What we can see.

We are in British Columbia. Beloved place, mountain covered, more trees than can be counted. A few days ago, Chinua played a small concert. It had been smoky for weeks, with wildfires raging across hectares of land. I have been a bit disappointed, because we haven’t been able to see what is around us and the sun has been a red ball in the sky. Beautiful in an eerie way, but still, looking out, I knew the lake was there, and the mountains, but we couldn’t see them. 

But as we were setting up for Chinua’s concert, winds began to blow. The trees whipped back and forth, and clouds rolled in. It was delightful, but, thinking of the equipment, we set up inside rather than outside like we planned. The music was beautiful. Our friend Andrew Smith opened, and it was an intimate living room concert, including a couple Duke Ellington songs where Chinua joined Andrew, jazz soloing on the mandolin. (He’s creative, my Superstar husband.)

And then I could smell rain coming in through the windows. A long, smoky few months had dried out the ground, and the drops of water reacted like magic. That compressed-dust-meets-rain smell is one of my oldest memories. In the morning, there were puddles on the ground. Rain like this in a time of fire is no small thing. The skies cleared. We can see for miles. We can see all the layers of hills, one behind the other, ringing out. The dry bluffs with scatterings of trees. The orchards. A sliver of lake in the distance.

I keep coming out of jungles and looking around, happy to be in a spacious place, but then finding another jungle to press into. The heat under these trees can be oppressive. I think, “Now I’ve got this family thing down. I know how to mother these people,” but then someone ages a year, or goes through grief, or shifts in a way that changes the air in our family. We have ripples and currents, and these things aren’t things I can control.

Out of control. Perhaps my whole life has been one long exercise in giving up control. When you are a mother of small children, you can’t control their emotions, or whether the jam jar will slip out of their hands and smash in a wondrous pile of glass and goo on the floor. But you can decide on a fun thing, you can smooth over feelings and change the tone. 

I’m finding it harder to do that with teenagers. What wondrous things they are. A full spectrum of mind and emotion, teetering between hope and fear, full of energy and chaos. This is a more challenging tone to change. To bring peace in these storms is no easy feat. 

I love my oldest more than he can ever know. And in a few short years I will help him walk away from me. Giving up control. It turns out that I don’t hold the world together. I can’t answer all his questions or sweep everything from his path to make sure it is clear for him. I can’t even always get along with him. How we are humbled by our children.

 

Things I love: 

Mornings.

Fast-moving clouds.

Eyes filled with love.

Every kind of tree and bird.

Grass.

Mountain textures. 

Notebooks and pens.

Books.

Days that stretch in front of me, ready for ideas, play, love.

 

Is love the strongest thing? Is the love of God enough? Yes and yes. My dear friend recently traveled to be near to someone close to her, someone who had suffered violence against herself. My friend carried love of God with her and it couldn’t answer every question, it couldn’t alleviate every fear, but it came into the room and curled up beside them and brought the goodness back. 

That is what I want. The goodness back. Not the hate or offense. Not the complications, the misunderstandings, the resistance. The goodness, thrown like a sheet over a soft bed, ready for you to sink in. Love that swirls around, filling the hurt places. To wake up and be ready to be surprised.

 

The other day we sat out on the patio, and as night fell, the crickets started chirping. Well, one cricket, and something else that might have been a cricket or might have been a frog. As we discussed whether it was a cricket or a frog at length(simple pleasures, at heart I live in a village), Isaac piped up.

“No, it’s a star.”

Quiet. 

“Did you say it’s a star?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s the way the stars sound. The night sounds.” 

“Oh, back in Pai? When you hear these sounds? That’s the way the stars sound?”

“Yes. And the way the night sounds,” he said. 

And that, my friends, is when I realized that Isaac has grown up hearing crickets and frogs, and assumed that is is the sound of the stars or the night sky. 

 

Star sounds.

 

We can’t know, really, what’s going on. For now we see in a mirror dimly. We may see a sky full of smoke, and just beyond is the view of mountains, city, lake in the distance. Unless the smoke is washed away, we might never know the mountains are there. 

I often see through the haze of my anxiety. Every once in a while it blows away and I look around, astounded by how bright everything is. But the smoke settles again, the way the smoke has settled here again, a few days after the rain. I’ve been hoping for years that the smoke would clear permanently, but I’m starting to believe that I will always be looking for glimpses. Times when the whole thing emerges, the whole huge picture of love and goodness, what it can all be, and I nearly fall down from the beauty of it.

 

And then we may hear crickets rubbing their legs together and think the sky is singing. So on days when the sky is hidden by smoke, and it seems that there are no stars, we know we can still hear them. They are still there. 

Music and hugs and long summer nights.

