Gardener's paradise.

It was our own form of shopping spree and we were in heaven. 

“It’s gorgeous… I’ll take four,” is a phrase that doesn’t come out of my mouth very often. Nor do I exult in shopping sprees. Except, unless… I am in the Kamthieng Market, a blocks long garden market in Chiang Mai. Basically, shop after shop has the most gorgeous plants and trees and flowers for sale. It is a hippie’s paradise. We could have spent days there, but we limited ourselves to a few hours, roasting in the hot sun, (Leaf and I bought sombreros to keep our heads cool) while Brendan kept the kids in the air conditioning at the Tesco Lotus nearby. He watched as the kids played in the playground and stormed the arcade. We, meanwhile, stormed the garden market, determined to make the garden of our dreams.

“Avocado trees?” 

“Yes, let’s take more of them!” 

“What about these wildflowers?”

"We have to have pomegranates!"

“Let’s get three kinds of mango tree.”

“What are lamyai?” “Oh, they’re small fruit, really good. Let’s get one!” 

The enthusiasm was crazy. I quickly took photos of all the little trees, labeling them in my phone so we wouldn't forget which was which.

We are planting trees at Shekina Garden, and for the first time ever, all of us in our little community got on the curvy, sick-making bus ride to go to Chiang Mai so that we could buy trees together. We piled into the back of a song taew, which took us through the city to the market. Plants. Flowers. Heaven. We bought a lot of fruit trees that will take years to bear fruit. We bought climbers and ten crepe myrtle trees to stretch along the front of the garden, blocking the view of the new resort that is being constructed directly opposite us. (One day—the crepe myrtles are still pretty short.) When we got home I found a nursery in my yard, trees upon trees. We have planted many of them and every Friday, during gardening time, we plant more. Planting trees is always good, always right, and doing it together is a lot of fun. And a lot of work, but what beautiful work. 

A letter might work. Maybe.

I was messaging with Leaf last night, and I wrote, "The poo soup was not even the worst part of my day." 

I haven't written about poo for a while. Nearly thirteen years into my mothering career, I have mastered poo. Poo doesn't get to me anymore. Potty-training-outtakes-poo on the floor, the dog eating poo, poo explosions. Until, that is, the poo soup. And it wasn't even the worst part of my day. 

It begins with toddlers who love to put things in toilets. It continues with two blocked toilets that I have been plunging for weeks. We have a third toilet, all the poo is supposed to go in there, but we are forgetful people at times. Yesterday, with two blocked toilets, I woke determined to fix it all. I bought a plumbing snake, some hardcore toilet clearer, and a new plunger. The downstairs toilet was really and truly blocked. Do I even need to tell you what happened? I added the chemical to the water, it cooked the poo, the vapor rose to fill the house, and then I died. Or I decided to move. Or burn the house down. 

The septic guy came out and blah blah blah, something with a hose and stuff. I don't think it's actually completely fixed yet. 

The point is, it was horrible. But there are things more horrible than poo soup, like yelling at your dear husband. That was the worst part of my day. Because a slight criticism on his part (had nothing to do with the plumbing problem, and more with my tendency to fret) led to me getting VERY defensive and striking back, guns blazing. After all these years, I'm still not the best at taking criticism. And yes, it was the first day of my period, and yes, I started that day, not on some cushions with dark chocolate and a favorite book, but in the poo soup. And yes, I tend to worry about money. 

Fighting with my husband didn't make me feel better about any of this. Demanding to be understood never works. Bad days happen. But here's a letter to my future self:

Dear Rae,

On days like these, take a walk, lovely. Make a cup of tea. Go to your room and turn the lights off and put music in your ears and imagine forests. Go for a drive. Soothe yourself. Then open your hands, give your husband (your loving, kind-hearted, human, well-meaning husband) a big hug. Accept that he won't always say the thing that makes you feel the best. Move into the day with grace. Know that grace is there for you. Stand under the waterfall of grace for a while. Accept that he might be right about his critique of you, but that doesn't mean you aren't lovable. Remember that you are a monk, your spiritual work is taking care of kids and plants and making food and reading aloud. 

Only love and grace can heal. Hold it in abundance for all those around you, and especially for you, because when you want to return fire, guns blazing, you need to pour a little extra love in your cup and keep your heart and your mouth quiet. 

*

This letter might work for you, too. Or maybe you can write your own letter, for those days that start with poo soup. Put it somewhere safe, and pull it out and read it when you need to. I'm going to try it.

And my husband is kind and forgiving, and all is right with the world again. (Sort of, except that I think we're still stuck only using one toilet.) 

Do you know how beautiful you are?

When my friend Leaf pops into my house with her baby, they fill my eyes with beauty. The two of them together are so stunning, such a picture of love and sweetness and the beauty of a mother with a small baby. When I told Leaf this the other day she laughed and said, “I know I used to tell you and Winnie that all the time, but it’s strange how you don’t really feel it when you're in it.”

