Driving, Flying

Number of days that we had to stay in the capital city of Laos, a neighboring country to Thailand, because we needed extra pages put in Solo’s passport, which didn’t have any more room for visas: 1

Number of days since someone has asked me if I am pregnant: -1

Number of times I’ve asked Chinua to break out his iPad because I don’t understand the conversion between kip and baht: 5

Amount of kip I pulled out of the ATM two days ago (to pay for the visas): 4,000,000

Number of times one of the kids has made a “We’re millionaires!” joke: 6

Degrees Celcius in Vientiane: 40, real feel 49, with a humidity of 84%

Number of times one of us has said, “It’s hot!”: Lost count

 

*

Our Easter was weird this year. It wasn’t what I would want an Easter to be, but sometimes other things intrude into the normal rhythms of the year and this year it was the need for new Thai visas. So we planned and worked our way right through the weekend and Sunday found us driving to the halfway point between Chiang Mai, and Vientiane, Laos. We’ve done this drive before, two years ago, but since we have a whole extra person in our family and everyone else has longer, wider, stronger limbs, we needed to rent a larger vehicle. 

The drive was nice and we did it in two days. We don’t drive much anymore—we don’t have a car and in Pai we drive the chariot and scooter, or we ride our bicycles. If we need to go to Chiang Mai we take the bus and then take song taews and tuk tuks around the city, so a good old fashioned driving road trip feels special. 

The Laos language is so close to Northern Thai that we’re getting points for speaking it when we don’t actually speak it. I’m sure it would be hard to understand if we only heard Central Thai, which is what we’ve learned in our Thai classes, but we’ve had a lot of practice speaking and trying to decipher Northern Thai in Pai, so we’re getting pretty good and we can understand a lot of the Laos language. 

But at the end of the day, it’s just a visa run and we are in and out without a lot of time or money to explore. Maybe next time, I think, as I look longingly at pictures of places deeper in Laos. It’s gorgeous here, even at this non-gorgeous time of year. 

 

It’s a new season, I keep reminding myself. This is resurrection, that something can come from what seems to be nothing, but is really lying dormant, ready to spring forth, new and more beautiful than ever before (as things are each time they reappear- the yellow flowering trees more beautiful than the year before). 

I was made to live in community, not apart from it. This community will gather and work together, more beautiful than before. 

 

Today we pick up our visas and go home to Pai, driving down highways flanked by trees in full bloom. The air is dusty and often smokey, everyone waiting for the rainy season. Our car full of kids moves quickly and slowly all at once, like our dreams and our lives. 

On goal posts and the real order of things.

Isaac flower (1).jpeg

I have goals. As an example, I have fitness goals. My fitness goals can probably be boiled down to Please to not have any more people touch my belly and ask me if this is child number six. I realize that I could accomplish this by moving to a place where people wouldn’t ever do that, like Sweden, for example, or New York City. But in Sweden I would probably have to live in a large city also because I bet you anything that in a Swedish village a grandmother would find me and touch my belly and ask me if it is child number six. I do have other fitness goals, like less back/neck/leg pain and more prancing around.

We all have ways to accomplish goals. I’m working toward accomplishing my fitness goals with my new fitness program called No morning coffee until you do Pilates. It’s working well, but I’m finding that I have a little more lag time on getting out of bed, which cuts into my writing time and my new painting time, both of which have to happen before my faster-than-a-European-train toddler is up and about. It’s clear to me, on bad days, that I can choose writing or fitness, not both. (My other system is riding a bicycle most places that I used to drive a scooter, which is great for a general happiness goal, but my town is small so I never have to ride that far, and I still have this whole belly/back thing that the Pilates is really necessary for.)

I have many other goals. More writing projects than I know what to do with. Art goals. Meditation space goals. Homeschool goals. Some of my goals are things with no obvious steps. Be a better person. Be more cheerful. And this is when goals start working against me, because when I have so many things that I’m trying to accomplish, all the time, my artist self gets a little freaked out and I can’t write at all. Or the mothery parts of me get overwhelmed and I get snappish with my kids. And the goals become their own demise. It's a terrible circle.

I do like goals because they help me to consolidate my desires and gather the time I have to do the things I love. An hour can so quickly pass if I don’t have any tether on what I want to create. Create! is too big a command. Write 1000 words is something I can get my mind around. Paint for 20 minutes is totally doable. But lately my hopes and dreams and desires have expanded to include so very many things and my pockets runneth over with tiny pieces of paper that have things written on them, like Blog Post! Email! Sew those things! Take pictures of those other things! Be nice to everybody! Pray!

The thing is that I don’t want less creativity. I’m so happy that I have book ideas coming out of my ears. I’m happy that I feel an urge to paint. I’m excited about my different blogs. I just don’t always know how to be gentle in the process. Yesterday, for instance, I rewrote a lot of my novel, (I’m in the fourth rewrite) covering nearly 5000 words, which is a good day, especially since I didn’t start working until the afternoon. What would have been excellent at that point is if I could have given myself some tender loving pats on the back and been exceedingly happy and proud of my work. Instead, I peered at the list of things that I hadn’t finished that I should have finished and it spooled out ahead of me into the horizon and there are money needs and I won’t ever see my family again unless we can save enough money for the trip and clearly no one is going to university ever. 

Take a piece of advice from me. Don’t beat yourself over the head with your goals or get hysterical about them. Never worth it.

*

 Sometimes I walk outside to find Isaac sitting on the ground, using his fingers to twirl a single flower that has fallen from one of our trees. It is the most peaceful thing I have ever seen. Isaac twirling a flower, his curly little head bent in utter concentration. He is so open! Nothing is too small for him to stop and examine. Nothing is too disgusting. Guidance from me sometimes sounds like, “Isaac! The compost pail is not a snack bar!” or “Stop eating dog food!” He’s open to any experience because everything is new to him. In so many ways I would love to be like him. Even in the bad things, the bad experiences (like the taste of dog food or sand) that come because he doesn’t know any better. I want to be softer, to not allow my hurts to harden me or make me expect less of life.

Kenya is the most productive artist I know. She doesn’t so much produce “finished” canvases or work, but she does sketch after sketch, comic book after comic book, character after character. Now that she is working with story more, seeing her come up with various sketches of her characters in different moods and poses and then putting those same characters (Doctor Owl, Mama Squirrel and Squirrel babies etc.) into a story that she has created is inspiring, to say the least. It’s impressive for anyone, and she’s ten. And she doesn’t set goals for herself. (She sometimes does, but rarely with creative things. Instead she makes lists for her days that say “Eat Breakfast. Play.”) She sits and works and waits to see what comes that day. And the next day she looks at what she has done and tries to finish it, then she thinks of something new. 

These two beautiful children have me thinking about openness. About openness being more important than my goals. The problem with my goals is that they are fixed and they can be closed off from what is happening right now, in this day, in this place. They lack gentleness and flexibility and love. Goals are not the problem, but living by goals is not a great lifestyle.  It doesn’t give much room to what God wants to do or to what may surprise me. On the other hand, openness is a way of life. I have gone back and forth in these realities over the years, swinging between my own task oriented/creative nature (what a combination) and the need to be prepared for any possible reality. I remember living on Haight Street and having a million and one things to do, community bills to pay, vehicles to be brought in for repair, newsletters to write, and there would be a knock at the door and it was a street kid who needed help, or someone who just needed to sit and talk, or someone who was crying. I remember how hard it was to shut the office door and leave my to do list behind, to sit there at the kitchen table, how hard it was and yet how rewarding. 

A life of creativity seems to be dependent on a life of openness. Other things that seem to require openness are community, helping others, being a mother, and a life with God. All are dependent on how wide I can open my mouth to drink deeply of the day’s wonder, how open I can be to God making my heart just a bit wider, a bit more still, a bit more ready for adventure. I bet it's the same for you-- your life, wherever you are, whatever bits of creativity or fun or giving you are putting into your days are dependent on your ability to be ready for something bigger than your own plans.

I see things with such small, myopic vision, in lists and next steps. God sees the whole world and all the possibilities. Why wouldn’t I want to be open to that? It doesn’t mean that I will throw out my dreams or even stop considering them as goals (especially rolling like a ball before my morning coffee.) But I am trying to remember to take more breaths and remember the real order of things.

Still life with ants and dog hair.

