The clearest things.

We’re well into fire season in Northern Thailand. The smoke is thick, now, like a filter over the whole world. My throat hurts in the morning. Everything is muted into grays, browns, and washed out greens and yellows. I feel filtered too, missing my husband and waiting for someone to come and invite me into a world of plenty. But there are so many beautiful things, even in this smoky season. The doves in the mornings and all the birds that call while we meditate at the garden. My jasmine tree is blooming. When I sit on the stairs in the evening I can breathe jasmine, think jasmine. I go to bed dreaming of it. It makes me think of my friend Leaf, the way she bought us jasmine on our retreat. It reminds me of my first, difficult moments in Goa, when I was pregnant with Solo, the longing I had for home, and the jasmine my husband bought me, wrapped in a banana leaf. It made me feel like perhaps I could stay.

Yesterday I drove to the pool with the kids. We still fit in the chariot, but just barely, and sometimes I can’t believe we are still driving everywhere in it. We passed dried, burned forests, the earth black at the feet of teak trees that have lost all their leaves. The hills were hidden behind the smoke. Tiny lizards sat in the road with heads and tails up and I prayed they would scurry away every time. They did. Our little motorbike with its sidecar bravely navigated the hills in first gear, rattling all the way. 

The morning had gone well, with school and books and tea all around. I have successfully stopped adding sugar to my coffee and I don’t know if you can ever know just how huge an accomplishment it is for me, but I feel amazing. The heat grew and grew until it was nearly 40 degrees and time to drive to the pool.

We met for homeschool co-op and talked about the eclipse, which we missed by seven minutes, because the moon was still hiding behind the hills. Isaac taught himself to swim, wriggling back and forth between Kenya and I. When he swims he holds his hands to his sides and bobs up and down like a dolphin. He is slippery and cool in the water, a delight on a hot day. In the hotspring pool, I talked with an older French woman. “Your husband?” she asked, after we talked about all my children. “He’s away right now, in Hungary?” Her face changed. “He’s hangry with you?” She asked, horrified. “No, no!” I said. “The opposite. He’s very, very pleased with us. He’s in Hun-gah-ry.” 

Sometimes people here ask me if I’m not afraid to have my husband far from me, that he will have another girlfriend. (Yes, people ask this and yes people talk about absolutely everything in Thailand. No subject is too difficult, except, perhaps, the royals.) And then I think of our trust, and the fact that marriage and the promises we have made make us more free than anything could. We can fly around the world, apart for a short while, knowing that we will always come back together, a true home to one another. Trust is the water, the life, the clearing away of smoke until everything shines like diamonds; the love Chinua holds for me, no matter where he is, the truth of it, the stark, effervescent joy. He is not angry. He is very pleased to think of us, his wife and children. We are his home. He comes back to us singing. 

We drove home in the dark, rattling along in the thick air. The full moon shone red through the smoke and everyone watched it except for me, because I was watching the road, slowing down for the broken places, making sure the lizards got out of the way, admiring the way that life conquers even the driest places.

 

Traveling ramblings.

The world is very big. I'm working on remembering it. Traveling has a way of putting you in a jello suspension, taking you out of life in the oddest way, putting you somewhere that has no regard for your goals or normal routines. You'd be better off forgetting them entirely, at least for right now, at least for this bus ride, this train ride, this trip to the train toilet, this seatbelt sign duration on the plane.

This is even truer with kids. The only question you can ask is right now, the only step is the immediate one. Now we're waking up on the train, now getting breakfast and charging devices in a cafe that was quiet before we got here, and so soulless that I wouldn't think of coming here if I wasn't desperate. This is travel, all the normal budgets and standards reduced to, “Wait here, kids, I'm getting us these million dollar chips for dinner."

