (She has to calm any anxiety so she doesn’t scare the horse; she has to gently slow her breathing; she has to soften her body. Her fantastic teacher helps her do this in a way that’s so much more fun than any anxiety management tutorial.)

At this time last year, she was freaking out daily and having such horrible headaches. Nine months of Dr. Nathen’s protocol, plus all sorts of other good things, have landed her in this autumn as a sweet and mature young lady (who just happens to be Very Sensitive to Various Things). The other day she happily commented, “Even when I’m really nice and being very kind to everyone, I have this ANGER that is just under my heart, deep inside. It’s there all the time, but nobody would ever know. Do you have that, Mama?”

Or, she’ll say, while trying to feed herself: “I’ve been so busy lately with all my classes that I kind of haven’t had time to think about how hard it is to eat...” (Feeding is not going totally smoothly - we still have to feed her often, and make sure that she’s eating enough calories, since the tiniest distraction will make her forget she’s hungry - but she is looking and behaving SO much better, and her activities are giving her motivation to beat The Sickness by eating even when she despairs of picking up her fork.)

With crossed fingers, I am more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time.

“Asking how old you are is one of the beginnings of starting friends.”

“Cool breezes just overcame me!”

“Something is missing from me! And I KNOW what’s missing from me: a drink of water.”

“Mama? Why did humans start being alive?”

A new game begins: “Ivy! I have the perfectest idea…”

“With my harness off, I look like a girl. With my harness on, I look like a Really Good Climber!”


Eliza: Ivy, you’re the cutest little baby in the world!
Ivy: I’m not a baby, I’m a kind of small dog.
Eliza: You want to be a dog?
Ivy: I’m a poodle.
Eliza: That’s not the smallest dog, but okay! You can be a poodle…



Jem is into rockets, thanks to Grandpa Terry, and is also reading more and more. He doesn’t always know exactly what he wants to do with his time, and his focus often eludes him, but he has many strengths. He can often be found making up games that use his whole body, because physicality is definitely one of Jem’s Things. He and Ben are taking a storytelling class with other teens and tweens, and are meeting other locals kids at a homeschoolers park day, plus they also take an art class, a perspective drawing class, and we keep finding new and amazing opportunities. They can’t wait to take rock climbing next year, and they want to take CrossFit except the near-daily driving schedule might kill me and so we’ve postponed that for now. They are also both continuing with piano lessons.

“I HATE ‘The Little Brown Jug’!” What songs DO you like, Jem? It might help if we pick songs for you to play on the piano that you especially enjoy. “Any kind - when I already know how to play them.”

Pondering the miracle of reproduction: “It must’ve been really hard for big apatosauruses to have babies!”

On a recent hike, Jem made sure to watch out for Snattlerakes, and he noticed a Leafalanche under a large tree.



Ben has been participating in Out of The House activities more than ever in his life, as noted above. He’s also been very much into photography lately, thanks to the generosity of Grandpa Terry and Grandma Ruth, who gave him an amazing Nikon camera and lens for an early birthday present. You can find some of his photos here: . Feel free to e-mail him at if you want to see more!

Ben has also been reading lots of books these days, including, gratifyingly, many that I discover and check out for him virtually from the library. It turns out that there are a ton of amazing young adult books these days, way more even than when I was a young adult. And it is especially amazing to be able to access so many titles in ebook format.

Ben is hopeful that soon he will grow taller. MUCH taller. And meanwhile, we try to focus on all the many things that are more important than that, and Ben is navigating the world of young adulthood. “There isn’t ANY perfect person!” Ben noted recently, and if you happen to ask him, he will share lots and lots of thoughts concerning what is right and wrong and good and bad and happy and awful in this world.


Ivy, demonstrating: “Fish wips!”
Eliza, trying it: “Haha! I FARTED with my lips!”


Eliza: Why did it fall?
Papa: I’m going with gravity.
Eliza: No! I don’t want you to leave!


