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

Snow Day

Real live snowflakes landed in our backyard gingerly at first, feathery, light. We all watched as they began to swirl, creating a blanket of white before our eyes. Over the weekend the boys and I built a very small snowman, a sad thing really. They learned to roll snowballs and had no trouble pelting each other (below the waist, I pleaded) again and again as the sun fell over the past two nights.  

Youngest child: I’m Hiccup! Battling the Night Fury! No! I’m Toothless! Where is my Daddy? I’m Good! This is the Dark Side! I’m Kai! You’re a Ninja! No, I’m a Ninja! I need a helicopter! and a race car!

Back inside, the older one closed his eyes, sitting criss-cross applesauce, and meditated for approximately 20 seconds.

Youngest child: You are the gun guy! 

Me: She is not a gun guy. This is an Olympic event called the biathlon. Children observed the television. 

Oldest child: How can I get one of those shooters? I need one, Mom. Is that like archery? Awesome.

We discussed the athletes from Sweden and Russia and Italy and the United States. Flags and snow and language and speed. We braved the cold to take public transit to the movies yesterday. Go see The Lego Movie! It was a perfect foil to a morning spent out in the weather. This morning the ice crunched, brittle beneath our boots. Our little snow man stood humbly, rather melancholy and refusing to melt. 

We sang “Everything is Awesome” until the boys started fighting and we made them take turns jumping on a mini trampoline. I taught my oldest to do a plank and made him agree to write Valentine’s for the girls in his first grade classroom — VERY grudgingly, he did so. They are shark Valentines. We’ve worn pajamas and snow gear and little else since Friday morning. The youngest was super happy to wear the tiniest boxer shorts ever made all day. Cold feet don’t bother me, he explained as I asked him to wear socks in our drafty house for the fourth time. 

The snow began to transform into freezing slush on the third day. Icicles are drip-drip-dripping from the eaves. Determined neighbors trudged along the sidewalk carrying grocery bags and six-packs of local brew. One woman cross-country skied down our sidewalk pulling a not-that-small child in a bright red sled. She did not look like she was having fun. We drank hot cocoa and ate too many homemade cookies that I pretended were healthy because of Oatmeal. The oldest begged for more I-pad time, but we managed to keep it to a minimum without too much fuss. He practiced tying his shoes, a skill has turned out to be incredibly challenging for him to master. 

It has been a good weekend. I wasn’t supposed to be in town, but the weather won and I stayed home. Now I just hope that school is open tomorrow!

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A book and a spade

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

~ Marcus Tullius Cicero

Cicero was a Roman philosopher and writer who lived about one hundred years before the birth of Christ. I came across his words quite by accident and found they were exactly what I needed today. My boys spent time digging in the empty garden beds this afternoon, turning the soil, unknowingly preparing the beds under a bright sun and beneath a gentle breeze. We are several weeks away from putting anything into the earth, but the faux-spring day gave way to dreams of fragile pea shoots, tiny tomato plants and snips of fragile green stretching toward the sun. 

Our past several garden projects have provided the complement to most summer meals rather than grounded them. Perhaps this year we’ll change that by designing the meals to highlight the fruits and vegetables of our labor. While I’m not a naturally adept gardener, the climate here is magic in its capacity to bring seeds to life with minimal effort. Also, I like this: 

Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace. 

~ May Sarton

Ms. Sarton was speaking of gardening through grief. 

When Cicero was 61 years old, his daughter died shortly after giving birth to his grandson. He wrote, 

I have lost the one thing that bound me to life.

Later, he claimed to have read everything that Greek philosophers had written about overcoming grief, and decided that his sorrow defeats all consolation.

This man, who lived so long ago, knew what one continues to learn through the journey of grief today – that one doesn’t typically overcome grief; instead our heart is modified so that unwelcome loss is tucked inside its strong and hollow fist of muscle. 

As for a library, our house seems rather bare since we tucked hundreds of books into boxes a few months ago in preparation for our non-move. I’ve recreated two shelves of children’s books in the boys’ room, ordering them by age and interest.. superheroes, Dr. Seuss, fairy tales, sea creatures, and ninja tales. 

This week we’ve been reading Max’s Dragon by Kate Banks and Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen. Both are finds from our local library. Our youngest likes reading about a “different Max” and is tickled by the images of the naked child floating dreamlike through a magical kitchen in which great cakes are mixed and baked. We are big fans of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and In the Night Kitchen has quickly become a favorite with its strange words and make believe images. I learned recently that this particular book was ranked 25th on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.

This makes me like it even more. 