Detroit is brick and green grass, people mowing lawns, oak and maple trees, late summer evenings. It is cousins and uncles and aunts, babies and grandparents. Detroit is suburbs and sidewalks, as well as downtown with its blocks of empty, grass grown fields where stately houses once stood. Detroit is autos and engineers, late nights, sleeping in, Belle Isle, museums, huge breakfasts, and drumming. Detroit is pool tables and laughter. 

We got into Detroit late on the night of the 13th, after leaving the house of a very kind reader, Sandwich, who opened her home to us when she found that we were driving through her state. It was already about 8:00 but the sky was very light, and Quran, one of our kids’ cousins, was already at Chinua’s parents’ house. We gave Roxanne, Chinua’s stepmother, a big hug, and then there was his father, and we all hugged him. Then sisters, more nieces and nephews, brother, sister in law. We ate mediterranean food and talked for hours. We felt as though we had stepped straight into a huge circle of love.

The next day was the start of the Bragg family reunion. It is the family of Chinua’s father’s mother’s parents. Their reunions began forty years ago and included all of the remaining siblings (I think there were ten or so) of Chinua’s father’s mother. Now there are three of the siblings that are still alive, and many descendants. Aunt Hattie and Uncle Bo, two of the three, were at this reunion, looking fit and amazing. We haven’t been to a reunion since Kenya was a baby. Can I say we were over the moon to attend this one? We planned our trip around it, actually, deciding to be in Detroit in July so we could go. 

Chinua's very well-dressed Great Uncle Bo, one of the elders of the Bragg family.

Chinua's very well-dressed Great Uncle Bo, one of the elders of the Bragg family.

It started with a bone-crushing hug from Chinua’s cousin Derek, and all the family exclaiming over how grown up our kids are now. (They are!) We ate, danced, walked around downtown Detroit, we went to museums and one park. We talked a lot and hugged a lot. I have always felt privileged to be brought into Chinua’s huge, welcoming family, and I felt it all again. There is something about a family, especially one like this, who have had reunions every year for forty years straight. 

One night I babysat my nieces and nephew in the hotel while all the others went out for karaoke. The girls began calling me Auntie Rainbow, because they forgot Rachel a few times and I told them they could call me Auntie Rainbow. To be honest, I don’t know why this is the first time I thought of it. There’s something so sweet about a little niece saying, “Auntie Rainbow? I can’t sleep.”

Other highlights included 

* Many games of pool, which Solomon discovered he both loves and has a lot of talent for. Some of it might be his Granddad’s gentle encouragement. 

* A trip to Belle Isle for drumming, swimming, a giant slide, and a picnic

* A campout at our brother and sister-in-law’s house: more drumming, roasted marshmallows, dominoes.

* A grandchildren photo session too cute for words

* Long talks with sisters

* Seeing more of Chinua’s childhood spaces

* A walk with one of our auntie’s, hearing her talk about her childhood in Alabama

* A visit with our friend Amy.

Detroit is beautiful and full of family and good things. We’re in Canada now, making slow progress across a land of a hundred thousand lakes. But that is a story for another day. 

More thoughts from the road, posted from a campground.

Grand Tetons National Park

Grand Tetons National Park

(Following are some thoughts, written as I've had time, posted now!)

And onward we go.

We’ve had a few starts and stops but we’re on our way again. Our dear van was beyond repair, and we spent five days that we didn’t plan on spending waiting for a solution with Joy, one of our crazy dear friends, and her wonderful parents. Spendthrift with days, that’s us. There were a couple of days when we didn’t know how we were going to get through this one. But our lovely friends cared for us and helped us think it through and we ended up buying a newish van (with financing) that we’ll sell at the end of our trip. Thus ends more than a decade of life with our dear Previa. We were thankful to have it, and we’re thankful for good credit and a way out of a breakdown at an inopportune time.

After a few days at the ranch, we’re on our way, moving a little quicker than we were planning to make up for lost time, driving across the country to get to our family reunion in Detroit. 

The ranch was what it always is, a refuge and place of love. I don’t have a lot of words for what it has meant to me over the years. It has been an anchor, as Kai put it. We are so blessed to know TJ and Mark and to spend time with them. 

I feel sad, as I always do, leaving California. I always want to do everything and see everyone, and it’s just not possible in the amount of time allotted in a visit. I have to content myself with what we have, the time we have, the energy we have for visiting. 

What I want to remember is waterfalls, birds in the morning, Isaac identifying a Stellar’s Jay, the red-tailed hawks that soar over canyons, waking to birdsong, hummingbirds. I want to remember the sweetness of getting acquainted after a long while, the quiet of the mornings, driving long hours, breaking down and finding a way through, good conversations in the car, being together, blue lakes on the side of the road, mountains in the distance, walking through a mission, sitting by fountains, singing together. 