It’s true. When you are in the midst of mothering that small baby, you feel tired and worn out, sleepless and like your body is permanently curled into a ‘C’ shape from the weight in your arms. From your sleep-deprived, foggy brain, you can’t see just how beautiful you are. And isn’t that the truth about so much of life? At our most difficult moments, we are the most radiant, because something of the true character and nature of God shines out of us, but we can't necessarily feel it. Mothering is such a part of God’s heart, a little piece of the Supreme Nurturer, there on display for us every time we see the look of complete trust a contented baby gives her mother. There it is, a lesson through the most difficult and complicated of God’s creation: people. A beautiful lesson, a lesson like a jewel, because God is no boring lecturer; he teaches us about himself in startling flashes of light.

You are beautiful in the same way when you are at your lowest. When you feel that you might not make it, you shine with something more lovely than any of your effortless moments. Yesterday Chinua talked with our friends, Ian and Christy, for hours, on speakerphone from their hospital room where Ian is getting antibiotics for a mystery fever. I was supposed to be homeschooling, so I was only wandering in and out of the studio, but I kept catching bits and pieces of their conversation. Perhaps they don’t feel beautiful, Ian at times foggy with what he called Chemo Brain, both of them in the dullness and hyperawareness of hospital life. But I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anything as radiant as those two, Ian with his heart full of hope and trust, Christy’s laugh ringing out in the hospital room, or the times she spoke passionately with tears in her voice. 

You are so beautiful. In your honesty, pain, weariness and love. You are beautiful to God, he reaches for you when he sees you walking through the grocery store, mulling over which tomatoes to take and which to leave behind. You are beautiful in your honesty before him, when you reach out for him, and that is all that you are able to do. You are beautiful in your stronger moments, too, but know deep in your heart that God finds you beautiful in your weakness. 

Original chickens.

It was evening and the heaviness of the sky kept teasing us with rain, but none came. The kids were cranky, the little ones not sharing, my two-year-old falling apart over the smallest of insults, injuries, or perceived threats. The tweens were embroiled in a crisis concerning whether they could stand to live with one another any more. The six-year-old was frustrated and whiny. There were beautiful extras around, little ones who call me “Auntie Rae,” little ones whom I love. But all of them were ganging up on me, a big writhing, sweaty, cute mess. I sat on the porch with them, resigned to doing nothing other than breaking up quarrels. Stay. I wished it was the next morning so I could draw hummingbirds with a cup of coffee in my hand. Stay. 

Leafy was the angel of the evening. He spent all day working on writing a book. “Can I watch videos of birds flying in slow motion?” he asked me at one point. “So I can describe the dragons flying in my book.” With five kids, at least one kid should be happy, even on an off day.

The uncle from across the street came to watch the madness. He wanders over daily to have conversations with Isaac about geckos. All of the people on our street are friends with one another, and all of them are kind to us. The uncle leaned on the fence and watched as Isaac took a swipe at Jazzy. He smiled and laughed. I smiled back and wiped sweat off my upper lip. I looked at the sky, hopeful for rainclouds. Nothing that looked promising.

There had been chickens running on the street in the morning, the long-legged, svelte jungle chickens of this region. Original chickens. One crowed me awake in the early hours, a visitor to our neighborhood. While I put the rice on to feed grouchy kids, a man drove into the empty lot next door, looking up into a tree and making cawing noises. Over the half wall in my kitchen, he asked, in Thai, “Did you see any chickens?” 

“I saw them last night,” I said. “And this morning.” 

“I got two this morning,” he said. “But I heard that the last one, the big black one, flew into this tree.”

“I didn’t see it,” I said. “But I will watch for you.” He continued to make cawing noises in the tree, then drove off.

After dinner I sat on the porch again. When kids started yelling at each other, I pulled them into my lap and hugged them, then said, “please try to stop screeching.” Holding them made me remember just how cute they were. I stretched out and lay all the way down, while they rolled themselves around on skateboards and the tweens quarreled over the dishes. I looked up at my house and the sky and noticed again just how pretty the lattice work on my roof is. It took my breath away. What a privilege to live here. Isaac came and lay down on top of me, then jumped up a moment later to play ball with the other two littles. They passed the ball nicely back and forth for a few minutes while I looked at the tall building above me. I sat up and saw the chicken man looking hopefully up into the tree again. It brought back memories of looking for our own jungle chickens and Kenya’s panic when we couldn’t find them. I shuddered, but smiled at him when he drove away on his scooter again. 

Naomi came and picked up her kids and gave me a hug of sympathy. We dreamed of running away from it all. Stay.

Chinua came home and he finished up with bath (bucket) time while I worked on painting the schedule sign for Shekina Garden. I had been working on it all day, on and off, painting a few letters and then jumping up to cook something or pour someone soy milk. Soon the wind called me outside, gusting up and teasing with hints of rain, lightning in the distance. The chicken man came by again and peered up into the tree, which was blowing wildly. I took a big, giant gulp of the cool breeze on my porch, part of me out there in the wild sky, dancing with clouds and messing things up. Leaves blew past, rolling down the street, and a towel flew off the bamboo fence around my kitchen. I let the wind take the weariness of the day and went back to paint a few more letters. 

Prayer.

