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

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.

SanJuanChamula_DarijAndAna

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.

philippines-typhoon