I'd like to know what he'll name his first band.

The mornings are cool now, cool enough to wear a sweater, especially on the scooter. The sun still burns strong in the middle of the day, so that you look down at yourself suddenly and wonder why on earth you are wearing a sweater. It’s hot! you think. Why am I wearing this? Because the chill of the morning is a vague memory, and you don't even remember how uncomfortable it is to wash dishes in cold water on a cold morning.

I love this weather.

Tonight I lost it and shouted at the kids a bit, because they were fighting over turns on the computer and it drives me batty. Batty enough that I tell Chinua, "you'd better come in here because I'm pretty sure I'm not cut out to be a mother. I don't know why I'm realizing that right now." 

We worked it all out, and I apologized for shouting. We shared our vision again, of a family that helps the younger ones and looks out for each other, and spends time together and doesn't get rigid and miserly over things like computer turns. Most of the time my kids are the farthest thing from miserly, practically showering affection on our friends and visitors, the first to invite people over or suggest more hang out time or set their friends up on the computer. But with each other? Well, it's hard to live with a lot of siblings. (Great preparation for the real world.) 

Kenya suggested a game of Phase 10 after dinner, which turned into Phase 3 when Isaac was too sleepy for us to finish. Not that he was playing, but I needed to get him to bed before he keeled over. Suggesting Phase 10 was a good idea on Kenya's part. My kids love the crazy goofy mood I get into when playing any board game; part evil competitor, part wild encourager. I'm known to gloat a bit and also to start singing songs like, "I think you're amazing!" to the tune of Crazy by Gnarls Barkley, if anyone gets down on themselves for not finishing a phase. It's a strange combination, but it works for us. They love it. They basically love it when I leave off of being the super serious, slightly frazzled mother that I can be, and start having fun. It's a lesson to all of us. They also love it when I lie in bed with them at night, for the same reason.

Halfway through our game of Phase 3, Leafy went to get a glass of water. He's a budding chef, and he came back into the room and announced, "This is my famous drink, called Disheveled Puppy." 

I lost it. Wha? Leafy only gets quirkier as he gets older and he is always good for a lot of non sequiters. It turned out that I had heard him wrong and he had said "Shoveled puppy," because the spoon in the glass of plain water he brought in was the shovel and the water was the puppy. Still strange. 

I've started enlisting one kitchen helper per night so I can teach them more about cooking, and the way that I can tell Leafy is a budding chef is because he can't leave the food alone. "We have to sauté the onions and garlic slowly until they are really soft and almost see through," I tell him, and he says, "That looks and smells so good, can I eat a little bit of that plain, right now? Can you put it in a bowl for me?" And then when we add the tomatoes he's hopping up and down, he can barely wait to taste it.

He also comes up with good names, like Disheveled Puppy. 

Our friends from Australia arrived a couple days ago, two couples who are coming to be part of this budding community that is starting here. Of course, today I discovered that a weed whacker in Australia is called a whipper snipper, and though I have promised myself to stop laughing at what things are called in Australia, I couldn't help myself. Whipper snipper. Snort. I'm so happy I can barely contain myself. 

I've also been battling depression and extreme feelings of unworthiness and despising myself, so hey, how's the roller coaster? It's all over the place. I found myself googling "signs of depression" the other night, and I don't know what I was expecting to find. Maybe "Number of times per week it is normal to drive through countryside sobbing on a scooter?" or "degree of self loathing permissible for food that doesn't taste quite the way you wanted it to?"

I'm teetering. I'm not deep in it, but I tip over into it easily. I'm working on it, and I'm always afraid of writing about shame and depression, because that is what it does to you. But I'm going to continue, because I know it helps someone out there somewhere. And for all the reviews I get that say I'm too whiny, I get twenty more that say, thank you, you helped me. That's what matters. I'm glad that there are people out there who don't know what it feels like to be crippled by anxiety or depression, but I am not one of those people. 

I'll tell you the truth, because I can't always believe it myself, and in telling you, I'll tell myself. You are beloved by God and you don't need to be ashamed. Every day, every beautiful thing is a gift from His heart to yours, and you need to learn to reach out and take them. Take the Disheveled Puppy and the game of Phase 3, take the hug from your husband and truly feel it. Don't tell yourself you need to justify your existence by making money or giving a lot or being wise. Take the love from your kids or your parents, take it openhanded, because it is from God. Don't let the shame pit drag you down into it. You don't belong there, just because you got a little shouty, just because you over salted the food. You belong in love, and friendship, and safety.

Seasons.

I want to tell all the stories but find that my voice is quiet because of all the talking and listening and child-rearing I’ve been doing. We’re in Detroit, swimming in family. It’s amazing; all the aunties and uncles and cousins and sisters and brothers. Everyone picks out all the people that our kids look like. He looks exactly like you when you were a kid. He’s got his uncle’s head. It’s that upper lip. 

I’m at a coffee shop right now to try to get some brain power back. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to keep Isaac from eating my stepmother-in-law’s fake flowers while I prepare breakfast or wash dishes. He likes to eat the little pastel foam “berries,” while I die quietly because he’s killing me. 

A woman wearing pants and high heels just walked by my table. She has either a fake or real Louis Vuitton handbag, I wouldn’t know which. This coffee shop is a little odd, very suburban, but I don’t know my way around the city, and I needed a place to write. 

It wouldn’t seem like a country would change much in four years, but this land of plenty certainly changes fast. 

New things: 

The knives have colored blades.

People use avocado oil now.

The grains and cereals and flours are out of control. This is a good thing, but it still surprises me to walk into any old grocery store and find a chia/quinoa flour mix. 