We’re home, after a red eye flight and a night bus and a couple of leaky pocket days in Bangkok. (Leaky pocket? Bangkok seems to turn our wallets into funnels.) The night bus and red eye flights confirmed what I already know—the only part of traveling I really dislike is sitting in any sort of upright position while I try to sleep. On the night bus (which was luxurious for a night bus) my legs rebelled from being in a weird position and flooded me with sneaky aches and pains. I’m eighty. I also travel on night buses with a huge teddy bear named Isaac who has to sleep on my chest the way he did when he was a newborn, only several kilos heavier/head sizes larger. Oh I love that baby, though. I’m alight with love for him.

I’m washing all the curtains and wiping down all the walls and ledges because dust would like to take over our world. Dust or ants. We returned to a large population of ants that had moved into Kenya’s collection shelf with all their ant babies and particularly into her tiny Calico Critters (Sylvanian Families) living room set. (“Someone’s been sitting in my chair!” said the father bunny. “Someone’s been moving their ant baby eggs into my tiny plastic refrigerator!”) These ants also enjoy congregating in our toilet bowls. I discovered this on a dark groggy night run to the bathroom.

It’s home and at home we attend to the myriad things we need to do simply to keep living, and we attempt to do it in a way that gives us comfort and welcomes others in. In travel we watch and we let go as we move on. At home we stay and stay.


I read this on Brown Dress With White Dots yesterday:


Home is the invisibles, the take-it-for-granteds: The tarnished brass hook where you hang your keys, the spot low on the white porch wall smudged a hundred times by bicycle tires. The bent fork in the drawer, the half-filled bottle of cologne in the bathroom… Things you know by heart, things you never pay attention to.

Jonathan Carroll

Wookie was so excited to see us and come home. She was happy as a clam with her dog-sitter, who was very sad to give her back, but she seems particularly joyful to be with us again. Her fur was long and it is very hot here now, so I bought a pair of clippers and gave her a haircut yesterday, after watching a few Youtube videos about grooming Shih Tzus. The videos were great! What they failed to reveal was that if one has bad allergies to dogs, and one has a hypoallergenic dog, the fur of the hypoallergenic dog will cease to be hypoallergenic as soon as one releases it from the dog with clippers in a white storm of seizure sneeze-inducing hairs. Perhaps the video makers took it for granted that one would think of these things. One did not.
I suppose I’ll send her back to the groomer next time. I was hoping to save money as well as groom her in a slightly less Japanese doll-dog manner. Maybe I can bring a picture and say, “Like this. Just… a dog, not a teddy bear or a luck dragon or a piece of cotton candy.”

In other news, I’m scheduling a week or more of kid letters. For whatever reason, I haven’t written a birthday letter in a year and it weighs on me. I’m catching up with some letters to my kids in a grand letter festival. If you like the kid letters, you’re in for a treat. If you don’t, tune back in after the storm.

Now, Part 3.

I wrote the following post while I was still in India, and though I landed in Thailand at 3:00 this morning (hello red-eye flight with five children!), I'm posting it now. I also want to say thank you for your generous and loving comments and emails in response to my last post. I am glad you understand, and even resonate with the crazy things I write sometimes.

*


The people in my Goan village like to practice tooth hygiene in public. Each morning I say hello to people who are brushing their teeth outside. One of my neighbors has a toothbrush in his mouth for what seems like much of the day, and I even pass people driving scooters with toothbrushes hanging out of their mouths. Recently Johanna saw someone hammering at a wall and brushing his teeth at the same time. In parts of India, using the facilities is a social event (and I’m using the word “facilities” lightly, because the facilities are a field or the train tracks) but in this Goan fishing village, the cleaning of one’s molars is the social event.

I went to the Mapusa market a couple weeks ago, to buy fabric for Kenya’s birthday dress. I fall in love with India again every time I go to the market— there are just so many moments of quirkiness in every excursion. This is what I miss about India, when I am in Thailand. The quirk. It’s there in Thailand, of course, but you have to dig for it a little more.


There’s the slightly outrageous Romeo of a perfumer, carrying a respectable paunch and sporting a mustache to be proud of. “This perfume is completely you. I know.” he was saying to a woman sitting on one of his stools, when I walked up to buy perfume oil and handmade incense. He applied some to her hand, and she sniffed at it. She seemed skeptical. “No, I know,” he assured her. “This is you. You are from Italy, yes?” “No,” she said. “From Mexico.” “Oh,” he said. “Well, this is for you, I can see.”

I bought some oil, he had prescriptions for me, too—though he always wants me to buy light, floral things, when I like stronger, fruity scents—people are always judging me by the color of my hair. As I left the shop, he was talking to some Russian women about perfume and wowing them with his Russian words. He’s the kind of Indian shop proprietor from olden days in Goa, the kind who buys chai for his customers. A little more outrageous than normal, but he always keeps it on the right side of respectful, despite the flirtatious eyes.

At the cloth shop the polite elder man who is the father of the shop called to me from the door. “Yes madam?” He helped me find the satin I wanted, and then asked, “You are from Denmark?” I can honestly say it was the first time anyone has ever assumed that I was from Denmark, though people often ask if I am Dutch and sometimes speak to me in German. (My makeup is actually mainly British Isles- all the United Kingdom’s countries in one- with a splash of German.) This cloth shop owner is a certain type of Indian man, the kind that reminds me of my own grandfather, exceedingly refined and rather elegant in his simple way. “We are famous in Goa,” he said. “Shop number 10. Outside, also.” In Goa, everything is “In Goa,” or “Outside.”

At the craft shop where I bought ribbon and zippers, the owners were just as contemptuously dismissive of me as ever. Comforting. I drank a mosambi juice and drove home in the golden light of the end of the day.

*

This week I have been paying my dues to the gypsy community by looking at various pieces of fabric that the gypsy beach sellers call “sarongs.” I made friends with some of them years ago, and so each time I come I have to look at what they are selling at least once. We talk about our children and how life has been for them this year (hard) and how much they have to work (a lot) and then, after a significant pause during which we sit together and watch the sea in silence, because it is their job to hustle and to live they have to do it, they ask, “Look at my sarongs today?” I usually put them off with “not today,” until a day close to when I will leave. This week I found a couple of sarongs from each person, a string of lotus seeds, a string of blue glass beads, and two scarfs for Chinua. I bartered, but not down to the ground.

A new road is being built in front of our house, blocking us in so that we live on a sort of island now. The villages pulled out all the coconut trees that were in the way, hiring a backhoe to do it, and in the process broke half our front wall down. Right now the rock breakers are breaking huge piles of the Goan volcanic rock to form a sort of rock road which will be covered in sand and then asphalt. In true Indian style, no one told us anything about this, (you have to take care of yourself in India, no one will deliver a letter to your door saying that the road will be closed from this date to that date) and one day it just occurred to me that I had better park our scooter somewhere else, because I wouldn’t be able to get it out of our yard after the rocks spread to the front of our gate. So I moved it, and this morning the first pile of rocks were dumped right in front of our gate. The rock breakers are migrant workers— and they have made a little camp under the banyan tree in the coconut grove, including a toilet area made by forming a triangle of privacy with an old sari and digging a hole in the ground.


In our community we are closing up the houses for the season and Johanna from Germany (we also have Johanna from Switzerland) and I brought bags of stuff to the recycling place, where men sort through all the plastics and bottles and paper and cloth and get what small amounts of money they can. In the caste system, this is a low job, and these men are poor and work very hard. One man took our things from us and Johanna had brought some of her recycling in a cloth bag. The man took the bag and emptied it, and when I started to take it from him, he pulled it back and folded it very carefully, smoothing the fabric together before he gave it to me. This small act of courtesy touched me more than anything has in a long time. I go about my days never knowing what small thing will reach deeply into my heart.

I have chopped endless tomatoes and onions in my old kitchen and cooked the food that I am most comfortable cooking. Cooking Indian food is like a long happy sigh, though my feet have ached on the marble floors. In these last weeks, people in our community here have daily walked by my window, popped their heads in our doorway, have come in to help while I make community lunch on Wednesday. This is something I can do. I can cook for a big group of people. I can make chai.

In many ways I tried to make myself into a proper Indian woman in the years that I lived here, and in many ways I shrugged that idea right off of me (running away alone on my scooter, scandalous!) but when I moved to Thailand I didn’t know what kind of woman to be. I look around me always, searching for a template or a form to pour myself into. This friend does life like this and this one does life like that, and I’m always watching. Lately I’m thinking that I need to stop the looking around, stop trying to find a culture to fit myself into, stop thinking about other people’s kitchens when I am in my own. What are you, Rachel? What kind of woman are you?