Recent stats:

Ben - 84.11 lbs, 4’10.5”
Jem - 77.27 lbs, 4’10”
Eliza - 44.97 lbs, 3’10.5”
Ivy - 31.53 lbs, 3’4”


Okay, so we had the most insane summer. I guess I probably already mentioned this. I think I last wrote so many months ago that it’s kind of been a blur, but trust me - it was really kind of insane. First, all the hectic stuff I mentioned last time. Then came a week in Connecticut, a whirlwind weekend heatwave family reunion during which Uncle Matt and Aunt Michelle got married in NJ, and then a quick drive up from NJ to Ithaca. So many wonderful moments mired in a great many hours and days of schlepping and excessively difficult Work.

(Did you know that it’s sometimes a bit tricky to keep six people clothed and fed and clean and prosperous, forget about contented and relaxed, while traveling all over the place? Really?? Oh well, I guess I got the memo late in the game…)

We stayed in Ithaca for four weeks, as Graham and Otto’s guests, right next to Gourdlandia. This was fabulous, because we got to see good friends nearly every day, although we still (sadly) did not get to see everyone. It was also fabulous because our thirteen-year-old friend Luna from Joshua Tree flew out to join us for three weeks, and as Ben noted, “Luna made everything more fun!” (Luna successfully navigated her first time traveling by plane, joined our chaotic family life and fit right in at EcoVillage. She and the boys slept outside in tents throughout some amazing downpours.) (Also, it must be noted that Luna is a gem among teenagers and politely thanked us for meals every time she was served one.)

The visit to Ithaca was exceptionally damp, and that was NOT fabulous. It rained for a large percentage of our visit, and it often seemed like everything was constantly soaking or about to be soaked. Seven people hanging out in a camper during multi-day rainstorms is just not the most fun thing. In addition, Jeff was working on a project that had a pretty tight timeline. Which he actually met. Which is really amazing, considering the fact that he was working every day in our exceptionally cozy camper. It was hard to believe that our entire camper wasn’t going to begin sprouting mold due to parking in such an extremely prolonged summer of humidity, and this gave us additional stressful thoughts when other stressful thoughts temporarily abated.

If Ithaca’s climate weren’t so crappy, I’d move back there in a heartbeat. The landscape and local food is amazing, and the people are even more so. A montage of the more enjoyable parts of the summer would include photos of SO many wonderful friends posing in front of waterfalls, visiting our campsite, joining us for dinner parties, meeting us around town, and swimming and hiking and biking. There would be happy children playing, and swimming, and exploring. Ben and Jem and Luna joined the fun of being EcoVillage teens and tweens in the summertime, which is like summer camp every day. (Examples of photos that may be used in montage)

The movie montage of our summer lives would NOT include any of the rest of the time, which was a lot of that time we spent Dealing With Rain, Washing and Drying Things At Laundromats, Avoiding Moldy Buildings (did I mention that awful climate in Ithaca? Well, it does not do good things for buildings in general, especially older ones), and dealing with Eliza and also Ivy, whose summertime behavior, happiness, and health were Not Great. Ivy had some sort of gastrointestinal issues that worsened gradually all summer long. Eliza was having lots of medium-grade headaches, and high-grade anxiety/whining/tantrumming/Super-Unpleasant behavior.

When it was finally time to leave EcoVillage and begin our journey west, I was both heartbroken (to say goodbye to friends AGAIN)…and supremely ready to get the hell out of humid/damp/rainy climates for at least several more years. I was also burnt out on traveling with anxious/whing/tantrumming children. As in, Totally Ready Not To Do It ANYMORE. And I was definitely ready to never camp next to other people while care taking those same afflicted children.


And so, on Labor Day weekend, we began a two-week cross country marathon drive home to California. Great plan, huh?? The first night, we camped near the shores of Lake Erie, and Jeff and I looked at each other, slightly victorious: we had made it through the first day’s drive! We provided dinner for five kids, and we even walked down to the park next to the lake, and took picturesque photos in the beautiful evening light.