You can buy something at Taco Bell that says taco on the inside, dorito on the outside. The billboard caused me to turn to Chinua and say, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.” It’s like everything has simultaneously become more healthy and less healthy. We’re polarizing more, perhaps. It’s a bad habit, the polarizing.

It is possible to pick up a pack of licorice and see Gluten free written on the package. 

Cars talk to you.

The streets are red in San Francisco: the bus lanes are red and glittery downtown. Red streets! What will they think of next?

 

But some things never change.

The sky is large and blue, the trees gorgeous. Freeways are full of cars, people here like big flags. I still need to sit facing the room in any restaurant or coffee shop, or I risk crawly back syndrome. Old men fall asleep in the coffee shop’s arm chairs. People are kind and friendly, sometimes in surprising ways, or rude, sometimes in surprising ways. I still hate shopping in America. 

I’m doing better with grocery stores because of my newfound skill of pretending that I’m a superhero when I go shopping. I know it freaks people out when I talk about my wonder woman cuffs, (I over-share with new friends) but it’s not that I think they have actual powers, it’s just that they remind me that I am a superhero and my name is Mighty Provider and my super skill is the ability to walk into a too-large store and peruse its over-complicated shelves in brightly lit cattle lanes and extract only what is needed to feed my family—no more, no less—without crying. I read labels! I pass the weird products without a second glance! I don’t melt down!

One thing I’ve noticed about anxiety, or neuro-atypicalness, or whatever it is that I have, is that my propensity to think that I should be able to do things that other people do makes me feel a lot worse. If I stop thinking about giant stores as something normal that I should be able to handle and start thinking about them as a large mountain that I need to scale, I find I have the power for it. 

You might try the same trick with whatever it is that you are afraid of. Instead of wondering what is wrong with you that you can’t do this easy thing that everyone else can do, think of yourself as a giant bird, able to glide into the situation and glide out without being harmed. Or put on your wonder woman cuffs and your superhero persona.

 

And then there are trees. A bad situation caused a meltdown in me the other day— the first truly public one I’ve ever had. Afterward, I lay under the redwoods and watched the the needles shining in the sunlight. I broke off needles and smelled them. The branches moved and I tried to let my embarrassment and sadness wave off into the sky with them. 

 

Now the leaves are changing here. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in any kind of autumn, let alone an autumn where leaves turn colors. Every morning I look at the leaves to see the changes that have occurred overnight. I also check on Kai, who is going through some kind of massive growth spurt, watching to see the inches he’s leaping through. And I see again that some things change, and some things never change and seasons of change are deep in the heart of God, he put the seasons and the years into place, the eras of a person’s life, the way we sometimes change slowly, sometimes not at all, and sometimes in giant, man-boy strides. There are things about myself that I wish I could change. I probably never will, and sometimes that knowledge makes me want to curl up in a corner and vow to never talk to anyone again. But other times I sit and look around for my shoes and my cuffs because it’s time to scale a mountain.

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?

The girl, the potatoes, and the thief.

Yesterday Chinua returned from playing a music festival in Sweden and I breathed a huge sigh of happiness, mostly, but also relief, because of the antics the world gets up to while he’s away. There was that time I accidentally adopted a dog, or the the time Kenya ended up in the hospital getting an X-ray of her hand (only a sprain), and this time I had to wonder, What will happen while Chinua is away? (I’m not actually very superstitious--in the daytime--and I’m sure I only notice the crazy things that happen because they are more noticeable when I’m on my own … but still.)

We had dinner with friends right after Chinua left—a small goodbye for a friend who was returning to Holland— and against all the warning voices in my head I decided to make something new. It was a baked rosti, a bad choice anyway because it is Swiss food and my friends were from Germany and Holland, so I was the last person in the room who should be making rosti, if you want to take geographical logic into it. (Actually, no, Leaf was over, so she was the last person. Australia is farthest from everywhere. Sorry guys.) 

But I had thought recently, Hey, I have an oven and maybe I can put things in it for dinner too? Like, bake food? This might seem silly until you remember that I mostly cooked Indian food for four years and now I cook a lot of Thai food and some beans. That’s my scope of food. 

The problem with weird Internet recipes, though, is that they call for things that we don’t have here. In this case, frozen shredded potatoes. No problem! I thought. I can grate some potatoes. I went blithely on my way, my guests arrived and I was in excellent time, putting my rosti into the oven and shutting the door happily, making the salad and dressing it. Until I had to acknowledge, two hours later, that the potatoes in the recipe were probably pre-cooked and mine were never, ever going to cook.

Thankfully, Miriam, Leaf, and Siem are the nicest people in the world to have around if your dinner is a disaster, and they brightened up my kitchen as the sky got darker and darker and night fell. I finally had to make a quick trip for a jar of pesto and some pasta and start over.

 

That was a long rabbit trail, because the point of that story is that I thought, Ha! Chinua goes away and I make a weird potato dish thingy, something always happens when Chinua is gone, ha ha ha! Chuckle. And it was true, our time did go smoothly. The Miriam and Brendan and Leaf force even watched four of my kids so I could take Leafy to Chiang Mai (3 hours away) for a dentist appointment without spending a million dollars and having that twitch in my eye start up again. 

But then on Friday, Miriam and I arrived at the meditation space to find that most of our things had been stolen out of the kitchen. We've been using the kitchen as a storage space until we could build a shed, and so most of our seating mats, pillows, all of our knives, one large pot, a bunch of glasses, the chai and spices, everything out of the fridge, and the worst, Chinua’s djembe, had been stolen. Oh, argh argh argh.

