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.

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.

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.

Poured out.

Morning is here and full of hope. It is five degrees Celcius (42 Fahrenheit) outside, and maybe a degree more in my wooden house with many windows and no heat. And yet, the hope, soft as gentle, heavy bubbles rising on a summer day, the kind that you make with a big string and a tub full of soapy water. Hope for creativity in this day, for kindness, for good food and moments with the crystalline knowledge of the love of God, all around us and in us. And the happy hope that Chinua will be home in two days’ time, falling into all of our arms.

Christy and the girls have gone, crossing airplane paths with Chinua in the sky, after a day of seeing animals and feeding parrots in Chiang Mai. It was so good to have Christy here: a much needed boost for the kids (she loves them, and they need that love of others in their lives, as all kids do) and a much needed grownup friend for me. We’ve already begun plans for a little monastic retreat in California whenever I get there next, since for two deep and spiritually minded girls, our conversation was rather limited to “Does vegetable soup sound good—Solo stop hitting Kai!” and “Sure—Fiona, do you need to potty?”

Seriously. Two women who haven’t seen each other for years, who have traveled the world together, through India and Nepal, into the Andaman Islands and the far reaches of the Himalayas, who have talked and journaled together, shared tiny guesthouse rooms with toilets that stank to high heaven, have taken buses with chickens and Nepali villagers, have cried together, have sat together by smoky fires at the largest Hindu gathering in the world, have washed travelers’ feet together in the plains of India, street kids’ feet together in the gullies of Delhi, have slept in the woods near Santa Cruz together, helped people tweaking on drugs together in San Francisco… give us seven kids and no dads and we will have surprisingly little time to talk. (Wow, writing that list out, and it is by no means exhaustive, makes me realize what an incredible history we have!) Our eyes have had to say it all. (And bedtime, let me tell you— you mothers of older kids already know this, but it stops being a thing where you can have everyone sleeping at 8:00 pm and go and drink wine together. Bedtime: it goes on and on my friends, and anyway, Christy’s jet-lagged kids had her up at 4:30 nearly every morning.)

So we have a good long weekend coming to us, someday. Christy is one of the sharpest minds on Christian and Eastern Spirituality that I know, I love to sit and here her thoughts, and traveling with her has always made me go deeper in my writing and thoughts. Hmmm… maybe we have a writing project together in our future?

But it is the beauty of seasons, isn’t it? We who have traveled as a young teenager and twenty-something, now with our abundant families flocking all around us? Pouring ourselves out in this different way? We will travel farther down this road into a future of older kids and then our empty nests and we will always be able to point back to our memories together. Being poured out as mothers now. It is a scripture and thought that has come to me often in these last five weeks, as I have pushed myself to get up after all the kids are in bed and finish those last few dishes in the cold outdoor air (because I know it will be colder in the morning): “I am poured out like water,” from Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted in his suffering, referencing the suffering of David. As a mother, I suffer only my own undoing, unmaking, and it is a very rewarding suffering, with a house full of people around me. But I relate, I am poured out like water, like other mothers everywhere, we are poured out. We relate to Jesus in this way, even when we don’t have time to sit and reflect and go deep, when we are responding to fights and the endlessly needy stomachs of growing boys. Poured out.

Dear Isaac

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You are nine months old, and a very enthusiastic nine months you are. You are a delight, the delight of our whole family right now, the one we revolve around. I haven’t written you so many letters in this first year, and I think it’s because I’ve been enjoying you in other ways—taking video, little pictures, playing and playing and playing. I feel at rest beside you, I am enjoying rather than scrambling to capture everything, for better or for worse.

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Here’s the thing: all over again, this is a new experience, like with every baby, and it is also deeply familiar. Also, it is its own experience in its own right, because this is the very first time I have had a baby this way, with all this space between siblings.

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Let me explain. Your oldest brother and sister were nineteen months apart, and your Leafy brother was born twenty-two months after that, and Solo came a couple years later. So I didn’t have a baby, I had babies. I didn’t have kids, I had babies and toddlers. But I didn’t know that, I thought that having kids amounted to huge amounts of care and protection and physical labor. I thought being a parent was forever spooning food into people’s mouths and wiping up messes and changing diapers.

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But everyone is growing so quickly and now I have you after these kids have grown up so much. Solo is five! We have eleven, nine, seven, five, and then a breath, and then you. I’m delighted by this, because it helps me see what wasn’t clear before; that this time, the baby time is unique in your life. How appropriate that you come into the world needing so much protection and somehow the whole family revolves around your care and the whole family sacrifices to keep you well, to keep you safe. Now I know that kids become older, and as they do, they don’t require this kind of vigilance, this wide-eyed stance against the dangers of the world and all the mouth-shaped pieces of flotsam in it. They are strong and capable, they are warriors on their own, they do well. Kai and Kenya are my right hand man and young woman. You will become like them, one day, but for now, we all stumble over each other to care for you. We dote on you.

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So into this nest of a family you come, and I experience parenthood all over again, and I wouldn’t change our family for anything but I do love doing this at the ripe age of thirty-three. (You are the lucky one—with the grownup for a mother.)

I missed some things, so I’ll tell you now. When you were six months old, your motto in life was, “I can dance to that.” You had this rippling dance you did, a hunch down with your shoulders, then a lift, then a hunch. Your belly was at the center, you bobbed and grooved. A motorcycle going by? “I can dance to that.” The kettle boiling? “I can dance to that.” Music? “I can certainly dance to that, and I will, right now, here I go.” This was delightful.

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You got sick when you were seven months old and we were in the hospital for a week. This was a scary time and you seemed to be a newborn again, as you slept for hours and hours and lay quietly. I remember wishing you would get up and get into things again, because it would mean you were better.

I got my wish—God heard my prayer. This last month you’ve learned to really crawl on your knees and you’ve been pulling yourself to standing for a while now. You can cruise along while you stand. Your sister walks with you holding her hands for a long time every day, practicing, she says. You adore your daddy and call to him whenever you catch sight of him from a distance. When you do, he hears you and comes to pick you up and you wriggle with joy. You see Kenya as a sort of second mother—she is the one you look for if I’m not around. You revere Kai, play with Leafy, and think Solo is the coolest, craziest thing you’ve ever seen. I often see you staring at him with pure wonder on your face.

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Now you are impatient and sometimes fussy. You want to be everywhere all the time! When you want me to pick you up you scrunch both your eyes in something that we call a Turkish two-eyed wink (people in Turkey do this as a friendly gesture—it’s adorable) and duck your head. It’s like your own personal sign language. You have enthusiasm for life and it must be expressed. When you see me strapping the baby carrier on, you start yelling immediately. Will I put the baby carrier on and go for a walk all by myself, leaving you behind? It doesn’t seem likely, but you are certain it could happen if you don’t remind me that you are there! Willing, ready to go wherever I go!

And you do, you go everywhere I go, you are my constant companion and I juggle you and all the other things, always ready for your smile, always thankful. I have such a gift in you.

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Love,
Mama

Growing

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This morning I woke up and the sky was very grey.

Oh sun! My heart called. I miss you! 

And later, it reappeared. The sun came out and I am in love with it. I love the light and the blue, blue sky behind the hills. At the end of a long rainy season, I am so ready for the sun, ready for the clothes to dry on the line in less than 48 hours, and ready for the brightness that sunlight brings to everything.

