No better place.

Photo by Kenya.

Photo by Kenya.

You would think that as someone who named my blog Journey Mama, I would appreciate the journey. Ironic, isn’t it, that I am so impatient, so ready to get to a destination? Not in real life journeys, actually. When I am really traveling and the landscape is streaming by through the train window, I could stay traveling forever, never get there, be on the way and on and on. (The truth of this statement varies depending on the number of children with me, with 0= very true and 5=not true at all.) 

But as a metaphor? I’m all, hurry up and let’s get there. So when we moved to Thailand to begin a meditation community here, I assumed we would sort of seamlessly build on what had already been merrily humming along in Goa. This was not correct. We were beginning again. We were starting a whole new journey and I had no patience for it. 

The same is true right now for my re-entry into a life of painting. How funny that I can spend four years working on a novel but feel impatient when a piece of art takes a long time, or when I don’t have what I feel is enough time to devote to it. It’s because I’ve learned to value the journey in writing. But I’m impatient with art. Hurry up, let’s go, I want to be there already, let’s have something finished. Oh, silly wrong-headed person.

The truth is that life is mostly journey with only a few arrivals. Even in the arrivals we are already looking to the next landing, so we can’t even count on them. What’s the answer? 

The answer is the act of sitting down and writing, the paintbrush moving on the canvas, the trees rushing past the window, ignoring the way my slippery heart writhes and wants something to satiate it, some exciting event to medicate it, protect from the humbling act of living and how boring and sad and mediocre it can feel when you are doing the work. The answer is the knife on the cutting board, the pile of tomatoes gradually growing, the many meditations you hold before you hit your stride. The answer is remaining, not running when it is uncomfortable in the beginning. The answer is not saying “forget it,” or “it’s too hard, let’s try something else.” The answer is remaining, remembering that what God promises is to remain with us. To be with us in all the discomfort of life, in the fact that we are so brainwashed to expect great things and what we usually receive are beautiful, tiny, normal things. Beautiful, tiny, normal kids squabbling when they need to do their chores, beautiful, tiny, normal paintings that need to be started over, beautiful, tiny, normal empty fruit bowls that need to be refilled and you are the one who needs to leave your work and go to the market again.

Remain, because God is here and there is no better place to be. This is holy ground.

*

Something miraculous is going on over here, and though I am tempted to think we have arrived, I know that we are actually beginning a new journey, one just as tender and brilliant as any other we have been on. Readers, you know that over these last years of being in India and Thailand, I have found a heart friend, my friend Leaf. We have always jokingly dreamed of living close to one another, but in a that’s probably not going to happen kind of way. Then recently, unforeseeable events made it impossible for them to continue with their Jesus Ashram in India and very quickly things went into motion and they made the decision to join us here, and not only them but two other couples as well as a beautiful couple who has been intending to join us this fall. This moving takes time and we’ll all be really together this coming winter, though Leaf and Brendan are arriving tomorrow for some time before they do a bit of traveling.

It is a sudden community and the kind that could make so many things possible so quickly. It is amazing, it is an answer to the deep cries of my impatient soul. I am so very thankful.

Yes. But.

It is also the first step on a new journey, one that takes place in beautiful, tiny, normal moments, moments of love and grief and reconciliation and discomfort, moments when we choose to remain. (God is here and there is no better place to be.)

Dear Solo,

The other day you came with your dad and I, to Chiang Mai, all by yourself. It takes three hours to get there, on a very curvy road. We had rented a car so we could get to the city and back on the same day, and we left really early in the morning so we could get there in time for your appointment at the consulate for your new passport, which is expiring soon. (This means that you are very, very old. Nearly six years old!)

You were an angel. We were rather surprised by how quiet our day was. You read in the car, slept a bit, hummed to yourself, talked with us a little about the radio show we were listening to. Your dad and I had long, uninterrupted talks while you watched the passing trees through the window. In Chiang Mai you sat at the consulate quietly, we talked a bit while we waited. You stood and looked at the man when he was checking that the baby on your first passport was really you. (Hard to tell, really. It looks like a photo of Isaac.) You held our hands on the way back to the car. When we asked you what you wanted for lunch, you said “pizza,” so you and I got pizza while your dad looked for a salad. 