I had my suspicions about who the thief was, a man who has not been mentally well and hoards stuff, so I ended up walking overgrown paths with my friend Sandy, doing our own detective work, peering in abandoned guesthouse huts, looking for a stash of pillows, kitchen stuff, and one much-loved drum. I also spent time talking with the police at our space and in the police station, and even finding the man I suspected and approaching him with the police. Many days later we still have no idea where the stuff is, or how to help the foreign man who has been wandering the streets of Pai and may or may not have broken into our place. Meanwhile, we leave in three days. (Yay!)

But, as I sat in the police station chatting with a lieutenant for a couple hours (in Thai), feeling way out of my depth and also appreciative of the humor of the situation, I thought, This is just the kind of thing that I get up to when Chinua is away. 

The week ahead.

My weekend was lovely and relaxing, with a little bit of sewing, a little bit of painting, some cooking, some eating, some singing, and some board game playing. Now I'm diving into a verybusyweek head first. 

Sometimes it's not the number of things that I have to do in a week, but the diversity of things that messes with my head. From caring for a toddler, to homeschooling, to preparing for guiding meditation, to preparing for our upcoming trip (car insurance and registration, plane tickets) to writing, to painting, to spending time with friends, to cooking for a community dinner. I am constantly switching gears (I know many of us are, if we work out of our homes and in a number of creative areas). It makes my brain hurt, but I love it, and I chose it, so I will learn to live it well.

My reminders to myself are to pray and journal a bit every day, something that is only for God and for my own eyes, to play whenever possible, to remember joy, to take a deep breath when I need to. I think it's going to be a good week.

What do you have planned? 

A journal of the flu, or how I am the worst sick person in the world.

The Flu: Day 1

Argh, argh, meltdown! Everything unbearably sad, fever fever, can't stand up, better get up because Chinua has hypertension, oh, lying back down. Guilt. Sadness. Fever. Darkness.

The Flu: Day 2

Certainly I will be better today, take medicine, get up, make breakfast, go to the market with all the kids to buy shoes for Leafy. Home, bed, whoops I'm no longer okay. Chills, chills, it hurts everywhere. Chinua brings food. Dying. 

The Flu: Day 3

Worse! I'm worse! Body no good anymore, head feels really far away from feet, skin too sensitive, crying in the kitchen, back to bed with you. Sleep, sleep. Can't focus on words on a page which means: REALLY sick. Chinua brings food. Must eat, can't taste.

The Flu: Day 4

Giving in and resting in bed. Why is the sun so bright and ugly? Everything sticks out and pops you in the face with too much color. Legs and head exist on different planets. Baby comes in occasionally to lie on my face. Children's voices like old tin cans banging on concrete. Chinua brings food, bless him. Can't think about anything at all without near emotional and mental implosion. Take me Jesus. 

The Flu: Day 5

(Lifts head tentatively) Wait, I think... fever is gone. Gone! Whoops, unsteady legs, slow down sailor. Up and at em, go to market, look around fuzzily, what am I supposed to be buying? Why must everything be bright? Home, tidy, lie down, write a bit, lie down, moan. Hang out with Isaac. Celebrate standing and talking!

The Flu: Day 6

Life might actually be worth living. Body aches, lungs clearly useless, sinuses in the act of mutiny, but look, pretty! The sun is shining and I guess it's not gross after all, maybe beautiful even? Kids have melodious voices and are funny! Only a little crying, mostly standing, cooking, drinking beautiful water and well, whoa, still not so safe in my head. Let's think those thoughts again tomorrow, maybe they'll be easier another day.

Still life with ants and dog hair.

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

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

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


I read this on Brown Dress With White Dots yesterday:


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

Jonathan Carroll

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

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

Birds and other flying things

Kenya-she-hulk.jpg

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

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

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

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

“True,” I say, and sigh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things I've observed, Part 2

BTS-kids.jpg

So, from my notes we had:


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

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Here we go!

Cha chas

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


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


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


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


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


*

Riding on buses with my kids


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


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


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


*

Pink hijab


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


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


*

Dentist glass tables bikes


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


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


*

Middle aged dancing man

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


*

Spanish people durian


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


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


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


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


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

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


*

Dog food purse


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


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


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

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Things I've observed, part 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

This is why I don't read recipes.

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

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

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

"Add sesame oil to make a colorful shadows."

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

I have no idea.

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If you were crossing a high-swinging bridge and trying to aim for the other side, if you were trying to have beautiful eyes, to wake up in the morning with a smile on your face, and you were sometimes succeeding and sometimes not, missing your husband like crazy while trying to be upbeat and content as a good example for your kids, what would be an extremely encouraging event for you? Do you know?
Because I think that having a good friend, a friend that you have known and loved for years and years, come to visit you with her two little ones would be just the ticket.

Everyone in our family lights up when friends visit us. We come alive. And these friends are so dear to our hearts. Christy and her kids are here! Chinua went to help take care of his friend Ian when Ian was in quarantine after he had a bone marrow transplant, and now Ian’s wife, Christy—who is a long time friend of ours, from even before we knew Ian—and their kids, Asha and Fiona, have come to keep us company and make us laugh. I’m a very blessed girl.
We have six more days or something until Chinua gets back. I’m not sure because Chinua doesn’t know exactly when he will be on the bus to Pai, so we’ll continue to estimate on the long side.

The other night I was on the street, talking to someone I know about when Chinua would be coming back, and I kept saying, “In a week or more, hopefully,” as though there was a question about whether he was coming home or not. And I couldn’t stop saying it, giving the person the wrong idea entirely.

