The chipmunk.

I went for a drive through the jungle and over the hills, toward the river, through the cashew forests. I wanted to see if the jungle air could blow the ache around my heart away. But away from the distractions of kids and chores, community and a very willful three-year-old, the ache grew. And then I realized how sad I really am, and everything beautiful hurt, because it couldn’t climb right inside me, and what if it wasn’t enough? 

This is my secret fear. Is the Good enough? Enough to make up for the aching world? Since I have arrived in India, two weeks ago, an old friend in America died of an overdose, and our Kenyan friend learned of the murder of his sixteen-year-old brother. It is very sad. My tendency, a fault of mine, is to lean toward sadness, collecting slights and pangs, allowing grief to tip me a little farther, away from hope, toward despair. Allowing shadows to whisper sad things in the dark. I allow my mistakes to bolster my belief that I’m a terrible mother, wife, friend. Over the years, I think I’ve spent more time in depression than in joy. Joy is like a weak muscle that I am always trying to exercise. Chinua reflects this back to me, with his constant, steady optimism. “Talk about the happy things,” he suggests, gently. But he hasn’t been here for a while and meanwhile I am tipping. (He comes back today— I am writing this in the taxi on the way to collect him. Ian is still holding onto life and love and faith in the hospital in San Francisco.)

On top of the hill, before I began driving back down, back into the jungle, surrounded by sky and cactus plants and cashew trees, I nearly hit a chipmunk. It ran into the road in front of my scooter, and I braked hard. In the opposite lane, a truck bore steadily down on us, one of the big ones that carries gravel or rocks. The chipmunk saw the truck and gauged its choices. The truck was a large monster and the chipmunk knew the truck was bad news. But it didn’t know what to do about me, and it waffled in stupid chipmunk style, dodgin back and forth a few times, until I was right on top of it and I had no choice but to drive straight, going too fast to stop entirely, not able to veer left or right. It happened in a matter of seconds. I held my breath and willed the chipmunk to get away with every muscle in my body. I didn’t feel anything; it didn’t seem that I had hit it. And exactly then, the man driving the truck towards me stuck his arm out the window and gave me a thumbs up. He passed and was gone, and the moment was over. I couldn’t see his face through the window, just one brown arm and his thumb pointing at the sky. Tears came to my eyes. We were both hoping the best for the tiny animal. “Good job,” that thumb told me. “It worked out.” Or perhaps he was congratulating me on not veering into his truck, but I choose to think he was glad for the chipmunk. 

God sees every sparrow. He holds both sorrow and joy. Surely I can learn it.

I see all the tiny beautiful things. 

An old man with bowed legs, bald on top of his head, with one jasmine blossom behind each ear. As you do. 

A kestral sitting on a wire. 

Isaac in the waves. Every wave is a personal delight for him, as they toss him around like a toy. He laughs and laughs, disappearing under the water, knocked over, bobbing up again grinning. 

The way my oldest child is growing into a tall, strong man, with kind eyes and a wise soul. 

One gnarled tree against the sky, so beautiful it pierces my heart.

The pines at the sea, bent from the wind. 

The way our voices sound on our rooftop when we sing together, all blending.

Kites (the live ones, the birds) at the river, flying above the bridge. 

The sun rising over misty fields.

Every single leaf. 

I string them like beads, making a necklace, and on good days I can drape it around me and proclaim it all against the darkness always threatening me. 

How did Jesus feel so strongly without descending into hopelessness? I think as God, he knew, he knew the endless love and beauty that are at the center of Creation. All of this is real, his whole life proclaimed, the Kingdom of God is right in front of you. You can reach out and touch it. This love is bigger than darkness. I write this on my hands, on my heart, in this space, when my heart wants to be disbelieving. I will reach for love, again and again, trusting that it will be there. 

Separating your identity from your circumstances.

 

If you are in the midst of hard circumstances, it is easy to let them define you. To give up and let them be the book on you, rather than a brief whisper in your very long line of sentences. Perhaps you are struggling with money, so you count yourself into a shapeless, unknown crowd of people in poverty, and all the shame that accompanies being in that mass, especially if you buy the lie that if you had only worked a little harder, done a little better, you would be all right. Or you are going through a tricky time with your kids, so you stamp yourself as a bad parent. Or a bad friend, and on and on. 

