phantom spiders and falling leaves

Our house had been unoccupied for the better part of a year before we moved in. As a result, the land was stirred up and spider homes unearthed themselves into walls instead of trees. We spy tiny spiders in the yard and driveway, beneath the eaves and mailbox, and sometimes, inside.

Inside isn’t good for spiders, and inside spiders sure aren’t good for children who are scared of spiders. Our youngest hasn’t struggled with sleep in a couple years, and during the first month living here he woke once or twice every night crying I’m scared! of the spiders in the closet.

We’ve done all the right things to get the phantom spiders out of his mind. Three night lights fill the room with a gentle glow. He shares his sleep with two elephants, one cow and a shark, but last night he woke up screaming again.

Scared or not, he is often tender and loving, and yet he can turn into a heart-crushingly difficult child in the blink of an eye.

In an effort to direct some of his energy in a positive direction, we signed him up for taekwondo. Master Frenel is soft spoken with a slight accent inspired by French Creole, and his ability to capture and hold the attention of a roomful of four and five year olds for forty minutes is almost miraculous.

taekwondo max

After class he is more relaxed and less combative. He typically sleeps for at least eleven hours straight. He is learning to speak in a whisper, sometimes. He tries to catch the leaves of fall as they gently rain down in the backyard, changing from green to yellow and orange and brown.

The season that makes every leaf a flower is ever welcome.

Some people think Autumn is a sad space, as winter beckons and branches grow bare. But I love it, perhaps more even than the fresh breath of Spring. I like tucking into cooler nights and finding socks again. I like the evening light, even as the days grow shorter and darker. I like pumpkin patches and cider and soccer games and rays of light that stream like lasers through orange and ruby and golden leaves. They settle into a richer earth and drape themselves like a blanket across the land.

When I asked my oldest what he thinks of Fall, he said I think about how the birds will migrate and how mostly we’ll see hawks and how it’s apple season and apples everywhere and Halloween is coming up which I am very excited about and I am very excited about how Christmas gets sooner and sooner when you pass Fall. 

Last weekend I ran in the Memorial 5K event established to remember and honor my sister’s legacy and raise money for an organization (her former employer) that provides free legal services for low-income individuals and families in Brooklyn. It was a picture perfect fall day, breezy and chilly until the sun shone full and we began running.

LP5k_9th_logo

Two dear friends joined me for not only the race but the entire weekend. It was an absolutely wonderful experience, and I mean all of it – the trashy paperback I read on the plane, brief reunion with family friends, hugs and smiles, and an amazing meal with my friends. I would also be remiss to neglect the kind Dominican couple, boisterous Jamaicans and quiet Indian woman on the subway without whose direction I would never have managed to get from the airport to Manhattan by myself.

(and I would never, ever live in this city, not if I was expected to get somewhere on my own).

My sister would be very happy to see what a fine community event this has become. I believe that from her unknowable space in the universe she was shining for us all day, a candle whose light burned out far too soon but whose joy in living and commitment to service endures for all of us who remember her.

Her light shown within the children as they toddled toward the finish line in the kids’ race. It beamed from the speedy runners who finished in 18 minutes and some change. Walkers and joggers and slow and fast runners made their way along the course.

Some ambled. Others dashed. One guy rode a bike.

Light shown within the race volunteers and the park and city staff who keep this part of New York beautiful and accessible. Our mother’s tough spirit was also illuminated, and reminds us that the event represents so much goodness and a very, very hard reason behind the day.

Yesterday was Eleanor Roosevelt’s birthday, so I’ll end this post by borrowing her wise words, and wishing my readers a lovely Fall.

It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.

Eleanor Roosevelt

crickets and more angel babies

I haven’t written much lately. Last month we moved from our home of nine years to a new house located almost exactly thirty minutes drive from our first place. It’s not far, but it’s a whole different world over here.

It’s funny when you leave a place you’ve loved, or hated; and both. Right? Relief mixed with laughter and sadness and bittersweet memories. In my mind love and hate are intrinsically linked. Both are feelings so passionate, and seemingly beyond our control.

But is love a choice or an emotion?

Though I am tempted, I will not explore that question here.