Today I want to point you to this post written by my beautiful friend Christy. You will remember Christy and Ian, her husband, who battled leukemia and overcame with the help of a bone marrow transplant from his brother. 

They were in the middle of plans of moving to Thailand by the fall, and Christy was even here, looking at houses, when she caught an early plane back because of warning signs Ian was experiencing. He has relapsed and is in need of our prayers. They are back in the swamps of chemo and hospitals, but if there are two people more full of faith and beauty, I don't know them. These two are humble in heart, incredibly giving, and full of trust that they will be here with us within a year. Please pray with us for them. We want them in our community! We want Ian to be Well!. 

Thank you friends, I'm glad that I can trust you with this.

Running

I'm running again. I stopped for the fire season, and after some weeks of rain I realized it was time to start, the air was clear and bright and I had no excuse anymore. It feels better this time, as though, despite my long break, I've been getting more used to the gait of running. 

When I run I pass many people on motorbikes. Sometimes the market is already set up and I run past people buying mangoes and underwear. I grow incredibly flushed when I exercise, and it takes hours for my face to return to normal. I listen to music. I reach a point when I feel invincible, like I'm taming this beast that I call my body, it's working for me and I own it. Then I reach a point when I feel like my heart is going to pound out of my chest. I push myself a little longer and then I walk. As I cool down, I collect photos of flowers or interesting things. 

I don't run far. Yesterday I made 3 km. I figure that running shorter and more often will be better for me in the end. And I do feel a difference. I feel like my legs can carry me anywhere. 

A Thin Layer.

The evenings have been otherworldly, lately. A drape of thin cloud hangs over the valley, and as the sun goes down, the clouds pull the light into them, refracting a golden glow onto everything you can see. An extra bit of brilliance just before the light disappears, like a thousand invisible lamps being turned on at once. We were sitting in the sala at Shekina Garden yesterday, finishing up with meditation, bamboo leaves rustling in a strong breeze. Brendan began riding Nay’s bicycle in circles around the garden, testing it or something, I never did find out.  “It’s like the Wizard of Oz,” our friend Beau said. “And look, he’s riding a bicycle out there.” Brendan did make quite a sight, green and golden in the weird light, cycling on the grass. 

We were drinking kombucha and I felt the kind of happy settledness that meditation brings me. We lingered, the light keeping us there, our little conversations blinking on and off. We talked about light therapy and skateboarding, and then I told some stories about the Catholic shrines in Goa, out of nowhere, related to nothing. Snippets of memories. Leaf and I walked back over the bridge together, then lingered longer beside the river, talking. We meant to head in different directions, but we were caught there, talking by the river, as the light got dimmer and dimmer and finally it was gone before I even pulled away, my headlights guiding me along the narrow street. 

Earlier in the day we had looked at land, dreaming of a future with a bigger retreat center in it. Chinua is recording everything lately, every moment, so I drove while he held the video camera and we followed Brendan and Leaf on their red motorbikes, which are forty years old and aptly named Big Red and Little Red. It was all ridiculously photogenic—Brendan with his waist-length dreadlocks and Leaf with her brilliant hair on these old, beautiful bikes. They drove side by side and chatted. Chinua filmed it all. (Filmed? Is there a different word for that these days?) 

I left quickly when I realized I was late for my afternoon tea with my friend Rowan Tree. Ro and I ate cake. We ate too much cake, the pieces were twice as big as we thought they would be. I offered Chinua some when he wandered into the café later and groaned that he couldn’t go anywhere anymore without bumping into us. He looked at me suspiciously. We are competing to reach our weight goals, (people still ask me if I’m pregnant, nearly every day) and we have been known to offer each other food as a weapon because we both want to win. But I really just wanted him to enjoy the cake with me and eat it because it was too much. He took a bite and disappeared. Ro and I talked about learning Thai and how it can be an obsession, words tumbling over each other in your brain until you think you will go crazy. I was nervous about guiding meditation because I’ve been using up a lot of my courage lately and it seems to be finite, though rechargeable. I’m not usually anxious about guiding meditation but this time I was and Rowan Tree set me at ease as she clutched her stomach and groaned “I ate too many snacks…” 

We went to my house and I finished making dinner so it would be ready while I was away and Josh was watching the kids. Once the salsa was made and the lettuce was cut, we rode off to sweep the floor of the meditation space and put the mats out. Our friends began pulling up one by one on their scooters and the sunlight slipped further along the red floor as we settled in a circle and began. 

God is our refuge and strength.

Sometimes there is difficult work to do in community. I think this particular group of friends has fooled me away from my firm belief that community is a kind of suffering. I start thinking it is all fun and games and playing in the mud and get careless. But in talking about what really matters to us and digging to find each other and dream together, a wild fear of being seen or unseen, changing beyond recognition or being misunderstood can rear its head. 

A very present help in trouble.

Past days, memories and fears and stumbling, clumsy love can make me retreat into myself, can tempt me to isolate myself. Maybe you are the same. But as soon as we try to run from the knife of suffering, the iron of community, we give up on the depth and truth of love. It is the same in marriage, in parenting. We flinch away from pain, but suffering guides us to new depths of understanding. We learn more of what God is doing as he writes his story among us. 