I tasted that brightness when I left the hospital with Isaac on Sunday, a full week after he was admitted. He still wasn't feeling completely normal when we left, and in the next days he dropped all that water weight he had gained from his IV and I could see just how much of his real weight he lost with that infection.  He seems so tiny, now. I pick him up and he feels like a different baby. But thankfully he was so very chubby and he's not thin, now, just not the humongous Isaac that we are used to.

No one has been able to get their fill of him. The kids dote on him and he soaks up all the attention. Unfortunately, they are also sick with noisy coughs, so I've been trying to get them to keep their distance a little bit, since I want him to be protected from illness on top of illness.

We had a scary moment a couple of nights ago, all of us woken up by Solo's croupy cough and breathless crying. "I can't breathe," he kept saying in the tiny bit of voice he could squeeze out. We took him and held him in a chair in the night breeze. It was raining and I sat under the shelter with him and gradually the swelling in his bronchial tubes lessened, and then Chinua took over and held him while I tried to get a little more sleep. Before I went upstairs, the garbage truck came by. It was 4:00 in the morning, and except for Isaac, every member of our family was standing around outside downstairs, having a croup worry party. What must the garbage men have thought? They didn't share, they kept on silently emptying the recycled tire trash containers into their large yellow vehicle. I had a flashback to working nights, and the strange little scenes I would see, blinking them away because anything at all can happen in the night and nothing seems odd at all.  

Chinua did try to usher Kai and Kenya back into bed, but Kai said, "How can I sleep when my brother is sick like this?" Eventually they did go back to bed.

 *

Today I got annoyed because Kenya dropped a plastic jug of milk on the floor in the kitchen and it spilled out everywhere.  I was in the middle of cleaning another mess already, and I was so irritated, so I said, "How on earth did you drop it? How do you drop something with a handle?" Then five minutes later I apologized for being a Grump-a-saurus Rex over spilled milk, of all things, when there is even a rule against being grumpy about spilled milk, and Kenya said, "You're not a Grump-a-saurus Rex, you're a Sweet-a-saurus Rex." And then we danced around in a big dance-y hug.

The other day Leafy made glasses out of black duct tape, and he explained the whole process to Chinua. He sat looking at them for a minute, and then he said, "But they're not glasses. They're tape-ses."

Last night the kids were talking about computers and how they haven't been around all that long.
"When Daddy was a kid, computers were only for rich people," Kai said.
"Kind of like 3D printers now," Kenya said.
And I missed the next part, but they were talking about someone who was pretending to be poor but was really rich because he was wearing a suit, and Leafy said, "Wait. A suit?"
"Yeah,  you know... all black, with a tie," Kenya said.
"Ohhhhh," Leafy said. "That kind. I've been watching too much Iron Man."

Because he was picturing a rich guy with an Iron Man suit. All the rich guys have them.

Everyone is getting older and now I have this eleven-year-old now whose smile can light up a room, a nine-year-old who grows in grace daily, a seven-year-old who is too smart to believe, and a five-year-old who writes me page after page of random letters, bringing each one to me proudly. These are real people who fight and get mad at each other a lot, but they are fierce with love for one another and the hugs in this house! The hugs. I have to pinch myself sometimes, even when housework feels like drudgery or one kid has given another one a dirty look behind my back, again, because this is my life and these are my kids and they're wonderful. I have young ones and middling ones and soon the house will be full of teenagers- it'll be a blink of an eye and it will be here. I can't believe we got here so fast, they're not all little anymore and it seems to have happened when I wasn't looking.

Isaac in the hospital

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Okay. Writing about this.

Harrowing. Harrow: To draw a plough or rake over land. I have been harrowed, this week.

Isaac’s sickness took the wind out of me in a way that nothing has in a long while. For a few days there, I could just barely hold on to peace and I didn’t have my writer self with me. I was so afraid that I couldn’t even be an observer to my fear—I could only live in it and hold onto Isaac and pray the shortest, most desperate prayers. He’s better now, so much better that I feel as light as air, as though joy will send me over the mountains.
This is how it went.

Last week he had a fever for a couple days— we kept it down with tylenol and waited, but the fever continued. On Saturday I came into Chiang Mai to attend a book group meeting that I’ve gone to a couple of times. As I was getting ready to leave home, I asked Chinua if he thought I should still go, since Isaac still wasn’t getting better.
“If anything,” he said, “It will be good for you to be in Chiang Mai with him so sick.” He meant that we can’t really trust our little country hospital with sickness. Stitches, sure. But sickness, no.

I got on the bus, I went to the book group, and then I went to stay at my friend’s house for the night. That’s when things got weird. Isaac was still feverish and he started to cry in pain. His stomach was really hurting him. I remembered I had eaten a spicy curry the night before. “Stupid me,” I thought. “Will I never learn?”

We didn’t sleep much during the actual night. I walked him and held him and tried to make him feel better. In the morning, I waited for the spicy curry milk symptoms to wear off, but they didn’t. And so we came to the hospital.

Isaac had an x-ray, since my first question was whether he had a foreign object in his belly. No foreign object, but there seemed to be a blockage. He had an ultrasound, and then he had a CT scan. All of them felt so strange to do with a nearly eight-month-old, especially since he had to be sedated for the ultrasound and CT scan. He went into that big round machine, this little tiny baby with his arms up by his head. The tests were a blur of exhaustion for me, since I hadn’t slept much the night before. I was worried. I walked him and held him in that clinic for six hours, waiting between tests. Finally, they decided to admit him. The scans showed a lot of swelling and turbidity in his intestines, and the worry was that it was a kink, which would require surgery.

We were admitted and Isaac was put on an IV drip with antibiotics and fluids because he was dehydrated and it was clear from his blood tests that he had an infection. We found out that night that there was no kink in his intestine, and I tried to finally settle down for sleep at around midnight. That night I was up every hour with as the nurses took his temperature, did blood and urine tests, and tried to get him to take medicine. (He has become very skilled at gritting his little gums, and then refusing to swallow when the medicine is in his mouth, which doesn’t help him at all. If he doesn’t like the taste, he should swallow it! But he doesn’t know this, so his little act of defiance is to hold it in his mouth. The darling.)

The next day was very, very difficult. He had been fatigued and feverish the day before, but I thought that he would respond to the antibiotics more quickly than he did. All day he was weak and unlike himself completely, not really connecting or making eye contact, and sleeping all day. When he woke up, he only moaned and whined. His stomach was swelling and his face was swelling too, later in the day, and that night I tried to ask if I could speak to the doctor about the swelling, but he was busy and I didn’t understand what the nurses were telling me. I started crying. I called one of my friends in Pai to translate for me, and then called another one to translate more. I was so scared that I was shaking. All day, waves of fear had been washing over me, and it felt like they were electrifying my body. I was shaking with adrenaline and the need to protect my baby and I didn’t know how to do it. What the nurses were telling me was that the doctor was in the clinic so he couldn’t come, but if I was so scared I could come to see him in the clinic, one floor down. So we did another blood test, and then we went down to the clinic, me following the nurses who held my baby and pushed his IV trolley. I cried the whole way, I couldn’t help it, and under everything else I realized that once again, I was “that girl,” the one losing it in a public place, in a hospital, the foreigner who doesn’t understand what is going on. The girl with the swollen eyes, pacing back and forth.

