A New Part of the Journey

All beginnings are also endings. And sometimes, to celebrate a beginning, you also need to grieve a bit for an ending, especially if you are a fairly melodramatic, questioning kind of a mother-person. The kind of mother person who still likes to lie on the floor when she is overwhelmed by life and documents.

But the beginnings still need to be celebrated. Change is beautiful, rich, full of life, a thing to be cherished, one of the aims of raising children. 

Kai is starting high school. This is a minor miracle. He came home from camp in April and told us (with a lot of excitement) that he would really, really like to go to high school. And so we began to pray about it and then miracles began rolling in. He has received a scholarship from a loving couple to attend an international school in Chiang Mai. Another beautiful family asked if he can live with them. He will come back on most weekends. And school starts on Monday.

The last months have been a flurry of filling out forms and figuring out details and I wasn’t really sure of anything, so I didn’t write about it. But everything is finalized and our oldest child is half-leaving the house, back on weekends and holidays, living in a city three hours away. 

This will be amazing for him. His brain and brilliance need more challenge, he needs peers and teachers and a good transition point between living in a tiny town in Northern Thailand and moving to Canada or the US when he starts university, three years from now. He will thrive, I’m sure of it. I’m incredibly proud of him and excited that more people get to see the coolness that is Kai.

And also it’s sooner than I thought it would be.

There is this very instinctual, instrinsic part of my mother self that feels like Wait! Watch the kid. Keep the kid close. That’s our job. That’s what we do. 

It doesn’t help that every time I look away from him I reimagine him looking like this:

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How can you send that out into the world? How can you give that away?

But I blink and look back and he looks like this:

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For scale:

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This is a healthy, normal change, but it is the ending of an era. We all lived in a house together for sixteen years. All the family. We had a lot of time together; Kai was always home. We traveled on trains and buses, planes, boats, one tractor, rickshaws, canoes, cars or vans, and even on foot. We did it together. We’ll do more things together, I know it. Kai will still be home a lot over the next three years. But a certain time of life, a quality of how we were as a family is coming to an end, and it brings with it great possibility and the sadness of things that can’t be forever. 

I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said I am terrible at transition. Change often has me charging around dropping things, and stubbing my toes. I grow clumsy and vacant. I am overwhelmed. But I want to do this well. So I am writing, listening. We are in the city now, getting ready for school. Doing a bit of thrift shopping. Getting his bicycle fixed. Figuring out class schedule stuff. It’s all normal. I’m channeling my very best Molly Weasley. I’m pretending to be the mom who knows about school and grown up things, who totally has this. I totally have this. 

I mean really.

I do. 

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On our way.

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It's beautiful Easter Sunday and I’m writing from a hotel in Chennai that looks delightfully as though it was designed in the seventies and then never updated. It’s old Indian fancy, once of my favorite kinds of fancy. There is a shoe shine machine in the lobby that boasts white, black, and cream shoe polish. It makes me wish I had shoes to polish. In Madurai we stayed in a “boutique hotel,” which I believe meant that the lampshades were Ikea-style. 

What people don’t tell you about traveling is the struggle to find the cheapest hotel humanly possible that doesn’t have bedbugs. We have managed it, but I now have two grey hairs instead of one. (I could well have many more, but since my natural hair color is very ashy, it’s hard to tell. Chinua has lots of grey hair and a grey beard. When he grows his beard out I call him Greyhame.) ((I just went back and changed all the words I has spelled “gray” to be “grey.”)) We are so close to returning home. The first part of our trip was work-related. We come back when we can to visit and help Shekina community in Goa, helping our communities to stay healthy and connected. The last couple weeks was an exercise in refreshing our traveling muscles. We haven’t really traveled in India (we usually just come to Goa and then head home) since 2011, so it felt like time. Working at a Jesus Devotional Community for travelers includes remembering what it is to BE a traveler.

So we boarded trains and then taxis in a combination of travel and vacation. We traveled from Kochi over the mountains to Munnar, which was more beautiful than we could have imagined. Mile after mile of tea plantation hills stretch into the distance, and when we were there, it was a bit hazy, but the jacaranda trees were blooming, which more than made up for the haze. We huddled in our tiny taxi, guitars and trumpets jamming into our shoulder bones, gape-jawed in awe. Kenya had her birthday (she’s fourteen!) and got a pair of binoculars for her present and we each had a scoop of chocolate ice cream instead of cake. We planned to go to a wildlife sanctuary on her birthday, but we drove two hours in a jeep on a crazy bumpy road to get there and then found that the sanctuary was closed due to a fire in a different national park (?) and no amount of pleading would get them to allow us in. It was a beautiful drive, though. We sighed and watched monkeys for a while, then began the long drive back to our guest house. 