I’ve never moved with kids before (and I don’t recommend it). My kids are young (7 and 4) and they won’t have terribly vivid memories of this transition, but for my husband and me it has been a very big deal. One, in fact, that is still evolving as we continue to break down boxes, place books in the giveaway or keep pile (SO MANY BOOKS), and quietly realize that a particular blouse or jacket or scarf is one never to be worn again.

Our former, first and only house was built in the early 1920′s in Portland, Oregon. It was smallish, a two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow on a busy street in an excellent location. Urban. Creative. Dark purple. The house had useful and quirky things like built-in cabinets and closets. A few demographics: Our neighborhood was evolving and relatively diverse in ethnicity and socioeconomic status (SES). My son’s primary school was 63% White. He had fantastic kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers. His friends were a blend of funny, serious, kind and smart boys. The school does a tremendous job in recognizing and appreciating differences and diversity.

My son’s new primary school is 83% White and I can’t comment on SES yet. It is more well-resourced than his former school, though so far it is just the same in the best ways – we receive gentle smiles and welcomes from the teachers and staff; the parents are involved and active in activities beyond reading and math. We will see how the year goes, and we are happy to be here. There is a great deal to do and consider.

Our new place was constructed in the mid 1970′s (in fact, the year I was born). There are no stairs, which in itself makes it feel weird. And I guess people in the 70s didn’t need many closets. The neighborhood is quiet and woodsy. We can hear crickets. Crickets! The boys run out on the patio to listen at sunset, and my eyes shine with secret joy and thoughts of my childhood home, a place where crickets sang for me for many years.

The layout between living and kitchen and dining space is lovely and comfortable. And we just bought some beautiful new furniture. I am a proud owner of a spectacular dining room table today. And BENCHES. I can’t wait to host our next Thanksgiving dinner (and make my guests share their gratitudes – ha!).

But. MOVING.

It pretty much sucked.

However, the MOVING IN part is okay. Sure, we’ve had to have plumbers out on two occasions already, and had a near miss with a catastrophic sewer repair situation. And we need to rebuild a fence and rip up some carpets and build a shed. Did I mention we had no Internet access for fourteen days? And there are a lot of spiders out here in the woods? I’m not scared of spiders, but my four-year-old is now waking up in the middle of the night. 

Our treasured photos are on now the walls. We tuck our boys into their own bedrooms (super awesome for the oldest, rather traumatic for the youngest). The dog has a special corner of his own in which he can rest. There are two towering Doug firs on the property (really big Christmas trees), and we can be at the river bank in less than a ten minute walk (a kayak fund has been established for both kids, in case you’re interested in contributing). We are settling in nicely, and I had to explain recently how Santa would know how to find us.

And, best thing ever, we have two bathrooms!

So why does everyone insist on using mine? 

(just wondering)

As a result of the sale and purchase of two homes in two months, I’ve barely kept up with what’s happening beyond my personal walls (both perceived and real). But it’s a habit for me to briefly check the New York Times, Huffington Post, Washington Post, and CNN to absorb the headlines and click on what’s compelling a couple of times a day.

So today I learned another American man took up a gun and killed his own daughter and six grandkids. While I’ve been focused on my family… attending back to school night, meeting teachers and getting to know neighbors and moms and dads of the boys’ new friends….noting when and how often trash and recycling are picked up, cooking on a gas range instead of electric, dusting off my running shoes to venture out in on a path unknown…well, someone (s) out there either plotted his family’s deaths, or more likely, ended his own life and theirs due to untreated mental illness and stress.

I’m speculating here, of course. As the investigation into this particular horrible event takes place, however, I’d be surprised if mental illness and/or domestic violence wasn’t at the heart of the tragedy.

Um, doesn’t this sound all too familiar?

And here we go again, gun-control advocates vs gun-loving, Second Amendment Right-touting fanatics.

The record player keeps skipping, gets stuck and repeating one groove over and over.

A three-month old was killed today. And an eleven-year-old. And four other kids.

I won’t link up to the many brief news articles about this tragedy today. There’s little information to be gleaned from the official record.

But. Again.

As I consider the ways in which my family and I have dealt with the stress of moving… of new schools and places and spaces… of strangers and work and libraries and stores… I know that I am okay. I have strategies to deal with my anger and my sorrow.

This man did not have strategies.