The doctor explained that the swelling happens sometimes when IV fluids are high, and that they had given him quite a lot because of his dehydration.

“But he’s going to be okay?” I asked. That’s all I really wanted to know, you know.

“I’m concerned about the swelling that is still in his abdomen,” he said.

“But he’s going to be okay?”

I think all doctors should realize that parents have an instinct that makes us visualize danger to our children as a very real and sudden thing that can pluck them out of this world without warning. When Kai was born, the world shifted, and suddenly a sidewalk was dangerous. Taking the underground train in San Francisco was torturous, with all the possibilities of death and injury. The doctor was telling me that the infection was strong, and it was going to take a long time to deal with it, or at least that’s what he thought he was telling me. What I was hearing was, “He’s in grave danger.” And perhaps he would have been in grave danger if he wasn't in the hospital. It was such a severe infection that it basically shut his digestive system down, so he couldn't eat and he grew dehydrated very quickly. But now he was being treated, and he was going to be fine. That's what I wanted to know.

In the end I was reassured enough to sleep as much as I could between visits from nurses. The next day he was feeling better, and in all the days since, he’s improved, until today he’s even trying to pull himself to standing again and playing peek-a-boo with the nurses. He was allowed to breastfeed this morning, and the proteins in the milk have been able to bind with the water, so he is peeing all that edema away.

I am overwhelmed with thankfulness, and very aware of my difficulty trusting God. It’s come to the forefront of my life lately, a deeper awareness of my lack in this area. God brings things like this out from time to time, letting you know that you need to dig a little deeper, work a little more fully on bringing everything into his light. Because I don’t really control the universe, you know, but sometimes I’m tricked into thinking I do because I can control small things around me. But then something happens that is completely out of my control and I become convinced that the ship’s about to crash and sink. The truth is that nothing has changed. I am no more or less in control, really, and God is still there, quietly working. I’m working on acceptance and trust. I started working on it in the hospital, too, not fighting in my mind so much, accepting that we need to be here right now. (Until last night when I had a little relapse over the issue of whether or not I could start nursing, a subject on which I had had conflicting directions. More crying. More being “that girl,” and stressing non-confrontational Thai nurses out. I’m sorry!)

There have been beautiful things and funny things, and I will write about those too, but this post is already long and I’ll go now. Thank you so much for your prayers and support- it looks like we’ll be here for a couple more days, and then we’ll have wings on our feet as we go home.

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Making a scene

A couple of weeks ago I couldn't stand the thought of my kitchen, so we walked through our little town to a burger place in an alley. We eat there once in a while, and always manage to nearly fill the place up, it's so tiny, with a few stools in front of and beside the grill, and a couple of small tables across the alley. Big van buses go by every so often, forcing everyone standing on the street to press against the edges and suck their guts in.

We got our food and sat eating in our various places. Kai had picked up a few of the yummy Schweppes lemon sodas that we all like, from the nearby 7-11. He ran back and sat down, ready to eat. There are photos on the wall of people eating at the burger place, and Kai jumped up to point out one that clearly had him pictured in it.

Then he said, “I feel really bad.”

I turned and saw that his face was gray and sweaty, so I jumped up and grabbed him, and he sort of sank in my arms and then got panicky, saying “Mama! Daddy! Mama! Daddy!” Chinua was with us holding him as well by this time, and then Kai’s eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped completely. He had sweat all over his face.

I’m going to stop here and say that when something like this happens completely out of the blue, an observer might be able to say, “Your son has fainted.” But when you are the parent? Deep and awful panic sets in. Your first thought is, “We’re losing him!” Chinua and I unashamedly starting shouting “Hospital!” Like calling “Police!” only we were calling “Hospital!”. Kai was still out, and Chinua was holding him, trying to get him to respond. A nearby Thai woman and her father stepped in to help.

“We have a car,” they said. “We can get him to the hospital.”

The man came and started talking to Kai, and Chinua was trying to keep him awake as well. I actually have no idea what I was doing or saying. I seemed to be out of my body and with Kai. I think I was helping him, wiping his face, talking to him, but when I remember back, I only see him and can’t remember me.

Kai came to, and at the advice of a young German couple across the street we laid him down and put his feet on one of the stools. It started to look like Kai had simply fainted, (sorry, Kai would like me to call it passing out) so the kind woman called a local clinic, asking whether they were open. When it turned out that they were, Chinua ran home to get our scooter so they could drive over to the clinic.

I stood with Kai, who was still lying in the middle of the floor with his legs up on one of the stools. I wiped his face with a wet towel, that's what you do, you know, when people have passed out. He seemed fine at this point, though still a little weak. Kenya was fluttering around feeling embarrassed about the fact that we were causing a scene. “Can’t we move him off the floor?” she asked in a fierce whisper. Kai, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy making the scene quite a bit, now that he was feeling better.

When Chinua came with the scooter, the Thai lady went with him and Kai to the clinic, to show Chinua where it was, and when Chinua entered with her, he discovered that she was a Thai TV star and that everyone knew her. It explained her crystal clear, perfect Thai. Having her help us was like fainting in England and having David Attenborough take care of you and help you to the clinic.

We were a bit mystified  and confused about why Kai had passed out at all. But the next day, when I looked in the freezer and found that about half a bag of chocolate chips was missing, it all became more clear. Kai has been hypoglycemic since he was a baby. I don’t remember him ever waking up without crying until he got food or a snack, he was always miserable after a nap until he ate. And one thing that can happen with hypoglycemia is a sugar craving, then a sharp spike after eating sugar, and a big crash if nothing else follows the sugar. He had eaten so much sugar that he crashed hard enough to lose consciousness.

That is all. He was and is fine.

This all mirrors events in my childhood so closely that it is a little uncomfortable, remembering. I never did faint, but had extreme sugar cravings and similar chocolate thievery. Even into adulthood I have to be very careful to eat before I go shopping, so I don't end up with Oreos in my cart. And oh, I'm so glad Kai is okay. We're working on keeping him topped up, to lessen those crazy sugar impulses.

A moment from my day.

Tonight Solo wanted to do up all the snaps on Isaac's zebra pajamas.

He's not all that experienced with snaps, so each one took about three minutes and there are twelve of them.

I know enough now to know that the only thing to do was to sit back and enjoy the sweetest thirty-six minutes of the week.

Leafy was watching, and there was general hilarity when Isaac kept grabbing the top snap and trying to stuff it in his mouth.

Boy giggles. Little boy concentration. Brothers loving each other. Oh, I'm thankful.

Not Supermom.

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Mother's Day came and went on the weekend. It didn't make many ripples over here, and it usually doesn't, always coming on the heels of my birthday. The kids are already spent. Didn't we just celebrate you? their eyes seem to ask. They did, and they do.

I've been mulling over motherhood a bit more than normal, mostly because I'm parenting on my own at the moment (halfway done!) and I find myself thrust up against my own existence as a mother, without even a break to catch my breath. And now, with a ten year difference between my oldest and youngest, I find myself doing these very different types of mothering- helping the moody preteen and the infant. Using my mind for all it's worth in one instance, and my body in its infinite mothering capacities in the other.

Motherhood can make me feel so absolutely alone, because whenever it comes right down to it, I am the only mother to my kids. My friends and family love my kids but only I am the mother. I look around for someone to join in the mothering, but I'm here, in the spotlight circle by myself. It's me. This me who still sometimes locks the doors at night and feels a gasp of surprise. Where's the grown up? I'm alone in this house with these kids? People are letting me do this?