The kind who is more comfortable reading and writing and drawing than making grocery lists or remembering more than one day of shopping at a time while at the market. The kind who has a big family but has never been a very organized mother, who loves spontaneous things most of all and can’t seem to get her kids to bed before ten these days, because they read quietly and she forgets to check on them. The kind whose temper flares up quickly, causing her eleven-year-old son to use his “let’s appease mother quickly” voice, but who makes up for it by spending all her hours with them, beside them, reading to them, cooking for them. The kind who can be very selfish inside. The kind who loves beauty and making beautiful things for her home, but when given the choice, will always choose to write or read.

Truthfully, I have always wanted a set of rules for what I should do or be. This is one of the reasons I like traditional cultures so much. I can get through any interaction in Thailand gracefully. In Canada or the U.S., it’s anyone’s guess. Chat? Don’t chat? Make eye contact? Don’t make eye contact? Sigh. But I am a girl from a country that prides itself on being multicultural, on being a collection of cultures rather than one assimilated culture, and there is no such thing as a proper Canadian woman. Unless, of course, it is a woman who watches and observes, and love and learns. And then, I guess, I’m doing okay.


Now, Part 2.

Kingfisher in flight.

Kingfisher in flight.

There are two things I can do with writing. I can tell stories, and I can be honest about the broken down machinations of my mind. Of the two, telling stories is easiest and the most fun. I like to write fiction and I like to write about the small things I see around me. The problem is that if I don’t continue to be honest, my writing stutters to a stop, a car with a giant rat’s nest in the engine. How can I write honest fiction if I can’t write honestly about my insides? It may work for others, but somehow it doesn’t work for me.


It gets harder and harder to be honest, because you have heard it all before and this blog has sprouted arms. Really good friends read it. Acquaintances from my town in Thailand read it. I am a walking glass display case, like the kind that house the sometimes larger-than-life Catholic statues of Mary here in Goa, except that I am holding Isaac, rather than the baby Jesus, and Isaac is covered in mud, grinning from ear to ear, and squirming to get down. I am sweaty and hot and I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing those long nylon robes or the inch of makeup that the statue Mary sometimes appears to be wearing. I forgot my hat in Thailand, so my face is getting rather bronze and freckled, but at least it’s not orange or garishly white. Ah, good, an old-fashioned rabbit trail. I’ve distracted myself, and I hope it’s working with you.


But if I’m not going to be honest I’d be better off quitting here, because that’s what began all this, and that’s what should continue it. So here’s me. Sorry that I’m not fixed yet.


There is simply a lot of self-loathing going on, the kind that is pervasive and stinky, like bathing suits that haven’t been hung up to dry. I often feel fairly certain that I'm the kind of person who ruins life for other people, which is simply another variation on the constantly humming anxiety that drones under my ground— everything is your fault. Yesterday, when I sat down to listen for the pure voice of God to tell me the truth and to wipe this away, the droning went up an octave in pitch. He frowned at me, but only in my wildly distorted imagination. What are you doing ruining everything? my imaginary god said. (Sometimes our imaginations get the better of us, don't they? When we are children, we are afraid of monsters. When we are adults, we turn God, the very nature of love, into a monster.) Later I got off a joyful phone call with a friend and could only think, Why do I wreck every conversation with my own self-centeredness? She must be so tired of me.


Clearly I had veered off toward some terrible lie. It could have been because Chinua is away and I haven’t had the kind of solitude I need to pull it together. It could have been hormones, or lack of sleep. It could have been the heat, oppressive and thick. But let’s think this through, because Mary was a real person, probably very young, definitely Jewish, certainly slight and bent and a little afraid. And very brave. People now imagine her in a sort of distorted way, standing in a glass case, wearing purple and gold, holding a baby with a large crown, wearing what appear to be false eyelashes. This imagining is not even related to reality, the translation full of flaws, and I suppose this is how I am translating myself, in a myriad of mistakes and undone things that I feel define me, that actually are just circumstantial. In my glass case I see an unfinished woman who puts her foot in her mouth far too often, who is often unyielding and ungiving, who makes far too many mistakes. I am in my own glass case. But I don’t see you there. I don’t think those things about you. I have far more grace for you than I have for me.


This is how I think God thinks of you: I think he looks at you with a little bit of wry pity and overwhelming love, the way you would look at your eleven-year-old who just pronounced menagerie “minna Geary.” Or the way you run to your baby to pick him up when he falls down. Or the way you feel about your husband when he is sleeping and you reach out and touch his face. I think God feels more love for you than you can possibly imagine, that on your driest, hottest, most slug-worthy days, he is rooting for you, cheering for you, on your side, working to help you, nudging you closer to himself. I think he is singing to you. I think he is over the moon for you.


Oh, how to bring it fully in? How to take what my head knows and crack my dry, old, withdrawn heart open with it? I know it is not God’s fault. I know he shows me love in a million different ways. But I am stubborn and I often run and I don’t know how to receive love or compliments. I pull away. So he has to somehow reach me where I am.


I was on the scooter yesterday, driving to get bread for dinner, and I felt rotten through and through. I put back my head and yelled, the way one does in moments of crisis, “Jesus!” Not a curse, God forbid. A long call in the desert, almost a song. Two heartbeats later, a brilliant green parrot flew across the road in front of my bike, a bright flash of green and blue in the gold of the late afternoon sun. I caught my breath. I heard it very clearly. “Like that. I see you like that.”


I’ve never had a parrot fly so close to me. My heart caught with love and longing and God was speaking my language, the way he always does if I listen closely enough. This small bird was not worthy of contempt. God, in the mystery of his genius and his sacrifice, loves me. His breath catches in his throat when I stand in his circle, a small bright bird. How can this be? Again I recognize my life work in learning to be loved. Again, God comes to me and speaks to me in a way I can understand. I feel unworthy and cherished, a smooth, firm place to be. My imaginings can be transformed. I can find Mary again, under the robes, bent and steady, sorrowful and full of joy, poor, with her tiny perfect child with her. My monsters can disappear and the real God will come barreling through the waves, out of the sea, running toward me across the water.

 

Now, Part 1.

Kite.jpg

I don’t want to let a single thing go.

When Isaac wakes up, he smiles and starts talking immediately. Sometimes he starts talking before his eyes are open, or sometimes even while he is asleep at night. “Badababadajajamaja?” we hear from the bedroom, and we wait for more, but he goes back to sleep. He wanders around grabbing things and trying to put them into other things, a piece of bread into someone’s water glass, a baby book into a bucket of water. Yesterday I went to pay my bill at a café and found a half-eaten piece of watermelon in my purse. He is extremely good natured and only gets angered by barriers, like the closed bathroom door when I’m trying to use the toilet for five minutes please just let me use the bathroom without screaming, Isaac.

At the beach the kids are transformed into shining wet sea people. They shake their wet hair and the droplets fly off and gleam in the sun, and they laugh and dive under the waves. They are tall and healthy, heat and crankiness forgotten. The sand is in its proper place, rather than under our feet in the house. Solo rolls and dives, he is a sea creature. Isaac is a sand creature, covering himself in it before crawling head first into the surf. He stands up and runs back, getting knocked down, grabbing my legs and putting his cool face against me for safety. I follow him as he toddles around the beach, chubby and brown, naked and adorable. A strawberry vendor walks up and offers me strawberries. When I shake my head no, he opens one of his boxes and takes a strawberry out, putting it into Isaac’s mouth. Isaac chews it, toddling after the strawberry man as he begins to walk away. The man turns around and sees Isaac still following him. Isaac signs “please” at him, and the man stops and squats down again, putting another strawberry into Isaac’s mouth and then walking off down the beach with boxes of strawberries balanced on top of his head, looking for someone who will buy them.

Kenya spends her time feeding Viktor Krum or drawing, reading and writing comics or stories. Solo and Leafy work on their fort in the yard, mixing red earth with water to make paint. They use the paint to cover the  broken marble pieces they have found to make a tiny table. Solo picks up half a coconut on the way home from the beach to hold his collection of stones. They have about a dozen sticks, each one spoken for, fiercely protected. I walk out one morning to find that Kai has used the red earth paint to paint half of his face, warrior style. He looks fierce and beautiful, up for air from the books he dives into for half the day.