He could not or would not — we don’t know — apply strategies that would help him deal with himself, his reality, his surroundings.

I don’t know what was going on in his world.

I do know that he had access to firearms, both legal and illegal according to the reports, and that police had been called to his family home on more than occasion.

As a society we are responsible for keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people like criminals and the mentally ill (I know that most mentally ill people are not dangerous).

Gun advocates claim that “Federal law requires that individuals seeking to buy a gun at a licensed dealer pass a background check to prevent criminals, domestic abusers, the seriously mentally ill, and other dangerous people from purchasing firearms.”

This is true. Thank goodness.

However, anyone who wants to may approach a “private seller” at gun shows, on the Internet, and elsewhere to buy guns with no background check, no questions asked.

This article released in May 2014 says that just days after new polling showed an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Americans continue to support expanding background checks, new FBI data released by Everytown for Gun Safety shows the number of mental health records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has tripled in less than three years.

This is good. But. It’s a work in progress, and it only works if people are actually required to have a background check before they take home a gun.

I am definitely not an expert on guns or gun control. I have family members and dear friends who own guns. I have no issue with ethical hunting. My boys think guns are great. They are very aware that I do not.

My takeaway, and this is not something that I came up with on my own, is that instead of focusing on making it harder for the mentally ill (and criminals, I guess) to acquire guns, we should be making it harder to get guns, period. For everyone.

I am grateful for my family. My heart breaks for the six children, their mother and yes, the man who took their lives and his own.

My record player is on repeat as I quietly lift a prayer to my angel sister:

Liz, six more kids. Six. One is just a babe, a babe like the one that you never got to have. Welcome them, hermanita. Give them the biggest welcome ever. Love you.

Here are some links that were helpful to me think this through. Thanks for reading.

5 Facts about the NRA and Gun Control

Background Checks Work

A Police Officer’s Words on Sandy Hook, 21 months later

Guns and Mental Illness

Comments by Obama after Shootings in Portland, Oregon (my most recently departed hometown)

Conservatives History on Gun Control (Ronald Reagan)

A Hunter Speaks Out for Gun Control

(and finally, a pro-gun argument) note that I do not agree with many of this author’s statements; but this one I like: “I believe we need a general shift in our attitude toward public violence—wherein everyone begins to assume some responsibility for containing it. This makes sense to me. Both gun advocates and gun-control advocates might come to consensus on this point.

morning is breaking

the angels are working overtime

When I learn that someone has died, I always send up a quick prayer to my sister, organizer of angels, so that she will welcome them into her part of the universe. I make a special urgent request that she do so when it’s someone that has died unexpectedly or senselessly, so that he or she will have a friend greet them wherever they land.

I’m not suggesting that the death of Robin Williams was senseless. On the contrary, and I do not presume to know a damn thing about depression except for my own bits and pieces of sorrow, and even they bewilder me sometimes.

But I think that probably in his mind at the moment, his death, well, it made a great deal of sense.

It may have been the only thing he could do to stop the pain.

It sure seems like I’m having my angel sister work overtime these days, doesn’t it? A friend’s mother, another friend’s father, a seventeen-year-old from a local high school, all lost within a few days of one another this summer. And it sure is hard to write when you’re crying.

But then again it sure is hard to NOT write when you’re crying.

Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation. ~ Kahlil Gibran

Mr. Gibran’s words resonate deeply with me. My heart goes out to all the families experiencing pain and loss right now.

Just a few hours after my grandfather died last year, I wrote this post. His death, while tremendously sad, made sense to me, and the words came easy. On the other hand, I’ve written about sudden loss due to accidents, bombings and guns in schools, and those words are a struggle to put on the page.  

Managed pain is still pain. Controlled depression is still a deep well in which one swims, where the light seems far, far away. I grow sunflowers to cope with sadness. I admire the tiny seed that sprouts from the earth, fragile and small, that keeps on reaching for the sun until it is seven feet tall and brilliant. Its edible seeds start to tumble and twist from their place on the blossom, and squirrels feast while the great stalks gently fold back onto the earth to close another summer season of light. 

Just over a decade ago I was living in central California with my then-boyfriend-now-husband. We road tripped to San Francisco to spectate a professional cycling event in which the then-much-adored Lance Armstrong was racing. While walking around the course we heard a familiar, friendly voice.