We painted your gloves on, but they started to melt off, all over you!

We painted your gloves on, but they started to melt off, all over you!

Of course you were still you, delightful, curious, stormy, stubborn, surprising you. When I asked you questions to draw you out, you gave me a “how dare you speak to me,” look. I reverted to one of my oldest tricks, talking casually about something I know you’re interested in, and waiting for you to join my one-sided conversation. It worked and you told me all about a video you had seen for making oobleck out of potato starch, starting with raw potatoes. (Couldn’t we just buy potato starch? I thought.) 

But you were a milder, more thoughtful you. This has been creeping up on us as you morph into the little boy you are. (And it’s hard to call you little when you look like an eight-year-old. I constantly have to remind myself that you’re still only five, you are nearly as tall as Leafy.) 

You are the best at Memory.

You are the best at Memory.

It told me a little bit about how hard it is to be you sometimes, the fourth kid, with the personality of someone who loves to teach, to offer knowledge, to instruct, and to have older brothers and sisters who often say, “I KNOW,” when you try to tell them something. I’m always trying to help them understand that they need to build your confidence by listening to you, but they forget.

They should listen to you more, because the world needs a kid who figures things out for himself, who loves to teach himself how to do absolutely. everything. Who came to me and said, “food is crunchy because the molecules are closer together!” and it was a discovery with enough joy that it could have been the discovery of a new planet. The world needs someone exactly like you, Solo, someone who thinks the way you do and is fiery like you, someone who draws so beautifully and loves people the way you do. 

Over the last couple of years you have had no patience for neighbors who just want to say hello or shoot the breeze. You used to be the chattiest of small talkers, without even so many words. Now it’s a waste of time to you, and no amount of trying to talk you into it will change things. (I know you’ll eventually come around, the way the other kids did.) But you are the first to make a friend when you meet a kid, pouncing on them with all your sharing abilities, telling them all about something you’ve done or seen or made. You practice headstands, you play with numbers in your head. (“Eight take away two is six!” you’ll announce out of the blue as you stand on your head against the wall.) You climb on things, you skip and jump around instead of walking. You get terribly angry when you feel ganged up on. You take really good care of Isaac. You’ve become excellent with Wookie. You adore your father, right now. (I’m kind of a runner up, these days. It’s okay, you had your years and years of shadowing my every move.) You’re a budding geologist, always finding the coolest rocks, always looking for geodes. 

You remind me often of India, the country where you were born, with your highs and lows, the way you can look as though the sun has come out radiantly, or as though we’d better head for cover. And like with that beautiful, maddening country I love, I am entranced by you, my son. You are so purely you, refusing to be anyone else at all. 

It’s wonderful.

Love, Mama

 

(Credit goes to Chinua for many of these photos.)

All the things we have.

There's a girl in my tree, a toddler in my lap, a dog at my feet, a pre-teen sitting not totally close to me but not so far away either, a five-year-old who doesn't want to hold my hand but keeps forgetting and grabbing it again, an eight-year-old washing dishes while standing on a skateboard in my kitchen. There's the most amazing man with his arm around me as we walk down the street, friends on the Internet, family on Skype cameras, beloveds on their way to us, new neighbors and friends around every corner.

There's homemade jam in the fridge, bread (not homemade) in the bread basket, a banjo, saz, guitar, violin, ukelele, djembe, and someone's bass guitar in the studio. There are tubes of paint, canvases, pencils, and pens on my desk. There are blank books in nearly every room of my house. There is fabric in my fabric tote, there's paper in the printer, there are edits to be made on my book. There are seeds (real ones) to be held in our hands and planted. There's soil to be dug, there are walls to be built, there is rice to be cooked, there are dreams to be fed and watered and breathed into existence.

There are days. And hours. And they are not scary. (They are not!) They are open and full of every possibility. There is grace and love that fall from the hands of God, his words that enter my ears in the morning when I wake. There is time, and it is not running out. It is full, and we are rich with it and all these other beautiful things, and we will be brave. 

