Why you should just put out the katydid (and it will not eat you).

The other day Isaac and I were in the bathroom while he was using the toilet. It was just about time for his nap and he was doing one last pee. As we left, we noticed that there was a little water in the bottom of the bucket that he uses for baths, and there was a dead katydid floating in the water. This was infinitely fascinating. 

“Is it dead?”


“And it will not eat you?”


Isaac could have talked about the katydid endlessly. I, however, was focused on nap time because I had school I wanted to work on with the older kids. I got him ready and put him in his bed. 

“You should put it out and it will not eat you,” he said.

“I will.”

By this time he was all cozy, ready for sleep. 

“I want to watch,” he said. 

“Okay. Well, I’ll wait for you. I’ll put it out when you get up from your nap.” 

“Okay,” he said. 

So I left the room and walked toward my room to get something, my footsteps loud as always on our teak floors. This was when Isaac lost his mind and I heard sudden screaming.

“You’re not going to!” he wailed. “You’re going to put it out and I want to watch!” 

I went back to the room. “Isaac, I promise I’m not going to get the dead katydid out of the water until you get up and you can watch me. But you need to go to sleep. I promise to let you watch, okay?” 

He calmed down a little and I went downstairs. Our floors are completely uninsulated, with cracks, and they resonate so much that we can just call up to one another and hear perfectly. And the boys’ bedroom is directly over the table where we do our school work. So as I was helping Kenya with math, I could hear Isaac yelling down to me every few minutes, “Did you put it out?”

“No, Isaac, I’m going to wait for you, remember?” I called back. “Go to sleep.”

After about the fourth time, I realized that this was very, very important to him. And the back and forth was heartfelt and about promises and trust and the difficulty of going to sleep when you are worried that something exciting will happen without you. And it was also a big, tearful drama about a dead insect. And this is life when you are two-and-three-quarters. The substance might be lighter than what I feel, but the emotions are no less real. 

I wonder if God sees my life like this, when I worry about my little things. Is it like the katydid in the water? Am I fretting that God will not live up to his promise of letting me watch him flush a dead bug away? He has told me and told me, but I just don’t believe him, and he says, “Rest, child. I’m not going anywhere without you.” The things seem important to me, in my own small world. His view is so much more expansive, maybe it encompasses so much that my books and plans and dreams are like katydids. And yet he listens, and promises, and waits. He shouts up through the floor that of course he’s going to wait, no he didn’t forget. 

When I went to get Isaac up from his nap, (I have to wake him these days because the boy will sleep for three hours and then not sleep at night) he opened his eyes and said, in the sleepiest voice ever, “Did you put it out?”

“No, I didn’t,” I said. “I was waiting for you. Should we go do it?” 


And that is why, when you first see it, you should just put the katydid out (and it will not eat you).

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.

Original chickens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The incident with the bus floor.

Way long ago, when we left Vancouver and traveled to Kelowna, we took the Greyhound Bus, about a five-and-a-half-hour journey, because our van was parked in Kelowna and we were picking it up there. It was the best option all around, and I thought the Greyhound would be a breeze. After all, we’ve been traveling all over Asia on trains and buses, buses are our normal mode of transport. Right?

It was inordinately difficult. Why is this so hard? I thought to myself as we tried to coordinate shuttling our many bags (including a guitar and a banjo) to the station. Once the bags were on the sidewalk, Chinua drove back to my brother and sister-in-law's house to get the kids and I stared at the bags and suit and at the stroller that Isaac was sitting in. I rigged a way of pulling a suitcase and pushing a stroller at the same time and proceeded to push/pull all our things in a few trips, asking people to watch our stuff as I went. (At one point, the very last person I would have asked to watch my stuff happily volunteered, sitting close to my things so I could rest at ease. He was probably a delightful person, but perhaps living in a different dimension, and it wasn't very reassuring.)

Long story short, we missed the bus because of a fender bender that didn’t bend any fenders but required the exchange of information, brought all of our things in taxis back to my brother’s house, and waited for our next bus. By the way, the answer to why is it so hard to take the bus in Canada (or the U.S.)? is: lack of porters and other help. I couldn’t even get a trolley. We breeze through Asia (“breeze” being subject to interpretation) because we have lots of help and ways to get our things around: In India, porters wearing red pile our things on their heads and run through the station, in Thailand there are trolleys and porters and helpful bus drivers close to where we can park.

Finally, finally we were ready to board the evening bus, but while I had been ready for the day bus, with nice bagged lunches for everyone, I didn’t have any food for dinner. I planned to go a takeaway sushi place that I had seen earlier at the station, but when we arrived, it was closed. That meant that we had twenty minutes to find food for our children before boarding a bus with hungry kids and driving for five and a half hours. I ran across the street to the only place I could see that would get food ready fast enough: McDonald’s. Oh, yuck. But making life work often requires exceptions, so off I went.

I returned with two large paper bags filled with food, one filled with fries, the other with burgers for the meat-eaters and wraps for the vegetarians. The kids managed to eat a few bites before it was time to get on the bus, and then we boarded the bus. I was carrying the two paper bags, another bag with food, my big everything-bag, and my toddler. Kenya was right behind me as we climbed the extremely narrow stairs. 