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God…

We sat in the circle together, our minds close and far away, and birds sang above us, and one shrieking cicada tried for all our attention. 

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved.

The evenings have been otherworldly, lately. A drape of thin cloud hangs over the valley, and as the sun goes down, the clouds pull the light into them, refracting a golden glow onto everything you can see. 

*From Psalm 46

All the days that made you.

We never know how another person's heart looks. No one can know all the patches or stitches, the place where it got stretched out of recognition, the time it was run over in the street.

You are made of your days and weeks and no one can know how meaningful they were to you, how you grew up from a seed and you tried to do some things over when you failed, and you tried to believe the truth that God was always speaking in your ear, though you often couldn't hear him. No one can know the nights of insomnia that put lines under your eyes or the pure euphoric love of a newborn you have experienced. No one has you figured out, not even the people who have been through things with you because you are all shades and hues and lines of difference, and the resonance of a broken down car will make a different crack in you, and the beauty of a perfect cloud will radiate differently when seen through your eyes.

This is good news, though, because you have so many different tools at your disposal, ways you can tell your story or try to figure out what it is that you want to say. And you can listen with humility, knowing that you will never fully understand what it is to be another person, you will never reach the bottom of their well. 

And it is good news because the only person who knows completely and has touched and breathed on every stitched together, patched, tire tread-marked part of your soul, is full of nothing but the desire for the best for you. He will not pull away or be mad at you for being a mess. Your perfect days were his delight, your long hard roads brought him beside you, the many meetings you sat through, the unsafe places, the dark lands, the fire in the grasses, the time your house fell, the great seas collapsing, the hospital corridors, the oceans of paperwork, the crying in your pillows, the goodbyes and long lonely evenings, the way you've loved and not been loved in return, the paint strokes and endless breakfasts, the old days, the broken teeth and scratches, none of them, none of them are unfamiliar to God, who sees them all will perfect clarity and does not pull away, choosing instead to gently beckon you on, into the days to come. 

The jungle.

Thank you for your comments on my last post. They made me think a lot, especially about what Tj said. She commented:

"As for 'stay'. It would be meaningless if not for 'go'. There is a duality in all of life. Sometimes we stay, other times we go. I think the peace comes when we accept each moment before us. Our roots are not grounded in the here or there but in the Spirit of God, so it really matters not, if only we can get our hearts and minds around it." 

And somehow that right there is what I mean by Stay. It's not about not journeying, but about the ability to be at peace with what is happening in our lives and enter in wholeheartedly. To not run away in my heart. To stay near the mundane and near conflict. To be just as truly myself with days of homeschooling ahead as I am myself when I am on a bus in the mountains in India. But Tj is right: I don't have one without the other and we all have these different pieces of who we are. They dance with one another, sometimes peacefully, sometimes angrily. 

*

The rains have come, though the last two days have been dry. The rains coming back means that the earth is exploding in green, and my heart is shifting toward the color, the time of year when everything seems to be creeping and growing, moving nearly perceptibly as plants climb fences and buildings, grass springs out of the earth, and everything is very, very alive. 

Today we have school ahead of us. My plan is to buy a bunch of litchis and sit, peel, and eat them, to read aloud, to have a dreaming circle with friends. Leafy wants to invent a type of sugarless candy and I plan to allow him to try. Solo is drawing every day and the piano is never quiet. Who knows what beauty will grow up over us today, like the jungle taking us back?

And another new print: see it in my shop!


Stay

It’s a quiet morning and I’m drinking my coffee out of my new owl mug that my friend Christy gave me the other day when she was visiting from California. She was unsure of whether I would like it, because her husband, our friend Ian, had declared it hideous. What he didn’t know about was my tendency to become obsessed with objects (especially ones that I can call “he” or “she”) that are given to me with love. He will always be my coffee mug now, as long as he remains in one piece. (Time is ticking, our family is long-limbed and our tiles are unforgiving, but I will protect him as much as I am able.) I think I love him more because Christy was so smitten with him and Ian thought he was hideous. It’s everything good and funny about marriage and friendship, wrapped up with love in one mug. 

I believe in marriage and friendship, by the way. I believe in love. I believe in God.

I’ve been mulling over a concept lately, something I’d like to write about more. I call it “Stay.” Stay. It’s an ironic topic for a woman with journey in her blog name (and blood), but the idea is shaping around me as I live out my days. How to find yourself where you are. There are so many books and writings on people finding themselves while traveling, leaving everything, shucking off the old, being on the road. I deeply, deeply resonate with journeying. Sometimes I think my eyes are only properly open when tracks are clicking beneath me. But can I find myself when my feet are in the kitchen? Because if there’s anything that these years have taught me, it’s that as a mother it doesn’t really matter what part of the world you live in, you are still the center in your home, small people are orienting themselves around you, and you are still getting stepped on and elbowed and hugged and your ears are ringing. 

Stay. Is there a way to find yourself in a deeper way while staying still than while escaping? Sometimes when I am feeling claustrophobic in my life I think, “I wonder what it would be like to be a Korean woman living in Korea. I would like to be a Finnish woman and take a sauna every day. Or someone living in the Midwest of America with a dozen squashy couches and a bird feeder. But then I think, if I was one of those people, I would still need to grow roots in my own existence. 