Robin Williams was standing next to a bike and a guy who might have been an assistant or a friend. Within minutes everyone around us immediately recognized and surrounded him, and for about ten minutes he joked and smiled with the crowd. An old lady nearly knocked him over trying to get a photo, and he made a kind joke about being taken down by someone just a tad older than him.

I shook his hand. 

When I moved to California I expected two things: 1) warm, sunny beaches and 2) frequent celebrity sightings. We lived less than a block from the spectacular coast, but it was chilly and foggy most mornings. And I guess most of the celebrities lived somewhere several hours south of us. 

Robin Williams remains my one and only celebrity sighting. When I shook his hand, it felt like a normal, healthy, happy guy’s hand, one whom life blessed with talent and opportunity, and certainly not one that belonged to a man in a critically unhappy and potentially life-threatening space. 

I’ve been pretty lucky not to have too much direct experience with depression other than that which was mixed up with bereavement. I’m not depressed anymore. But I am Sad with a capital S about the death of Robin Williams. 

Crying isn’t innocuous in public spaces. It may be rooted in deep emotion, but it isn’t always appropriate. You know that moment when your voice catches and you pause in order to suck back in the sad? Jimmy Fallon did that last night on his show. I do it all the time.

Please seek out help if you’re feeling deeply or desperately troubled. 

You can reach The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 day or night.

wpid-IMAG0038.jpg

following a cloud

Mom?

Max smashed his head into my face… and it’s still wriggly! My tooth! It didn’t even come out! I can’t believe it!

Great, are you okay? Why is your brother smashing his head into your face?

Oh, don’t worry. It was an accident.

The past weekend alternated from an environment of peace to nearthebrinkoflosingmysanityforreal and whywon’ttheseboysstopfightingfortheloveofgod and then back to peace. Boxes are stacked neatly in the corners of every room, leaving lonely Lego pieces scattered beneath the boys’ bunk beds and across the living room floor. Our dog moves from room to room seeking refuge. And it’s been quite hot in our non-air-conditioned home for the past few weeks. Tempers have flared. Maybe they, too, are seeking refuge.

It took me four hours to dismantle a rarely used closet filled with odds and ends that we didn’t have space to care for properly, yet didn’t want to let go. Shredding sleeves of worthless paper felt good (lay-off letter, anyone?). I found our unofficial marriage certificate and a copy of a love letter scripted in broken English from my great grandfather to the woman he courted, and eventually married, in 1918. Those I kept. Unused passport photos were tucked into a box I call “old photos and letters that I cannot bear to throw away” along with sweet cards recognizing several firsts…. birthdays and holidays and etc.

A heavy layer of dust unsettled as I lifted a thick folder of material from the closet containing details on bicycle travel, bike accidents, cycling law, city zoning policies… changes to New York City streets to make them safer… newspaper clippings, print outs of e-mail exchanges, and duplicate copies of articles that are very difficult and painful to read.

I tossed the entire folder.

Well, I recycled it, anyway. I know what the articles say. I know that good people are working to make streets less hostile and more compelling for cyclists. I see no need to keep every unkind reminder of my loss.

Instead of tucking into myself afterwards, I shouted to my kids. Look at this! a picture of Miles hugging a stuffed soccer ball at six months young. Keep. A handwritten note from an old friend? Keep. Burned out birthday candles? Seriously? Toss. Paperwork from a rental three cities ago? Toss. Toss. Toss.

The process was either mindful or mindless depending on the material that we had saved for mostly unexamined purpose and little value for many years.

Shifting gears, I finally took a shower so that my husband and I could head out for an evening by ourselves. Early the next morning, and I mean early (4:30 am rising), we arrived in a fog lit field in which wandered other expectant visitors waiting for a ride in a balloon.

I have wanted to go up in a hot air balloon for a long time, and my husband’s 40th birthday gift to me was a certificate for a summer flight for two.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the Wizard of Oz when he cried out, I can’t come back, I don’t know how it works! Good-bye, folks!

basket

His balloon lifted as Dorothy watched him from the earth feeling lost and hopeless as she realized another opportunity to go home had crumbled before her eyes.