Lakes are amazing, aren’t they? What a gift, a body of water inland, just when you were missing the sea. 

I’m happy to say that I’m 86% of the way through my World Whisperer 3 edit. Soon it will be off to my editor and then out to my Amazing Unicorn Readers’ Group. And then I’ll be writing the fourth. Life is good.

***

I’ve been in wildflower heaven on this trip. I was already very pleased with a month of driving in May, wildflowers on the sides of the road in California. And then we went to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks and it was three days of driving through mountain ranges and forests with flowers scattered in every direction. Fields of color, whole hillsides; lupine and Indian paintbrush, balsamroot and Jacob's ladder.

We swam in a lake that reflected the peaks of the Grand Tetons. We collected stones and the kids caught garter snakes. Solomon, who is an incredible extrovert, brought his snake, curled around his neck, to the picnic tables of unsuspecting people who didn’t love snakes quite as much as he does. 

We hiked along a lupine trail. We saw Old Faithful, the geyser that can mostly be counted on to erupt every hour and a quarter or so. We saw rainbow pools that looked like they came from another world. Now we drive across Montana and Wyoming and into South Dakota, still on our way, on our way. 

I don’t ever mean to communicate that everything is easy, when I talk about our life. If you have teenagers, you will know what I mean by “flashes of harmonious living,” or “moments of peace.” It is these moments of peace, of being in wilderness together, that make it worth it. But traveling and camping is not exactly restful, though it is restful for the mind. My mind is always happy to have a break from billboards and price tags. But we are cooking our food and breaking down and setting up camp every day, as well as driving for hours in between. We are navigating the questions of why we can’t live in a country where we all speak the language as a first language. We are doing the work of raising young people who are wrestling with big questions. Sometimes I feel that I never stop moving, relating, packing things in and out of bags, cooking. 

But it is worth it. We want to form a family culture of wonder and talking about all the things, even the hard things. One thing we’ve talked about lately is that every kid gets the family they get, and it is what kids do with what they’re given that makes the difference. We also talk about keeping their choices open, learning as much as they can so they can grow up and choose where they want to live, what they want to do. I believe some of my kids will choose to live in North America. Some of them may choose to live in Asia. Some of them, who feel very certain of their future, may change their minds when they get older. 

Some practical notes: 

- We’re traveling with a two man tent that was a wedding gift and is still in great shape, and a six man tent that Christy gave us. Kai and Kenya are in charge of the big tent, where the kids sleep. When we stop, they set it up and Chinua sets ours up. They inflate the two air mattresses I bought. Chinua and I got Hiker Thermarests, and they are my new favorite thing in the world- just enough padding to keep the stones from breaking through. But we are already used to a hard bed in Thailand. We have two kids on one double mattress and three on the other. While they set up, I set out snacks and start cooking dinner.

- Egg tortillas with salsa (crack an egg in a hot, oiled pan and smash a corn tortilla on it, flip it after the egg is mostly cooked), egg burritos, macaroni and cheese with tuna, and canned soup, are our quick foods. I make oatmeal in the morning and we drink tea and coffee. I have a pour-over filter which is my best friend. We have a cooler and buy ice daily. We eat a lot of sandwiches, Clif bars (which the kids think are the most amazing things ever made) and drink mostly water. I feel like I’ve discovered an antidote to the slow leak of money from buying coffee on the road. I buy a big bottle of concentrated cold brew coffee and milk and keep them in the cooler- at that afternoon need coffee moment, I pour some of each into a thermos and am content.

- We sleep in state parks, national forests, or national parks, which are all still very cheap. The best deal we got was $15/night. The best moment we had was stopping at a campground that said ‘FULL’ in the evening in Yellowstone, ready to ask if they knew of any campground in the park that had space. “I’m not full,” the lady told me. “I just had a cancellation.” I cheered. 

- I have a moment each day when I think I might not get through the day. An afternoon of driving, needing to find a campsite, and do dinner and clean up and all that stuff feels like too much. I may meltdown. Mostly I don't though, and the moment always passes. 

 

This seems to be true of life. 

Pleasures:

  • Isaac singing in the car
  • Leafy telling stories in the next tent- “There were three magical rainbow chickens. They had waffles for eyes.”
  • Solomon weaving rope out of grasses, asking, in the middle of a sage field, “can’t you just leave me here for the night, and come back and get me in the morning? I’m making a pillow out of sage.”
  • Kai spotting a mother black bear and her cub, twenty feet away from us.
  • Kenya’s dreamy eyes and her excitement when she hears about ranger work.
  • Birding together; osprey, orioles, bald eagles in the morning, red-tailed hawks, trumpeter swans and their babies.
  • Every flower, every single one, calling to me. 

Close.

(I wrote this post a few days ago. It's a bit hard to get wifi on the road!)

