Birds

There is a lot of sadness in me, these days. I am sad for my friends, Ian and Christy, who are going through such a hard thing. Ian has been told that he has hours to days to live. In doing life without Chinua, I feel the heaviness of every meal, every bedtime, every story. This is a strange, sweet sadness, because I am entering into being with my friends, entering into their suffering in the tiniest possible way. I am so glad Chinua can be with Ian.

There is sadness. But there is beauty around me, so much beauty, and beauty is a type of love from God that strengthens and keeps me going. We have reached Arambol, Goa, our old home in India. I am always surprised by the emotions I have, coming back here. At first I was seized by a sense of great loss in not living here anymore, and simultaneously a huge amount of homesickness for my house in Pai. But a nearly a week has passed and I am softening into life here. The Shekina Goa community is beautiful, and I have moved from the rhythms of Shekina Garden in Thailand to the rhythms of the meditation center here. I am on our rooftop again, looking out over the coconut trees and the fields that lead to hills, finding peace in the patterns of leaves and fronds. I am on the beach with Miriam and the kids, playing in the sand and the water.

Everywhere, things are changing. Level after level is added to the houses and guesthouses, until we are in a miniature city of tiled roofs and colorful paint. All the shapes are different, but there are all the same things as well. The neighbors calling hello and brushing their teeth and tongues in the mornings. The bulls being taken for their walks. The scuffle of pigs in the underbrush. Trash everywhere, marring every landscape. The huge eagle’s nest in the tree at our spot on the beach. Yesterday I watched the mother eagle chase crows away as they dove near her babies. I could hear the babies cheeping in the nest. And today I watched as the male eagle plucked a sea snake out of the water and flew up to the nest with it. There are green parrots flying through the coconut grove, and bee catchers sitting on trees, or fluttering from bush to bush. People say their evening prayers, babies cry, and the grandfathers in the village carry them out for an evening walk. Everyone greets us, welcomes us, asks how long we will be here and where Chinua is.

On the beach there are more travelers than I have ever seen. This place only ever seems to grow, and people sell macrame jewelry and silver rings on mats in a long line on the beach. The “standing babies,” as Leafy used to call the little naked Russian toddlers, are all along the beach, their hair bright in the sun. It is a healing extravaganza, incongruent and hopeful. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere like this in the world, so wild and teeming with people and ideas. I am glad to be back. We try to swim when we can, help with the community when we can. We sweep the house of its endless sand and I read aloud to the kids. All five of them sleep in one bedroom, and the oldest kids show patience when they can. I send them to the little nearby shop to get ice cream. I go down to a beach restaurant for an hour in the morning to use the Internet, because I don’t have WIFI or a working phone. I go to the markets to get vegetables, buy yogurt in bags that the kids eat like it’s the last time ever that they will have yogurt. I use curry leaves in everything I cook, radiating with happiness because I love curry leaves and can’t get them in Thailand. Everything in this house brings a memory. The kids were so little here. And now the first Christmas tree we had, a tiny little Charlie Brown tree, is taller than the roof. All the trees have grown in the garden we planted, and we are in a secret wonderland among the rising, towering buildings. 

For years now, the kids sometimes mourn not having known snow. Last night Leafy was saying that we have to go back to North America during winter, while they are kids, so they can play in the snow. 

“Listen,” I told them. “Everyone gets the life they have. Some people will never travel, some people will live where there are only cold oceans and will never swim in a warm sea or see a dolphin. Some people get to snowboard every winter. We all get our own life, and we don’t get everybody’s life. You have a good one, but you won’t have all the lives. You have a traveling life, but that means you don’t have another kind of life. When you are an adult, you can decide what you want to do, and you have all the time in the world.”

What we are given doesn’t seem fair sometimes. When I have struggled with my big family, or felt overwhelmed with trying to make do, or juggle so many things, I have been guilty of self-pity and comparison. And how hard it is that some people have a life where they face losing their husbands, far too young. How hard that some people have a life of not being able to walk. 

It is looking for love and accepting grace that leads us out of self pity and comparison. God loves me in a different way than he loves others. I don’t get all the lives. I still struggle with this mind that betrays me. God loves me with a pile of kids and challenges. And birds in the coconut grove, and the smiles of neighbors, and time to write if I get up early enough. Oh, how he loves me and you.

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.  

The only place to be.

Morning and the spotted doves are calling to each other from under the eaves of my house. It’s cold and I can’t bear to go sit in my freezing studio, so I solved the problem by bringing my laptop into my bed, along with my cup of coffee. Still I got no writing done. I’m too busy stewing over other people’s thoughts to do anything useful. Too busy fretting over the long lists I have, reams of paper, to actually get anything done. I’ve let my head get bad again. Surely not everyone is angry with me. 

Writing is like breathing, if I don’t do it, I might die. 

What list of things could I tell you? I said goodbye to my husband yesterday. He got on a plane to go back to America. This is the real story, this is the only important thing: Ian is not doing so well. And that is a gentle and massive understatement, but I can’t bring myself to say anything else. He’s not doing so well badly enough that we thought it was best to send Chinua immediately. We scrambled around Chiang Mai doing a thousand necessary things—immigration, prescription refill, re-entry permits, permission for me to travel with the kids by myself— all adrenaline, all triumphant, we got it! We did it! He’s on his way, thanks to a kind person who bought a ticket! Thanks to all the friends -Leaf, and Ro and Neil, and Brendan, who helped us get everything together! Ah, victory! But then coming home in the glaring light of midday, the fields all turning brown again, dust on the road on the van on the sky. I’m so sad I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t want to see anyone at all. I love Christy and Ian and Asha and Fiona so much it hurts. And we are all helpless. And sometimes you pray for something and God says no. (Though light can break through at the most unexpected moments. This is the nature of miracles. I haven’t lost hope.)