I am never without a book. I read the good stuff and the not so good. It may not be scholarly literature, and it may occasionally qualify as trash, but even trash has a story. I also believe that writing has healing powers. I write here, and on scraps of paper I find at the bottom of my purse. Sometimes I text myself ideas before I fall asleep. Words, mainly, or a simple phrase. I do this to help me remember. Sometime it works but more often I am puzzled by the piece of a mysterious puzzle. I dream, but I struggle to remember my own version of the Night Kitchen… me, wandering nonsensically through time and space, not quite understanding where or why.

So… a library and a garden. I am in continual awe of the variety and richness of Portland gardens. Created in backyards, strips of earth along the side of homes, and in between the house and the road, they are tangles of green and gold, gifting us with their vivid hues of orange and red. Ripe tomatoes hang ruby-like and full, best tasted warm, unwashed, dirt brushed off by expectant fingers.

Right now our beds sit empty, void of life and yet in my children’s focused turning of the soil today there is something of a future there… we will have our garden.

I have my library.

Sometimes there is so much life in my life.

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Converting the converted

I attended a book reading a few days ago with my father at a local bookstore. The author is a professor at a Portland university and I hadn’t heard of him until my dad read about him in a free paper the other day. The book he discussed is a guide on how to convert people of faith to atheism. It wasn’t really a book reading; it turned out to be more of a lecture.

The guy was arrogant. He made a few excellent points about the lack of historical (or other) evidence many different religions fail to recognize, but he came across as rather brusque and know-it-all. He claimed that those seeking to convert believers into non-believers should always be respectful and kind in their approach, but his demeanor suggested otherwise. At the conclusion of his talk, he asked if there was anyone of faith in the audience.

Perhaps fifty people were listening. Silently, a single young woman raised her hand.

After asking her permission, the professor proceeded to bring her up in front of the group. Although visibly nervous, the girl was steady in her responses, often pausing before she answered his questions about why it is she believes what she does. Eventually, he got her to admit that she may not believe “100%” in her particular brand of religion if she were to be presented with evidence stating that it was not right, true or accurate.

Everyone clapped and smiled at the brave young girl as she left the podium.

Having explored some spaces and questions of faith in my past, I would have liked to have gotten to know her a little better. One cannot realize completely from where one comes in knowing their view of faith in ten minutes, although the professor had attempted to do so. It seemed that she had been born into a household of a particular religion and pretty much identified with it as the “true” religion. This initiation into one’s church or place of faith is typical with what takes place in most of the world. It isn’t unusual not to question the views and values that one’s parents or other influential people teach and model. What is unusual was the professor’s desire to “unmake” those views and values, regardless of whether they bring comfort to the believer and cause no harm.

Then again, I suspect he is of the belief that all religious views and values do cause harm. I do not practice the religion in which I was raised, but I do not think it is wrong. I identify culturally as Catholic, and I agree with many of its teachings as well as admire some of its less conservative leaders. In September I found comfort in attending Mass with my family. It may sound hypocritical, but I think one can be of and of not faith at the same time. I think this can even happen in the very same day!

Were it not for the circumstances of our birth, where would each of us be today? Is it not completely arbitrary that I was born a female in America to middle income Roman Catholic parents who loved and raised me to hold education, health, kindness and respect for all humans paramount?

Had I been born in places I have known… say… a Carribean island located a mere ninety miles south of Miami, or in its impoverished neighbor to the east, how might I be different? Had I been born a Haitian child raised with minimal opportunities for learning, surrounded by intense religious and spiritual teachings, would I not believe differently? And most likely believe that my religion was the “right” one?

We are all converts, one way or another. Converts to our elders’ way of thinking or converts to a new way – be that another brand of God or a way of living that is whole and human but not God-believing or perhaps we fall in somewhere in between.

I once spent time in a beautiful Mexican church where pine needles, fresh eggs, burning candles and bottles of Coca Cola decorated the floor. Petite men and women in indigenous dress tended these tiny altars. Glowing with candle light and surrounded by mumbled prayer, the altars were bizarre and magnificent. I was a stranger to both the practice and the prayer. Out of respect and humility, I left quietly after a very brief stay in their sacred space.

If I had only been born to a woman of the village of this particular church, would I not believe as they did? Do as they do?

Although I agreed with much of the “reason” behind the professor’s speech, I also believe that believers do and say and believe as they do as much due to their life beginnings and experience as anything else.

We trust the people who convert us to a particular way of thinking. This goes beyond religion. Beyond faith. Evidence or no evidence, our place in the world is shaped by a myriad of people, practices and images that continually evolve and turn around the sun.

Unless they are doing and/or saying something that is hurtful to another and they do so based on their brand of religion – which may or may not be different from their faith – I don’t have a problem with them. Organized religion is one thing. One’s personal faith is quite another.

