Dear Kenya,

We went out for dessert on your birthday, at a restaurant where your dad was playing music. The two of us sat in the resplendent wing-backed chairs (perhaps the only two wing-backed chairs in this part of Thailand) and chatted while we listened to Chinua play. You broke into applause after every song, causing the other diners to also stop what they were doing and applaud. At the end of the evening your dad playing "Isn't She Lovely," by Stevie Wonder, dedicating it to you. You sighed and wiggled and grinned. "He always plays this when I come here," you said, perfecting content in a little circle of love.

All day, you said, "People are so nice, people are being so nice to me." You said it as Naomi lit candles for you and Ro and a visiting traveler wove a crown of flowers for your head. It was such a simple birthday; no presents, we hadn't had your party yet. Just a day to remember that you were born, with a crown of flowers and candles in the cake we ate for community lunch. But you have always received the simplest things with joy. If you have a handful of clay, you are happy. All you need is a bit of something you can sculpt and bake in the sun, you don't need much, my love. And if people are kind to you, you are receiving a little of how people feel when you are so kind to them, when you make them gifts with your hands for goodbye presents, or do small things to make others feel better. 

Once, a traveler asked me if I get used to how beautiful you are. It was a funny question, especially asked right in front of you. And I guess the answer is yes, your face is more familiar to me than my own. But I never get used to the fact that your inner radiance shines brighter than your physical self. That is the gift we have all been given in you. You are an animal rescuer (most recently you have been nursing two baby rats), lover of justice, defender of the small. What a thing to be.

As we sat in our wing-backed chairs, you turned to me.
"Thank you for making me," you said. 
"You're welcome," I said. "But I didn't really make you."
"No," you said.
"I built you," I said. "No, that's not right. I was your house, while God was building you."
"Yeah! You were my house!" 

We sat and chatted for a while longer, you sculpted a bird with the malleable eraser that you always carry with you. A bird with one wing outstretched. And suddenly you lunged at me in a sprawling hug.
"Can you be my house again?" you asked. 
I squeezed you really tight.
"I will always be your house," I said.

A poem for my daughter

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how could I have known
when i pulled you to me--
shaky as i was with that last effort--
that i had given birth to such a friend.
we were strangers,
but immediately
your heart caught at all of me. and i was gone.

you have this way
of gazing off toward the sky
and the look on your face has 
the very same wedge of longing and joy
i often feel in my own heart,
when the evening blue slips over the sky
or a flock of birds rises
or the branches of a tree shudder with happiness.

i am growing older as we speak
my face surprising to me in the mirror
and you surprise me in a different way,
no more roundness to your cheeks
as your bones show us who you will be.
growth like a sudden crash,
an outburst of shouting,
that flock of birds.

strength, is what i want for you
my daughter,
and hands that race across your pages,
you the master of your land,
your thoughts, your paper.
and i think, as i come across you 
in the tree with your book again,
that you will have these things,
that i couldn't wish them for you any more
than they have been written for you,
in the heart of who you are.
 

(I read this poem at a spoken word evening in my town, and just after I read it, my friend Jay told me that she had taken a photo of the very look I talked about in my poem. So this photo comes from Jay.) 

I think I have some plant DNA, though.

 This was a good moment. A little writing with a banana chai cocoa smoothie and a piece of raw chocolate cake. Chocolate!

This was a good moment. A little writing with a banana chai cocoa smoothie and a piece of raw chocolate cake. Chocolate!

I want to say thank you for your kind words and prayers, my beautiful readers and friends. I wrote on a day that I was feeling rather bleak and overworked, and as the days grow better and we move forward, I feel lighter and less afraid. We will probably send Chinua to Bangkok to get some more tests done, just to rule out any other causes of such a huge spike in blood pressure, and for how he’s holding steady. He's feeling a little better each day, exercising a bit more, doing more. 