But you are not what happens to you. The truth is that you are radiant, you are beloved, and Jesus wants to walk beside you because he loves you. Your circumstances are like a sidewalk that you are walking along rather than a blanket that has been thrown over you, or even a house that you live in. Cracked and dirty, or shiny and glittery, the sidewalk is separate from you and can change without changing you. The core of you, the person that you are, can pass through trouble, not unscathed, but intact and free of shame. Telling yourself that you are poor (or letting other people say it) defines you. But the truth is that you are having a hard time with money. Such a different thing, because you are not taking on a definition, but walking through a circumstance. Living with money problems is stressful, living with the shame of poverty and all the blame that can be heaped onto it is crippling. Money comes and goes (as anyone who lost a fortune in the recession can tell you) but you are there and your life is a continuous unfolding of trust in God to guide you down many different sidewalks. 

It’s the same with relationships, whether it is a marriage (you are not a bad marriage, but a couple walking through a bad area of town) or parenting (there are going to be a hundred tricky spots, it doesn’t change the fact that you were given to your child to love them through it all) or boyfriends and breakups and friendships. Or the other circumstances; sickness or mental illness, career success or failure. Making mistakes can blindside with you with shame unless you truly learn to keep walking with God down that sidewalk, learning and trusting and being loved.

Allowing your circumstances to define you causes you to feel undue shame or self congratulation depending on what is happening at the time, when actually, the true you, the deepest you is in there in both circumstances, just being you. That deepest you needs to grow toward God, like a plant growing toward the light, wherever you are, whether your circumstances are great or difficult. The great work of life, in knowing God, is to learn to be loved and to love, whether or not you feel like you deserve it, and that is why your circumstances cannot define you.

Jungle neck.

In my dreams I’m climbing mountains, but in real, true life I’m a bit of a wreck. You know when a good chest cold comes, looks around, and decides to get comfortable in your lungs? Stretches, yawns, scratches its bum, and settles in? That’s my chest cold, just a mooch, unwelcome but persistent. So I’m not climbing mountains in my real, true life. I did go on a hike last Friday, a breathtaking, soul inspiring, humid, jungly hike. Our little homeschool co-op went together, after my friend Alisa and I were lamenting the fact that we don’t hike enough, despite the fact that we are surrounded by mountains. The jungle is a little intimidating with its poisonous plants, spiky caterpillars and ants that will eat your leg right off, or if not, at least bite you a lot. But we were determined, and off we went, into the most beautiful landscape, with giant, unidentified trees that lifted their branches out of the reach of the vines that wanted to entangle everything. Sometimes the trees didn't lift their branches out of reach and became completely enveloped in vines, like me with this chest cold, only much more beautiful.

I did make one minor miscalculation, which I am still paying for. The hike was on a trail I had taken before with the kids, and Isaac did fine, so I brought him along for the co-op hike, not realizing that the waterfall we were aiming for (Elephant’s Head Waterfall) was so much, much farther along. There was a point, as I was carrying Isaac further and further into the jungle, when it occurred to me that I had gotten myself into a bit of a predicament. Because I don’t carry Isaac, as a rule. It jacks up my old war wound of a fractured neck for weeks. And yet, there was no other way. I needed to carry him. And then I needed to carry him out. Because it took us about five hours, round trip, and no two year old who has missed his nap can walk that. He did walk a lot, mind you, walked and ran and sang and danced. And needed to be carried. 

There were two things this made me think about deeply. One was that I am forever capable of getting myself in over my head, and it doesn’t seem to matter how much experience in parenting I am racking up, I will still think, four hour hike, two-year-old? Great match! I’m the worst person to ask about whether something is doable because some stubborn part of my mind insists that everything is doable. (Examples include but are not limited to: sleeping in an Indian train station, rainbow gatherings in the mountains with an infant on my front and a toddler on my back, walking until I put myself into labor, moving to a developing country while pregnant with three children, without even a guidebook along.) The other thing, the main thing that swam around my brain as my arms and shoulders rebelled against the 17 kgs of cuddliness I carried, was that meditation has changed me. Because the meditation we practice is all about directing your thoughts to where you want them to go, being the master of your mind and your wandering brain, and waiting in the silence that ensues, for God to speak. I was determined to enjoy the day, and I did. I directed my thoughts. It was amazing, truly, with funny, smart kids, and jungle flowers, and birds that called to each other through the trees. 