The most alone I feel is when people look in from the outside and call me things like "Supermom." I know when people do this, they are giving me a compliment, sometimes right from the heart. They are expressing awe at what I do with many kids. I receive it from them as kindness. But it makes me feel more alone, because I am not Supermom at all.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all about one kind of Super. I know about superheroes and how you sometimes need to put your Wonder Woman cuffs on to go shopping for Christmas or birthday presents because shopping is very scary. You need your superhero persona to override regular you and throw a great birthday party, because throwing great birthday parties has nothing to do with your natural personality, nothing to do with what you would do if you had a moment alone.

But Supermom sounds like Superman, and mothering, in its truest definition, has nothing to do with Superman.

Since I have been a mother, I have grown smaller and softer, as well as larger. I am more open than I feel comfortable with.

I craft moments or meals and they aren't always received with the same tenderness I offer them in. I am stung, shrug it off. This doesn't feel super.

My lap is an intersection during rush hour traffic: people climbing in and out, laying their heads on my knees. My ear is the opening for all kinds of complaints, from "I'm bored" to "He punched me" to "No one understands me at all." This doesn't feel super.

I feel bereaved of the child that was just two weeks or an hour ago, even as I open my heart up to the child that is now. I feel old and too vulnerable. I want to creep back to safety, but to leave, to take my heart and presence would be the worst move of all. So I live in this discomfort. This doesn't feel super.

To be a mother, you need to exert all of your strength and willpower. Being a mother is certainly mighty, but Superman does everything he does with ease. Bullets don't hurt him. I don't resemble Superman at the end of a long day, when I am as limp as a tired plant in an unwatered garden, when I lie down on my bed with sweat on my upper lip, curl up under the fan and fall asleep without meaning to. I don't do this with ease.

The bullets pierce me. I hurt when my children hurt, even when my consequences given for their wrong actions are the things doing the hurting. I make choices that don't always feel right. I answer eight thousand requests a day, often with the wrong answer. Help Kai with his math? Or sit with Solo making something? I can't do everything, something always has to give. It is often me. This does not feel super.

Superman gets his super self from one place to the next with super speed. I am as slow and stunned as a turtle.

Oh, I think mothers are strong and brave and incredible. If I can step back from all the small mistakes I make, I can even say that I think I am strong and brave. (And incredible, ahhh awkward!) I think you, the mothers who are reading this, are strong and brave and incredible.

But I also think you are soft, and in need of protection and love from the community around you. You need people in your village to look out for you, and though they can never be you, never be the mother to your children, they can support you and tell you that you are important.

(I think I've said this before, but it's the greatest gift of living in Asia- this importance of the family. It's very simply accepted, that mothers are important and that they need help.)

You are not Supermom- your giving goes deeper than the giving of someone with unlimited strength and energy, because you are so limited, so small, so human, yet you continue to give. You are less like Superman and a little more like Jesus, giving and giving. Laid out and vulnerable, choosing to give parts of yourself to people that can very easily hurt you.

And still, I know and see that when people call me Supermom it is a part of the support that I need. They are acknowledging what I do, and though I want to protest that no! I am not an alien without needs! I smile and shrug and thank them. And accept the loneliness that comes from being, for my kids, the only and very non-super mother to be found.

Dear Leafy,

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Yesterday, as I was sitting outside eating a mango after lunch, you walked over to me.

“Mama,” you said. “This might sound weird, but I think I have sensors on my tongue. I can tell whether or not a bite of food that I’m taking is going to make me full, right as I put it in my mouth.”

And you waited for my response. So of course I said, “That’s cool, Leafy.”

It is cool. You’re cool. I mean, seriously, mind-stoppingly incredible. 

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This is not a birthday letter because you turned seven on January 20th, exactly a week before Isaac was born and now you’re WAY older than seven. Obviously. At the time I wasn’t at all sure whether I would be in labor on your birthday or not. But we had a party and there were all these other kids there and when you opened your present (a Clone Trooper mask) you screamed with joy. For once, we didn’t shush you.

What will you do with all your lungpower, son? Your ability to project across the country of Thailand merely with the sound of your voice?  And what will you do with your brilliant mind? Your mind is in love with play. You play with words, with ideas, with pictures. In your mind, definitions are made to be bent and flipped inside out, every problem has some way to be worked around, in large, creative, sweeping circles.

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As I write this letter to you, you are walking in large circles around the room, not seeing anything in front of you, deep in your mind, in the action that happens in your imagination. You can do this for hours, and I think you’ve done it since you could walk. Sometimes we have to tell you to please watch your feet, because you’ve been drawn away so far that you don’t notice if you are stepping on things or even people.

He's killing me.

And then sometimes you get drawn swiftly back to the here and now, as when you hear Isaac crying and you run from wherever you are to find him. You love him so intensely, his cry seems to affect you just as physically as it does me. I knew you would love him, you've always loved babies and you sit for hours with small friends of our, talking baby talk and listening to the baby words they tell you in turn. But I wasn't prepared for how much you would love him, how you would sob in the hospital when you realized that you had to go back to the house and Isaac would be staying with me in the hospital. How you always come and find us in our room, first thing, and lay your head beside his as he nurses.

We cut the rest of Leafy's hair off yesterday and he turned into a mini Chinua.

We cut the rest of your hair off the other night. This time there was no crying, you were excited and happy to see how different you look. I could barely contain myself, you emerged looking just like your daddy when he was a little kid, and it was so endearing, so, so endearing. I loved the way you looked with dreadlocks, and with your dreadlock mohawk, and now that you have short hair I can see every gesture you make in a different way, how you tilt your head to the side when you're thinking, or imagining, as you so often are.

I mean, I can't, he's too, ahhh.

You bring me flowers and you dream up things to give me, and long to make things for people you know. You often tell me you're going to build me a house one day.  I've stopped expecting this affection to go away because I know that this is who you are, with a deep core of tenderness and a love of giving to others.

So far this year with you, your year of being seven, is challenging, as you are stubborn or whiny sometimes in a way I'm not used to with you. And this year is above all,  beautiful. Like you.

Love,

Mama

Dear Isaac,

Love.  

Oh baby. Six weeks old today. How can it be?

(This is who I've turned into. Asking how how how about something as normal and constant as weeks passing as they always do. This is what you've done to me, you and all the other children, and I imagine that by the time you read this, that's all I'll say anymore. "Good morning Mom," you'll say, and I'll yelp. "Ouch!" I'll say. "You grew overnight! Stop!")

I remember holding you when you were only days old and thinking, "I don't want this part to ever, ever, ever end." But it has, in a way! You are so much older, so much wiser than you were. You are six weeks old! You have six weeks worth of world knowledge, a vast empire of knowledge. For you.

I am reminded that there are levels of cuteness in babies that continue to be unveiled, like when one of your brothers updates an app and finds fifteen new levels on his favorite game. Levels that he never knew existed. Isaac, you wake up in the morning and you've unwrapped a whole new part of who you are, and I see it for the first time and I am knocked down, son, I am knocked down.

Finding his voice.

That something new looks out from your eyes and I love discovering you.