I wake up really early in the morning so that I can write and paint and dream. I can tend to think, once the kids are up and the day is moving, “Okay that’s it for now, there will be more tomorrow.” By more I think I mean more for me. My moment is done, now the day is for everyone else, as I help with math and read aloud to them and preside in my wise judication of whether The Hulk is allowed to be invincible in a fight, or whether that is totally and completely unfair. (The rules of invincibility have given me more than one headache. Superhero legislation is beyond me.)

Is there a way to find myself in the center of it all, the storms and laughter howling around me, the hands and cheeks and hugs and tears? Can I really and truly Stay, with my heart, with my attention, with my deepest longings? Can my longings be merged with the deep calling of mother so that I don’t have to wait for my time? I believe so, in all of this life's crazy messiness and snap decisions, the broken honey bottle, the tweens grouching at each other. 

Perhaps I have been writing about this for years, but it’s breaking out of me more and more, especially when I read the opening lines of memoirs about finding ourselves by leaving. But what about those of us who stay? I wonder. And I wonder. And I want to be found. 

What do you think? Are you interested in reading more musings, meditations, essays on this? Also, here’s a question: in your blog reading, do you prefer more frequent, short thoughts, or rarer long posts? Thanks, friends, I don’t say it enough, but you are truly wonderful.

Traveling while sleeping.

Things I love:

Watching people take selfies. This brings me endless delight and entertainment, especially if he or she or they have a selfie stick. So oblivious to what people around them might think! So unabashed in cuteness and adorable pouty faces! I could watch for hours because he or she or they will never look up and see me staring. I walked out to a waterfall with my sister and we watched as a tourist, a girl from China, paused every few steps or so to take another selfie. 

Waking up on a train. I remember Solo waking up on a train once when he was two or three, and saying, as soon as his eyes were open, “I’m on a train!” It’s a beautiful feeling: My bed has been moving all through the night and I am somewhere else now. 

Driving a motorbike through jungle streets at night in Thailand. The scented flowers send out their fragrance at night, and around every curve you are greeted by a new wave of beauty. 

When my landlord and his wife come over, he nearly always turns to me and says, “Ampa (his wife) looks beautiful today, doesn’t she?” They are in their sixties and nearly inseparable. 

Flowers. Have I said that already? All the trees in Thailand are flowering. Everywhere I look, my eyes rest on beauty.

*

My sister came and visited for nearly four weeks. First she stayed at our house, and then at the end of her visit we went journeying together, just the two of us, something we haven’t done before. We went to Ko Chang, an island in the Gulf of Thailand with remarkable mountains and jungle. We rode motorbikes in the jungle, we swam in the sea and in a waterfall pool, and we kayaked out to watch the sunset nearby a ridge of mountain. It was beautiful and we had some laughing fits, the kind I only have with my sister and brother, the silent, can’t get a breath laughs. I feel thankful and full to the brim of love for her. 

I did have an accident and I do have a warning for you. I’ve been driving a scooter or small motorbike for seven years, and I laid my bike down for the first time on the island. We reached the island in the afternoon, rented bikes, and headed out to find ourselves the perfect beach/hut combination, one that would be the cheapest it could be. After looking through a few beaches, we headed on to Lonely Beach, reached by a curvy, hilly road.  I live in Pai, and have driven curves many times. Night fell, it started raining and we slowed down. We reached the top of hill where a van was parked halfway down with its flashers going. I only had time to wonder why it was stopped there before my wheels slipped right out from under me and I was skidding down the road. I jumped right up. “Is there an oil slick?” I asked the world at large, somewhat in shock. A French traveler (was he a French angel?) ran over to help lift my bike up. “You are very lucky,” he said. “It is just the road, the road is so slippery. Better to walk it down, your bike is fine.” It was pouring on us and it was night. The road was so slippery it felt like we could slip in our shoes. All along the road, people were stopped under trees, not even wanting to drive with the road like that. People were taking turns driving, in case the car or bike going down the hill couldn’t stop. So Becca and I got on our bikes and walked them down the hill, paddling our cute little legs on either side. On our way down we heard another crash and skid as another driver laid his bike down. It was freaky. I was only a little banged up- scraped elbow, scraped ankle, a big bruise on my leg. My shoulder was sore for a few days. So, my warning is to watch those island roads. When people say they are slippery, they are not joking! I had no idea a road could be like that. 

We took it very carefully from then on, not driving if it was raining, and the rest of our three days were without further incident, until the end of our very frugal trip, when I returned the motorbike and they charged me for every scratch. I may have cried. But that was not the majority of our trip: the majority was good food and watching waves, slow mornings and fire shows in the evenings, talking together and laughing. 