Not unlike the Wizard, we climbed into a sturdy wicker basket and quietly yet quickly rose upwards beneath the skillful direction of pilot Roger, co-founder of Vista Balloons in Newberg, Oregon. Roger provided us both an education and a promise of knowing a space previously unknown, unique to that morning’s winds that shifted east and west as we moved through the air, high above vineyards, forest and agricultural land.

The hot air balloon is the oldest successful human-carrying flight technology. Historically it wasn’t the sort of travel available to those without immense wealth or power. The first manned flight took place in 1783 in Paris, France. Not until the 1970′s did ballooning become popular and (relatively) affordable for regular people.

We followed a cloud, slipping into an astonishingly peaceful pause in which the light warmed us and the wind seemed to disappear. I waved my hand into the emptiness. Our small group of seven, including Roger, remained pleasantly quiet as we took in the substantial views. Blinking, we watched a deep red glow rise from beyond the hilly horizon, and as we rose the sun rose with us, moment by moment. It was as if we had traveled a thousand miles and a thousand years from our daily experience, and acknowledged that there is so much more out there than where we spend most of our time.

Not unlike Dorothy, I felt lost and helpless many times during the better part of a decade. But curiously enough, the tranquility of floating 1,400 feet above the earth made me feel more grounded, more calm, and more ready to return to real life.

We went home and it wasn’t a perfect day or one in which I managed to feel that great. But just when the boys were about to bring me back to that place where Mama is losing it, I overheard the oldest suggest they have a “dance fight”.

And they did.

With no music.

It was pretty funny to watch.

When the whole weekend was said and done, I felt not quite rested, dusty and troubled and tossed, and yet moved enough by flight to be able to return to a space in which I could remember the gentle light within the balloon, wherein strangers and lovers mingled in a basket among the clouds, and I thought, I will get through this. I will do what needs to be done to move forward, change where needed, and amend plans as necessary.

We are moving soon. Goodbye folks!

All balloons start out flat and empty.

empty balloon

And then they begin to grow.

balloon basket balloon filling up with air

Until they are full and light, strong and beautiful.

a single balloon

We were lifted up, up, up… by invisible wings that grow still as they light on a breeze concealed from human sight. Our journey became rhythmic and peaceful as we rose keeping pace with the sun. 

morning is breakingballoon at sunrise

And our souls were realized as essential and strong as we fully entered into the day.

forest nearby ballooning floating

Postscript

After I finished writing this post, I wandered around my backyard to look for overgrown zucchini, cherry red tomatoes and dog poop. I glanced at the few sunflowers that came up this season.   None had opened until today. first sunflower 2014

As we leave the sunflowers behind for the new owners of our home, I hope to remember the slight turn of the wind as we drifted without great expectation or worry a day ago. So many memories in this busy house. So much stuff. So many tears. So many children (okay, two). So much love.

spaces in togetherness

I have too much to think about right now, which tricks me into feeling like I cannot write about anything. My family and I are alternately wading and sprinting through some major transition this summer, and I haven’t been sleeping well. There is great reason to be excited and tremendous space for dreaming, and also much to do and consider before we can call it done and my mind can settle.

Additionally, summer vacation requires a whole lotta togetherness, and togetherness has been a wonderful, challenging, exhausting thing for the past month or so. This is what the wise Khalil Gibran had to say about that:

But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love; let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

He was talking about partners, or people in love, but I think this idea of making spaces also applies to families.

Until I can focus on the words tumbling about in my brain that involve family and transition, I will at last respond to a most kind and unexpected award that I received from the truth-telling blogger of the Imperfect Kitchen. Please click on the link and read her thoughtful posts when you have some time; I promise that you will not regret it.

Called the Liebster Award, and created to build relationships within the blogging community, it’s all based around the number 11. To accept the award, one must

  • Post the award on your blog
  • Thank the blogger who presented the award to you and link back to their blog
  • Share 11 things about yourself
  • Answer the 11 questions given to you by the person that nominated you
  • Nominate 11 bloggers who have less than 200 followers
  • Create 11 questions for your nominees to answer
  • Notify your nominees by posting your nomination on their blog.

So here we go.  These are both 11 things about myself and responses to the 11 questions (sorry if I am cheating)

1. Which book(s) should I add to my ‘don’t miss’ list?

Ah, I love this question. What comes to mind tonight include The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. 