We live in Thailand and you love it here. You love the women who come and coo at you, because they do it just right, all high pitched, and you laugh and coo in response, smiting them. You love to look at our dark window frames and our curtains. You are strong and big and everyone comments on how amazing you are.

Your first three weeks you spent mostly between my arms and your grandma's arms, and I think it was a beautiful landing for you, to be with the women who love you so much, to be cooed at and marveled over. Now you are spending more time with your Dad and siblings and you sit quietly with them, talking to them, telling them things, trying to figure all of us out.

You get really sad if I don't get you to sleep quickly enough, but other than that, you are the most self-possessed little man. You believe in our ability to listen, so if we talk to you when you are fussing, you turn your crying into a kind of talking, telling us in sad tones all about the problems you have.

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Your brothers and sisters love you. I knew that YaYa would be so happy to have a baby, but I'm awed by Kid A and his love for you, how he comes to find you throughout the day, how he still prays to thank God for you, how he puts his arms around both of us whenever he can. He is so soft with you, and you look back at him, wanting to know who he is.

I think in the years ahead, you'll be someone he can count on. Because we all do it, we turn from the small grievances of the day to look into your eyes and we find sweetness and simplicity there.

You are a wonder. And oh, how I love you.

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Love, Mama

(Last photo is courtesy of Chinua.)

Isaac's birth story: wild animals everywhere

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This got really long! I promise it's mostly interesting.

Sometimes, when you've had a hard birth with your fourth child, a birth that lasted thirty-nine hours and took everything that you could imagine from you, what you are really hoping for is an even longer labor with your fifth child. Forty-eight hours with a scary hemorrhage and you have everything you've ever dreamed of!

I haven't written about the birth because I don't really want to revisit it, I want to get as far away from it as I can, and if you know me and my feelings about birth, that should shock you. But it's true! And that's precisely why I need to write about it. There is no better way to retrieve something and squeeze every redemptive moment out of it than to put it on the page. So here I go. A warning, I will talk about the bleeding at the end of this story, so if you are sensitive to that, just stop reading right after Isaac is born.

The days leading up to Isaac's birth are oddly surreal, in retrospect. We were staying with friends in Chiang Mai, our sole job, it seemed, to wait. We played with kids, celebrated Leafy's birthday, welcomed my parents and because of our quick exit from Pai, I wore the same three things day after day after day. 

We went to the Chiang Mai Night Safari and fed tapirs and birds, twice. We played Zooloretto, once while I was in labor, I think. It seemed we were surrounded by animals, by zoo animals, by the children, pretending to be animals, by birds and snakes (I took a picture of one I saw on a walk through the neighborhood and Chinua yelped when he saw the picture- "Rae! That's a banded krait!" It's a dangerous one.) and elephants in real life and in the drawings YaYa worked on every day. It was an animal birth. (It's a tradition with us- naming our births.)

So why did my labor take 48 hours? I'm pretty sure it was because of my uterus, which is delicate, with a severe case of performance anxiety. Do you remember that Looney Tunes episode where the frog never sings when people are watching it? As long as the one guy is there, he sings and tap dances, "Hello my honey, hello my baby, hello my ragtime girl..." but he becomes mute as a clam if anyone else is around.

My uterus is just like that frog.

I gave birth in a private hospital in Chiang Mai, and the nurses were absolutely lovely. When we first came in, one walked over to me and measured my contractions by holding her hand ever so lightly on my belly and counting by watching the clock.

"Chinua!" I said. "Look at this! It's so human! No machines!"

I was at four centimeters and contractions were every five minutes. My doctor came and checked me out and pretty soon I'd advanced to five centimeters! "This baby will be born before midnight!" she said.

I can't tell you how wonderful I felt, sitting on the birth ball under the hot water of the shower, breathing through contractions throughout that night. It was so blissful. I meditated and in my meditation I was in a field, flowers opening all around me, with every contraction. Jesus was with me and I hung around in that blissed out field feeling like the happiest girl in the world, so happy with my body and my baby and my wonderful uterus.

At around 3:00 in the morning, I decided to lie down and try to get some sleep. Didn't want to exhaust myself, no need for that! When I woke up at around 5:00, my contractions had slowed so much that they were almost gone. My mood took a swift turn for the worse. NOOOOOOOOO!!!! is something like what I thought. In my labor with Solo, I had to walk and walk to keep the contractions coming. They would stop if I lay down, and the result was exhausting.

This is not what I wanted.

The doctor came in and said that I was still at five centimeters (!) and she thought my water had broken. So leaving and coming back another day wasn't an option, we needed to get the labor going. She suggested pitocin. I've never had pitocin before, because my water has never broken before the very end of labor, and after some discussion with my husband, I decided to go for it. With an IV. Which is my worst nightmare-- I'm IV and needle phobic and though I can handle it when I'm sick, I don't want to muss up a perfectly good labor with having yucky things stuck in me.

When the nurse came and put the IV in, I got very nauseous and had to breathe through it. Chinua had gone out to find some food, so I was by myself and in tears and I thought, Girl, you have got to get it together. Now. I looked at the IV pole that was now stuck to me like a parasite. The IV pole looked back at me. All in the mind, I thought. I'll name him.

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When Chinua came back in, I introduced him to Baxter. Baxter was a tree who had been transformed into an ugly IV pole by something evil, I wasn't sure what- I didn't flesh it out that far, and he had been sent to help me. I could now sit on the birth ball next to Baxter, and imagine myself back in that field, with Baxter the nurturing tree. When I went to the bathroom I had to get him over the weird bump on the floor in the doorway. "Come on, Baxter," I said, urging him. "It's fine in here." I became very tender with him. Bless his heart.

The thing with the nurses? Where they would count contractions by placing their hands ever so lightly on my belly? That got old pretty quickly, and the froggishness of my uterus showed itself, because when a nurse politely held her hand on my belly, a contraction wouldn't come. We stood together awkwardly, like two acquaintances who are waiting for a late mutual friend who is the only reason they're together at all. I smiled, slightly embarrassed, apologetic. "I just had one," I would say, smiling and smiling, just making excuses for my frightened uterus. The nurses would turn up the pitocin and leave.

Eight hours later, the pitocin drip was up so high that it was making me go out of my mind with pain. I was lying on the bed crying, and when the doctor checked me, I was. still. at. five. centimeters. This was now more than twenty-four hours into my labor. My doctor frowned into the distance, thinking hard.

"I don't know why..." she said, gently. Then she told the nurses to take me off the pitocin. "It's stressing her out," she told Chinua. "It's not working."

I said goodbye to Baxter, who had turned out to be a bit of a jerk anyways, and fell apart and had to pull myself back together again. By this time I'd had two hours of sleep in about 30 hours or so and that starts to get hard. We called a woman who lives in Chiang Mai and does labor support, like a beautiful, tall angel. She drove over and came bustling into the room, all energy, with pomegranate juice, and told me to start climbing stairs. I told her I didn't want to climb stairs. But she insisted, and we rigged up a two stair step stool which I climbed up and down again and again. The purpose of this was to shift the baby's head so the position would help my cervix open. I rallied myself again, got myself under control, (Girl, you have got to get it together. Now.) and climbed up and down. All night long. I walked, showered, prayed, and climbed, while Chinua got some sleep.