On another evening we watched some Kathakali Dance Theater and went backstage to see the actors get ready. Afterward came some traditional Keralan martial arts, which rendered us speechless because they were so dangerous! Sword fighting with metal swords that shot sparks when they hit one another hard. Lots of flips and jumps and spears and a knife fight and the kids were ecstatic. Kai, Kenya and Leafy were called to be volunteers as one man long jumped over ten people. 

We got in another car and drove to Madurai, down the steep mountains of the Western through long South Indian plains covered with egrets and herons, past giant trees filled with bats, past churches and temples, through dusty hot towns. In Madurai we stayed the night, then flew to Chennai (no train tickets available.) And now we are almost home. It has been beautiful- that kind of restful, unifying trip that we love. But we are all eager to get home and be in our sweet wooden house in Pai, reunited with Wookie and ready for normal life to begin again. I want to work in the mornings, to cook my own food, to eat salad (all the salad!) To speak Thai and to be back with our friends. 

Today I'm thankful for:

- Resurrection- Jesus who cannot be suppressed by death or earth or stone or any force. 
- Girls who turn 14 in a jeep and don't complain.
- Amazing South Indian accents and mannerisms.
- The best food I have eaten, ever, in life, ever.
- Ideas, dreams, words, and poems. 
- Chinua, who is beautiful and wise and such a good husband for a girl like me.

The Trains

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Our last days in Arambol were a flurry of visits, community events, and shopping— buying incense, spices and bedsheets, going to a beautiful movement meditation, guiding art meditations and devotion circles, and sitting with friends trying to get the goodness from every moment. There were also many visits to the toilet as we all got hit with some kind of belly sickness. We drank coconut water and bottles of water mixed with rehydration packets, and slowly felt better.

I drove down all the roads I could, finding villages I had never seen before. Through cashew forests, surrounded by the heavy fragrance of fermenting cashew fruit. I said goodbye to the neighbors and shopkeepers who have been so kind over the years. We spent as much time as possible with Miriam; the kids played games with her on the porch and they swam together in the sea. We ate a last breakfast with Sarah and Miriam and Laura, and waved goodbye to everyone when our taxi came for us. 

Then it was time to board a train. We went to the tiny train station and waited with our luggage, but the train was late. When I asked about it, the man said that we could jump on the general class of the next train in five minutes. 

“Right here,” he said, pointing out in front of the ticket office. 

So we waited there and the train came quickly, but the general class car stopped well ahead of where we were standing so we ran for it, with all our bags. These trains stop for only one minute, so getting on and off can be a bit of a fluster with five children and all our luggage. Thankfully our kids are bigger now and can jump on and off themselves.

Once we were on we found seats and looked around at our companions on the train. There were many of them! One came and took a few selfies with Chinua. The train moved through jungle and over bodies of water, inlets and river deltas, over mangroves and past many water birds. Kenya was feeling terrible, and she lay on the top berth while the big boys stood at the doorway with Chinua, looking out. The poor Kenya girl ended up vomiting in one of the most disgusting toilets I have ever seen, while I rubbed her back. She curled up on my lap, trying to feel better.

We reached a station somewhat near our destination and wound up outside the sleepy hot station, looking for a nonexistent taxi. Someone called one for us and as we waited, Kenya lay on the big duffel bed on the ground. The boys and Chinua took photos of a dog with a perpetually smiling face. When the taxi arrived, we piled in like a bunch of puppies, and went through some complicated car changes because of police stops and car authorization (ours was not authorized as a tourist vehicle. Kenya napped in the taxi and woke up feeling much better, thankfully, since most of the work was still ahead of us.

When we got to the hot, lovely little village, we were scruffy, sweaty, and tired. We found a little restaurant, known for its cheap clean food and homemade ice cream, and ate dosas. Then we found a rickshaw who told us he would take us to Kudle Beach, the next beach over. Two rickshaws drove us along lovely bumpy roads, and dropped us off at a point that was high on a hill, like the top of a cliff. 

“There are stairs,” they said, cryptically, and so we hefted our bags onto our backs and started walking down the giant stone steps. The only thing is that we have started traveling with one rolling suitcase (egads, scorn of backpackers!) which contains all the books I thought we might work on for homeschool (why do I do this every time? Every. Time.) and a year’s worth of incense that I bought in Goa, as well as several bedsheets, some shoes, and other odds and ends which were heavy. Kai bumped, lugged, and carried it down the stairs, down and down and down, until the stairs were more like boulders to climb over, and then we were at the beach, confronted by a beautiful expanse of sand. And a rolling suitcase. Ha!