2. If you could give $10m to any person or organisation other than yourself, who or what would it be?

The sum of ten million dollars is difficult for me to comprehend because it’s a lot, I mean, a LOT of money, to gift to just one person or organization. There are so many dedicated among us doing good work. I am a supporter of many organizations… Amnesty International, FHI 360, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Farmers Market Coalition, and Oregon Public Broadcasting, among many others. However, I think I’d just give the money to my parents. They’re smart, resourceful, like-minded, and compassionate. Their generosity and willingness to give to a host of just and meaningful causes makes them a strong candidate for when I win the lottery.

3. What’s your Myers Briggs type and Star Trek Personality (click on each to find out if you don’t already know)? What do these tell us about you?

Can I please get back to you on this one?

4. Is ignorance bliss?

Probably. I guess it depends on which issue one is ignorant of understanding. Ignorance explains so much…many people do not have access to a great deal of information out there that could influence their ideas or beliefs. In spite of our best intentions, we are generally far more comfortable not knowing or identifying with something unpleasant than we are with acknowledging difficult truths.

5. If you could change one policy of your current government, what would it be?

America’s immigration policy is in critical need of reform. We need an illuminated path to citizenship for men and women who come to our country, work hard and remain out of trouble with the law. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented children are at the heart of this struggle, and deserve a chance at living among their peers in the USA as a friend, neighbor, and documented person.

6. If you could ban one word or phrase from the English language, what would you choose?

I suggest that we eliminate two phrases from the common vernacular.

1) “Baby bump”.

Yuck. I love seeing my expecting friends become beautifully round, but I dislike this phrase and even more dislike attention from strangers placed on someone’s stomach. The presumption of a stranger (or a friend, truly) to shake and rub one’s pregnant belly is something I do not support or understand.

2) “Don’t take this personally”.

Everything is personal.

Everything.

7. You have to live, for one year, in a different town, city or country to your current home, where is it?

This is a timely question given that we have just sold our house and put an offer on a new house in a different city. Please stay tuned for details! But for one year, please transport me immediately to Barcelona, where I will wander its narrow streets for hour beneath imposing towers and gentle sun, stopping when necessary for grilled vegetables, arròs negre, seafood and wine.

8. Salt or sugar?

Salt, unless fermented fruit counts. Then sugar!

9. Who or what was your favourite discovery of the last year?

That there are strangers who will treat you as a dear friend, and friends that sometimes turn into strangers. The latter part of this discovery brought sadness, but also relief.

10. What is the most fulfilling thing in your life?

My family, of course. But also, my time that is mine spent doing things are non-family: writing, reading, running, sitting in silence, slicing and salting an avocado, and trying to remember how to play the piano. My family.

11. Where do you hope to be in 5 years time?

Smarter than I am today. That’s a what, not a where. I hope to be Home in five years. In a different place but inhabited by the same characters… they will include a pre-teen, a nine-year-old, an old and loving Labrador Retriever, my husband and me.

And these are the nominees (and some have more than 200 followers because they are amazing!):

1. Holy Bee Press (oh, how I want to keep bees someday)

2. Really a Runner

3. An Inch of Gray (heartbreaking and heart-lifting)

4. Brown Girl Farming (stories of food justice in communities of color)

5. Running while Mommy

6. Cupcake Crusade (delicious and fun)

7. Local Milk: A Cast Iron Skillet and a Camera

8. Living on Ink (writing, publishing, writing)

9. Word Savant

10. Invoking Frida (photo tribute to a heroine)

11. Grief: One Woman’s Perspective

path

Thank you for reading, and enjoy the links!

I am behind in posting to this personal blog. I owe two reviews, various musings, and a special response to a nomination by The Imperfect Kitchen – a post that I am excited about writing and sharing with my readers.

But lately I’ve felt more like thinking about writing, rather than actually writing, thinking-past-bedtime-style, and thinking about the the usual suspects.

Loss, healing and love, in no particular order, because in my mind they are all one and the same.

A neighbor of mine cared for her mom during her last days this month. She gently, sadly left her family far too soon, and it made my heart ache, though I’d never met her.

It made me think, god, I’m so grateful, truly grateful that my mom and dad and sister are still here with me. 