By that time, I had made my home in the words,

"Have you not known? Have you not heard? Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him to has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for Yahweh shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." Isaiah 40:28-31

I clung to those words. His understanding is unsearchable. From then on, the progress went like this: about one centimeter every four hours or so. You know, nice and easy. There was talk of c-section mostly from me, and every time we talked ourselves out of it because Isaac was doing fine and we were making progress. Chinua was amazing in this. He encouraged me in all the right ways. If only I could last until the baby was ready to come. Chinua and I started calling to our baby. "We love you... come out..." 

Finally, finally midway through the next morning, when I was about hallucinating with exhaustion, I came really close to being able to push, and the doctor told me, "your water never broke!" Ha ha ha. Ahhhh, so funny. This was after three shots of antibiotics, since it had been over twenty-four hours since we thought it broke. She broke it for me, and labor got quite intense then, enough for me to start shouting for the opiates (the only pain med option).

"I don't care if I can't stand up," I told Chinua very sincerely. "I can't do this anymore."

Fortunately, the doctor told me I needed to push. I hadn't felt the urge that we were waiting for, and this was the first time in all my births that I hadn't felt the urge. I tried pushing, and it was very hard without that strong urge. "I cannnnn't," I said. But they told me they could see his hair, so I rallied again (Girl, NOW!) and pushed with all my heart until Isaac came into the room at 2:37 in the afternoon and broke our hearts for love. He was covered in vernix and was another Leafy look-alike, and he didn't cry until the nurses rubbed him like they were curry-combing a horse. I told them to stop it and give him to me, and I held him and he nursed and those first two hours are the very best thing I have ever experienced, with each of my children it is so magical. I was on a high, exhaustion forgotten, ready to fly over mountains with my beautiful baby.

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(This is not what Isaac looked like during those first two hours. He was still naked and I was naked and we were all cuddled up and I wouldn't let anyone take him for a while, not to bathe him or help me get dressed or anything.)

Chinua told me over and over that I was more amazing than he could believe. I really needed to hear it! So tired and oh, just so tired.

Baxter was returned to me, a drip of pitocin because this was my fifth baby and sometimes it takes a little help to get that uterus contracting enough to close up shop and go back to being a little-used organ that chills out all the time. I had gushed quite a lot of blood and they didn't want me to bleed too much, but they asserted that I didn't need it anymore, pretty much right away, and they took Baxter away again.

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Chinua came back with my parents and the kids, and we all adored Isaac together. My favorite thing was when Solo and Leafy were standing next to me, looking down at their brother for the first time, and Solo said to Leafy, his voice full of excitement, "He moved his nose!" like Isaac was a kitten or a goldfish they were watching. I was moved up to the fourteenth floor and introduced to my new room with all its comforts. Everyone left to go home, and Isaac and I got ready to spend the night together.

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The only problem was that I was gushing blood. The first couple of times, when it happened when I got up to go to the bathroom, the fourteenth floor nurses told me it was normal and I was like, hmmmm, but I said okay. But then I was rubbing my belly to massage my uterus, and it was soft and squishy, not hard, like a grapefruit, like they say it should be. Danger! And I still gushed blood any time I shifted position. I was so tired, and tempted to simply go to sleep and hope it would get better, but I remembered that with Kid A, it hadn't gotten better, not at all. So I called the nurse, and again she said it was normal, but then she massaged it herself and oh the blood. So then there were six or so nurses all speaking Thai and I couldn't understand and the blood wouldn't stop coming and I started shaking really hard and I borrowed a phone to call Chinua. He said he'd come right away. The labor nurses came up from labor and delivery and one of them massaged very, very hard, while the other one reached back up the birth canal and pulled out handfuls of clots. They kept putting the clots into a large plastic bag, and the bag got more and more full. Still, no one would explain whether I would be okay and I was shaking and crying. Finally I got my doctor on the phone and when she understood how scared I was, she said, "No no, you have to calm down, you're going to be fine, they have it under control." Baxter came back and stayed for a good long time.

They returned me to the labor room for observation, because the nurses on the fourteenth floor weren't exactly trained for that kind of work, and I hung out there for a while, telling the two nurses who had massaged and pulled out clots for half an hour how thankful I was and what good nurses they were. I asked them to please return my baby to me. They did and I cuddled up close to him and kissed his beautiful head and was so, so thankful to be okay. Chinua came and stroked my hair and it was all well. All finished and all well.

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(All of these photos are courtesy of Chinua and his iPod touch.)

A day on the town with Kid A.

It's a blessed woman who has a ten-year-old boy, which is just my funny curly way of saying that I love my oldest son. 

We went out on a mother/son date about a week ago, on the scooter, off through the jungle, south to Panjim, the capital of Goa. Our destination was a bookstore that has a lot of kids books, to buy him book three and four of the Percy Jackson series. (He then inhaled them in one day. Sigh. I can't keep the kid in clothes or books.)

All the way, he entertained me with his personal, Kid A form of love: random trivia delivered from the back of the scooter. Things about planets, Greek mythology, and micro organisms. When he starts telling me these things, I know he's feeling well, that he's feeling a lot of love, and that this is how he tells me he loves me. I bask in it. "Really?" I say. "I didn't know that."

(I truly didn't, most of the time. He can carry a whole world of facts in his head, just like his father.)

Bikes in the background.

I took him on some of my own errands, too. To the art store. I was looking for quality watercolors, but decided I couldn't quite afford the Winsor and Newton ones, and I bought a new set of Camel Artist Watercolors. The Indian brand. Not too bad, if you haven't worked too much with high quality watercolors, which I haven't.

He posed in his father's sunglasses, borrowed for the journey. A man walking by said, "James Bond."

Helmet kid.

A kinder, gentler, less womanizing James Bond, perhaps. (Younger, blacker, cuter.)

We then went to my favorite fish curry rice restaurant for lunch. Except that we didn't make it for our lunch time, we made it for Indian lunch time-- 2:00, and the restaurant was packed with people waiting for seats. People who weren't about to wait patiently in queues. Once I saw a few people saunter by me while we waited in line, I decided to do a little reconnaisance. We scooted to the back of the room and waited nearby two people who were nearly done with their food.

It's a dirty job, but sometimes it's the only way to get food.

The fish thali (in Goa called fish curry rice, as in: fish, curry (prawn coconut) and rice, and about three other vegetable dishes and clams) was everything I'd been dreaming of, and Kid A had a plate of golden fried calamari all to himself. (A splurge, at $3.)

Busy market before Diwali.

Then we went to Mapusa to buy flowers for the devotion circle and drink a coconut because we were so thirsty from all that driving in the sun. Mapusa was crazy because it was just before Diwali and everyone was out preparing by buying tinselly things.

I may have to start a photo series called "Kid A drinking things." His face is so awesome.

The drinking face.

Mine is rather splotchy with my lovely pregnancy mask. Lately I get hyper pigmentation in pregnancy, which I wouldn't mind if it was only evenly distributed, and not concentrated on my forehead and upper lip. But ahhh, who can complain, with all these excellent sons and years ahead of James Bondish riding on scooters, buying books, and drinking sweet lassis? Not me, that's for sure.

(This answers Leaf's question in the comments on the last post. To answer Eleanor's? Wellllll... we've been to the little banyan tree in the coconut grove beside our house, but we haven't been to the big banyan tree that we show in all our pictures. Not yet, anyways.)

The size of a blueberry.

I have a secret.

