A New Part of the Journey

All beginnings are also endings. And sometimes, to celebrate a beginning, you also need to grieve a bit for an ending, especially if you are a fairly melodramatic, questioning kind of a mother-person. The kind of mother person who still likes to lie on the floor when she is overwhelmed by life and documents.

But the beginnings still need to be celebrated. Change is beautiful, rich, full of life, a thing to be cherished, one of the aims of raising children. 

Kai is starting high school. This is a minor miracle. He came home from camp in April and told us (with a lot of excitement) that he would really, really like to go to high school. And so we began to pray about it and then miracles began rolling in. He has received a scholarship from a loving couple to attend an international school in Chiang Mai. Another beautiful family asked if he can live with them. He will come back on most weekends. And school starts on Monday.

The last months have been a flurry of filling out forms and figuring out details and I wasn’t really sure of anything, so I didn’t write about it. But everything is finalized and our oldest child is half-leaving the house, back on weekends and holidays, living in a city three hours away. 

This will be amazing for him. His brain and brilliance need more challenge, he needs peers and teachers and a good transition point between living in a tiny town in Northern Thailand and moving to Canada or the US when he starts university, three years from now. He will thrive, I’m sure of it. I’m incredibly proud of him and excited that more people get to see the coolness that is Kai.

And also it’s sooner than I thought it would be.

There is this very instinctual, instrinsic part of my mother self that feels like Wait! Watch the kid. Keep the kid close. That’s our job. That’s what we do. 

It doesn’t help that every time I look away from him I reimagine him looking like this:

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How can you send that out into the world? How can you give that away?

But I blink and look back and he looks like this:

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For scale:

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This is a healthy, normal change, but it is the ending of an era. We all lived in a house together for sixteen years. All the family. We had a lot of time together; Kai was always home. We traveled on trains and buses, planes, boats, one tractor, rickshaws, canoes, cars or vans, and even on foot. We did it together. We’ll do more things together, I know it. Kai will still be home a lot over the next three years. But a certain time of life, a quality of how we were as a family is coming to an end, and it brings with it great possibility and the sadness of things that can’t be forever. 

I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said I am terrible at transition. Change often has me charging around dropping things, and stubbing my toes. I grow clumsy and vacant. I am overwhelmed. But I want to do this well. So I am writing, listening. We are in the city now, getting ready for school. Doing a bit of thrift shopping. Getting his bicycle fixed. Figuring out class schedule stuff. It’s all normal. I’m channeling my very best Molly Weasley. I’m pretending to be the mom who knows about school and grown up things, who totally has this. I totally have this. 

I mean really.

I do. 

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Relating.

Some true things:

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(Chinua gets credit for all of these photos.)

These people are now 6’3” (190.5 cm) and 5’10” (177 cm), respectively. They have always been the best of friends, something I have had to remind them of in the last couple of years. Their relationship is one of opposites, and though it hit some turbulent waters, it seems to be smoothing out a bit. It has to be so beneficial to have a sibling like this; only a breath away, but so different that it is sometimes difficult to find ways to agree.

I didn’t know that parenting would be so much about teaching good conflict skills. (Learning good conflict skills.) Relating is hard. But it is lovely to find them laughing together more often than arguing again.

They are some of the best people I know.  They are deep, kind, wise, and thoughtful. But they are different in the ways they process information, think about the world, think (or feel) about God, approach conversations, make sense of things around them, and approach people. Relating is very, very hard for everyone. It's interesting to have a study of relating in my own home.

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There are many different ways of relating. Here are some: 

Walking side by side. 

Talking about your day.

Not talking about your day.

Cooking without talking, in happy silence.

Discussing Science.

Noticing things together, like moss, mushrooms, or flowers, tall trees or crooked-legged dogs.

Listening to invention ideas.

Writing letters.

Drawing pictures.

Listening to music, noticing lyrics and melodies you haven’t before.

Washing dishes.

Looking at birds through binoculars.

Riding motorbikes near each other.

Singing or learning a new song.

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When I am having a hard time with social skills or relating to people, I sometimes wonder how God can relate to me, and whether I am too hard for him to relate to. Silly in a way, but it is a real fear. Lately I think about all the different ways God relates to us: Through the living breath of Jesus in the world (that mystery), through the words and poetry of Scripture, through Science and the billions of carefully crafted molecules drifting through the world in gorgeous arrangements, forming clouds and butterflies and mold and mountains. Through our breath, expanding and deflating our lungs. Through our love for each other, clumsy though it may be. Through music and symmetry, air, ground, design, life itself.  

When I notice these things and my heart is remembering, I am relating to God. He will always be infinitely better at relating to me than I am to him, and some people are better at relationships than I am. They read people more easily and don’t melt down as much. But God is so much better than any of us that the distance doesn’t matter. It only matters that we hear his particular voice for us. He shaped us to relate to us as we are. For me, I hear his voice in nature, color, and the rhythm of words and that is a good way of relating, after all.