The next day, we bid a sad farewell to Luna, picked up a giant batch of Wegmans organic lunch meat (to supplement the large amount of lunchmeat we had already procured from the Piggery back in Ithaca) (ready to serve on cafeteria trays for while-we-drove lunches), loaded as many kids’ audiobooks as we could fit onto three different devices, unpacked a few carefully-selected toys for the car, and prepared to continue our cross-country journey. We engaged for the ride some Very Extremely Low Expectations.

Three days later, driving through some state west of Ohio, Jeff and I looked at each other and had to admit that the trip wasn’t really sucking nearly as much as we thought it would! In fact…the trip was actually turning out to be kind of fun.

And it continued to be kind of fun, interspersed with a LOT of driving, an obscene amount of gasoline, plenty of time for leisurely conversation and audiobooks (even for Jeff and me! Did I mention that Ivy, although she was having some issues, really displayed some amazing car-driving patience??), and even some socializing!


Outside Chicago, we had planned to rendezvous with Millie and her family for a picnic.

And I must explain right here that Millie - for those of you who have never heard me talk about her - is an absolutely incredible person. There are no superlatives good enough. Way back eight and a half years ago, when Ben was so sick and I was desperate for new ideas and action steps, I found an online support group for parents who were healing their children with diet. Millie and I began an off-list correspondence that developed into a two-woman support group that was seriously unparalleled, as support groups go.

While Ben screamed and tantrummed, as he certainly did loudly and often, for prolonged periods, at the age of six, I wrote to Millie - who would write back immediately and compassionately and understandingly. She could See Me - she had been through similar situations with her offspring. When Ben decided to not-eat for days and then weeks at a time, Millie wrote to me that I should not give up faith - that Ben would most certainly eat, and as long as we offered him only the most nutritious foods, he would heal. When Ben sat at the table for eight hours one day, rather than sip one teaspoon of broth, Millie said: you’re going to get him through. When Ben finally started to heal, and I saw more clearly how very sick he had been, and how delayed he had gotten socially, Millie celebrated his new victories (eating! Feeding himself! Talking with strangers! Using new communication and speech!), and assured me that he would keep getting better and better and someday I would know my real child, who would eat and not tantrum and have friends and grow up into his world.

Millie’s spicy Cuban letters, combined with her zealous Christian tolerance of my atheist Jewish self, plus her sense of humor and extreme faith in the capacity of the human body to heal itself, got me through some very dark times.

I have probably written more words to Millie than anyone else in the world - and she probably knows more about me than anyone outside my closest circle.

In recent years, Millie and I haven’t exchanged quite the same volume of letters, but she is somebody i always think of and draw wisdom from during my daily life.

And the funny thing is, in all the time we’ve been friends, we had never met.

Until this past Labor Day, when we were driving across the country and we planned this crazy rendezvous at a State Park in Indiana, only a couple of hours from Millie’s house. Except - because this is what it did pretty much everywhere we went this summer - on the day we planned to meet, there were massive, flooding storms that were going to make a picnic at the state park pretty miserable. But we could not abort our plan! No, the intrepid crew of Millie, her husband Jim, and her daughter Ellen piled into the car, along with an amazing cooler full of gifts from their farm CSAs, and we met them at a rest area just southeast of Chicago. And in a surreal, thunderstorm-drenched moment, in a rest area next to the interstate, between the Cinnabon and McDonalds, Millie and Jim and Jeff and I and Ellen and also our kids met for the first time IRL.

It’s the oddest thing, to meet one of your best friends in a stranger’s body! I can’t wait till next time, when we won’t even be strangers. And I shall certainly treasure the hour we had together that day, and during the many days that followed we ate the grass fed beef, the raw cream and berries, and the many other treats that Millie and Jim and Ellen insisted on giving us for the road.