I posted this picture of myself on Instagram/Twitter with the caption "I have a secret."

Some people guessed my secret straight away, because I guess when a woman of a certain age says something like that with a certain kind of look on her face, it usually means she's growing a fifth baby even though she didn't think she was going to have any more babies, and they were going to do something permanent about it but they never did because they didn't have any money but at this rate they will run out of money even faster.

And nothing happens by accident, and really from the first moment that I thought, Hey! shouldn't my period have come already and had the first crazy inkling that something was different, I've been thrilled.

I've been very clucky lately, all but licking the faces of babies I see on the street, so here it is, another chance for cuddles and spit up, leaking breasts and newborn smell. I had a baby at twenty-two, now I get to see what it's like to have a baby at thirty-two, to have two kids ten years apart, to have an eighteen-year-old and an eight-year-old on my fortieth birthday. (Something like that, the math is making my head hurt.)

Eleanor, you can call this one "The one who was born in Thailand." Because having babies in new countries is a great way to get to know the place. Apparently.

I'm about seven weeks along. I found out at around four and a half weeks, but we had to start breathing again before I could tell everyone about it. It's been long enough since Solo was born that I notice the symptoms more clearly again. (Remember how Kid A was only three when my third baby was born? There is a whole chunk of life there that is just a fog.)

So far:

* Breathtaking exhaustion. I yawn. all. day. This one is difficult, I have to keep reminding myself that it's only for a while, that pregnancy is something special, that you can't expect to do everything you would do if you weren't pregnant. I drag my sorry self around the kitchen first thing in the morning, fall asleep over the dishes.

* Also, I can't be trusted to remember anything. I forget what conversation I'm in halfway through. I can't remember what I came to the market for, I can't remember why I came upstairs, go back down only to remember and walk back up the stairs and forget again.

* Clumsy! I trip over everything. Big, dramatic windmilling stumbles that I'm sure amuse my neighbors very much. I have to walk very carefully down the stairs because I seem to have forgotten how stairs work and I keep slipping on them.

* I'm a wee bit emotional. Very nauseous. I have a love/hate relationship with food. I think about food all the time, all the time, but am disgusted by whatever I was eating as soon as my stomach feels full and have to leave the table because of the oil coming off the lentils. Oh man, I can't even write about it. Gross.

So, pretty normal stuff. My mind has jumped ship, I'm falling down, and I care for four kids who are all thrilled about a baby while complaining about their breath.

Especially YaYa. She didn't stop jumping around the room for an hour after we told them.

(Oh, also, I'm starting to write about Christian Spirituality on the Shekina Community blog. Today I wrote about Practice.)

Hot feet

It's getting hotter now. We went to the beach yesterday. To get there we walk through the coconut grove. It's a large grove, planted almost like an orchard. Coconut trees don't give a lot of shade, and the ground is covered with a sand that is nearly dust. On hot days the coconut grove seems to go on forever.

No one wanted to wear shoes despite our warnings of hot sand. Even Chinua declined, believing, I suppose, that the soles of his feet are made of leather. We were fine on the way there. The sand hadn't heated up too much.

We swam, played in the sand, ate lunch at one of the beach shacks. A rest day. I'm religious about them now. I say no to visitors, get out of the house, stop cleaning for a while, don't plan meetings or anything. We have a full schedule. A beautiful schedule, but a full one. So one day of rest is important.

On the way home we started to walk on the edge of the coconut grove and quickly discovered that the sand was too hot to walk on. Only I had shoes. We stood at the edge of the vast grove and contemplated our choices.

"Okay. We'll follow this path first, run from shade to shade." The radical coconut hairstyles were casting frond shadows on the ground in spots. We did it, clumping from one spot of shade to the next. Then we ran to the sparse grass that is still in the grove in clumps. (After monsoon it's everywhere, then it gradually dries up and disappears, until only a bit is left.) We dodged trash and crows. Chinua used his Bear Grylls voice. We've been watching episodes of Man Vs. Wild.

"It's the heat that'll get you," he said. "You'll be roasted in seconds out here."

Halfway across, I discovered I'd left our steel water bottle. I trekked back to the restaurant to get it.

When I caught up with my family again, I couldn't help laughing. And laughing. How I love them.

They were sitting under the banyan tree (there is a single banyan tree in the coconut grove) constructing sandals for themselves with pieces of cardboard they'd found. They were tying the cardboard to their feet with dried coconut fronds. Cardboard shoes! Chinua's worked the best. YaYa managed to keep hers on until she was halfway home. Solo was carried. Kid A and Leafy declined shoes after Kid A's fell off. They ran home so fast that their feet only touched the ground for moments. They didn't even get a chance to burn.

A letter to my youngest son for his third birthday

Dear Solo,

You just turned three. (Deep breath.) This year, the year that you were two, was equal parts terrifying and gorgeous.

Your dad and I often wonder in what way you resemble us, because you are completely your own person, and in many ways it seems that you only resemble yourself. Recently your dad said, "It's like all the random genes that rarely exhibit themselves got mixed together and made Solo."

You are brilliant. You are scary.

The other day you needed to have a tooth removed. It was one of your two front ones, and removing it left this household bereft of anyone with a full set of baby teeth. About a year ago you banged your teeth on the floor, hard, when you slipped, and though neither fell out, one had recently started to turn gray. When we took you in to get it x-rayed, it showed an abscess around the detached root. The dentist told me I'd have to go to a pediatric dentist. 

"Can't you just take it out?" I asked, not wanting to make another appointment.

He looked at you, thinking it over. Noting you jumping around the dental office, he declined. Politely. He did NOT say, "Your son seems on the crazy side, I wouldn't get near his mouth with a ten-foot pole," but I bet he was thinking the Thai equivalent.

But then how can I describe it? The tuk tuk you and I tucked ourselves into, the drive through the rain, us in the middle of the tuk tuk seat, keeping each other dry. The way you felt, cuddled up against my side, the big boy attitude you acquire sometimes, when you're with me on your own.

The way you arranged yourself in the dentist chair so seriously, your big toddler-sized head resting there. Opening your mouth and biting down obediently. You politely requested a green balloon, when asked what color you wanted. You watched the Tom and Jerry cartoons. You nodded seriously when the dentist asked you if you were okay. You cried when they jabbed you in the gums twice with a needle. And then you calmed back down and settled your head back in the chair, opened your mouth, and peacefully had your tooth extracted.

I could have exploded with love. I could have melted.

When it was done you climbed down, collected your balloon, and held out your hand to me, ready to go. I couldn't have predicted it, appropriately, because if there's any word I would use to describe you, it's unpredictable. We just never know what you'll do next. (Although one time the term that Chinua chose was "mentally unstable." It was at the worst of your toddler stages, which lasted for about eight months.)

Lately you've taken to grabbing the hands of complete strangers. You'll walk up, touch their hands, smile at them. Maybe you'll play with the hem of their shirt, or stick your hand in their back pocket. It's a little, um, surprising for people. Other times, people will try to talk to you and you'll literally shriek in their face. In both instances, I am apologizing. Or smiling ruefully. Or shrugging and laughing awkwardly, like Ha! Kids! Who can tell what they'll do next!

With some kids it's not so. You really can tell what they'll do next. Your oldest brother, for example. Since he was born, his personality has been set. I just know what he'll do. I know that at least four times a day, he's come to me with a random scientific fact. I know that he likes comparing people to cosmology. I know his favorite funny things are always going to be about playing tricks and teasing people. I can always tell, for better or for worse.