(“What are they saying?” Isaac asked. 
“They’re saying, ‘Hello! Are you there? How are you?’” I answered.)

It was helpful that I have been meditating on something very specific lately. And that thing is a piece of advice that I would like to throw out there, to the world, and it is very simple, yet it is profound if you really hear it. I would have liked to understand it better before now, preferably when I was much younger, but I learn slowly. Here is the thing:

Find a way to separate your identity from your circumstances. 

Just soak that in for a while, and I’ll write more about it next time. Tell me how you think it plays out, or how you have failed or succeeded at doing it.

Meanwhile, I dream of mountain climbing, but in reality I wake up coughing myself into a fit several times a night and have to reach for my inhaler. I’m paying for lugging Isaac around; my payment being a week of muscle spasms in my neck. I dream of the snow white peaks of the Himalayas, but drift down to the dingy white of my outdoor kitchen, dishes in the sink, lovable dog asking for a treat, dark early morning, time to write, and a hot cup of coffee. Life is good.

With a hamster.

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Yesterday was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time. School went well with kids who were cooperative and sweet. I taught Kai and Kenya how to make rajma, Indian kidney bean curry. They’re studying India and were supposed to make an Indian dish. Lucky them- it’s their mother’s specialty. It was a delight to work with them in the kitchen, and we had plans for hiking, so we got the rajma done and put the rice on so it would be ready when we got back. (Rice cookers are the world’s best invention.) 

We all piled into the chariot and drove out into the countryside. Our beautiful house is surrounded by buildings, so we always breathe in happily when we leave the town behind and find ourselves in rice fields. Everyone was excited to hike. The rains have slowed, and it is the most beautiful time of year, so driving was heaven. Slow, because the chariot doesn’t go very fast. We saw a rainbow that was very close to earth as we got a light sunshine sprinkle on the way. Then, hills, corn fields, rice paddies, bean fields. Tall white trees with limbs bright against the green of the hillside. Little bamboo houses and friendly farmers. Brahmin cows. Flowers on the side of the road. The light smiting all of us, so that we kept exclaiming over the beauty. I seem to have kids who appreciate the beauty of nature as much as I do, even the young boys, even the two-year-old. 

The ruts from the mud were bad, so the kids kept having to climb out of the chariot and run along behind, while I tried to navigate through the massive crevices in the ground. When we were very far from home I realized that I had neglected to check the gas on the motorbike. It was very low. “Hopefully we’ll get home after our hike!” I said. “Adventure!” crowed Kenya.

We left the chariot at the point where the first creek crossed the road, and waded through it. The jungle rose up around us and vines threw themselves from trees, spilling from branches like water. Sometimes the jungle cleared a bit and we could see the trunks of tall trees rising up. 

“How is this a jungle?” Kai asked, thinking of the thick jungle we couldn’t even walk into in Goa. 

“Trust me, it is,” I said. It's the vines that do it, the humidity and frog eggs and one million types of plant life. Leaves as large as Isaac on certain plants. Tall banana trees. The fire ants that bit us if we stopped for any length of time. The low call of jungle birds. We crossed three more creeks, and then nature called me very urgently and I took shelter behind a tree. “Never say you have a mother who won’t poo in the woods!” I called as I walked back to the kids. 

They looked at me blankly. “Why would we say that?” Kai asked. Why indeed. I have never given any sort of indication that I would not poo in the woods.

We were aiming for a waterfall, but we had left home too late, and a hilltribe man who we met in the forest, long logs tied to his motorbike (he drives through those creeks) told us that we didn’t have enough time before dark to get to the big one and back. So we stopped at a short little fall and the kids didn’t waste time diving in. I sat and dreamed while they shrieked and played in the little pool. Isaac threw rocks into the water diligently, like it was very important work. 