One thing we love doing is imagining people’s response to silly or clumsy things we do. For instance, we were in Chatuchak market in Bangkok before we went to Ko Chang, and I declared that I needed coffee. Becca pointed out a sign for coffee and we followed it, finding a cute little café with an espresso machine and a few benches. The woman at the café told us to take a seat and so I did, on one of the benches along the wall. Right away, she came back to me apologetically. “Sorry! This is a table!” I had sat on the table. Becca and I laughed about that for a very long time, imagining someone walking into a café in Canada and taking a seat on the table, then just sitting and waiting for her coffee. 

When we left, there were terns flying beside the ferry. It was a beautiful time.

I said goodbye to Becca, waved her taxi off, and went intrepidly to shop for mattresses in Bangkok. Why I needed to do it in Bangkok and not in my town is a quality/cost issue. I’ll spare you the details.

 Sometimes I squint my eyes and try to see Bangkok as the exotic place it is, the way I may have first seen it. But I adjust to things too quickly and it is all normal. Ordinary but exquisite. I saw an old woman watering her potted plants next to a busy street and felt inspired by her dedication to them. My own potted plants and tiny square of garden have been suffering. 

I took a river taxi, then a sky train, and then got on a motorcycle taxi, which, happily, was my very favorite kind of motorcycle taxi ride. It was the kind where we ride on the sidewalk and pay little attention to traffic laws, squeezing between cars in spaces where we can’t possibly fit, but we do. I loved it!

And then he dropped me off at Ikea and I felt the instant ice of fear in my stomach.  I took a deep breath. “You can do this, Rachel.” And I took a halting step forward. The irony of this is not lost on me. I am happy on a motorbike taxi in busy city streets and scared of large stores. But I overcame my fear, it was a success and soon I was on the train home, to rejoin the chaos and wells of love that my family consists of: playing music, fighting, laughing, singing, dancing. 

More on that next time. 

PS. Happy Mother's Day! And it's my birthday too! It's going to be a good day.

Facing it.

The world this week is heartbreaking. The small and oppressed suffer, those in power abuse their power, the condemned and the innocent die without fair trial, the very earth shakes and and buildings fall on the people who live in them or are walking beside them. I can’t look. I can’t look away. 

I have spent years looking away. Waking up in the morning has been hard enough for my fragile mind sometimes without adding the sorrow of the world. But today I’m staring sorrow and suffering in the face, trying not to turn away. And the truth is that we get the whole of the world’s sorrow delivered to us, much the same way God does, and we don’t have the heart or shoulders of God. 

Not a sparrow falls without God’s care. And somehow, the beauty that he witnesses, that lives in the universe and in his heart, is enough to swallow the pain. He is joyful and sorrowful, at once, even with all he sees. And the beauty is everywhere, it is in men who sing hymns as they are killed, it is in people who take care of one another when they are left with nothing but rubble, it is in children offering water to police, or people standing in front of police as human shields. It is in simple love between men and women. It is in you, as you care for your children or your parents. Love is more powerful than anything.

*

Nepal is deep in my heart. I fell in love in Nepal, and I held my husband’s hand for the first time there. In Nepal I attended some of the most joyful churches I have ever seen, filled with women who live in more hardship than I can fathom. I have felt darkness, seen madness. I spent a day with Chinua trying to help a madman in the streets of Kathmandu. I met one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, an older auntie who sells vegetables and dances when we sing songs to Jesus. So many of us love that country, we have fallen in love with its mountains and people, we cringe at the fallen buildings, ancient landmarks. 

And all around the world the unseen sorrows happen. The countries none of us have traveled to, the people who don’t make the news. The people killed by police violence when a video camera wasn’t readily available. And not even a sparrow falls without God seeing it. There are deep mysteries and my understanding can’t hold it all, but I know that the light shines brighter and will break forth like the dawn. All the sad things will become untrue, as Timothy Keller quotes from The Lord of the Rings. 

I usually choose to write about beautiful things. God draws us into Beauty and Love, and because of the evil in the world, we sometimes have to look hard to find it. This is our work—to see and acknowledge the beauty and love in the world, to be thankful, to live simply and give our money away to those who need it, to notice the small, to give a voice to those who can’t normally be heard, to pray, to tell the truth about what we see. It is what I want to do in my life— art is meaningful because it is another voice saying that the darkness does not overcome the light, and to live in the heart of God is to turn our faces to sorrow and then to live in joy. I fight hopelessness every day. And yet I see how prideful hopelessness is: to say there is no hope because we cannot see it ourselves, when all around us, those who suffer more take a stand and say that hope is with us and all around us, they sing as they die and refuse to hate. Do not give into darkness, friends. Light is so much stronger. (And in my next post I'll tell you a little about my travels with my sister.)

A Woman in Pink from Karnataka.

Pink and I have an interesting history together. I hated pink when I was younger, because it represented a kind of femininity that I didn’t want. My grandmother used to sew my sister and I matching dresses. Mine was always pink, while my sister’s was always blue (though once there was a wild peach and green diversion from the norm). Pink was fluff and curls. Pink was not trekking through the ravine in search of rusting old cars. 