Our next social engagement was only a few days later, in Laramie, Wyoming, a really sweet little town where we rode our bikes on a fun trail, visited an amazing food co-op, and breathed deeply of the sweet sagebrush air and FINALLY, Lower Humidity (!!! :) !!!). This is where we had a wonderful visit with Wyeth and Donna and Parker (and even Wyeth’s mom Sandy), who just happened to be in town for a family event and made lots of time to visit with us.

Our expectations of this cross-country trip had been so low that all these fun times were just eliciting Jeff’s and my profound gratitude. So nice!

Sandy recommended that we read “The Glass Castle”, which we were able to check out of the library as an audiobook. Jem listened over the course of two days’ drives, and began reporting about this uncomfortable and brilliant memoir concerning the author’s childhood in a poor, nomadic family. “I kept waiting for it to get boring, and it never did!” said young Jem. After he gave us a few more details, Jeff and I hastily began listening to this amazing book.

Along our trip we didn’t have time for many stops, but we did visit a historic Pony Express site, and the National RV Hall of Fame (I mean, we couldn’t resist this one, since we hadn’t even known it existed prior to passing the sign on the highway!). One night, our RV park was a beautiful, mature walnut grove.

It really was a very good trip.

Some photos from the journey (the whipped raw cream was so incredibly more delicious than the photo implies, and the scenery beyond the car windows much more beautiful):


And then we arrived back in California, way up north, for some doctor’s appointments. The stress of daily life began to surface right about that day, when we ran out of lunchmeat and had to figure out where to buy fresh vegetables and supplies, and we had to start thinking about where we were going to live in the fall and all the other things that hadn’t been so relevant when we were driving all day and camping in RV parks every night.

(Re: Joshua Tree Housing: our wonderful campsite with wonderful friends was wonderful for the past two winters, but the reality had become that our kids were still tantrumming, and we needed a campsite that was far enough from other people that we wouldn’t have to worry about their own personal eardrums while attempting to deal with irrational children while additionally not going (entirely) insane. And although this all made sense, it did not make Easy.)

So. We did the doctor’s appointments. We spent several days driving down through California (it sure is a long state!). We drove through the Central Valley and then up into the high desert mountains, and parked ourselves up in Big Bear Lake, a strangely appealing and remote reservoir surrounded by an amazingly populous town that is waaaaaay up high, northeast of Los Angeles. We weren’t quite ready to head back to the heat of Joshua Tree, because…I had to go and get a big dose of Periodontal Surgery!

Yup, that’s right. After all these many years of putting it off (for many good reasons, including the fact that I needed to get my teeth-grinding and poor bite resolved before the surgery could be properly performed), I finally gave in to the advice of my doctors, and went under the knife for a 2.5-hour operation to deal with yet another chapter in the Saga of My Mouth.

This was a crazy experience. Jeff stayed back at the camper with the girls, and the boys and I stayed with friends of Uncle Jake’s who were amazingly generous hosts and welcomed the boys and me for two extra nights, including the afternoon after the surgery when all I could do was curl up in their guest bedroom, unable to speak once the novocaine wore off. I even took two ibuprofen, so you know it hurt bad. Fun times!

I was absolutely exhausted after the surgery, and it took me eight full days to recover. Meanwhile, we enjoyed the cool weather in Big Bear, and then headed down to Sam’s Family Spa for three days at the beautiful hot springs to celebrate Jeff’s birthday before heading back up to a new campsite with some friends in Joshua Tree. We had a whole lot of Planning to do.


See, I guess it’s perfectly obvious, but after this past summer, Jeff and I were both longing for Comfort. It has been so challenging to try to balance the basic needs of our family in combination with our traveling and mold avoidance, not to mention children’s behavioral challenges and trying to fit all these quests into one small camper in various campsites along the way.