It’s like the time Chinua was singing his beautiful song “Ouagadougu” that he wrote for me, and he introduced it by saying, “One time my wife went to Africa and she was pregnant when she came back,” and I could feel everyone’s eyebrows shooting back into their hairlines, and they were all thinking, “floozy,” and I turned bright red. “You have to be careful how you say that,” I told Chinua afterward. “Let them know I was also pregnant before I went away.”

And from then on, he was careful. I have to learn the same lesson. Everyone, Chinua is definitely coming back! I’m just not sure what day because we’re no good with itineraries and we don’t want to do the airplane math because the international date line confuses us!

The story I'll probably never live down.

Sometimes I have impulse control problems, a fact that is usually balanced by the fact that I’m quite an amenable girl, ready to listen and have my impulses checked. That is, until I’m the only adult at home. (Cue the ominous music.)

Most of the time it goes like this: I have a wild idea, I run it by Chinua, he gives feedback to the effect of, “Have you thought this through?” or even, “Have you gone crazy?” and I’ll take a little time to argue the merits of my plan before I make a decision.

If Chinua is not here, I’m forced to have the conversation with him in my head. It doesn’t always go as it would in real life. So, a week ago I was sitting at the table, doing some work and checking email, and I came across a post for a free dog in Chiang Mai. This caught my attention because I’ve been thinking about getting a dog for a long time—we’ve wanted a pet, and now we’re stable here and it seems like a good time. Our chickens all flew away and our little bunny died (so sad). What’s more, this was a hypoallergenic dog—a six-month old Shih Tzu. If I didn’t have such bad allergies to dogs, we could have adopted a dog any time we wanted—there are street puppies around, we even had one of our own for a while, before we found a home for him with some lovely people in the market.

So, reading the post about the free dog, my treasure hunt spidey sense was pinging. I was thinking, should we? Should we?

Chinua had some reservations about getting a dog—mainly around the question of travel. We still travel and we would need to find someone to look after our dog when we went away. I wrote to him, asking what he thought about this dog. However, because he was on a plane at the moment, there was no way he could get my email. I started doing some research and found that there is a woman in town who takes care of dogs for payment, kind of like a very small kennel. I went off to talk to her and found that her costs were reasonable. I asked the man who was giving the dog if he would hold her for me while we made our way to Chiang Mai.

I had now emailed my husband and done all the research I needed to do. I had a good conversation with Chinua in my head where I listed the facts. He agreed with me (in my head). It was time for action. We were now two hours into the school morning. I wrote another email to Chinua. This one said, “I’m doing it! I accept full responsibility!”

“I have kind of a crazy idea,” I told the kids.

Kenya perked up. “What? What? I love crazy ideas!”

This was only fuel for my fire. Heaven help Kenya and I when she gets older and we are traveling the world together, taking Paris, Istanbul, and Hanoi by storm.

I bought bus tickets, and by five o’clock, we were all on vans to get to Chiang Mai. The only thing was that the bus company didn’t have tickets for all five of us on one bus, so Kai and Kenya rode on a separate van for the first time. It was uneventful, except for the fact that the lady sitting next to Kenya had a tiny second thumb sticking out of her first thumb, and Kenya found this very interesting. They did well, and when their van stopped in Chiang Mai, I was at the door to greet them. (This is where the danger part comes in. Or the perceived danger. I knew well and good that they were fine on that bus of middle aged Thai aunties and uncles. I was a nervous wreck, however. I told them they did an excellent job, but for the sake of my heart we’re not going on separate buses again until they are thirty years old.)

By this time, my adrenaline was off the charts. We had to meet the dog’s owner at the bus station, which happened without a snag, and then we needed to check into our dog-friendly guesthouse. It was very late, and we gathered some food and our new dog, who was friendly and delightful, and headed for bed. I was zinging with anxiety and energy, and it was at this point that the conversations I was having with Chinua in my head took a drastic turn. He had been fine about getting a dog before, but now? Now he was furious. He had to live with this dog, of course. Clearly, he was going to hate me forever. Up till this point the dog had been an idea. But with her very real self sniffing around the guesthouse room, it became apparent that she was more than an idea. She was a dog. A dog who was now going to live with us.

I entered a different reality, one of panic and self-castigation and illegible Facebook messages to my husband whose plane still hadn’t landed. How terrible that we had only twelve good years before I ruined it all with a small fluffy dog.

The next day was full of more decisions about whether to drive immediately back to Pai or whether to stay for another night. But our dog-friendly guesthouse was full and there wasn’t anywhere for us to stay. The only reason I was interested was because of Loy Kratong, the amazing lantern festival where lanterns fill the sky like jellyfish, something we’ve seen only on a much smaller scale. I wasn’t getting anything right, we were leaving on the cusp of this amazing festival. But with five children and a dog, I didn’t feel up to the search for a guesthouse, and I wasn’t sure we should spend the money.

We headed back to Pai after I found a van service that would take us with a dog. “Sure!” they said. “180 baht. We’ll meet you in front of the McDonald’s.” We sat for a long time in a row in front of the McDonald’s, to the delight of passing tourists, until a song taew picked us up. A song taew is a truck with benches installed in the back.

“Is this what we’re driving to Pai?” Leafy asked.

“No, this will drive us to the bus,” I said. The driver proceeded to pick up several more people and then deliver us to the very same bus service that we always take, the one that charges 150 baht, the one that said dogs were not allowed. I gather I have to speak to the driver rather than the ticket sellers.