Until India. India changed my mind about the glorious color that is pink. From bougainvillea to every shade of sari possible, an Indian man’s brilliant pink shirt, hand block prints of pink camels, it is the pinkest place I have ever lived, and it is glorious. I couldn’t live without the color pink now; it is a bright flower, a wild house, a woman whizzing by on a scooter with jasmine in her hair. It is an enticement to the eyes, and no one is ever too old to wear pink. I met the woman in this painting in a small village in Karnataka, India, sitting for a spell in the late afternoon, blooming quietly and brightly. 

The River

The River, 5"x7" oil on canvas board- Click here to see it in my Etsy Shop

The River, 5"x7" oil on canvas board- Click here to see it in my Etsy Shop

I was on a Nepali river once, with my family and some friends, in a dugout canoe that was so low to the water, we were alarmed by the crocodiles we saw in the water, level with our elbows. The guides were not alarmed. The guide at the back of the boat dipped an oar into the water and smiled. When he pulled the oar out, tiny silver droplets flew across the water.

I sat back and opened my eyes as wide as they would go, as kingfishers and monkeys played around us and the day broke my heart with its beauty. At the time, my whole life felt like that river, crocodile eyes and all. A calm guide knew where we were going, but I didn’t. Every turn in the river was a surprise, and I didn’t know where the river was taking me. I could choose to upset the boat or to sit back and open my eyes as wide as they would go, so I wouldn’t miss the kingfishers or the monkeys. I still am on a river, I suppose, though I’ve reached a long straight stretch for once and can see a fair distance off. And really, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, water droplets catching the sun like tiny mirrors.

This and that.

The weather has done that strange thing it does here, where one day we are still cold, and the next dragging ourselves around in the very hot heat. It's reaching the forties, and we occasionally take refuge at the pool. The pool we love has little bamboo salas (the huts in the photo), perfect for sitting, eating watermelon, and watching the river. Chinua work on yo-yo tricks and we take turns in the cold pool and the hot spring pool. 

Sometimes at the same pool, the elephants from the nearby elephant camp come down for a bit of grazing. The elephants come down for a bit of grazing!!! One day Kenya and I will hop on and go off into the distant hills together with our new elephant friend. Maybe, just maybe, we'll come back. If the boys will be good.

Brothers are a thing into themselves. They are loud, wild, sweet, annoying, and heartbreakingly beautiful. They climb on things and fall off things. They tease each other and scream. They teach each other naughty things. They teach each other good things too, like forgiveness and how to behave in a socially adjusted manner, (even if they don't seem to get it themselves, they are excellent at displaying horror at someone else being rude) and how to play The Lord of the Ring scores on the piano. 

And then there are sisters, and these brothers have a good one. She is the one to go to if you need an idea, a picture, a clay figure, a hug, some comforting, or a bead necklace. 

We had the delight of going to a little friend's birthday party at her beautiful home. Her mom and grandma made a feast and it featured a lot of fruit! Hooray, because I only want watermelon and mangos when it's hot. The kids ran around in the grass and bugs bit them and they called wayward ducks and kept themselves from falling into ponds. It was an excellent day.

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And this! I think I am the one receiving the best gift in this piano, because I get to hear the songs my husband plays. By the way, spoiler alert for all those who have googled "Who is Rachel Devenish Ford's husband?" He is not an actual superstar, not in those ways that have people holding their hands up to block the paparazzi, or buying multiple homes. He is a superstar to us. And it is true that he can play almost any instrument and sing any song and that he is the best dad ever. 

Dear Kenya,

We went out for dessert on your birthday, at a restaurant where your dad was playing music. The two of us sat in the resplendent wing-backed chairs (perhaps the only two wing-backed chairs in this part of Thailand) and chatted while we listened to Chinua play. You broke into applause after every song, causing the other diners to also stop what they were doing and applaud. At the end of the evening your dad playing "Isn't She Lovely," by Stevie Wonder, dedicating it to you. You sighed and wiggled and grinned. "He always plays this when I come here," you said, perfecting content in a little circle of love.

All day, you said, "People are so nice, people are being so nice to me." You said it as Naomi lit candles for you and Ro and a visiting traveler wove a crown of flowers for your head. It was such a simple birthday; no presents, we hadn't had your party yet. Just a day to remember that you were born, with a crown of flowers and candles in the cake we ate for community lunch. But you have always received the simplest things with joy. If you have a handful of clay, you are happy. All you need is a bit of something you can sculpt and bake in the sun, you don't need much, my love. And if people are kind to you, you are receiving a little of how people feel when you are so kind to them, when you make them gifts with your hands for goodbye presents, or do small things to make others feel better. 

Once, a traveler asked me if I get used to how beautiful you are. It was a funny question, especially asked right in front of you. And I guess the answer is yes, your face is more familiar to me than my own. But I never get used to the fact that your inner radiance shines brighter than your physical self. That is the gift we have all been given in you. You are an animal rescuer (most recently you have been nursing two baby rats), lover of justice, defender of the small. What a thing to be.

As we sat in our wing-backed chairs, you turned to me.
"Thank you for making me," you said. 
"You're welcome," I said. "But I didn't really make you."
"No," you said.
"I built you," I said. "No, that's not right. I was your house, while God was building you."
"Yeah! You were my house!" 