We live simply here. We guide meditation and meditate, write, read, sing worship on the beach, and swim. Chinua is doing a lot of filming, to make a video. He's also playing a lot of concerts. We make food for people to share with us on our rooftop. We have a full schedule of meditation, devotion circles, community lunches, dinners.  It is a very good life.

The villagers are paving a new road in front of our house and I take Isaac out to see the tractor (Tractor! And India moves along into the 21st century) while half the village stands and watches as well. I tell Isaac all about what the tractor is doing and he points at it, saying his words in his language and looking at me as if wondering whether he got it right. All of these people are so familiar, the families with children we’ve known for years. This home in India is the longest home I’ve ever known—I moved so much as a kid growing up and afterward too. In our hearts we are travelers, travelers with a history in many places, our kids forming their earliest memories in a place that smells like sunlight and burning coconut fronds, cashew flowers and incense. Now we live in another beautiful place, and we all grow together, learning who we are in the different places of our lives. I don't want to forget a thing.

 

Birds and other flying things

Kenya-she-hulk.jpg

It was carnival in Arambol recently and the theme was super heroes. This is She Hulk and Super Diaper Baby. We also had a superhero named “Lightning Guy” and then Iron Spider, which is some kind of Iron Man Spider man combination that I never knew about until Leafy held forth. I went as nothing, but Kenya insists that I am a super hero because I am a super taster, which only means that my bitter taste buds are a bit overachieving and I can’t stand beer or raw zucchini. (Or kiwi, raw broccoli, and black coffee.)

There are many different ways to have your heart cracked open and I’m experiencing quite a few of them these days. One way is by your toddling toddler, who has discovered how to move backwards off of high things and onto low things and now likes to toddle right out of the kitchen, down the stairs, across the courtyard, and into the neighboring house at each and any opportunity. The heart cracking comes from his huge, tiny-toothed grin, or him peeking around a corner to find me, or walking into the room fresh from a nap, or really anything he does at all. Another heart-cracking sight is my oldest son’s smile which splits his face in half like the sun, as it always has. These things go around and around, the children tiny and then growing, everyone lovely and sometimes annoying, but in that way that means they’re yours. These are the best kind of annoyances, the yell from a baby in the middle of the night. It means you have a maddening little person with little limbs who loves absolutely all of you. And the way our older kids are behaving in our little community here is astounding! To see them this season, sharing in the circle or greeting old friends or meeting new ones! I’m in awe of them.

“It must mean that I’m doing an okay job,” I tell Chinua. “The fact that they’re so great.”

“Or it could mean that they’re great with a lousy mother,” he says.

“True,” I say, and sigh.

(Chinua’s actually very reassuring when I'm wracked with worry over my mothering skills, but he can't condone bad logic.)

I have my own baby bird who I feed bits of potato off my plate in the absence of a high chair or any restraining device. Now we have a second baby bird who fell out of a coconut tree when the tree was being chopped out of the middle of the road to make way for new asphalt on our bumpy brown street. “Isaac is a baby animal magnet,” Kenya says. “Ever since he was born, baby animals find us.” When I say baby bird, you may think of a little feathery thing. Take that image right out of your head and insert a dinosaur-looking giant gray mess of a baby crow with a face that only a mother or a Kenya could love. His name is Viktor Krum, and we (I use the word “we” lightly) feed him with a pair of tweezers that I bought to pluck my overgrown eyebrows. I have not yet found the time to pluck my eyebrows (the state of my eyebrows is always a good measure of how much spare time I have), but the tweezers are getting good use as they drop tuna down the gullet of a bird with a remarkably large red mouth inside its black beak. What an interesting way to eat. Have you ever tried to put your mouth straight up and suck food straight down your throat? Neither have I and I don’t recommend that you do.

Have I ever told you the game the vegetarian kids play with the omnivore kids?

“We’re vegetarians,” Leafy says. “You’re flesh-eaters.”
“Flesh-eaters!” Everyone laughs.
“Skin-chewers,” Kenya says.
“Knee-crunchers,” Leafy says.
“Head-munchers.”
“Leg-biters.”

And the omnivores just sit there, because what can they say in response? Sometimes the debate does get heated, though, and I have to tell them to back off and be respectful of each other. Ah, but India is a vegetarian’s paradise, with every kind of legume known to man available in giant quantities. I was trying to get away with not cooking very much, but after too many restaurant meals led to gut problems, I am firmly ensconced in the kitchen once again. I will bean our way to health. I will be a kitchen superhero. I will chop onions until I make a pile so big I will be buried beneath it, and Chinua will have to dig me out, finding that I am mostly alright, but a little teary from the fumes.

I made lunch for community lunch yesterday— aloo tomato curry and dahl with rice and beet, carrot cucumber salad, and I love this kind of cooking. It’s nice to cook for a big crowd. Many people came over for lunch and we sat around on the rooftop in the heat of the day until I went and made chai. I get twitchy and nervous in larger groups of people sometimes, wanting to flee, but I’m praying to learn how to give into it, to be okay with a big group of people, and yesterday God answered and I just gave in and let the afternoon sweep me away. I didn’t disappear, either, (which seems to be the fear I have) instead I grew happy with the hours of conversation and with feeding people, and with a little spiced tea on an Indian rooftop.

Unfamiliar roads.

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I'm feeling quiet. Lots going on inside, but little that I can bring to the surface, it eludes me when I try. Also, I have this toddler who is into things during every waking moment. (Cute, loving, kissy toddler. Toddling around. Into EVERYTHING.)

My heart is like a stormy sea. I try new creative things and don't get them right, and feel hard on myself. I need to bring myself back to acceptance of the journey. New roads are obviously unfamiliar, with bumps and curves that take you by surprise. You can't avoid them until you get to know the road a little better. And that's all part of the fun of new things.

Right? (Try telling that to my heart when I'm sketching something and it doesn't work out. Yeep.)

In Goa.

Ahhh. This place. Oh, my heart.


How to describe it? We are in Goa, staying for six weeks in the very same house we lived in when we were here, with the very same furniture, dishes, pots and pans. It is like a little piece of time travel (how clever of us!) except that everyone is taller and we have a toddling addition who is busy capturing the hearts of our neighbors. My heart is doing complicated things. I’m trying to observe the emotions and let them slide on over me. It’s everything, you know. I love so many places. I don’t miss only my home country, I’m all tangled up in this one here too. I dug into California, once upon a time. There are places, the smell and feel of them, in the folds of my skin, in my pores.


It is lovely to be here with Miriam and Johanna again, and there are new community members, delightful both of them. The children in the village are all taller, I exclaim over it with the villagers. Stop and exchange greetings with all the people I have talked to over the years. It took a while to earn their respect, it was not easily given, but they are all very kind.


I walk the beach in the mornings with my early waking baby in the baby carrier. He is heavy, but it is better to be out than trying to keep him quiet (there is no way) so the other kids can sleep. The beach is already populated. There are joggers with big sticks to keep the big dogs at bay. A group of people doing some kind of exercise (I think they are Osho people) where they jump and growl and shout and shake. A group of people doing a slow dance. The older Indian man doing his morning yoga. The fishermen out in their boats.


This shore is so familiar to me. All the lines of it. Every smell, the sounds of this house, the squeaky fan in my bedroom, the way my bathroom opens to the bathroom on the guesthouse beside, so I can hear when someone is peeing, or showering, or throwing up. The porch, where I sit right now, looking out into the garden (it’s doing very well, everything tall and growing) the well where they used to butcher pigs (they don’t do it there any more). The marble everywhere, my kitchen and all the things I have designed and bought in this house.


Is it any wonder that my heart is doing somersaults? I remind myself that I always loved living here—it was the moving around that we had to do the rest of the year—that is why we left. I remind myself that it is easier to enjoy it now, when I am not trying to cram all of our practical things—our schooling, our business things, into the four months of the year that we could be here. We are on vacation now, barely touching school. We have a home that is there for us all year. This has been so healing for us. Of course we love it here. That has never been in question. The texture of this place is like no other, with the gathering of so many nations.


The kids are delighted to be here. We are joining in with helping in the meditation center here for these weeks, and then we will be going back to Pai to continue work on our meditation center there. Miriam will join us in May, (or late April, I’m not sure) and more people later in the summer. We are building there, just like we have built here. We are digging a place for ourselves there, marking a way, just as we did here. We are on a long path, I’m sure we’ll do this in more places on the earth, opening places of contemplation, faith and rest.