I feel (mostly) at peace with my bigger role in our family right now, while Chinua still needs a lot of rest and is unable to do the caregiving. Today was a bit rough, partly because the person whom I would normally turn to when I need to offload a bit of stress is the same person who cannot deal with any stress at all. I realize that I am not very good at taking care of my own self, that I rely on him to talk me through things a lot. And yet, there is peace. It is the grace of God. Perhaps it is also because the rains have come and our ground is drinking them in. Soon the haze will be gone and the mountains will be clear and close. Every shade of green will leap out of the earth. I love the rainy season.

I’ve also come up with a scheme for painting, which is to set my easel up in the main room in the morning and try to catch a few minutes here and there throughout the day, around school and food and toddler-babies who drink from puddles after the rain. (While lying on their stomachs and putting their faces into the aforementioned puddles.) 

*

I’m a little baffled by the fact that although my kids haven’t really had much outside influence lately, they are as obsessed with Frozen as the rest of the world. They haven’t been clicking around the Internet and seeing all the Let It Go parodies that are out there. But they are constantly asking to watch the songs on Youtube and they have memorized them and they skip around our bamboo trimmed meditation space singing, “Do you want to build a Snowman?” It must be a sign of some really well written songs, and I especially believe this because my oldest son, who hates musicals and any kind of romance, was the one who wanted to show me Let It Go, because “It’s actually a really cool song.” It’s intriguing to me because on Twitter I’m reading about people’s kids singing Frozen songs, and then in my life, my kids are singing the songs (the last song they memorized together was the Dwarves song from the Hobbit… “To Dungeons deep and Caverns old…”) and then I’m walking in the mall in Thailand and a tiny Thai girl, four or five years old, walks by singing Let It Go, and I wonder what makes something so infectious that even people who are out of the center of the fad are caught up in it? Also, Leafy does great Olaf impressions. 

*

And since we are talking about my kids, here are two quotes for you from Kenya: 

Kenya: "You know, a snuggler fish?"

Me: "A what?"

Kenya: "What is it? A cutie fish?"

Me: "You mean a cuttlefish?"

Kenya: "Yeah! A cuddlefish!"

*

Kenya: "Don’t you wish that you had bird DNA in you, so that I was born with hollow bones and wings and I could fly??

Me: "I can’t say that I have ever thought about it or wished for it, no." 

 

On goal posts and the real order of things.

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I have goals. As an example, I have fitness goals. My fitness goals can probably be boiled down to Please to not have any more people touch my belly and ask me if this is child number six. I realize that I could accomplish this by moving to a place where people wouldn’t ever do that, like Sweden, for example, or New York City. But in Sweden I would probably have to live in a large city also because I bet you anything that in a Swedish village a grandmother would find me and touch my belly and ask me if it is child number six. I do have other fitness goals, like less back/neck/leg pain and more prancing around.

We all have ways to accomplish goals. I’m working toward accomplishing my fitness goals with my new fitness program called No morning coffee until you do Pilates. It’s working well, but I’m finding that I have a little more lag time on getting out of bed, which cuts into my writing time and my new painting time, both of which have to happen before my faster-than-a-European-train toddler is up and about. It’s clear to me, on bad days, that I can choose writing or fitness, not both. (My other system is riding a bicycle most places that I used to drive a scooter, which is great for a general happiness goal, but my town is small so I never have to ride that far, and I still have this whole belly/back thing that the Pilates is really necessary for.)

I have many other goals. More writing projects than I know what to do with. Art goals. Meditation space goals. Homeschool goals. Some of my goals are things with no obvious steps. Be a better person. Be more cheerful. And this is when goals start working against me, because when I have so many things that I’m trying to accomplish, all the time, my artist self gets a little freaked out and I can’t write at all. Or the mothery parts of me get overwhelmed and I get snappish with my kids. And the goals become their own demise. It's a terrible circle.

I do like goals because they help me to consolidate my desires and gather the time I have to do the things I love. An hour can so quickly pass if I don’t have any tether on what I want to create. Create! is too big a command. Write 1000 words is something I can get my mind around. Paint for 20 minutes is totally doable. But lately my hopes and dreams and desires have expanded to include so very many things and my pockets runneth over with tiny pieces of paper that have things written on them, like Blog Post! Email! Sew those things! Take pictures of those other things! Be nice to everybody! Pray!