All the way home I fretted on the inside, while being outwardly cheerful about our sweet new pup, who sat nicely on Kenya’s lap and didn’t make a peep. I made lunch and called Leaf, who asked how I was doing. “Not so good,” I said in a voice that sounded like a pepto bismol frog. I told her all about how badly I had ruined everything. How Chinua was sure to disown me and be incredibly angry with me. I poured out my heart. And then I realized we had been disconnected. The phone rang. “Rae? Rae?” Leaf said, frantically. “Tell me, what did you say about a dog?”

I told her the whole story again.

And she made a good point. She said that the angry Chinua didn’t sound very much like the real Chinua.
(True, I thought.)
And that he adores me and loves me.
(Also true.)
So that while he might (understandably) be annoyed, he wasn’t going to hate me. Or disown me.

Later that night I spoke with Chinua and found that what Leaf suspected was true. He loves me. He’s a bit surprised that I got a dog, and he’s been teasing me non-stop about getting a dog when he'd been gone only one day. (He was thinking about getting a hamster, and I told him he should just think of her as a really big hamster.) But he loves me. Even though I have impulse control problems. And as soon as I talked to him, I calmed right down. I really, really love him.

We’ve named the dog Wookie and she is amazing. If there was going to be an instance of bad impulse control, it couldn’t have turned out better. I love having her. She’s smart (in the last couple of weeks she’s gone from completely un-housebroken to only having a few accidents) and loving, and mellow, and sweet. And she’s given us quite a bit less drama than the crazy flying jungle chickens did in one hour of their little chicken lives. The kids love her, especially Kenya, and I think Chinua will love her too, once he can look past her undeniably small-fluffy-dog exterior.

Adventures in portraiture.

This picture would be so perfect if only, well, if only Solo's head was visible.

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Here it's visible. But... oh, dear.

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The following is an example of how forced perspective can turn your average eleven-year-old into a half-giant like Hagrid.

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And here is an example of how a shutter closing at the wrong second can give the same eleven-year-old an unfortunately Mr. Bean-like face.

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I don't get it. WHY is it so hard to get a normal shot of everyone?

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Or a normal face from anyone?

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Ah, we'll try again. And I'll use the good camera next time.

As much as they are all gorgeous, it's hard to tear my eyes away from that one in the middle.

And yes, that IS a dog with muddy paws in our family portrait. That's a whole story in itself, complete with danger, angst, and impulsiveness. I'll tell you all about it. (Her name is Wookie.)

5 Things: Hospital

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1. One treatment for Isaac when he was really sick was a nastrogastric tube down his nose and throat and into his stomach. It drained off the excess gas and gastric fluid and bile that was building up inside him. On the other end of the tube was a little plastic ziploc bag that gathering the contents that drained out. His intestines had stopped working, so a lot of bile was coming up at first- bright green in color. I had to maneuver him around with this tube and bag for many days, holding the bile bag in my hand so that it wouldn’t spill, or drag, or tug the tube out of his nose. Oh, how I hated the bile bag. Isaac hated it, too. He pulled it out the first night he had it, which earned him a mitten hand. After a couple days, we took the mitten off and he didn’t pull it out again— he learned to navigate around it. Clever baby.

2. In Thailand, everyone has a nickname, and everyone goes by their nickname rather than their real name. When nurses were filling out forms, they would ask, “What is your baby’s nickname?” or, “What do you call him?” I would always reply that he doesn’t have a nickname, or that we call him Isaac. (Izzy just hasn’t stuck. Yet. Chinua calls him Zacky Zac sometimes.) But later I thought, well, he’s our Thai baby, maybe he needs a nickname! So I asked one of the nurses to help me come up with a chu lenn, a play name. Together we came up with Mee Noi, which means Little Bear. It seems appropriate. He’s little, but so so big. (He’s as big as all the eighteen-month-olds around here.) Now the nurses call out “Mee Noi,” when they come into the room. I love it.

3. One incredible thing about the hospital in Thailand: the food. They started feeding me yesterday, when the “No Food, No Water” sign was removed from our door. (I guess I had been sent to my room without dinner as well.) I received a menu and saw that I could order a choice of any number of 1.)Depressing Western hospital meals, such as macaroni or weird steak fillets with mashed potatoes and tired carrots, or 2.)Delicious Thai meals, including meals from many regions. I was wracked with indecision. (No I wasn’t.)

Before they started feeding me, I was dependent on someone helping me by bringing me food or sitting with my baby so I could head down to the third floor to get some food. Down there they also serve Thai food: very affordable Thai food. And in the little shop there are things you can pick up, like really yummy fresh spring rolls or deep fried seaweed. (So good.) There were a couple times when I didn’t have much food and ate rice cakes for my meal, but it’s mostly been really good. Since Isaac’s bile bag was removed, I’ve been able to take him along with me, wheeling his little IV trolley alongside. I also found this book in the shop. I was surprised, and though I was tempted, I didn’t buy it.

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4. Before Isaac was admitted to the children’s hospital ward, we were at the children’s clinic here. It has been built to look like a space alien station, with space-age silver rounded couches and blue lights in the ceiling. I didn’t like it. It felt like too much, like, we’re sick! Blue lights are weird! I really appreciate the quality of medical care in Thailand, but I don’t like the whole commercial feel it can have. I don’t want a woman who looks like a flight attendant with whitened skin, and contact-enlarged eyes to lead me to the doctor in her high heels. My baby is sick, give me someone in scrubs and comfy shoes and I’m happy. But it is a popular trend here as part of the health care process. The women are the equivalent of a hostess in a restaurant taking care of people, only there are many of them, and they don’t look like normal people. (To me.) I was happy, arriving at the children’s ward, to see that the nurses look like the nurses I’m used to, with regular ol’ scrubs on. The only difference is that they take their shoes off to enter the room. And the doctor comes and sits on the floor with us to talk to us. (Love. They took the bed out when I arrived and put the mattress on the floor so Isaac would be safer.)