Be at rest once more, Oh my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.

PS: Leaf and I are still posting daily photos at I Wanted To Tell You. It's been so amazing to see what she sends everyday, and such a great chance to take a lot of photos.

 

Things I've observed, Part 2

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So, from my notes we had:


Cha chas
Getting on buses with my kids
Pink hijab
Dentist glass tables bikes
Middle aged dancing man
Spanish people durian
And I’m adding: Dog food purse

*
Here we go!

Cha chas

On our recent dentist/visa trip we went to a flashy new mall in Chiang Mai, which had an amazing playground. I paid for the kids to use it for three hours. It was a bit of a splurge, but free playgrounds aren’t an abundant thing in Thailand and this one had three levels with a huge ball pit and giant slides. It was awesome. While I was paying, the woman said, “Give me your phone number so I can call you if I need you. We won’t let your kids leave until you come and pick them up.”


My jaw dropped. “I can leave them here?”


I skipped out of there as fast as I could with Isaac still in the carrier on my back. I knew exactly what I was going to do, what I didn’t really want to do with my kids with me. I was going bra-shopping.


I needed to buy a new bra because my cha chas have left me, they are once again diminishing past the point of deserving the name cha chas. They are in the wane cycle. This is because Isaac is nursing less lately, and there have only been five times in my life that I have filled out a t-shirt in a way worth mentioning. Actually, I should say twice, because the first four times were attached, really. Pregnant nursing, pregnant nursing, and repeat. After Solo was weaned, I was shocked to see what my real size was. I lived on a beach where I could often see people filling out their bikinis while my own bikini top flapped empty in the breeze, and I became rather jealous.


I’m accepting of my cha cha-less self these days. I’m going for the Japanese loose shirts look. The “We’re flat chested and we love it!” look. Or something like that. And yes, I’m blogging about boobs. I’ve gotten older, I’m uninhibited. What will I be writing about when I’m sixty? We’ll have to wait to find out.


*

Riding on buses with my kids


When I was a teenager and rode the city bus to school, I used to have these frequent daydreams about having kids and riding the bus with them. We’d be a diverse group, I thought, since a lot of my kids would surely be adopted and probably of various ethnicities. I imagined us all trailing on, causing a bit of a stir, sitting and joking together. It was a pleasant daydream for fifteen-year-old me, awkward, in my man phase (when everyone mistook me for a man and called me Sir), in grungy Japanese All-Stars, fat corduroys, and a polyester shirt. This was before I knew I liked art, or writing, before I ever had a boyfriend. (I had my first boyfriend and kiss at twenty. He was Chinua.) I knew I liked reading, and I knew I liked kids.


Looking back at this little daydream, what strikes me is how completely it was fulfilled. There is nothing truer in my life than the fact that I ride on buses with my kids, that we are diverse, that we cause a stir, and that we sit and joke with each other. I couldn’t have imagined almost anything else about how my life has turned out, but I imagined that. Wow.


They’re such excellent bus-riders, too. (And train-riders, sky train-riders, plane-riders, tuk tuk-riders.) On our recent trip to Chiang Mai, I asked Kai to hold Isaac so I could get back on the bus and check under the seats to see if we had left anything behind. When I looked up, though, Kenya was already doing it, and she continued to do it in each place we left, the entire time we were away from home. Then I had to take an unplanned trip to Bangkok because I couldn’t get my Indian visa in Chiang Mai. Chinua was back in Pai, building the fence for our meditation center. I put the kids on a bus to Pai and they rode back on their own. It went flawlessly. (The buses are not really buses, more like big vans, and the drop off is very close to our house. Chinua met them there.) Riding on buses with my kids. That’s my life.


*

Pink hijab


This one is about Isaac, who talks non-stop. Non. Stop. He talks to anyone who will listen to him, forming full sentences with laughs for punctuation, listening for responses, but he doesn’t use any words. He loves to talk to people walking by, people on the bus, people on the street. Everyone.


One day I heard him rattling away with enthusiasm and I turned to see who was getting such a thorough talking to. It was the toddler from across the street, just a couple months older than Isaac, who had been carried over to our fence by her dad. She was wearing a pink hijab with sparkles and staring at Isaac, who was talking a mile a minute, as if she had never seen a specimen quite like him before.


*

Dentist glass tables bikes


We went to the dentist for a yearly check up recently. Clean bills for Kenya and Solo, Kai has one cavity in a baby tooth that is due to fall out soon, and Leafy had a tooth that we already knew had to be taken care of, so we took care of it that day. The dentist’s office was lovely and bright, with toys and even bikes to play with, which seemed fantastic, until I realized that the combination of glass and bikes was going to make me fall down dead. My kids rode the bikes in circles in a room where every wall (floor to ceiling), door, and table was made of glass, and I couldn’t help thinking that something in this set of circumstances was horribly, horribly flawed.


“Careful!” I said/shrieked inanely, while my kids did their best to drive slowly and carefully, but you know how these things go, how everything only escalates with boys, how there is no settle down mechanism in their brains. Left to their own devices, boys will escalate every single game until someone is in the hospital getting stitches or a cast, and that is why they need sisters and grownups. In this case, Kenya was also drunk on indoor bicycles, and I couldn’t count on her to put a halt to things. All I could do was call out directions, “Watch the wall! Not near the tables! No, not near that wall!” The toys at the dentist’s office put me in bed for a week.


*

Middle aged dancing man

The kids were playing on the aforementioned mall playground and I was finished with my bra shopping, so I sat and was highly entertained by people playing that arcade dancing game where you have to step on the squares, you know the one? I’ve only ever seen it in movies before, but this arcade has a few machines and I couldn’t have been happier than I was when I sat watching people use it. First there were the high school students, still in their uniforms from school. They were awesome. But later, out of nowhere, a middle-aged man with glasses, a polo shirt, dress pants and dress shoes approached, lurked casually for a minute, and then began his game. He was rocking it, not in a  “Wow, what a great dancer” way, but in a “He hits every step with his own style” way. He was fully into it, arms waving, feet skipping back and forth across the squares. He competed with another high school student and won. He went on and on, until finally, he pulled out a handkerchief, wiped the sweat off his head, and left.


*

Spanish people durian


Solo gets confused easily about nationalities and languages. He still doesn’t really have it all placed in the proper categories in his head— where people are from, where we are from, what language we speak. Lately he has taken to calling every foreign language “Spanish.” I’m not sure why. We tell him the kids are going to Thai class, he needs to practice his Thai, he needs to say thank you in Thai. Nope, he calls the language Spanish.


In our guesthouse the other day he pointed to a sign that had a picture of durian on it, with a big red circle around it, a red line slashing through it.


“It’s the yucky fruit!” he said. (They do not like durian.)


“Yeah,” I said. “You’re not allowed to have durian in this guesthouse.” (It smells really, really bad, so it's banned in most guesthouses.)


“See?” he said. “Even Spanish people don’t like durian.”

This is such a perfect example of a Solo sentence. I can't express the delight this boy brings to my life.


*

Dog food purse


We’re on our way to India, stopped over in Bangkok for a couple of nights, using the sky train because Thai protests have taken over the ground level streets.


Kenya carries a purse with her everywhere she goes. In her purse she has her wallet, pieces of blank paper to draw on, pencils and pens, modeling clay, and dog food. She started carrying dog food when we got Wookie (as if that explains anything) and the dog food has come in handy while we’ve been walking around Bangkok. Kenya uses it to feed fish in coi ponds, or stray cats.


Lately she told me she doesn’t like it if she feels that people think she’s not girly. Girly as in, likes to do makeovers and play with barbies. So she goes along with the makeover parties and barbie playing if they come along, but in all honesty, she’d rather be feeding stray cats in Bangkok alleys. (She would be so happy to be a farm girl, or to live somewhere that she could ride horses. She lives here, so she feeds elephants and street animals.) I told her she’s plenty girly and girly has nothing to do with plastic dolls, and I wouldn’t want her to ever be anything other than amazing, animal loving Kenya.

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Things I've observed, part 1.

Since this is sort of a random items post, I thought I'd include this photo. I took this in a Bangkok mall. Is this not the worst design of a bathroom sign that you have ever seen? Why is the woman so small? Why is she being crushed by the elevator? Why why why?