But you we approach like lion tamers, four-legged stools in hand.

It's amazing, the effect you have on people, when you're trying to make friends. You walk up and smile at the ladies in the market (most likely hoping they'll give you candy, like they do in India) giving them your sweetest big-eyed face. You tell them some secret only you know. You pat them on the leg. They laugh and fall back in their chairs. They call to their friends. They examine your hair and you let them (though if people try to touch Leafy's hair you often push them away) and suddenly you have a group of people around you. People say things in other languages and laugh, and you shriek with laughter, joining in the joke, which only makes them laugh harder.

You're the best cuddler. You have the greatest laugh. You get so excited when you see a plane that you shudder yourself right out of your skin. You always ask if people are okay, after they get hurt. You are so enthusiastic, in every possible way.

Often, if we're out at a restaurant, you will get out of your chair to dance. It means so much to you that you have a special rule. You can only get up from the table to dance. If you're dancing, we let you be. The other night, you went and laid your face on a young cool guy's arm, like the two of you were the best of friends. Then we called you back.

But when you dance, every bit of you gets into it. You are a robot, you are a transformer, you are a dance star in the middle of the floor. You don't care that people are looking, you just don't care.

You're adorable, darling. I love you and love you and I hope you never lose your spirit, kiddo. Even if you're always equal parts terrifying and gorgeous.

Love,

Mama

(Thanks to my friend Leaf, for her use of the word 'gorgeous,' which so aptly describes our Little Solo.)

On my 31st Birthday: A List

It has been a beautiful day.

Enjoying your birthday is a skill, I think. I often  During the last several years, I've had good ones, and I have some thoughts about it.

1. Manage your expectations. This is probably the biggest birthday pitfall. I know I've had strange ideas about what birthdays mean in the past. Having a birthday does not transform me into a queen or a fairytale princess. I wake up and I think about what I expect right away. This morning, far from many friends and far from much of my family, I thought, "I am going to have a beautiful, peaceful day and adore my husband and kids." I'm still a mom, though, so I still did laundry, wiped a bum or two, and dealt with quarrels and falls and food needs.

2. Be as simple as possible. Last year it was lilacs and bread and a spaghetti supper. This year, we took rowboats on the lake, swam, and picnicked in a cove on the other side. We thought of many options and in the end, chose the one that was closest, cheapest (I think it cost a little less than $10 to take the rowboat out) and easiest.

3. Be ready to see beautiful things. The sweet couple from New York who have been staying here in the guesthouse left, but four days later they came back specially for my birthday. It was such a heartwarming gift, to have them here with us, happy for me on the day that I was born. Gosh, I love this couple. I wish I could adopt them. But they're not young enough, or parentless enough.

4. Use the opportunity to be dreamy and nostalgic. I'm thinking about goalsetting, about drawing out what I would like to accomplish over the next year, who I want to be and how I want to practise a life of prayer and writing and mothering and travel. I'll take some time before the day is over to write it down, draw it out.

Anyways, just something I've been thinking about today. I know the birthday thing can be a touchy subject. Sometimes it still is for me, especially away from things that are comforts, or if my husband is sick, or my kids are whiny, or whatever the issue of the day happens to be.

Here are last year's birthday thoughts.

Moment

It seems to be a migraine brought on by some sort of virus. A knot tightly screwed into the left of the base of my skull, reaching over my head and curling around my eye. A snake in my brain, squeezing. No amount of medication seems able to get it to budge. Plus, a stomach ache.

I've not been a happy camper. Lying with a hand over my face, trying to sleep unsuccessfully. My house is too loud.

It has continued from last night into today, into the dusky moan of pre-dinner slump, until a gracious moment threw all others into shadow.

My two younger boys felt badly for me, and for about twenty minutes I found myself lying with my eyes closed, my face covered with soft Leafy kisses and slobbery Solo smacks.

I still have a headache, it is still bad, but I know for sure that I am a very blessed woman.

Or slugs; sometimes she rescues them too

YaYa path-1909

"Mama," she calls from the next room where she is busily combing her My Little Pony's hair. "What does a comb do, anyway?"

I laugh to myself as I pour my coffee. "It takes the knots out," I say.

"Oh," she says, and her voice sounds disappointed.  "I thought it made your hair longer."

*

She is five years old and doesn't know what a comb is for.  It's all you can expect, really, from a little girl who has had dreadlocks since she was two. I combed and braided her hair until I had an operation to remove a tumor in my neck. Coming home from the hospital I couldn't face the snarl that her hair had become during my recovery, and thus began the beautiful dreadlocks of the YaYa sister.

I didn't teach her about the use of a comb because I figured it was obvious.  It wasn't obvious, as it turns out.

We don't make a big deal about dreadlocks, in our house.  Most of our family has them.  But we don't have to make a big deal about YaYa's dreadlocks, because practically everyone else does.

*

We are walking down the hill into Baghsu, and YaYa suddenly says, "I want you to be the beautiful one, the most beautiful one in the world!  I don't want to be beautiful."

I attempt to digest this. "Why?" I ask.

"Because then no one would talk to me and tell me I'm beautiful. Even when they don't say anything, I can tell that they are talking to each other about me."

The extraordinary thing about this conversation is that YaYa is so completely outside of herself most of the time that I had no idea she even noticed the people pointing at her, talking about her.  I knew she dodged many of the reaching fingers aimed at her hair, and declined an answer when people oohed and aahed over her. But she spends most of her time drawing, or running, or climbing, or falling down, or coaxing snails along to places that are safe from our snail-smashing neighbor, or making snakes out of plasticine and curling them up in their nice soft beds. ("Look, Mama!" she said, the other day. "This one is a teenager snake and it's bigger than it's Mama!") She also loves to crack eggs, peel garlic, and make her bed.  She is the originator of most of the pretend games that are played around here, and if she uses the word beautiful, it's usually to describe a dress or a butterfly.

"Oh YaYa," I said.  "You shouldn't wish to be different than you are.  The most important things are being kind and polite, anyways." I was being sage.  And I know there are many other important things, but I was mainly talking about when she's out in the world, where people point and stare.

"I know, Mama," she said.  Not really exasperated, but ten steps ahead of me.  "But I can be those things and not be beautiful. I just wish you were the one."

Thinking about it, as we walked along, hand in hand, I realized that she wasn't really talking about beauty.  Those are just the words people have used when they've pointed her out. And believe me, there are many, many beautiful little girls in the villages of India.  As much as I think YaYa's a stunner, I know that she's a rose in a rose garden.

She was talking about attention, about being different.  She would like to shift it to me, someone bigger and stronger in her life.

This is one thing I can't do for her, though.  I can't shift attention from her to me.  She will always be different, no matter where we live.  And it's good for her to be among the people of India, so kind to children.  She is not teased for being different.  But she will have to learn how to bear attention, to take on its weight and then smile and shrug it off.

It was a small moment, this little conversation of ours, and the monkeys on the road soon drove it out of our heads, but it showed me that she is paying attention, and that she notices.  I can't take the strain of being noticed away from my daughter, but she is always welcome to turn and meet my eyes when it is becoming a bit much. We can make a quick exit, the two of us, and go and rescue some snails.