5. During the last few days that we have been here, when Isaac has been doing better and I’m not worried, I feel like I’m at a very strange resort, where I cannot leave the building and the decorations are institutional, and I’m having forced rest. It’s a gift. I’ve been editing the next Journey Mama book and have completed so many months, and I’ve been reading and watching a movie here and there. We get sprung today, (yay!) and I’m praying for a gentle landing as Isaac and I re-enter the wild, wonderful world of our very busy home.

5 Things Day Five: Circles

1. My friend Brendan left today and I was remembering a moment that happened when he first arrived here a couple weeks ago. I was looking out for him and Leaf all day, imagining that they’d show up in the afternoon, and planning dinner for all of us together. But when they hadn’t shown up by dinnertime, I just stuck my headphones in and started cooking. Through a mist of music I heard my name called and suddenly my dearest friends were in the kitchen with me! There were hugs and squeals and then I kept on cooking, until Brendan asked, “Rae, is this a veg meal?”
“Yes,” I said, thinking, of course it is. Then Brendan leaned over and pulled a giant insect out of the pot. It was about an inch long and half an inch thick and had made a suicidal dive for my food. It would have made the meal decidedly non-veg, so Brendan saved the day!

2. The other night Isaac slept all the way through, which he isn’t prone to doing. There is nothing like waking up to his noises and realizing that it’s 5:30 in the morning and it’s the first time I’ve opened my eyes. I nursed him and he went back to sleep, then I got up to write. I felt so rested.

3. Buying ground cumin rather than ground cinnamon this morning was a story that began last night, when I went to the store to get pasta and promptly got drunk on the smell of freshly baked bread. Forgetting that my family doesn’t ever really eat bread with pasta, I just had to buy some french loaves. I skipped home with it and we sliced it up, but there was a huge plate of it, uneaten, after dinner. No problem, thought I, that’s why french toast was invented: for bread-smell drunk mothers who try to overload their families with starch. So this morning I made oven french toast, getting all the way to the last step, when I realized that I had no cinnamon. No problem, thought I, again, I’ll just pop off to the store and get some. But I wasn’t popping in a very poppy way, as I didn’t get as much sleep last night. Isaac only woke up once, but there was some eleven-year-old stumbling around, telling me he couldn’t sleep at 2:00 and then 3:00 and then 4:00 in the morning. I woke up tired, and I hobbled into the store, picked up the first spice jar with a “c” word and brown powder that I saw, and rushed home.
The good part is that I noticed it was cumin before I put it in the french toast. Another trip to the store and it was all sorted.

4. Leaf is still here for a few more days, and today we snuck out for lunch at a nearby restaurant. We bought some already prepared, VERY spicy food. (Isaac seems to be okay with it, these days.) I sweated and drank water and we talked and talked. What a gift this visit has been.

5. Another friend dropped in for a visit. We’re receiving friends like dearly needed rain, and it’s coming in buckets. This friend is the daughter of some very dear friends of Chinua and mine, and we talked today of the lovely circle that this visit completes. I stayed with her mom and helped her with the kids back when I was twenty-one and Dannah was nine. Chinua was on his first trip to Israel with Dannah’s dad. Now Dannah is here, visiting me and my kids, and she is twenty-one while my daughter is nine. We know where we’ll be sending Kenya when she turns twenty-one. Wherever Dannah is in the world, she’ll be getting a visit from Kenya. The weird thing is that it doesn’t feel very long ago. I was six months pregnant with Kai and reading Bird by Bird for the very first time. Reading Bird by Bird suggested to me that I might be able to write a novel. Ten years later, I published The Eve Tree. And that, I assume, means that Kenya will turn twenty-one in a week or so.

5 Things Day Two: Robot Heart

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1. The other day was one of those days when I can’t seem to get ahead. I ran from thing to thing, never finishing any job, I was unsuccessful at getting the baby down for a nap, and the older kids rollicked and shrieked downstairs while I tried. I desperately needed a shower, and finally locked myself in the bathroom, sighed, and turned the hot water on. I rubbed shampoo into my hair and then… I heard a voice. “MaMa!” the voice said, and it wasn’t one of my kids. It was Nuan, the lady who comes and helps with cleaning one day a week. It wasn’t her day, but she had been helping us clean up the meditation center the day before. I went to the door, but she was down the hall, still calling me. (I don’t know why she calls me Mama. Ma means come in Thai, so I kind of think she’s telling me to come, but I’m not sure.) I wrapped myself in a towel and stood on my front porch, soaking wet, hair full of soap. She wanted the keys to the kitchen at the meditation space because she had managed to get a friend to loan her the use of a truck to pick up some bamboo siding that we didn’t want anymore. I told her I would finish showering and then try to help her. It was the crowning moment in a morning that wanted to thwart me.

2. Later in the day, though, Leaf and I rolled out into the countryside on my scooter, driving away on a two to three hour escape plan. I left all the things that needed to be cleaned still, the unchecked things on my list. I let it be known that I wasn’t going to cook dinner, and we left! We drove past rice paddies in full green explosion, past purple flowering trees. We passed hills with clouds over them, bridges over rivers, graceful bamboo stands, tall chickens in villages, young monks in orange playing soccer. We had a long talk, we caught up, and we wound up in a little café with a tea and a smoothie in front of us. It was a complete turn around. My interrupted shower was in the distant past. I forgot all about it as patches of sun and cloud rolled over us on the motorbike.