Since this is sort of a random items post, I thought I'd include this photo. I took this in a Bangkok mall. Is this not the worst design of a bathroom sign that you have ever seen? Why is the woman so small? Why is she being crushed by the elevator? Why why why?

I just opened up a page of notes of things I’ve wanted to remember to write about this week. The page says:

Chinese tourists dressing in matching outfits and coming to our house
Stomach trouble
Racism bikes
Cha chas
Getting on buses with my kids
Pink hijab
Dentist glass tables bikes
Middle aged dancing man
Spanish people durian

Do you want to know? Are you ready? Are you afraid? Because I’m going to tell you about all those things, one at a time. Today I’ll tell you about Chinese tourists, Stomach trouble, and Racism bikes.

Ever since a Chinese movie called Lost in Thailand came out, there has been quite the influx of Chinese tourists in Thailand, which is often very comforting to me, especially when I see women of a certain age in hats, walking with their hands behind their backs, slightly stooped. It reminds me of growing up in Edmonton (going to a school that was partly Mandarin immersion) and near Vancouver. It feels like a big, hearty sigh of relief, like the way I feel when I meet Canadian people my parents’ age, it is so pleasant and familiar.


Because Eastern cultures typically have less rigidity around the concepts of personal space and privacy than Western cultures do, Asian tourists are particularly gleeful in the role of tourists. This is increasingly evident in the advent of our “everyone on the globe has a camera” times. It feels wrong to generalize the concept of “Asian” anything, since the differences between say, Thai and Japanese cultures, or Chinese and Korean cultures are so very striking. But it’s true that while I have NEVER had a European tourist ask to take my family’s photo (Wait, maybe there was one photographer in Goa?) we get requests (or non-requests—just photos taken) from Indian, Chinese, Thai, Korean, and Japanese tourists frequently. It’s something that would feel like a rude request in Western culture, but in Eastern culture is not considered the least bit rude.


Lately I’ve taken a lot of joy from something new I’ve noticed from Chinese tourists—it fits into the gleeful tourist category. I keep running into whole large groups of people walking around wearing the exact same thing, some kind of Thai tourist outfit bought in a night market somewhere. For fun! Let’s all get red elephant print pants and white Thai shirts and wear them at the exact same time! It looks amazing. Yesterday I saw two women wearing the exact same outfit, a black and white print dress with a large white hat, espadrilles, and black sunglasses on. I love the fact that other people do this—something that would never occur to me as a thing to do—in this world there are so many options for fun that I don’t know about. I’m going to see if Chinua and Kai would like to try it. (Ah ha ha ha ha ha.)


Chinese tourists in Pai often mistake our house for a guest house. Sometimes they stop at our house because the guest house they have a booking with is just one more building down the street. The funniest example of this was the girl who was holding out a sheet of paper to ask me if she had the right place, but was terrified of Wookie and hopped backwards on one foot all the way out of our courtyard and into the street where she hid behind her friend, all because Wookie sniffed her leg. When she was gone the kids and I just looked at each other. “Did that just happen?” I asked. “That was like a movie,” Kai said.


But sometimes people are still looking for a room, and they come and peer into our windows. It happened the other day. A girl came and held her hands to her face as she looked in the window, then walked back out to the road. “I think she got the point,” I said. I mean, there are toys all over the floor and sometimes dog food dumped out where Isaac has been trying to eat it again, and maybe somebody’s half finished lunch has still not been cleaned off the table. But she came back to look in the windows again.


“It’s not a guest house!” I called to her. “It’s just my house!”


Then Kai told me about a day when he was working on his math at the table and a man came into the door and began speaking to him in Chinese. After a few minutes, when it became clear that Kai didn’t understand, the man said, “One room please.” It would be weird if it happened once or twice. The fact that it happens often, like really often, just makes it hilarious.


You darling readers think I should be chill about housework. What you do not realize is that not only do I have friends in and out of my house, and landlords in and out, but I also have the whole world looking into my windows, my neighbors stopping to pull kafir lime leaves off my trees and ask me what I’m cooking for dinner, random people taking pictures of me as I’m walking up my stairs, men yelling “Hello!” at Solo, who, Solo-like, disdains to answer. I am a hippie foreign mother poster child. I hope that I’m doing okay.

*
The stomach trouble thing is small—it’s just that I got sick with a terrible stomach ache and that brought a lack of appetite so complete that every kind of food I think about sounds distasteful. It makes cooking hard. Shall I make green curry? I think. No, because green curry is the most disgusting thing in the world. How about fried rice? Fried rice is clearly foul. Pasta? Pasta tastes like worms. I have to force myself to cook. Hopefully I’ll get my appetite back soon.

*
That brings us to racism bikes. This is a long story.


When I bought my bike I bought it from a place I’d been eying in town that had a few used and new bikes sitting out for sale. I walked in and fell in love with the purple city bike. The man who ran the shop immediately pulled it out, adjusted the seat a little, and told me to take it for a ride. I rode away with it, I was smitten, I bought it, and the whole exchange was the kind of fairy tale shopping experience that I dream about. I’ve been riding everywhere and it feels amazing. (Bicycles! You get places fast and get exercise!) Chinua borrowed my bike a couple of times, and started thinking he should get one. So I told him where the place was (down that road on the right hand side) and he went off to look around.


When he came back he told me the guy at the shop had gotten really upset when he wanted to adjust the seat of the bike he was looking at. He asked him if he could test drive the bike and the guy refused. What?


“He must be racist,” I said, kind of joking, kind of not. It was the only reason I could think of that his response was so different. Let me clarify that in the years since Chinua and I have been married, our life has been charmed, race wise. We’ve never had hurtful things said to us about being married to each other, and living in Asia provides a special buffer. (Although if I hear someone express shock that I think dark skin is beautiful one more time I will scream). But it has happened (mostly in the States) that when I walk into a particular store, people are friendly and relaxed, while if I walk into the same store with Chinua, people are different- tense, guarded, less chatty. It doesn’t happen all the time, or even very often, but it does happen. I thought the bicycle story was this kind of phenomenon, and it made me sad.


Chinua bought a bike and it broke on the first day, obviously flawed. He replaced it with the same type, and it broke again. He returned the second bike and said he would take more time and find a better quality bike. The man at the bike place had been a bit of a jerk about the crappy quality of his bikes, saying that it was because they were only made for Thai people, not big foreigners.


Then the other day, Chinua said, “I found another bike place, directly opposite of the stupid place, but great! With a really friendly owner and really nice bikes.”


“On the left hand side of the road? With the fridges?”


“The fridges are on the other side, that’s the stupid bike place. This is the left hand side.”


“That’s your right hand.”  (We get left and right mixed up more than we used to, and I think it had something to do with the fact that a right turn in traffic is essentially the same (crossing the oncoming lane) as a left turn would be back in North America, and vice versa.)


It turns out that Chinua had been at a different bike place the whole time! My bike guy hadn’t snubbed him at all. In fact, as Chinua looked at the most expensive bike in the shop (just for looking, not for buying) the guy insisted that he take it out for a ride! Bike guy isn’t racist! Hooray!


Whew. I didn’t even realize how stressed out I had been about bike guy being a completely different person to my husband until it turned out it wasn’t the case. Bike guy is just a nice guy.
 

A birthday party for Leafy.

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Leafy turned eight a couple weeks ago. The moms at our birthday party spoke to their kids in Japanese and Swedish, as well as Australian accents. The boys ran around with swords or lightsabers. I never plan ahead enough, always imagining that I can get far more done in the hours that I have, but things go well anyway, with enough food and cake for everyone, and everyone having fun. This is real Science. When you have a finite amount of time and you try to do too much inside of that finite amount, add eight-year-old boys, flexible adults, and toddlers, and you’ll find that it becomes sparkling and fun. Not everyone likes these kinds of birthday parties, but they’re all that we know how to do.
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Kai had gone out and bought the snacks and ingredients for punch. When he got back he opened bags of chips and put them into bowls, made the punch, and put it on the table. Kenya had gone to the stationary store and bought the wrapping paper. She helped Chinua wrap the presents. She decorated the room. I cooked and baked too much cake. Chinua took care of the games. Leafy was the star 8 year old, sharing his toys, being his usual gracious self.
*
After the party I walked up to Kai and gave him a side hug. (Because I’m cool like that. Sometimes. Sometimes I pester him with kisses.)
“Thanks for being awesome and helping so much with everything,” I said.
“Thanks for making the best birthday party ever,” he said. (And it wasn’t even his birthday!)
I love how we make things happen together now. It makes me feel like we could do anything.