Anyway, after looking through many different huts, we settled on three that were far across the beach, because they were cheap, pretty clean, and had a view of the sea. And there we stayed for three nights, swimming and walking and eating and playing cards. It was lovely and restful. The first night, Chinua joined a music circle of travelers who were delighted with the sound of the mandolin. “What is that?” one man asked. “It is the most magical instrument!”  But Chinua got sick again (he’s been fighting bronchitis) so the kids and I walked back and forth across the beach. I swam with my slippery fish children and we sat in restaurants, sketching, reading, and writing. 

Then it was time to get on our next train, and we chose an easier way back to the village, knowing that it would take us hours to get back up the mountain with all our stuff. We hired a boat, and it was the best investment of the month. When we got back to the main beach, I hiked into the town to get a couple rickshaws and then we drove back out to the point in the road where Chinua and the kids waited for us with the bags. The rickshaws drove us to the restaurant where we had lunch, and then we split up- the boys going to the most dystopic playground ever, and Kenya and I going into the town to explore. Lately Kenya and I like to dream about more travels together. She is such a great travel companion. I took some photos, bought a magnet for my fridge, and some snacks for the train. Then more rickshaws out to the train station. A bit of a wait, and we boarded a train that was much much better than the last one, with 3 tier AC seats. Isaac has been panicking a bit because we have to get on the train very fast- they often only stop for one minute- and he is worried that someone will get left behind. But everyone has made it on and off every train.

I got my very, very favorite seat on any train. It’s the lower side seat, out of the berth. You can sit or lay down, and you have a beautiful big window. With the AC and the comfy seat, I sat and dreamed and wrote notes of things to write. A few women came and sat on my seat and chatted with me for a while. One woman told me her husband worked at a nuclear energy plant, she played badminton for fun and stitched clothes in her spare time, and she loved traveling in India and practicing her English. She sat close to me, leaning on my bag on my knees. I loved every second of our long talk. 

The kids spread out and happily read or talked or played on devices. We ate samosas and biscuits and had beautiful train travels that day. The next day’s train was not quite as nice as we were split up a bit, but we have arrived at a homestay in Fort Kochi, South India.

I chose this place because Chinua is away for a couple of nights at a pottery workshop. It has been his dream to build a pottery workshop at Shekina Garden, as a form of meditation and a teaching tool for local kids. So he is there, and we are here. Fort Kochi is a soft and easy spot to be with the kids by myself. We are walking, and eating, and chatting with people we meet. It’s good to be here after a busy month in the community in Goa. 

I am planning to take a writing retreat to catch up on my writing at the end of April. Knowing this is helping me not to fret about the writing I’m missing, or my horrible word count, but just to be here, soaking it all in. Dreaming of Isika and Benayeem and Jabari. Watching the people walk by. Listening to my kids and all the funny things they say. It is good.

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A travel day.

This morning I am sitting on the porch at a friend’s house, listening to the calls of the koel birds and spotted doves and feeling completely content. A dog is licking my toe, my boys are swinging in the yard, and the air is still fresh, though it will be hot later.

We are on our way to India. We’ll be in Chennai tonight and Goa tomorrow night. I look forward to those extra senses that get awakened every time I go to India. I look forward to the coconut grove and the sea, to the fishermen and people in the village that I have known for years. I look forward to their expressions of awe when they see how tall Kai and Kenya have become, not so much to the inevitable comments about the weight I have gained. 

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We’ve had a lovely and eventful week. We left last Thursday for the Shamballa in your Heart festival, which is a Japanese music festival in the mountains, with Thai, Japanese, and international musicians. We camped in several tents and brought another friend along. To get everything there, we made a big tarp package on the roof of our car and then tied it up with bungee cords like a present. This is the second year that we’ve gone to this festival and we love it. The kids love being outside the whole time. It’s easy camping with bathrooms and foodstalls that are affordable. The vendors remembered us from the year before and one even had pictures of us on a little board that she had made. Our dear friend Aya is one of the organizers and she found ways for all of us to be involved. Chinua led a couple Open Voice Project workshops (teaching choral singing) and I got to do some live painting, collaborating with Kenya for the first time. 

 The finished painting.

The finished painting.

I’ve dreamed of collaborating with her for a while, because our styles are so different (she is very much an illustrator, more talented that I can believe) and I think they would complement each other well. So it was a dream to do a live painting at one of the stages, listening to music and painting alongside my daughter. It felt like a dream I wouldn’t even have dared to have. So lovely.