When I see water lately, I think of refugees and homelessness, of boats on the wind and tragic accidents. And my heart hurts, and then I’m not sure whether it’s okay to be as happy as I was, sitting beside the waterfall, wrapped in my good parenting moment. But recently I came to the conclusion that we have two responses to the goodness God gives. One is giving to those who are in need. And the other is happiness in what he is giving us. Jesus directs ardent love toward us, and this love can take many forms. Yesterday it took the form of a day of harmony with my family, and I have to respond with joy. Joy is always an act of worship, despite the hardness of the world. 

On the walk back, the kids played twenty questions and I dreamed some more, thinking about all the forest paths I’ve been down. Some I would like to see again. Some I would not. Sometimes life feels hard and overly demanding, from the wee hours of the morning when I’m writing, until I finally have the last conversation with the last child, and I fall asleep, exhausted. Homeschooling is a whopper, and our life here at Shekina Garden is relational and takes our full hearts to make it real. There is very little that I can do while thinking of something else, these days, all of it takes all of me. But this is the work of dreams, to put your whole heart and soul into people and writing, and I couldn’t be more blessed. This is what I was thinking about yesterday, so thankful for my rented Thai house and our belongings, for the things that we do together, for the fact that I can hike with my kids and have a day where no one complains about it. Those of you with many children know how rare and precious these days are, that usually you offer some outing as a happy gem, and so often it doesn’t suit the whims of at least one child.

But then there are days like yesterday, when we drove home and every roll of the wheel made it a little less far to walk, if we had needed too, (our gas situation was that unsure), and we rolled along in the open air, and the sky rejoiced, and the whole way home the kids shouted out shapes they saw in the amazing clouds in the sunset sky, and I went past views that I’m sure I’ve never seen the equivalent of, and the chariot made it all the way without running out of gas or getting a flat tire, as it sometimes likes to do to challenge us. In the clouds, someone spotted a pig riding a slug with a hamster, someone else spotted a fiery dragon, there were elephants and planes and birds and houses and Pokemon. All I saw was love, the immense, deep love of God for me and everyone else under that sky. 

Gardener's paradise.

It was our own form of shopping spree and we were in heaven. 

“It’s gorgeous… I’ll take four,” is a phrase that doesn’t come out of my mouth very often. Nor do I exult in shopping sprees. Except, unless… I am in the Kamthieng Market, a blocks long garden market in Chiang Mai. Basically, shop after shop has the most gorgeous plants and trees and flowers for sale. It is a hippie’s paradise. We could have spent days there, but we limited ourselves to a few hours, roasting in the hot sun, (Leaf and I bought sombreros to keep our heads cool) while Brendan kept the kids in the air conditioning at the Tesco Lotus nearby. He watched as the kids played in the playground and stormed the arcade. We, meanwhile, stormed the garden market, determined to make the garden of our dreams.

“Avocado trees?” 

“Yes, let’s take more of them!” 

“What about these wildflowers?”

"We have to have pomegranates!"

“Let’s get three kinds of mango tree.”

“What are lamyai?” “Oh, they’re small fruit, really good. Let’s get one!” 

The enthusiasm was crazy. I quickly took photos of all the little trees, labeling them in my phone so we wouldn't forget which was which.

We are planting trees at Shekina Garden, and for the first time ever, all of us in our little community got on the curvy, sick-making bus ride to go to Chiang Mai so that we could buy trees together. We piled into the back of a song taew, which took us through the city to the market. Plants. Flowers. Heaven. We bought a lot of fruit trees that will take years to bear fruit. We bought climbers and ten crepe myrtle trees to stretch along the front of the garden, blocking the view of the new resort that is being constructed directly opposite us. (One day—the crepe myrtles are still pretty short.) When we got home I found a nursery in my yard, trees upon trees. We have planted many of them and every Friday, during gardening time, we plant more. Planting trees is always good, always right, and doing it together is a lot of fun. And a lot of work, but what beautiful work.