Around the corner

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These days I have sketchy outlines of thoughts in my head. When I gather them in my hands, many are so insubstantial that they slip through my fingers. My mind is often tied up with my novel and the pretend people that speak in my dreams. Other thoughts are of more stories that I want to write, and then there are the drawings that I imagine, the colors I see behind my eyes. The other day I was watching an oil demonstration on YouTube and when the artist moved away from the brown underpainting and laid down the first line of brilliant red, my eyes filled with tears. Sometimes I think that living as a mother and artist involves keeping hopeful. Each day I think, well, it’s possible that I will draw today. It’s also possible that all I will do is wash dishes, but so easily, so easily washing dishes could turn into dancing and maybe a movie spooling from the tips of my fingers, or I could be set free in a small room with all the colors of paint that I could ever want, and all the time to lay them down as I imagine them. My relationship to the practical things of life is so strange. I so often look at my hands, peeling carrots for the millionth time, and think, have I really managed to keep us all fed all these years? Me? And what about the repetitive nature of cleaning? Why does the wildness of dust and mold try to take us over? Will we ever win? Is it winning when we have to devote hours and days to it? Should we just give in and let the jungle take over? Let the dust turn us back into a desert?

Leafy washes dishes. He either washes breakfast dishes or lunch dishes every day, and he does it with his whole imagination intact and flowing into the dishwater. It is not actually helpful, when Leafy washes dishes, it carries the hope of one day being helpful, but at this point in time the kitchen becomes a glorious mess. “I don’t know how you do it,” I say. “I’ve never seen anyone able to make mountains of suds appear on the floor from the plumbing like magic.” When the floor becomes wet, in our outdoor kitchen, the dirt from the ground all around it makes the kitchen floor into mud. Leafy is lost in a world of carefully making each dish sparkle, while his eight-year-old feet are dancing a mud puddle into the space around him, accompanied by sound effects from his adorable mouth.

Kenya fits her art into every spare second. She moves rapidly from eating breakfast to making things with modeling clay, to taking care of Isaac while I get something finished, to working on her schoolwork, and then writing her picture book. When we go out, she carries a purse with paper and pens and a piece of modeling clay in it, because she can’t stand not being able to make something. When I start to read aloud to the kids, Kenya jumps up. “Just a second! I need some paper!” or, “I need some clay!” Practical things need art and signs around them. When she started rescuing bees from the honey bottles (that people always leave open) in our kitchen, (tenderly washing them with water from the sink and putting them somewhere safe so they can dry off their wings and fly away) she made a sign that said, “Bee Rescue Team.” “Who is on the Bee Rescue Team?” I asked. “Me,” she said. She also made a bee hospital out of small unwanted toy barrel that she laid a rose petal in for a bed. Kenya is not an artist. Kenya is ART.

Kai claims to hate creative endeavors. You couldn’t write a script with a more polarized pair than these two kids who most often actually enjoy the same things and yet love to be opposite. From eating (we have two staunch moral vegetarians, and two omnivores who delight in Thailand’s grilled meat delicacies) to books (they both love Harry Potter and Diary of a Wimpy Kid but Kenya hates Percy Jackson while Kai has read every book three or four times) they find ways to disagree. Kai has his own art, though he would hate to hear me say it. The way the kid plays with numbers in his head can only be described as a kind of dance. He loves science, facts, he loves to know and memorize everything. Knowledge runs through him like sap in a tree, he is thrilled by comedy and deeply moved by sad things. He is literary to his core but he doesn’t yet love the effort that writing takes. He has very little belief in his own abilities, but I tell him not to lock himself in. There is no telling what he will be. Just around the corner a new love could appear. This is the first year he has stopped claiming to hate Math, instead giving himself long division questions to stream down pages. We never know what is around the next bend in the river.

There is no telling what a day could bring. Yesterday we discovered that one of the many stray cats who like to lurk here, hoping that Wookie will be careless with her food, had her kittens in the ceiling of our kitchen. The air around the kitchen was filled with tiny kitten cries last night, Kenya hopping up and down with excitement, planning a life with all these stray cats to keep her company. (Oh dear.) Today the mama cat started moving them, jumping down from the roof with blind babies in her mouth.  There are stories everywhere and I want to record every single moment but often these days I am obligated to simply live them and flash on to the next thing.

The imprint of God is on me, a divot on my every waking thought, the way he made me, the way he made my children, all of us different and doing the messy, kitchen disaster business of beating the dust away from our lives and trying to be what he intended. When we close our eyes we can nearly taste it, smell the fresh eucalyptus smell of his spirit chasing away the lethargy that can creep in, that can hamper our delight, or the bitterness that can make us stop trying. This is why I have to keep hoping that I will find all the beauty, that I will find a way to put it onto paper or canvas or into my home. God put the longing here, God makes the whole thing a mystery, how we are transformed and being transformed, how he is devoted to us and we are devoted to him though we can’t see him, because we see his evidence everywhere. There is so much evidence of God in the life of a mother, in all the bending and bowing down, self-abandonment and yet hope of beauty, of the quick smile of a child, the hand on my back when I’m not feeling well and I look up and find that it’s my eleven-year-old massaging my shoulders. I will simply never be the housekeeper I would love to be, I am not naturally organized, my head is too far in the clouds. But God is with us and so the kitchen mud puddle won’t overcome us and we won’t let the jungle swallow us after all.

Also, when given a choice of candy or fruit, choose fruit.

 I rode a rental motorbike from Pai to Chiang Mai over the weekend. It’s quite a ride— taking anywhere from three to four hours by bike (the way I drive anyway, which is safely, thank you very much—besides I don’t have a big motorcycle, only a little automatic) and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to drive back or not. I thought maybe I’d turn the bike in and take the bus back- much more comfortable, less cold, less tiring.

But I felt indecisive. I stood in the bus parking lot for a while, going back and forth in my mind, putting myself in each situation, going over the details. Finally I needed to reach for another source, I was too indecisive. So I reached for a life rule of mine. I’ve formed a few of these for times when I’m too paralyzed by my tendency to think that no matter what I choose, it will be the wrong thing— a result of anxiety.

The one I reached for was “When given a choice of comfort or adventure, choose adventure.”

The thing is, if I knew what I wanted I could do it. If I was desperately tired, I would choose that bus in an instant. (Not that the bus is so refreshing, but it is a little less tiring than the motorbike.) But sometimes I don’t know exactly what I need, and I know that I never regret certain things. I never regret adventure.
 (Another good rule that I use is “When given a choice of isolation or connection, choose connection. Sometimes I’m desperate for solitude, but if I’m on the fence, I try to choose to stay with friends instead of a guesthouse, or invite people over, or bring a kid along with me.)

*

Things I saw on the road on the way to Pai:

-Three monks hitchhiking in yellow robes
-Pines that smelled like heaven
-Around twenty-five Mini Coopers (mini coop coop cooper)
-Nearly three hundred Vespas (I lost count at around two hundred)
-Two Lamborghinis, three Porsches, three Audi sports cars, and various other luxury cars
-A few Harley Davidsons and numerous other motorcycles that I don’t really know about, including big ol’ Hondas and dirt bikes. Apparently there was a ginormous car festival going on in Pai over the weekend.
-I was shivering on my bike in a sweater and a down jacket, but I saw a man drive by with only a short sleeved shirt on, then I saw a Canadian flag on his backpack. I’m not a real Canadian anymore. Khon Thai leow, as they say here, when I mention my love for chillies or Som Tum. I’m Thai now.
-A couple of Hmong men in gorgeous embroidered pants, pouring water into their radiator to cool off their little old truck that was filled to overflowing with neatly stacked cabbages, and overheating on a hill.
-A guesthouse called “Road View.” Who needs Hillview, Seaview or Greenview when you can have RoadView?” I’m asking you.

*

It was the right choice. It was warmer on the ride home and the trees whispered to me.