We sat and chatted for a while longer, you sculpted a bird with the malleable eraser that you always carry with you. A bird with one wing outstretched. And suddenly you lunged at me in a sprawling hug.
"Can you be my house again?" you asked. 
I squeezed you really tight.
"I will always be your house," I said.

The Smallest Bird

The smallest bird- 5" x 7" oil on canvas - click to see it on etsy

The smallest bird- 5" x 7" oil on canvas - click to see it on etsy

The sound of birds wakes me in the morning. Their songs and calls are what pull me out of bed. I lie there for a while, listening, and then think, "You are making something so beautiful; I should join you." And I do. Or I try, anyway. They are effortless in beauty.

Living with an anxiety disorder is hard, sometimes harder than others. I've been climbing back out of a long, dark pit. I'm very nearly out, but in the moments when I'm still on the bottom, gazing wistfully at the top, my head loops along strange pathways. One of these is the fear that I'll somehow ruin everything. It sounds silly in writing, but it can crush me. If I don't do or say the right things, I will burn it all down: family, community, relationships. On the other hand, if I can say or do all the right things, I will be able to keep everyone happy. 

I was telling a friend about this deep fear the other day. "Well, you're certainly very powerful if you can do that," she said. "Even God doesn't keep everyone happy." 

I sat back. Rationality doesn't really help in the deepest reaches of the pit, but I sensed the truth of what she said. Can I really ruin everything? Can I fix everything?

There is a beautiful Innocence Mission called a Wave is Rolling, that says, 
"A singing bird, I call your name
in the middle of the nighttime. 
I'm the smallest bird who calls your name
In the middle of the day."

Birds eat, they sing, they fly. They stretch even the tiniest wings and rise above it all. Maybe you also know the dangers of feeling over-responsible. But settle down, lovely one. You are the smallest bird who calls His name, in the middle of the day. 

The Long Labor

The Long Labor- Oil on Canvas Board- See it on Etsy

The Long Labor- Oil on Canvas Board- See it on Etsy

My fourth child was born in a monsoon after a long labor. Somewhere after the 35th hour of walking, I rested and my husband took a photo of me. I felt that I would be walking forever, waiting forever. Not knowing when it would end, I somehow had to get up and keep walking.

It reminds me of the long endurance of life with God- When I don't feel like I'm changing. When I am lost in my own tricksy mind. When I cannot love myself, from my heart comes a prayer for endurance, for the ability to get up and keep walking. 

In birthing Solomon, what carried me through was the memory of how precious the first moments with a new baby are. I thought about when we would meet and I would kiss him all over his face. Love, in other words, and rarely do we get to have a love as pure as between a newborn and a mother, but it is truly love that will carry us through the long labor of life. Love, the ability to soothe, to illuminate all the best things in someone else, to take great joy in seeing the best in one another, to look forward to the days to come. We are surrounded by love and the great love will carry us through.

Grandma

Leafy and his Great-Grandma, just before he turned two. 

Leafy and his Great-Grandma, just before he turned two. 

It was nearly a month ago that my grandmother died at the age of ninety. I wrote this poem for her. 

Grandmother

I remember water.
A lake, to be precise, 
a clear one, large, but not so large that we couldn’t see the other shore.
I was twelve years old.
My grandmother was thigh deep,
wearing her bathing suit, a one piece,
the kind of old woman who swam
in the cold, clear water of a Canadian lake. 
The cousins and my sister and brother and I rowed a canoe out.
We found a small rocky island, 
and it was like we were the first who had ever been there,
we clambered onto it, lay on the sunny rocks
fell asleep and woke up burned by the sun
red as flames

I remember the canoe making its way through the rushes
thigh deep, my grandmother laughing with my mother
and later, consoling us
when a water snake decided to swim alongside
without our permission.
It came onto the land
“Don’t worry, it’s harmless,”
my grandmother said, and I wouldn't be surprised if
she whispered the same to the snake:
“Don’t worry, they’re harmless."
 

There were leeches in the pools, mosquitoes in the dusk.

I remember water.

I remember the screened-in porch of the cottage,
sitting together, books and old magazines
afghans and the smell of warm wood,
My grandmother playing checkers with me.
Rain came one night and dashed itself against the wood boards 
of the little cottage
but we were dry inside, towels strung everywhere
from the day’s swimming. 

“King me,” she said. 
And I did.

Transplanted.

1. 3-16-15 Pothos on red.jpg

Pothos on Red. Click to bid.

I used to admire my friend Leaf’s plants in India (that could be a confusing sentence- the name Leaf closely connected to the word plant, but that is the real way of it) and she told me they were called money plants, and that they grow and grow.

You can cut them and stick them in water and they grow some more. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, they just grow, and perhaps in a desert they would die, but perhaps not, perhaps they would find the perfect bowl of water. I would like to be like a money plant, or a pothos plant, as they are also called. Maybe I am, heaven knows I’ve been transplanted enough.

This is a painting of my own little pothos plant, sitting on a scarf that I found in South India on a hunt for the perfect red. I painted it a couple days ago, outside under the hazy sky, with leaves falling around me. The things that touch us often go unexalted. This plant reaches me every time I see it. Growing and growing.