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Today is gorgeous. Sunshine and blue sky. Hay fever. Trees everywhere, rosemary, sage growing where I can pluck it and smell it. There are birds we have never seen before. Family and all its messy spilling over of love, misunderstanding and stretching, growing. When we are traveling like this we don’t have the normal rhythms of separating and coming back together. It puts pressure on us and builds lasting memories in us.

Since the family arrived, we have been traveling from place to place. We started at Christy’s house in Santa Cruz, as they recovered from jet lag and adjusted to the chilly weather with groans and expressions of disbelief. “This is summer?” Kenya kept asking. “Are you sure?” Christy took us to Wilder Ranch, a beautiful spot where the kids climbed an enormous, sprawling spruce tree and ran through the root systems of gigantic aloe plants.

Then we drove to Nevada City, where we spent an intense and very cold three days at a campground for a gathering of communities like ours (Christ-centered, created for travelers). Chinua has helped to focalize these gatherings for the last few years along with our friends Heather and Gabe, but this is the first I was able to attend.

I loved it. Every minute. We set up our tents for the first time on this trip, and huddled by the fire. There was another family that we’ve known for a long time but haven’t seen in forever, with kids who are the same ages as ours, and my kids were in bliss. Board games, movies, drawing time, even a wildly mismatched game of Red Rover… the big kids watched the little ones and I was able to attend nearly all the seminars.

Then we went to Claire’s house, Innerchange Outer Circle in San Francisco, one of the most love-soaked houses I’ve ever been in. I’m often effected by the feel of a place, and that place was heavenly to me. Outer Circle in an order that reaches out to homeless and disenfranchised people in San Francisco, so it is mercy-soaked, and also familiar, as we spent years in San Francisco doing the same.

And then we spent time in Mill Valley, spending time with Cate and our other friends, hiking along Muir Beach Overlook, and driving out to see the elephant seals in Point Reyes, as well as the carcass of a beached blue whale. (Very large, very amazing, very stinky.)

And now we are in Yosemite, living in our tents, cooking oatmeal on a little camping stove in the forest. It feels like the land, except for the tents part. We drew close to the park on the first night, but stopped at a place called Moccasin for the night, as it was getting dark. We set up our tents right next to Don Pedro lake, and the kids swam while I cooked dinner. Later that night, after everyone was in bed and the dishes were done, the food in the bear locker, the valuable stuff locked away, I swam. I waded into the water in the sight of thousands of stars, and the only thing I could see, other than the stars, was a cross on the hill, outlined in white twinkle lights. The water rippled out from me, black and silky and quiet. Bats winged over the surface.

It has not been easy, in some ways, to re enter my life. My beliefs on the sanctity of motherhood are challenged as I move from morning till night, taking care of the needs of many other people. They are the most beautiful, joyous creatures, leggy and hilarious. They make me laugh more than I have ever laughed, I forgot how much I laugh when I’m with them. 

But it is a road trip with five kids in a van, ages four to fourteen, you can fill in the blanks. I am floating in a pool of people and it is sometimes hard to remember the closeness I felt to God on my pilgrimage. My life lesson is to bring my solitude-starved self to God at the end of the day, allow him to smooth the creases, correct the false identities, soothe the indignity I feel at being a servant, and bring me back to the center. I am his and he is mine and look at this beautiful life. I swim and I swim, the night is all around me. The stars are everywhere. The cross on the hill reminds me that this is a suffering kind of joy and that is right, that is good. I’m in the right place.

Pilgrimage.

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Today I drive the last day of my solitary pilgrimage, heading North to pick my family up at the airport. I'm over the moon. I can't wait to hug them, hug them, kiss them, hug them, and kiss them. One month!

In this month I slept in 17 different homes, only spent one or two days in any location (except once), and shared circles (meditation or devotion circle) 12 times. I have sat with friends on so many different days that I can't remember any more who I told what, or who said what. I've been frantically trying to write it all down. My van has run well, and I have seen beautiful things beyond counting. Wildflowers in the beginning, mountain ranges in the middle, high desert and rolling hills, the ocean. I have been welcomed and cared for.

It has been so beautiful. I was feeling a little lost, and I have come back to myself, and back to my place in God in a rich way. I feel hopeful. 

Of course I have a hundred creative projects I want to work on. Some of them with the kids. I have homeschool ideas and family thoughts. I'm excited to get back to live with my crazy, blessed people.

But most of all I feel tucked back in. I feel like I could just turn my head and God is there, behind me, waiting for me to reach out for him. That's all I need. I don't need to be more than a daughter. I am working on living with God today, every day. Knowing I am loved, that Jesus directs his thoughts tenderly toward me.

I pray that today you know you are loved, that the knowledge keeps occurring to you throughout the day, surprising you with its wonder.