Most nights my family sits around the dinner table and haphazardly share our daily gratitudes. It’s our “Our Father, Full of Grace”, a reflection on the day’s gifts and rainbows.

The deal is that everyone is supposed to share at least one thing for which they are grateful that happened that day, even if, and this is quite plausible, that day truly sucked and was horrible till the end.

Despite that we have shared gratitudes before the evening meal for over a year now, it’s not sinking in. Our boys dig into their food, starving, until I ask them to pause. Then they’re suddenly squabbling, hands reaching, each determined to share his gratitudes before anyone else.

Our youngest says he is grateful for the “water park” that we visited last November. He says this every night.

It’s not a religious practice, I guess it’s optional, but it irritates me that I constantly have to remind them to show appreciation for what they have. They are good at saying ‘thank you’ for an ice cream cone or a birthday gift, but less so at acknowledging a subtler act of kindness or uncommon experience.

The truth is that we live in a community that enjoys so much privilege. I want our boys to recognize this, and so I make them identify something, anything, for which they are grateful every night. Once they get started, however, they have a hard time stopping. This suggests that one day I won’t have to prompt them.

Right?

Recent gratitudes from the older brother include “watching the World Cup, especially Brazil and USA and the Netherlands, and sorry, Mom, but I’ve got to root against Mexico when they play the Netherlands, and for this dinner, and for getting ready to go to Bubba and Nana’s house…” and from the younger, “I’m grateful for this beautiful dinner and I love Mom and Dad and Miles and Coppi and our new kitchen and going to the water park and coming back from school and the dumpster wasn’t here and we didn’t need to do any more work”. 

It’s really good stuff, these gratitudes that I insist they share.

In late 2000, my two sisters visited my partner and me in southern Mexico. We were working 12-16 hour days, volunteer-style, at a guest ranch located not far from the Guatemalan border. Mostly European and a few intrepid American travelers arrived shouldering backpacks, ate great quantities of excellent home-cooked food, hiked and photographed nearby ruins before heading on their way.

We served traveling Germans a lot of Mexican beer and washed piles and piles of dishes. We also developed a healthy respect for the indigenous Zapatista community’s presence down the road as well as for the Mexican army base located less than one mile from the ranch.

I’ve written about this experience in Birds of Paradise, Part One, Two and Three. Fresh out of the Peace Corps, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to live and work in a piece of the world not well known by anyone other than its residents and the local American missionaries (I should write about them sometime – they weren’t your stereotypical missionary family).

Toward the close of our tenure at the ranch, my partner and I spent time in close dialog, not only with each other, but with members of the staff. We agreed that the way in which the operation was run (by American expats greedy for pesos and a permanent vacation) was crude and unethical. The ranch employed a hard-working staff of young men and women who completed their tasks with a serious yet pleasant attitude. For most of them, Spanish was their second or third language after their indigenous dialect. We earned their trust by working alongside them, washing dishes by hand, serving plates and drinks, and weeding the garden. It helped that we spoke the language, sharing jokes and lightening the atmosphere a bit.

Bringing this memory back today seems timely. Although we did not have children back then, and in fact did not have much for which we were responsible – no mortgage, no “real” jobs, no bills waiting to be paid – we felt accountable, to one another and to the staff and neighbors of the property.

At the end of the day we felt responsible and grateful. We coordinated humble yet delicious dinners and assisted in buying, cleaning and preparing the food alongside two talented Mexican cooks. Eventually the work took place in a rhythm that worked beautifully so long as the ranch owners were not present. It was a good, yet unsustainable situation since we knew the owners were due back any day. After six months, we chose not to take part any longer in an operation that was unkind and unjust to the very people who made it work.

Maybe gratitude can’t really be forced. Through observation and experience of humbler conditions than my own, I grew in immeasurable ways that season, and I was a whole lot older than our kids are today.

I want to live my life with eyes wide open to the blessings around me. Our boys have big hearts, even if they less aware of how good they have it.

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.

- A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

 P.S. By the time I got around to posting this, both of my boys had driven me mad, because they were tired and melting down, causing me to feel very ungrateful indeed. But we’ll try again tomorrow. 

gracias

 

 

 

the usual suspects

first grade rainbow

A friend of mine made me laugh recently while describing her approach to sharing a potentially objectionable plan with her partner.