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Life often feels confusing, unlike a handful of stones. Or like a handful of stones if a handful of stones had thoughts or ideas branching out to other stones and then those stones didn’t necessarily get along, or they had beliefs that built themselves tiny houses and walled off from each other. So it is nice, at times, simply to hold a handful of stones and look at them for a while. To quiet my heart and listen for the simple ways God reaches out to me. He is always singing to us and over us, if we can only hear him.

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Now you can support my writing on Patreon. Patrons can give as little as $1 a month, and get an extra post each monthA special thanks to new patron, Karen Engel! I really really appreciate your support, it helps me to keep going with writing and publishing my work. The Prologue draft for World Whisperer 4 is now up for patrons in the Blue Whale Tier and above! Thank you so much for your support.

Dear Kai, (A letter to my fourteen-year-old son)

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Fourteen is tall, brilliant, handsome, and strong. You love reading, YouTube, roaming town looking for good smoothies, time with your friends, and playing pool. We play board games, and recently, while we were watching Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games movie, you paused it and asked with concern, "Are you sure you want to watch this? It seems a bit scary for you." (The answer was no, actually I didn't want to watch it. I left you and your sister to it.)

You tell the younger kids to give me a break sometimes, if they're all whining at me at the same time. You make lunch, or play with Isaac, or run out to get food from a street stall for us. You are right in the curve between kid and man. Playing, reading, lounging, then jumping up to help. You are thoughtful and sometimes oblivious. In the circle at Shekina Garden, where we ask questions, I always love your answers. One day, the question was "what was something you really, really looked forward to?" You told everyone that it was Isaac being born. (Melt.)

The other night we were buying street food for dinner. Isaac and Kenya and I went to a noodle stall and you and the other boys went to buy shawarma. When you came back, you realized the man hadn't understood your order and had only given you two. You didn't even hesitate, you gave the shawarma to your brothers and went to make yourself an omelette. It's like this, one minute I'm wondering whether you really see outside yourself, the next, you're doing something so effortlessly thoughtful that I'm certain you do. 

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Because it's not always easy these days.  It begins. You test, I push back, you prod, I snap. I know you deserve a mother ten times as good, ten times as patient as you figure out your frame, your outlines, the things that make you, you and me, me. I know it! I wish you had someone without any ego at all, as you push at the boundaries of this relationship.

 But you have me, and I guess this is what it means anyway, because none of us find ourselves in a perfect landscape photo, empty of conflict or other people. We learn to navigate by bumping into things, and sometimes it feels like we are in the dark. (But I love you, this dark is full of love for you.)

 We circle around one another, finding ways to connect. I'm learning when to cut conversation off and when to listen harder. (Both are important parts of this.) Why we do the things we do is not up for discussion every single day. It can't be, if we're going to stay sane. But I'm happy to discuss the world, God, science, why art is important, your favorite movies, your latest blended milk drink concoction.

 The tapestry of my parenting feels more full of holes than ever, and I have never been more thankful for your father. We are doing this together and in many ways he is more suited for your questions, your pushing. You have other adults in your life, and you need them.

And God fills the holes, he breathes in them and you grow and grow and your mind amazes me even as it infuriates me with its wild logic. You are boy, you are becoming man. You were my baby and you will always be my son.

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Love, Mama

PS: If any readers are interested, here is the first letter I wrote to Kai on this blog, ten years ago, when he was four.  

Writing it all down.

Something unexpected has happened lately, which is that Kai has started reading my Journey Mama books. And rather than having the response that I might have imagined he would have, which is maybe a kind of teenaged embarrassment, he is riveted by stories of his life and his sibings’ lives. He loves reading about himself as a little kid. He tells me about things I wrote, daily coming up with new tidbits. “Leafy didn’t know what a milk jug was!” It’s always a surprise, because my memory is like a sieve. Starting the blog is the best thing I ever did, because all of  our moments would be gone if it wasn’t for writing it all down. 

And it makes me remember to write it all down now, even though I don’t do it from the sheer necessity of having to make sense of toddler madness, or the drive of needing my crazy to be understood. Because, as we sit around the table together, there are so many hilarious and precious things, so many things that are funny or cute or amazing, and I will forget all about them if I don’t write about them, don’t take the time to marvel over the shiny pile of stones we have been building out here in our wilderness. Like the way I was gone for a week (on a writing retreat of my own making—big sigh of happiness) and I knew on the bus coming home that Isaac would be so very happy to see me, and he might also say that he was “prying for me.” But he didn’t, and when I asked him if he was prying for me, he said, “No Mama, I wasn’t crying for you,” and I realized that his days of switching c’s out for p’s are over and the next time he sees his uncle and cousin who have the same name, he will call them Quran, instead of Poran. The thought made me sad. (I’m the opposite of Chinua, who is always teaching the kids to speak properly. “Don’t tell him popporn isn’t right,” I’m thinking violently, while Chinua is transforming our children into articulate beings. I’m wishing Kenya still said “wheats,” instead of feet.)

More things:

The way that Isaac makes little fans with his hands around his face when he’s pretending to be a baby, looking more like a star-nosed mole than a baby.

The thirteen-year-old voice breaking that is going on around here, and that I swear is more adorable than any other stage of life. Voice! Breaking! Cracking while laughing, while shrieking, while playing with a baby brother! 