I want to see everything, to live on every hill everywhere, to come alive with the strain of travel, to be sweaty in train stations, to ride across India with Chinua when we’re old. We have never been flashpackers- we stay in the simplest guesthouses, we ride buses and trains, we don’t plan ahead (we’re not so good at it) we walk long distances, we squeeze all of us into rickshaws and tuk tuks, we eat street food. Sometimes I’ve needed a lot of recuperation time after particularly difficult travels but do I regret them? No, not one bit. I’m glad for every moment, for every difficult thing. We’ve been building a life of adventure, and it’s hard, I’m not going to lie. It is very, very hard with children, 37 hours on an Indian train is no picnic, but it is so worth it. (They love it too- they’ve been begging to go somewhere. A plane! They say. A train! What are we doing? We need to travel!)
I can’t wait to see where we go in the future, and in the meantime, I’ll choose adventure wherever I can get it.

*

Below you can see about a minute of the drive. (I apologize for the terrible vertical video- I attached my iPod to my backpack, and this is what it captured.) The drive is about two hours of curves like these, and one hour of straight road.

Memory lane

Chinua has been adding CDs of photos to our digital storage, and it has been sweet, seeing the photos, to travel back in time.

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Back to when we were a little bitty family, when I was a baby. I mean, when Kai was a baby.

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Adorable.

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We show them pictures like these when they're frustrated with each other.

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My friend Rebeca made me that quilt.

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I think the picture that made me the most nostalgic was this one, because car, guys. I used to be a person who drove a car. Now I drive a motorbike and a chariot. Life is very different, with many twists and turns along the way. You too may drive a chariot, one day.

This is why I don't read recipes.

The other night I wanted to make pad pak ruam mit, which is a very simple Thai mixed vegetable stir fry. I kind of knew how to make it, you know, because I knew the flavors and could use common sense, but whenever I order it in a restaurant, the vegetables are always sitting in a really yummy broth, and everyone fights over the broth because it's so yummy and they want to smother their rice in it.

What was the broth? I needed to know, so I googled the recipe, and I found that it was indeed as simple as it sounded, but that after adding the chopped vegetables you should also add some stock and let the vegetables half steam half sautée. Stock! It was stock. Easy peasy. (The other ingredients are garlic fried until golden brown, then the stock and vegetables, then fish sauce and oyster sauce. I also added soy sauce.)

Anyway, I was reading along in this recipe and everything made sense until I got to step 6.

"Add sesame oil to make a colorful shadows."

I pride myself on being able to decipher all types of English, but I couldn't even begin to understand what that is supposed to mean. Everything else in the recipe was succinct and nicely phrased (except for a reference to streamed rice, but really, who hasn't made that mistake before?) but "a colorful shadows?" From sesame oil?

I have no idea.

Learning, always.

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 * When the sun rises with us in the morning, we get up on the balls of our feet. We are happy in a different kind of way than on foggy mornings. I smile at the sky and get to work. All through the day, the sky is blue— in the cold morning, the warm afternoon, all the way until the pink creeps across the sky and changes to a deep blue, then deeper blue, then the raw umber of night.

* I’ve been teaching Isaac to go to sleep by himself. I started nursing him to sleep after he was sick in the hospital, when we got home and he was buffeted by other viruses for three more weeks. It was easier to nurse him to sleep. It has become less easy these days, as he smacks and twists and bites and plays. It’s not easy to teach him, but we’ve done it, and we’ve had two full night’s sleep, which made me feel like I could run ten miles. The only thing is that I’ve successfully taught him another bad habit— falling asleep in his crib with my hand on his back. When I take it off, he reaches up and puts it carefully back on. Ah well, we’ll tackle that one next.

* Speaking of teaching, I love teaching kids to read. Now it’s Solo’s turn, and we sit with our heads together, pointing at letters, making the sounds. He has a short threshold of focus—we go until he starts making nonsense words instead of the normal sounds. He’s always been my touchiest learner (he would prefer to teach) but he’s speeding up and blooming and it’s the coolest thing. When we learn together he always does well for the rest of the day— building with Lego or drawing instead of doing headstands accidentally too close to other people or teasing people or asking for one snack after the other. He has a brain like Kai’s— it has to be full of something beneficial or it is full of naughtiness.

* I’m getting ready to go be in the garden for a while now, there is a lot of weeding to do and I haven’t been all that great at gardening for the last few months— I never seem to find the time, it is always time to start the next meal or put the baby to sleep. But I’m reminding myself, like with so many other things, that twenty minutes at a time is a start, that twenty minutes gets things done, and that a life of twenty minutes of gardening at a time makes a gardener, a life of twenty minutes of painting at a time makes an artist.

A pic, a memory, and a new blog.

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* I posted this on Instagram with the caption: These two follow me everywhere. Everywhere! I am an Isaac and Wookie magnet! I'm blessed.

* The list I wrote yesterday, of people who came to Pai this past year, was by no means exhaustive. Other beloved people came and lit our hearts with joy, then went again. And topping that list were my parents. The fact that my parents were able to come and see us in Thailand sent a glow into our entire year, and certainly into the first months of Isaac's life. I miss them and hope they can come again soon. I never stand on my porch without remembering my mom there with her coffee and a book in the morning, or tea in the afternoon.

* I'm announcing a new blog! I had an idea lately, inspired by other, similar blogs, of posting a photo a day for my dear friend who lives in a different country, while she shares a photo with me. I asked my friend what she thought of it, and she responded with excitement!

So here it is: I Wanted To Tell You (A Friendship in Pictures). You know Leaf by now, who lives in India and has a wild and colorful life and who has become dearer to me as the years go on. Well, I'm proud to have been the one who toppled her into blogging. It's a simple little blog, with a couple of images every day and just a few words. We're calling it a love letter to each other. Subscribe and email subscription options should be up tomorrow.

A year of standing still.

I've been thinking of writing a New Year's post all day, but I've been working on a new project that is not quite ready for unveiling. Once it is, I think you'll like it.

I like the new year and the idea of blank surfaces and new beginnings. I like taking stock and checking my pockets. Possibly the biggest event of the year is the fact that the kids and I didn't go anywhere. This has not happened for eight years, to the best of my knowledge. There were the years of six months of travel, each and every year, packing up and unpacking. There were the years of month-long trips with a dozen people in an RV. But this year (other than a brief trip to central Thailand for Isaac and I) we have not left our little brown house. It seems unbelievable.

It also seems unbelievable that I stood on my street watching the fireworks last year with the two little boys in bed and the littlest one tucked away in my belly. This year I watched with three little boys tucked in bed. (Leafy really isn't so little anymore, but he loses his head when he gets tired and starts wailing for home and his pillow.) Isaac has been with us forever, hasn't he?

It has been a good year of making a home, and a difficult year also. Chinua was away from us for ten weeks this year. We built a meditation center. I published some books. Everyone kept growing. We had Miriam here, and Abby, and Brendan and Leaf for a little while. We deepened new friendships, and I have forged on despite fear of new places, new friends, fear of putting myself forward.

I look forward to what God will do in the new year, I want to dive straight in. I do have a few resolutions. None of them are desperate, because I know I've been doing my best. But I want to journal more, in a real journal, in private. I want to blog more. I want to publish or find a publisher for this novel. I want to draw more, to keep exercising. You know, the regular stuff.

What about you? Do you have any thoughts for your new year?

I like to ride my...

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One reason that Christmas went well this year, I think, is that the presents were very simple. The kids got a toy each from us, and a toy each from each other (I split them up in the store and had the little kids choose something for the big kids and the big kids choose something for the littles... though, really, am I calling Leafy little? Wishful thinking. Older kids and younger, maybe.) They got more Lego and K'Nex (ordered online and carried over lovingly by their dad, who is part camel) from their grandparents, and then! Boardgames! Boardgames are a win for everyone!

(I really am not a big fan of Monopoly, though others in my family love it. And I think I've pinned it down to my issues around money. Scrambling to come up with money for rent strikes a little close to home with certain instances in the past and is. not. fun. It's the anxiety-inducing game! You're headed for poverty, ho! ho! ho! You have to mortgage all your properties and watch as the bank reclaims them! We're having so much fun!)

I got a lovely bracelet and necklace that Chinua and Kenya picked out, and here is the present I am Very Excited About!

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A second-hand Japanese city bicycle, just for me! There are so many times that I jump on the scooter when I would benefit from cycling my little legs around and getting more movement in my life. I plan to change the basket in front to one of the lovely local bamboo baskets and to put a little bamboo baby seat on the back, for Isaac. And it's purple.

I cycled to a quiet place to write today, my first writing day since the beginning of November. I've been jotting down some writing plans and getting some work done in my novel. Despite my terrible head cold, I am very, very content.