And after the gum surgery, I was fantasizing: an apartment - surely we could find one without mold?? Well, yes: it turns out that if one has a LARGE amount of money to throw at the situation, one could probably find one of these, large enough so that the landlord is willing to rent to a family of six (“But we’ve been living in a CAMPER!” I tried to explain to one landlord, who (practically illegally) told me that she wouldn’t consider renting to us since her three-bedroom house was “too small”). But the final nail in the coffin of the apartment rental idea was when the application to possibly rent one (crappily-carpeted) apartment would cost $30, plus require a background check, and would be in competition with three other applicants who’d already paid the fee…and we discovered the peculiarly southern California habit of renting apartments without refrigerators. I kid you not! Evidently renters around here are expected to carry around a fridge from place to place!

This plan was beginning to look incredibly expensive and annoying and challenging, not to mention that most of the rental fees didn’t include utilities. And so we hatched another plan, along with the friends who were going to provide us with our campsite facilities in town: we’d buy a second camper! Park it next to the first! Retrofit and make the indoor shower Amazing, and hook the toilet up to the septic system! We’d have an office for Jeff, combined with another bedroom for growing boys, combined with a place to put my piano…and we’d buy a washing machine to put inside. We calculated that within about nine months, this plan would pay for itself as compared with the apartment rental, and since we hadn’t budgeted for either of these scenarios anyway, and this plan utilized the home-on-wheels we already have, we decided to do it.

We like innovation, uniqueness, and Doing Things The Different Way (did I mention we like to buck mainstream norms??), here at the Amaral Matilsky campsite!!

Meanwhile, I was still recovering from gum surgery, Jeff was quietly contemplating how the heck he was going to ever begin to start working again with the bedlam around him, and new tasks kept popping up like whack-a-moles. Register the car and camper in California! Get our new driver’s licenses! Begin shuttling children around to classes! Register to vote! Set up our new campsite! Figure out what to do about our Undeliverable Street Address! Retrieve the stuff which the Lesters had kindly stored for us over the summer! Find a new camper! Check the market thoroughly to make sure it was a good deal. Check the listings again! Keep feeding four children and ourselves So Many Meals every single day! Look at another camper, an extra three-hours’ drive away, just to be sure it’s not better than the first. Inspect the first one thoroughly! Make sure it’s mold free, and figure out how to pay cash for it and bring it home and get it all fixed up and pick it up from the RV repair place and then clean it…

But I’m ahead of myself. Back on the second night we were back, my mouth was still hurting, and I was actually quite depressed. Eliza was having a regulation 1.5-hour yelling tantrum, and was threatening her own bodily harm and “never eating AGAIN!!!!” as consequences for her extreme unhappiness. And in the middle of that tantrum, I realized that 1. we were finally going to be parked in a spot where any of my children’s screaming was not going to directly impact anyone; and 2. I Hadn’t Solved It. Meaning: we were back in Joshua Tree again, and we’d made it through the summer’s insanity, and I had not yet solved the 14-years-and-counting perplexity of my children’s Mental Health.

And that was my epiphany! I hadn’t solved it! What an amazing relief! While Eliza’s tantrum continued, I felt happier than I had in days.

Here we were, moving forward with the important things in our lives that we try to complete each day, and I was happy to be back in Joshua Tree, our nicely low-humidity home for Now.


And since that day, a month ago now, our lives have been speeding forward. I still haven’t solved it. The new camper, inspected and vetted and checked out, turned out to have a moldy wall panel. I could put my finger through the rotted spot, so nice-looking from a few inches away. It is now back in for repairs, and we’ll eventually learn whether we can clean it well enough to use, or if we need to re-sell it.

The kids have begun their amazing variety of awesome fall activities, largely due to the California Homeschooling Charter School movement that allows us to be students at Valiant Prep. My parents came to visit for a lovely (although too-short) visit, and they - ahem - are helping us continue our Active Brainstorming concerning Next Steps Toward a Sustainable and Healthful Housing Situation.

We’ll keep you posted!

Would love to hear how you’re doing. Sending much love from the desert, and don’t forget to vote,