Paraphrasing here, she said,

I’m like, listen. There is fantasy, and there is reality. We live in reality, dear. 

And reality makes us do things sometimes that we don’t want to do.

Blogging is a heavily filtered view of reality. I share what I want to share, and I withhold so, so much. It’s a curious way to write. Sometimes I go back and read something I’ve written, and I hardly recognize myself in the words. Other times, I read my words and am grateful to no longer be in that space, yet know it remains within me, unforgotten, unforgiven.

Last night my reality included first grade homework. The task was to write six sentences describing my son’s summer plans. His words were effective. The plans include attending a Portland Timbers soccer camp, a family visit to the East Coast, and camping in southern Oregon.

At some point, however, his mind turned back to school. Casually, he mentioned being almost stapled in the hand. Further questioning revealed that a friend nearly stapled his finger while attempting to fasten together some paper. Nothing indicated that he had actually been stapled, and we agreed it had been a near miss.

The conversation reminded me of when my younger sister once stepped on a staple. I was in the second grade and she was in kindergarten. I don’t remember the incident clearly, but I think it involved her throwing staples down a flight of stairs in a fit of anger. Several minutes later she stomped downstairs and stepped on a staple, sharp side up. There was blood and tears.

And… childhood karma?

I shared the memory with our son, and he wrinkled his forehead. He went to the piano where we keep his aunt’s image framed and present, and brought it to me on the sofa. The photograph of Elizabeth Kasulis Padilla was taken at age 27 during my bridal shower at our family home. She is young and beautiful.

I asked Miles if we looked alike. He studied her image before he spoke.

Um, Mama? No, not really. Well….. yes, you actually have the same eyes.

He continued, but you’re not wearing a bracelet. And she has different eyebrows. Hers go like this (demonstration) and yours go like this (demonstration).

Plus she has long hair. And you have a wig. 

What?! (that was me).

Oh! I mean not a WIG. You have a PONY TAIL. And her hair is long.

Let the difference between a pony tail and  a wig be clear. Not that there’s anything wrong with wigs, but I’m trying to work with what I’ve got here.

He continued, Well, not really, you don’t look alike. Except for your eyes. Oh, and your ears are the same. PLUS you might have the very same big toe.

I swear he said this.

After this illuminating dialog we entered into a faux soccer match between Mexico and Brazil. I’m always Mexico and he’s Brazil or another spectacular team. (I’m not advertising, but these soccer guys are an awesome toy for creative young soccer aficionados).

soccer guys

The 2014 World Cup is imminent. I am excited not only because I’m genuinely interested in watching the matches, but I love that it’s something our family can get into together. We are teaching our children about nationalities and maps and languages and colors. We may choose different sides along the way, but we all experience similar lessons in play, struggle, pain, loss, movement, observation, success and strategy.

Also on the horizon is the anniversary of my sister’s death, and in the days and weeks prior it is no secret that anxiety and fear are my closest friends.

In a few days, Liz will have been dead for nine years.

I still struggle with this menacing truth. It has threatened to destroy what little faith I have for so long.

Haven’t I grieved long enough?

Allowing the grief to move through me last night, watching my son compare my sister’s image to my own, was enough. It was enough in its authenticity. It was enough in its innocence. The experience was enough in its brevity and relaxed sentiment. It wasn’t sad, comparing faces, one in the here and now, one in the past.

It was enough to move within a brief span of time from dreams of summer to howdoyouspellDeschutesRiver to the dangers of staplers to remembering my sister to World Cup fanaticism. It was enough, and I was happy.

Because, as my son pointed out, my sister and I might have the very same big toe,

and that is enough for today.

Ms. Maya Angelou once said,  “Try to be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.” 

Last night my oldest was my rainbow.

She also wrote,

When I think of death, and of late the idea has come with alarming frequency, I seem at peace with the idea that a day will dawn when I will no longer be among those living in this valley of strange humors. 
I can accept the idea of my own demise, but I am unable to accept the death of anyone else. 
I find it impossible to let a friend or relative go into that country of no return. 
Disbelief becomes my close companion, and anger follows in its wake.
I answer the heroic question ‘Death, where is thy sting? ‘ with ‘ it is here in my heart and mind and memories.’

And so it is in mine.