And just like routines, the normal rules of life are also suspended. For instance, while in general it may be a kind thought to offer a child a balloon, if you give my child a balloon on a night train just before bedtime, you are my sworn enemy. (Sorry, nice curly-haired lady with the flower print shirt- I'll forgive you someday. Also, to be honest, I'm not sure that balloons are ever a parent's friend, more like an instrument of torture, especially if they have the ability to fly away into the sky to be lost forever, but despite that, I buy into them like everyone else.)

Traveling with the kids, without Chinua hasn't been my favorite. He is my traveling partner for life- he keeps us all sane and singing silly songs. But if I hadn't tried this, I might not know that I can do this, I can transport us to India. (Proven at least halfway, to Malaysia, where we are right now.) Also, I might not know the skip in my heart that comes when my thirteen year old boy comes up behind me to take a heavy bag from me and carry it himself, unprompted.

 (I sure wish I had these future children ghosting around, reassuring me of their excellence, back when they were smaller and fell down crying when they were supposed to be carrying something. It would have been very reassuring.)

Ugh, I could just kiss them over and over, the two oldest. Their degree of well-behaved-ness cannot be charted. On the other end of the spectrum is the little guy, who doesn't know it's his third birthday today—I haven’t told him--because nothing in his brain can help him understand the lack of cake. His birthday will happen when we reach Goa.

I knew, I had these prickles of warning that he would be a runner, ala Leafy circa 2009 and Solo circa 2011. I've been trying to put the fear of wandering around Bangkok motherless into his soul, but he blinks at me with unrepentant eyes. I've clamped onto his arm like our dog, Wookie, does on our feet when we dare to wear socks, and so he lets his whole body go limp, and then I have to drag him down busy streets/airports/train aisles. Thankfully his future well-behaved self is ghosting around in the form of Kai and Kenya, politely holding doors open and carrying my bags. So I haven't gone crazy yet, not even when the stomach bug that has been going around hit him at precisely the wrong moment (on the train, poor love) and I'll spare you the details but poo. Lots of it and the train man had to change our sheets. (I know you've been missing poo stories.) 

And Travel, I have missed you and I love you. Chinua told me that he wants to traipse around the world with me and I told him it should have been In our wedding vows, because nothing in our lives has been repeated, with such love, as much as travel. And yet, there have been these times of separation, scattered through our lives, when Chinua travels away from me, and the crazy three year olds run away more than usual. And when Chinua leaves, I'm on a Himalayan mountainside, or a lakeside town in Nepal, or a small town in Thailand, or traveling to India via Malaysia. In the future he'll have to leave while the rest of us are sailing to Australia or something. 

A side note: in a matter of years I'm going to look super young, not because I'm looking younger, but because it turns out that children look like adults over night and soon people will be all, "who are all these adults with you?" This is what I tell myself, anyway. I don't normally travel without Chinua and I take the safety of a tall man for granted, but we still don't exactly look vulnerable, now that we have the man-boy Kai. 

And meanwhile Chinua is in his own kind of limbo- the limbo of a hospital room and the unblinking lights of the hallways, a friend he loves and the meditation of care. My heart is with him, and my heart is also here, in the in between, where plans fade and the moment looms larger than any other thing. He's always been better at it than me, but I'm getting there. 

Those are my traveling thoughts today.  

A Work Day

Yesterday I was hard at work in our studio, the detached room right behind our outdoor kitchen that Chinua or I lock ourselves in for focus and concentration. It sort of works. I get visitors like the one above, who want me to make them tea. (That's the door, which has a large gap at the bottom perfect for Isaac or Wookie to peer through, or mosquitos to flood through.) 

And I get lovely visitors like geckos, or cats who look at me through the window, or, on days like yesterday, sons bearing special drinks. In the morning Kai knocked on the studio door with a cup of strawberry smoothie, and in the afternoon it was Leafy with a lemon ice drink. 

And I worked away and thought that I am a very blessed woman, to have such lovely office deliveries. Iced drinks on a hot day, "I love you's" called under the door... even when it feels like there is a lot to do, the day brings its gifts. 

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.

Writing it all down.

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

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

More things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You hate Tesco?” Leafy asked, incredulous. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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