I also remember going to the hotsprings with Ro, Lilli, and Becca under the stars, walking in the night to the little pools, getting back to the tent, sleepy and warm despite the chill in the air. Drinking coffee with Leaf in the morning. Listening to amazing jams with Chinua on mandolin, lovely guitarists, and a talented fiddle player. Guiding and attending Christ-centered meditation in the sleepy heat of the day. Music and dancing. The way Solomon loves festivals and music, joining in with Chinua’s workshop, singing and dancing his heart out. The kids running around all day, through rivers and to the top of giant rock piles. Bible circles as a bunch of people read through the book of Romans outside, beside a stream. 

I loved looking out at the stars above the tent flap. Sitting and watching and talking with people from all over the world. Ah, it was beautiful. 

Now we head off to the land that always holds part of my heart, off to dear Miri and the rooftop meditation space, to the sea and delicious food. It's a travel day, just one of many in our lives.

December musings: Hope.

 Going somewhere.

Going somewhere.

It’s December. It’s December! How can it be? How can the time fly by so quickly? 

I am of course thinking over the last year, and that is only helped by the fact that I am on an art retreat with Leaf. We’ve done this twice over the course of our friendship, mostly because we lived in two different places and wanted to find time to be together. The last time was when Isaac was a newborn. But since Leaf moved to Pai, we’ve talked about wanting to do it again, and since we both needed to come to Vientiane, Laos for visas, we realized we needed to grab the moment! 

So here we are. Yesterday we flew on the tiniest plane, landed in Udon Thani, caught a van up to the border, then walked out and onto a big bus full of Laos people with all their shopping bags. We got off the bus, made our slow way through the border, and into a taxi where we tried to get our heads around all the zeros at the end of the numbers in Laos kip. (I pulled 1,000,000 kip out of the ATM, which is a little over $100. Leaf said, “We’re millionaires!”) Coming to a country where we aren’t familiar with the money throws us back into traveler mode; aware that we can be taken advantage of, aware that there will be mistakes here and there as touts try to “help” us. 

I can understand Laos because it is so similar to Thai, but struggle with speaking because there are different words. But it is different here; more laid back, grubbier, with all of that charm that comes from things being a bit messy. It reminds me of other countries that I love, with smells that bring me into India or Nepal. The huge Mekong river seems to make the air heavy with a damp earthy smell in the evening. Outside my window as I write, there are three types of tin roof. I’m excited for a few days of writing and thinking, plotting my new book and maybe doing some painting. I’m excited to explore an unfamiliar place (but slightly familiar, since we’ve both been here a couple times before) with my dear friend. 

Life has been a bit crazy in the last month. Chinua has been unwell, as one of his blood pressure medications was making him anxious. This changes life for us in a huge way. I have been so busy in my life and in my mind that I sometimes feel like I can’t breathe. But we are muddling through and it’s such good work. The work of having compassion, of working together to be healthy, of covering jobs and tasks for someone with love. Ah, how I want to be made pure. I want the things that come from me, all my work and words and reactions, to flow from mercy.

Christy and Olga and I have been having Bible reading circles, and on Thursday night they came over for one. We had dinner together and then crept upstairs to try to sit and read the Bible in a house that contained eight children. Chinua was watching strange Japanese gameshows with them downstairs, so there was a lot of shouting and scream-laughing that was barely masked by our uninsulated teak floors. But somehow we managed, sitting on the floor in a circle around a candle upstairs. 

And we read and talked a lot about hope. About hope and how it purifies us. The words kill me, they slay me, my heart melts.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”

Is this the part of growing older that is the hardest? Continuing in hope? When you know all your own mistakes? And you read the news, and it is consistently disappointing—the depths of contempt people have for one another, the ongoing dismissal of suffering, the lack of empathy. The statistics we pull up to shove in one another’s faces, the ways we justify oppression. 

Come, Lord. Oh, the ugliness breaks my heart.

But it is the same that it has always been, our brokenness and lack of love as humans, the way we need God to fill every cracked place. The way we need to stand in love and continue to act in mercy, no matter the craziness swirling around us like a whirlpool of vicious words and acts. Now more than ever, may I speak in love. Now more than ever, may we have this hope that purifies. One day we shall see him as he is. This hope changes us, rearranges our molecules, lifts our voices, quiets us, reassures us. And right now we can walk forward in hope and love. 

Looking back and looking forward, I long for mercy. Mercy and hope, in my family and in the spaces around. I pray the same for you in this Advent season, as we prepare to celebrate Light in the world. 

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