Who are we to judge? said our new Pope. I say “our” because as we belong to the world, the leaders among us also belong to us, regardless of where along the faith spectrum we fall. I only wish that we could belong to each other as well – to help, and not hinder, one’s journey toward bringing out our best selves and in the practice of self care and care for others. Our differences set up apart, but our humanity can bring us together.

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Here and There

It’s day seven of 30 consecutive days of blogging. So far, so good. I am touched and inspired by the comments I have received and excited to discover great new bloggers out there sharing and writing.

Today has been a strange day. It began by walking into a downpour, Portland style. The boys and I were drenched before we made it to the car. The wind whipped my hair around and the rain slid sideways so that our pants got wet along with shoes and hoodies. While my oldest claimed to “love” this weather, my youngest made his displeasure known. He is extra sensitive to touch and feel, and doesn’t like “sticky hands” or being wet unless he is in the bath tub or swimming pool. A few hours later it cleared up and he was thrilled to spot the rainbow arching across the sky when we picked up his brother from school.

Rainbows make rainy days so much better.

In other weather-related news, nearly seven thousand miles away a raging storm is making its way to hit the central islands of the Philippines. The wind strength of Typhoon Haiyan makes it equivalent to a very strong Category 5 hurricane. This situation is more of interest to me than others given that my father is currently living and working in the Philippines. He’s sent word that he and his neighbors are riding it out, waiting for ever-stronger winds and putting in provisions of cheap imported wine. Thousands of people have been evacuated, but I imagine that many more remain in their homes. Tragedy by storm is inevitable. I wait for more information from my father and international news as I go about my regular day, knowing heartbreak awaits many people in a foreign land tonight.

May the families across the miles stay as safe as possible and know that they are loved.

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Read it again

Do you re-read books?

I do. I read them over and over, or at least selected portions of books over and over. My son is learning to read, and it is a wonderful process. On the way home, he asked me what this spells:

T. O. B. A. C. C. O.

Tobacco, I answered.

What’s that?

It’s what they use to make cigarettes. They sell cigarettes there [he's staring intensely at a stand-alone kiosk/drive-through place on a street corner].

They DO?! he stretches, turning around to scope the place out.

Where else do they sell cigarettes, Mom?

Um, I guess gas stations.

Like SHELL?

[Really?] I think.

Do we take oil from SHELL, Mom?

Pause.

I insert a couple of sentences about how we know not to smoke cigarettes because they can make you sick and generally aren’t very good for you.

But I know how to wash your lungs, Mom.

How?

Just drink lots of water.

Sometimes the conversations I have with my children amaze me. They are lifted directly from their surroundings, physical, emotional, visual, scented and filled with air, dirt and love. The boys play with rocks and invite ants to crawl on their hands.

One of these days I’ll purchase over 1,000 [!] ladybugs to release in our garden. To my eldest child’s delight, we also intend to buy a live praying mantis to go after any leaf hoppers, aphids or other pests in the garden.

What a creepy insect. It looks like a twisted, tiny version of E.T. and the female bites the head off her male partner after they, ahem, consummate their relationship. But my son read a book about organic gardening and here I am calling up nurseries to check on their helpful insect supply.

Back to books. Right.

These are the ones that I turn to repeatedly. Especially at the end of a long day, turning to the words of familiar story is like coming home.

Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It was enchanting the first time I read it – I was perhaps nine or ten – and it only got better as I explored the world of Charles Wallace, his family and his star-turned-angel friends. 

The English Patient by Michael Ondaajte. Read this twice while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic. Its pages are well, well worn. A mystery, a tragedy, and a war compel an unusual combination of people to fall in love and share a home. 

The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Published just three years ago, this is the best example of high quality urban fantasy that I have ever read. The sequel was a tad disappointing, but this book is unbelievably good. The magic in this story is dark and dangerous, and the characters will endear themselves to you — if you like antagonistic, narcissistic, depressed teenagers who are painfully transitioning into young adults.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I read this as a high school student and remember laughing at the somewhat antiquated, stilted language that pen put to paper in 1958. Today I recognize the significance of this tremendous story that describes the impact of colonialism on traditional African society. It is brilliant, heart breaking, and relevant today.

House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. The magical, beautiful, political story of the del Valle family is set in South America This novel is illustrative of Allende’s best work in magical realism. She makes me want to be a writer. I’ve read in numerous times in English and once or twice in Spanish. 

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Since giving birth to two curious monkeys boys, I understand the brilliance of this book depicting a rebellious young boy and his wish to control his world. 

Almost everything I’ve read by Ann Patchett, but mostly Truth & Beauty and Bel Canto.

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The life of a child as he moves from young to middle to old, and older, and his relationship with a tree, and unconditional love. It makes me sad. I still own the copy I was given by my aunt and uncle on my First Communion. 

This list is just a tease, but these are my go-to and go-back-to favorites. 

What are you reading these days, readers? 

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