3. That night, I snuggled with Leafy and Solo before we went to sleep. Here’s a little sample of our conversation:
Me: “I’m going to go, but I have put so much of my love in your heart that you always have it. If you need it, you can just reach in and find it, and say, ‘My mama loves me.’
Solo: (Puts his hand in his mouth to pretend to reach down his throat.) “I’ll reach down and pull out my heart and give it to you.”
Leafy: “Yeah, Kai said sword swallowers have to move their hearts to the side so they can swallow swords. We have a joke where we say that they could put their hearts at the back of their throats and take them out and give them to their girlfriends.”
Solo: “NO! To their Moms!”
Leafy: “Yes, but if they had a broken heart, and they took them out and really broke them, they would die.”
A short silence falls.
Leafy: “Unless they got a robot heart.”

(This is having sons. Talks of love take weird and delightful turns that always entertain me, especially when I’m really listening.)

4. Isaac is so close to crawling. He has this large radius, he can flip himself over and spin in circles, but he can’t get his belly off the floor and pull himself along, once he’s on his stomach. It will come, though, very very soon. He is a complete delight, the love of everyone’s life, the small smiling pile of cuddle that we all turn to, throughout the day. He has us all at his beck and call, including Brendan and Leaf or Maria and Issa when they come over. He is the chubbiest chubber, a slobbery, gummy smiled, delicious baby. How did we live without him?

5. Yesterday in the morning I left my house and walked over a bamboo bridge to get to the meditation space. I got a broom out of the kitchen to sweep the floor of the big building (we need to come up with names for these buildings) and pulled the cushions out. Brendan and Leaf and their son joined me. We sang and read Psalm 5 together. We prayed, I wrote, the birds sang around us. I’ve missed this, friends. This is an excellent new beginning.

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All of them, off into the night.

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(Our hen's one white egg, mixed in with some larger store bought eggs.)

When we started our chicken project, (that's putting a bigger name on it than it deserves-- really, we thought "we should get chickens!" and then two days our landlord brought us some chicks) we had no idea how much drama would be rolled up in the tiny balls of fluff that Thanom handed to us. First there were the chick diseases picking babies off, the night waking, then the young chicken mystery disappearances. There were tears and burials and being generally flummoxed. Goodness.  
 
These are jungle chickens—they are chickens that fly off into the sunset if they so desire. You can’t pen them in without a full roof. So when our landlord brought us three nearly grown chickens after much of our chicken drama, we had a carpenter build a bamboo pen for them, and we kept them in it. They lived in there, growing and being domestic, until one day when I decided it was enough like home for them and they'd probably return again and again.  I wanted to open the door—let them be a little more free range.

But they are not a little more free— they are extremely free range chickens. Our two hens and a rooster cruise the neighborhood, hanging out with their friends, playing video games, drinking coffee and eating scraps. They mix it up. They check out the government buildings, listen in on meetings, check on their favorite trees. Occasionally they come home to eat, change clothes, brood, lay an egg, and then leave again without washing their dishes. Urban extreme free range jungle chickens. Leave it to us, I think. Only us.

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In other news, I wrote about another, more important new project on the Shekina Community website. We're building! And we're so excited.

What's that called? Perspective.

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I got sick on Saturday morning as swiftly as two truckers speeding by each other on the highway. There’s almost no way you can recognize who’s coming. The first time that I got out of the house, or far from my bed at all, was to creep my way to the hospital on Tuesday. The second time was to take the kids to 7-11 to spend their allowance.

“No candy,” I said, as we entered the store. When I said “No candy,” it sounded like someone had replaced my throat with a jar of snails, that’s how big a mess my throat had become, no longer good for normal throat things like drinking, swallowing, breathing, eating.

 Kenya picked a pack of gum and some good chocolate (chocolate is okay), Leafy picked a little container of ice cream, Kai bought a muffin, and Solo bought a pack of gummy colas (that is candy, but my brain was addled—did I mention I was sick?). Solo handed his ten baht coin over to the teller very seriously. Whenever he buys something and gets change for it, he runs up to one of us and says, “She gave me more money!” with the most excited voice ever in the history of the world.

Kai and Kenya biked home and the little boys ran ahead of me. I can really barely call Leafy a “little” boy any more. These last few months he has stretched out and smoothed out like crazy. Seven has been awesome to Leafy. Still, he was wearing backwards pajama pants, I noticed as I walked slowly behind them with Isaac in the stroller. Which is fairly typical for Leafy—I believe he gets clothing on the right way 20% of the time, which doesn’t even make any sense, because that’s not how the odds of backwards or forwards works, but it’s true. Usually, though, I catch it before we leave the house.

As we walked home I saw a man on a motorbike, carrying a flat of eggs on the open palm of his hand, which faced outward, head height, like a waiter in a fancy restaurant. He was driving the motorbike with one hand, holding the eggs with the other and what can I say? I love this place.

The reason I took the kids to the store was because I sent Abby away on a little scooter ride. She and my Superstar Husband ran Baan (you need to know this word: it means house, and I will probably use it a lot more) Crazy Town for my three fever addled days, and I felt like Abby was getting a little more than she bargained for when she decided to come and help us here. And then I thought, hey, I can walk, I should try doing it with everyone. Mostly I wanted to get the morning of sitting on a bench in the hospital (waiting in this queue, waiting in that queue) out of my pores.