It is not my story, but ripples of grief, as my husband told me, touch everything. 

And this, this is what I also know: this is a holy moment. A moment when we find that all we believe is on the line. Jesus waits to usher us into the ultimate healing, complete unity with him, finally being together after all this time. We can’t know when it will happen. It could happen after years or days for Ian. It could happen unexpectedly for someone else, an accident while hiking. It is holy, tender, beautiful to witness the faith and trust that Ian and Christy have.

And yet this sadness. I wish I could be sad without leaning toward depression, without feeling like buying groceries is a giant undertaking I couldn’t possibly achieve. Someone needs to write a book about being sad without being depressed. Maybe it is in slowing down, listening to doves call to one another. Maybe the dust in the air is radiant in certain lights. I haven’t been writing because I’m angry and sabotaging myself, and because I’m almost certain that everyone I know is angry with me, and I’m going through the motions but I’m deeply anxious, deep in my gut. 

When I cry in the kitchen, people walking by on the street can see me. But I can’t help crying in the kitchen. I would like to lie all the way down on the ground and pound my fists on the floor, like Isaac does, if I peel the orange when he wanted to peel it. “Come on in,” I would say. “You and the whole world can watch this. It’s okay, I had nothing more to give anyway.” I don’t do it, though. I slice tofu and carrots and let the tears run, try to keep my head down so concerned tourists in big hats, barefoot monks, or my own neighbors don’t get too worried. 

Softness, kindness. A loaf of fresh bread from a friend. A bag of milky green tea, the ice rattling in the bag. The morning coffee, all the birds, the seven cats who think they live here and who have utter scorn for Wookie, Chinua arriving in San Francisco to eventually fall into his friend’s arms (eventually because they have to make sure he didn’t catch anything on the plane), a beautiful mug, the way carrots fall in pieces when you slice them, salad from the garden. I’m tired and sad but not overcome. I’ll finish this novel, it may take some time. There are plenty of hugs to be given and received. And Ian and Christy, Asha and Fiona are in God’s hands, the only place to be.

A New Poem

Morning comes in on bare feet,
lifts the sheet and peeks at me, smiles.
Says, don’t you want to get up?
The window is open
and I’ve heard the birds singing the dreams they had last night.
Pick up your head, she says. 
Don’t you want to step out from under the heavy night?
Today the sky might be bluer than ever before,
and breezes are already teasing.
And now it is still quiet
the floor is not too cold
and that is a kind of grace, like the pink tinge
on the edges of a new sky the color of cream,
like early breath
and new things,
like the birds in all the trees, 
singing their dreams. 

Looking forward.

I've been very quiet here. What have I missed? The last thing I told you about was the Facebook release party. Since then, there was the arrival of my beautiful brother and sister-in-law, and their two amazing girls. We are all staying together in one house/outbuilding cluster, which makes eleven of us, which makes party. Especially when Uncle Matty is here and he dances a lot. And starts Nerf wars.

Then there was Christmas. We had our annual Christmas Eve dinner at Shekina Garden, the second one we've done in Pai (in Goa they celebrated the eighth at Shekina Community there.) It was beautiful and big- full of people, lots of kids. There were beautiful carols and lots of dessert. 

And I had a beautiful little release party for my book. My dear friends got together and put a lot of love into an evening at Art in Chai, a local tea shop that we all love. It's the same place that I sometimes read poetry on their Spoken Words nights, so it felt familiar to stand there and read. There was a rangoli, and Chinua sang beautiful music. Leaf sang a song, and Ro led the evening. Naomi made everything beautiful and brought amazing snacks. And there were children everywhere, including lots of traveling babies, which seemed appropriate.

I did have a fair bit of anxiety leading up to the release party. I've carefully practiced so many of the social events in my life, until they are so familiar that they are no longer scary. But a release party for my very own book, one that would reveal me as a novel writer in my own town, (it has always been rather secret) took my breath away. I was terrified, without reason, and that is the way of anxiety, so that also was familiar, though unwanted. I very nearly canceled the whole thing, but I'm glad I didn't, because the love was amazing, given and received. When I am in crazy town, everything seems scary, but things are rarely as scary as they appear.

To prepare, I drove. I threw myself into the hills, where the leaves are turning red and dropping. I imagined that I was a bird, flying over those hills, landing on branches. Everything is drying out, turning dusty, red, and gold. I don't want to be myself. I want to be something more magical, more free. I suppose this is why I write.

And now I am looking forward, into a bright, sparkling year with no mistakes in it yet, as Anne of Green Gables says. I often disappoint myself if I set up resolutions that are too rigid, so I will just say that I want to be more giving, to draw more and dance more. I would like to be a good mother to my almost three year old. Three is familiar and terrifying, just as thirteen is unfamiliar and terrifying, but in a good way, in the way that is all health and beauty and being present and being stretched. (Ah! Three! How you have tormented me and loved me five years over!)

I will release three books this year. Looking back, I see that I have accomplished things I have longed to do for years. I have begun drawing and painting again. I have begun writing the fantasy series I have always longed to write. I am living in a community with some of the best people I know, forming a space for introduction to my beautiful Master, a Jesus devotional community. There are more things that I want to be, more areas that are lacking. But step by step, they can change. So I look forward with hope that I will have many days to practice my craft of writing, and art, and mothering, and being a servant of Christ in this world. I want to follow the thread, to respond to the invitations that Jesus gives, to see a person who needs an ear, or to offer peace or hospitality.

I want to throw myself into the year, like those hills, with all the leaves turning red. Or like an egret, tucking its head into its wings and flying low over the fields. There are so many beautiful things to come.