The thing is that I don’t want less creativity. I’m so happy that I have book ideas coming out of my ears. I’m happy that I feel an urge to paint. I’m excited about my different blogs. I just don’t always know how to be gentle in the process. Yesterday, for instance, I rewrote a lot of my novel, (I’m in the fourth rewrite) covering nearly 5000 words, which is a good day, especially since I didn’t start working until the afternoon. What would have been excellent at that point is if I could have given myself some tender loving pats on the back and been exceedingly happy and proud of my work. Instead, I peered at the list of things that I hadn’t finished that I should have finished and it spooled out ahead of me into the horizon and there are money needs and I won’t ever see my family again unless we can save enough money for the trip and clearly no one is going to university ever. 

Take a piece of advice from me. Don’t beat yourself over the head with your goals or get hysterical about them. Never worth it.

*

 Sometimes I walk outside to find Isaac sitting on the ground, using his fingers to twirl a single flower that has fallen from one of our trees. It is the most peaceful thing I have ever seen. Isaac twirling a flower, his curly little head bent in utter concentration. He is so open! Nothing is too small for him to stop and examine. Nothing is too disgusting. Guidance from me sometimes sounds like, “Isaac! The compost pail is not a snack bar!” or “Stop eating dog food!” He’s open to any experience because everything is new to him. In so many ways I would love to be like him. Even in the bad things, the bad experiences (like the taste of dog food or sand) that come because he doesn’t know any better. I want to be softer, to not allow my hurts to harden me or make me expect less of life.

Kenya is the most productive artist I know. She doesn’t so much produce “finished” canvases or work, but she does sketch after sketch, comic book after comic book, character after character. Now that she is working with story more, seeing her come up with various sketches of her characters in different moods and poses and then putting those same characters (Doctor Owl, Mama Squirrel and Squirrel babies etc.) into a story that she has created is inspiring, to say the least. It’s impressive for anyone, and she’s ten. And she doesn’t set goals for herself. (She sometimes does, but rarely with creative things. Instead she makes lists for her days that say “Eat Breakfast. Play.”) She sits and works and waits to see what comes that day. And the next day she looks at what she has done and tries to finish it, then she thinks of something new. 

These two beautiful children have me thinking about openness. About openness being more important than my goals. The problem with my goals is that they are fixed and they can be closed off from what is happening right now, in this day, in this place. They lack gentleness and flexibility and love. Goals are not the problem, but living by goals is not a great lifestyle.  It doesn’t give much room to what God wants to do or to what may surprise me. On the other hand, openness is a way of life. I have gone back and forth in these realities over the years, swinging between my own task oriented/creative nature (what a combination) and the need to be prepared for any possible reality. I remember living on Haight Street and having a million and one things to do, community bills to pay, vehicles to be brought in for repair, newsletters to write, and there would be a knock at the door and it was a street kid who needed help, or someone who just needed to sit and talk, or someone who was crying. I remember how hard it was to shut the office door and leave my to do list behind, to sit there at the kitchen table, how hard it was and yet how rewarding. 

A life of creativity seems to be dependent on a life of openness. Other things that seem to require openness are community, helping others, being a mother, and a life with God. All are dependent on how wide I can open my mouth to drink deeply of the day’s wonder, how open I can be to God making my heart just a bit wider, a bit more still, a bit more ready for adventure. I bet it's the same for you-- your life, wherever you are, whatever bits of creativity or fun or giving you are putting into your days are dependent on your ability to be ready for something bigger than your own plans.

I see things with such small, myopic vision, in lists and next steps. God sees the whole world and all the possibilities. Why wouldn’t I want to be open to that? It doesn’t mean that I will throw out my dreams or even stop considering them as goals (especially rolling like a ball before my morning coffee.) But I am trying to remember to take more breaths and remember the real order of things.

Birds and other flying things

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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.