I was busy trying to guide Isaac up the stairs ahead of me, squeezing into the narrow opening when it happened: I heard a gigantic riiiiiiiip, as both bags tore open from top to bottom. I immediately collapsed on the floor to keep everything from flying out of the bags, my free arm curled protectively around our fries. And there I was. I couldn’t move. I was sitting/lying on the stairs at the entrance to the bus, my head already into the aisle so that I could see the fifty people in fifteen rows who were staring at me. 

“Chinua?” I called with a faint voice. He was at the very back of the bus, distributing our carry ons in the upper storage. “I could use some help, rather desperately.” 

“Just a second!” he called.

Behind me, people were waiting to board the bus, but my sprawled body was preventing them. I have lost all dignity, I told myself. I tried to smile at the man in a suit who was standing directly behind Kenya, outside the bus, but I’m afraid it looked more like a grimace of pain. Isaac played with the buttons on the bus console. The bus driver came to the door from where he had been loading bags, to see what the hold up was. “What’s… oh.” he said, as he saw me there.

 Eventually, after I had been lying in the aisle for a few minutes, Chinua made his way to me and with the help of a woman who offered an extra grocery bag, we saved the food and I picked my dusty, greasy, embarrassed, barely-a-grownup self off the floor and we made our way to our seats. I felt rather triumphant. I saved our food! And I wondered yet again why this stuff happens. Every other person boarded the bus without lying on the floor. Why not me?

Dear Solo,

The other day you came with your dad and I, to Chiang Mai, all by yourself. It takes three hours to get there, on a very curvy road. We had rented a car so we could get to the city and back on the same day, and we left really early in the morning so we could get there in time for your appointment at the consulate for your new passport, which is expiring soon. (This means that you are very, very old. Nearly six years old!)

You were an angel. We were rather surprised by how quiet our day was. You read in the car, slept a bit, hummed to yourself, talked with us a little about the radio show we were listening to. Your dad and I had long, uninterrupted talks while you watched the passing trees through the window. In Chiang Mai you sat at the consulate quietly, we talked a bit while we waited. You stood and looked at the man when he was checking that the baby on your first passport was really you. (Hard to tell, really. It looks like a photo of Isaac.) You held our hands on the way back to the car. When we asked you what you wanted for lunch, you said “pizza,” so you and I got pizza while your dad looked for a salad. 

We painted your gloves on, but they started to melt off, all over you!

We painted your gloves on, but they started to melt off, all over you!

Of course you were still you, delightful, curious, stormy, stubborn, surprising you. When I asked you questions to draw you out, you gave me a “how dare you speak to me,” look. I reverted to one of my oldest tricks, talking casually about something I know you’re interested in, and waiting for you to join my one-sided conversation. It worked and you told me all about a video you had seen for making oobleck out of potato starch, starting with raw potatoes. (Couldn’t we just buy potato starch? I thought.) 

But you were a milder, more thoughtful you. This has been creeping up on us as you morph into the little boy you are. (And it’s hard to call you little when you look like an eight-year-old. I constantly have to remind myself that you’re still only five, you are nearly as tall as Leafy.) 

You are the best at Memory.

You are the best at Memory.

It told me a little bit about how hard it is to be you sometimes, the fourth kid, with the personality of someone who loves to teach, to offer knowledge, to instruct, and to have older brothers and sisters who often say, “I KNOW,” when you try to tell them something. I’m always trying to help them understand that they need to build your confidence by listening to you, but they forget.

They should listen to you more, because the world needs a kid who figures things out for himself, who loves to teach himself how to do absolutely. everything. Who came to me and said, “food is crunchy because the molecules are closer together!” and it was a discovery with enough joy that it could have been the discovery of a new planet. The world needs someone exactly like you, Solo, someone who thinks the way you do and is fiery like you, someone who draws so beautifully and loves people the way you do. 

Over the last couple of years you have had no patience for neighbors who just want to say hello or shoot the breeze. You used to be the chattiest of small talkers, without even so many words. Now it’s a waste of time to you, and no amount of trying to talk you into it will change things. (I know you’ll eventually come around, the way the other kids did.) But you are the first to make a friend when you meet a kid, pouncing on them with all your sharing abilities, telling them all about something you’ve done or seen or made. You practice headstands, you play with numbers in your head. (“Eight take away two is six!” you’ll announce out of the blue as you stand on your head against the wall.) You climb on things, you skip and jump around instead of walking. You get terribly angry when you feel ganged up on. You take really good care of Isaac. You’ve become excellent with Wookie. You adore your father, right now. (I’m kind of a runner up, these days. It’s okay, you had your years and years of shadowing my every move.) You’re a budding geologist, always finding the coolest rocks, always looking for geodes. 

You remind me often of India, the country where you were born, with your highs and lows, the way you can look as though the sun has come out radiantly, or as though we’d better head for cover. And like with that beautiful, maddening country I love, I am entranced by you, my son. You are so purely you, refusing to be anyone else at all. 

It’s wonderful.

Love, Mama


(Credit goes to Chinua for many of these photos.)