No one but a crazy woman shows up at the small hospital in our town on Pregnant Tuesday when she is not pregnant. It was a long wait, because on Pregnant Tuesday, everyone who is pregnant in villages for miles around Pai comes in for all their routine pregnancy needs. It’s colorful, which is wonderful. Of hill tribe women, I counted Keren, Lisu, Lahu, and Hmong. I was there because I was concerned that I had dengue fever, which is endemic in Thailand. There were two young Chinese women there for something else that has become endemic in Thailand, which is young Chinese tourist motorbike accidents. I’m not pulling this out of the air, a friend of ours who rents motorbikes out told us that the Chinese consulate sent him a letter explaining the problem, saying there were over a hundred injuries last season, or something like that, some number large enough to send a letter out. Mild, because people here drive so slowly, but banged up arms and legs and things. The reason is that most young tourists who come here from China are from big cities and have never driven before. So this motorbike in the hills in Pai is often a tourist's very first driving experience and among hundreds or thousands of unaccustomed drivers, you will have a few casualties. The other motorbike rental place has apparently responded to this letter by replacing their sign with a sign that now says “Motorbikes for rent” in Chinese as well as English.

At the hospital I sat for a long time while Isaac napped at home. When he woke up I went home and picked him up, brought him back to the hospital to nurse him and hang out with him, and he acted shy for the first time ever as people tried to talk to him, swiveling his torso back to me to hide in my shirt. One very tiny lady approached us. Her left hand was missing and her right arm ended at the elbow. When she squatted down in front of us, she was so tiny she was about the size of Kenya. Isaac liked her. He flirted with her shamelessly.

I was there because I thought I had dengue fever, but it turned out to be Strep throat, misdiagnosed by the doctor as tonsillitis, but taken care of by a round of antibiotics, just as it was entering my ears. It’s a long story and involves a lot of my own googling, and finally a check of my own throat in the mirror with a flashlight and a butter knife as a tongue depressor. White streaks. Strep. Okay, then, we can take care of that. (There was also a night that I woke up with Isaac and was in great pain, so I took some more Paracetemol, (Tylenol) only to find that it wasn’t time to take another dose yet, upon which I calmly handed Chinua the baby and made myself throw up. If you’ve ever googled Paracetemol overdose, you will know why. Liver failure, people. Liver failure.)

The funny thing about a throat is that you give it almost no thought at all, all those nonchalant swallows you do all the time, merely for the smallest bit of saliva building in your mouth. You don’t even think to yourself, “I should swallow this sip of water, you just do it. But when it breaks down and becomes knives in the back of your mouth, knives that feel like they reach your heart, you do. You do think it. You think, “Rachel, swallow the water.” And you steel yourself. And you swallow it. For five days like this.

When I think of throats hurting, though, I think of my friend Ian, who has gone through quite a lot of chemotherapy in his fight against leukemia. I think of the “misery charts” that his doctor makes him and the days of mouth sores that he gets to look forward to, and I think, how? How? I don’t know. (Did I ever tell you that that’s where Chinua went? He went to be Ian’s caregiver for his third month in quarantine after a bone marrow transplant— that’s the only reason, really, that he would leave for five weeks when Isaac was only three months old. When he came back I felt sad, knowing how Ian would miss him.)

But it’s the same with a fever— you just don’t walk around thinking about how non feverish you feel. You accept your lack of chills or weakness. You strut around easily, not ever thinking about the possibility of tossing and turning in a messed up bed.

Except. Except there is one day that you notice, that you really really think about it—the day after being sick. Or even the last days of sickness, throat hurting but not feverish, toddling down the street to 7-11, feeling like the whole world is singing and that the man holding a flat of eggs and riding a motorcycle is the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen.

He's not allowed to go behind the house anymore.

The other day, Kai was working on his math in the computer room when he heard a loud mewing sound. He walked outside, and sure enough, there was a kitten waiting to be adopted and also to adopt us and follow us everywhere and decide to move in with us.

The only thing is that Chinua and I are very allergic to cats, so we can't have a cat. Can't have one, end of story.

But I also can't turn a hungry baby animal away, so we fed the cat and started making calls to see if anyone wanted a kitten in this town which is overly populated with stray animals. No one did. We put the kitten to bed in our studio (the little room we rent behind the kitchen) and hoped for something the next day. I said, "What's with all the baby animals all the time?"

The next afternoon, my landlady came over. Her sister had told her about the kitten and that I wanted to know if she wanted it. "You can't have a cat," my landlady said. "Because you have a baby."

"I don't want a cat," I said. "But wait, what?"

It's a thing here, I guess. You can't have a cat if you have a baby. Sometimes I wonder if people think I showed up here newly born with all these kids and no idea of how to take care of a baby. I need a lot of help! I may look like I have had babies before, but actually, all these children appeared here on this planet two days ago with me, and I don't know how to take care of a baby!

But my landlady means well. And I don't want a cat, so I just agreed and held it out to her. And she took it! (It was the friendliest little kitten ever. She'll make a great pet.)

Whew. I breathed a sigh of relief. Mission accomplished.

Until today, when Kai (once again, Kai) went outside and heard a puppy crying behind our house. A PUPPY!

Photo by Kai

Photo by Kai

What is happening? More baby animals? Baby animals kill me, because I look at this puppy with its wobbly legs that barely hold him up and I see a canine version of Isaac. It smites me. The puppy is now sleeping in the studio with a nice full tummy.

They say that after a long time away, the days just before a daddy comes home are hard. They don't usually say that animals start falling out of the sky. At least, they haven't said that anywhere when I've been nearby.