Kenya making her best poker face while Kai tells me that “Kenya says that when you make a poker face, you feel dead inside.” Kenya in general, her goofiness, funny faces, silly moods.

Kai telling me that he read that I had a hallucination of the kids throwing berries over me and me dumping yogurt over store employee’s heads. 

“That wasn’t a hallucination,” I said. “That was imagination. There’s a difference.” But it prompted a discussion of my hatred of big stores, which led to us discussing how it was harder to re enter the US and Canada from India because there were no big stores where we lived at all (“We thought the purple store was big!” Kenya marveled) but here in Thailand we’ll go into a store like Tesco Lotus, a big giant store with a whole lot of the same things they sell everywhere, occasionally, if we are in Chiang Mai. 

“I still hate Tesco,” I said. “It makes me confused and sleepy.”

“You hate Tesco?” Leafy asked, incredulous. 

“You only like Tesco because they have that game on the trial tablets,” Kai said, his voice dripping with scorn.

“Well, you have to admit, Kai, that video game is awesome.” Could I ever properly communicate Leafy’s perfect delivery, his comedic timing and goofiness which cracks us up several times a day? 

Isaac dive bombing somersaults onto the mattress that serves as a seating area on our floor, forcing us to watch him again and again.

Solomon doing jumping push ups several times a day, then checking out his biceps and asking me if he can try to pick me up? (No thanks, I don’t want a broken head.) 

The way I call Chinua "Storm crow" with such delight sometimes now, because of the gray beard that he is growing out. (It's a Lord of the RIngs reference.) 

Holding onto Chinua on the scooter on the way to our Thai class, that we take together, romantically.

Isaac being a general pest in the studio while I’m working, but singing to himself so sweetly that I take a really long time to eject him, waiting until he is messing with his dad’s computer and needs to be removed from the premises. 

Before I left for my retreat, I was very, very tired. Life had caught up to me and I was dragging myself around, wishing every day was over long before it was. And my friend Tj is right, sometimes you need to think about leaving and sometimes you need to think about staying. I needed that time away. I needed the quiet. And I was a little nervous about coming back, worried that I would get tired out by all the different hats I wear. But our first dinner back together, I laughed more times than I had all week, and I sighed at drama, and I scolded when needed, and gave lots of hugs, and was alive, basically, the way challenging, incredible families make you alive.

Driving with a two-year-old.

Sometimes when I drive to Shekina Garden by myself, I notice the cows that graze at the bottom of the hill that leads there. I almost always notice if the baby blue-eyed buffalo is there, but sometimes I’m in a hurry, or I’m sad, or I’m thinking of other things I need to do and I don’t really see the cows. If Isaac is with me, on the other hand, the issue is settled. I will notice the cows, or I will notice the fact that there are no cows, like the other day. We drove down while the three oldest kids were in Thai class. Isaac was on his kid’s seat on the Pegasus, (our motorbike that is not the chariot,) and Solo sat on the back, and as we drove our conversation went something like this: 

“I’m going to see cows! No cows! Where are the cows Mama?”

“It looks like they didn’t come today.”

“They didn’t come today! Where are they Mama?”

“I don’t know, they’re somewhere else.”

“I will call them. Cows… where are you cows? I’m calling them, now they will come! Where are you cows, come hee-re!”

And it went on like that, and I was thankful for Isaac, because no interesting thing escapes him and he never frets. He never frets about big life issues, anyway. He frets about plenty of things like whether or not I allow him to look at the dog’s poo before I throw it in the toilet. 

We went to the garden to retrieve the three bottles of kombucha that I had left in the fridge there, and when we arrived, I said hello to the workers who are building our new workshop, the amazing new place that will allow us to separate garden and building tools from kitchen stuff, as all such things should be. Separate, that is, and in their own happy buildings. And any building looks better if it has a grass roof, so it was nice to see the builders building, piling brick on brick, getting the window frames ready. It's nice to see these things progress.

Solo turned seven last week and Kai turns thirteen on the first, and suddenly I’m this kind of Mom, the kind that has all these big kids with long legs. Kai is man-sized now, not nearly as tall as he will be, but as tall as many men around here, and he is still learning about holding himself back, not playing with full strength when he’s wrestling with a nine-year-old. I’m feeling stirrings of unrest as I wonder if I am skilled enough to parent teens, but the truth is that I wondered the same thing when we strapped Kai into our community’s shared car and left the hospital the first time. Why does anyone trust me with this? I thought then, but somehow we stumbled along together until I’m staring next week in the face, and my beautiful firstborn is nearly thirteen.

Like Isaac, he has his own way of pointing things out to me. Mostly ironies or silliness or grammatical errors made by his siblings. New buildings, differences between countries, the hilarity of being asked in his school book to try to imagine spending a week in India, the things we sometimes miss out on, the perfect additions to pasta (pepper), moments in books we have both read, new kids fantasy that I should read (because he knows I love it.) Soon he'll be beta reading my new book, and I can't wait to hear what he says, because he's so perceptive about literature. ("Villains always make two mistakes. They brag about what they're going to do when anyone can hear them, and they monologue.") And, like with Isaac, I am thankful for what he helps me see.