 

Help my friend Myra bring lasting change to girls in Pakistan.

Today I want to share a project that a friend of mine is undertaking. 

As I write about this I'm thinking about girls in Pakistan who aren't allowed to learn. I look at my own daughter, my smart, funny, creative daughter and I think about the endless possibilities for her. She can read anything and she knows how to find things out for herself. She can learn anything.

But this is simply not possible for the majority of girls in Pakistan, who are unable to access the resources to learn to read or expand their worlds at all.

Here are some statistics from Myra's Indiegogo page:

  • 6.5 million children  under the age of 9 are not receiving any education at all

  • The female literacy rate for Northern Pakistan stands between 3% and 8%

  • UNESCO  places the overall literacy rate at 26% and the rate for girls and women at just 12%

  • Of 163,000 primary schools in Pakistan, only 40,000 serve girls. Only 8000 of these are in Northern Pakistan 

  • The severe lack of education in Pakistan is causing increases in ignorance, discrimination and religious extremism. Since 2006 Pakistan has had an average of 30 bombings per year

  • The Taliban has destroyed more than 400 schools in the north - 70% of them were girls' schools

  • Pakistan spends only 2.1 % of its GDP on education
  • Poverty is a big hurdle in girls' education. According to UNICEF, 17.6 % of Pakistani children are working and supporting their families. Children working as domestic help is a common phenomenon in Pakistan, and this sector employs more girls than boys.

I met Myra a couple years ago and we immediately connected because of our mutual love for South Asia. (Though at complete odds with one another, India and Pakistan are culturally very similar.) She is a generous hearted, smart young woman and I've had great talks with her about her early life with her parents in Pakistan, where her father founded a charity hospital in a village. 

 It would be a radical thing for a woman like Myra, a young Pakistani woman, to receive a Harvard education and return to her country to begin reforming education. I can totally imagine her doing it. She has a combination of confidence and humility that is striking, and her love for the people of the villages of Pakistan shines through her. She has been accepted to Harvard, but since she comes from a family of people who have devoted themselves to serving those without money, she cannot fund this education on her own. Again the people of the world, connected by the Internet, can band together to seed educational change in Pakistan in the shape of one woman, armed with a degree and the status that will bring her with the government in Pakistan. 

Here is Myra's video:

Here is Myra's IndieGoGo Page. It's well worth a read. I'm sharing this with you because I see it as a real way that we can help with change for Pakistan, for all those young, smart, creative girls who don't get a chance to learn. Please share, especially with people you may know who love this area of the world and long to see its people flourish. 

Dear Isaac,

This morning you woke up at 5:30 and began shouting “UP!” “UP, UP, UUUUP!” you said, as though I was late already and you’d been waiting for hours for your slovenly mother. If Kai tried something like lying in his bed and shouting “UP” at 5:30 in the morning we’d probably bring him to the doctor to get his head checked and then if everything was okay, Minecraft would be over for the year. But this is being 16 and a half months old. You get to do stuff like crazy shouting at odd hours, and instead of bringing you to the doctor, I haul myself into your room, pick you up, and kiss you all over your face.

Living with you in Thailand is like bringing a celebrity everywhere I go. When I walk into a shop heads turn and faces light up and sometimes (for instance, in 7-11) a group of women will hustle over and begin chatting with you. You LOVE it. You love talking to people, smiling at people, blowing people kisses. You love saying Sawadee Krap with your hands together and a sometimes exaggerated bow (once you bowed until your head touched the ground and you fell over). You love standing outside our house and having hollered conversations with our neighbors, who enjoy it almost as much as you do. The other day you were in the carrier on my back when we went to the hardware store to buy black paint and a large group of ladies surrounded you to talk with you. You put your hands together to make a wai and say Sawadee Krap and they were delighted. They asked you in Thai whether you speak Thai, and in your excitement to repeat what they said, you told them you did. (“Poot Dai,” you said.) That was exciting. 

Living with you in general is like living with the most delightful and destructive person on the planet. You alternate between giving me kisses and hugs and pulling things apart. Did I just put all the colored pencils back in the metal cup? You would like to carry them to all the ends of the house. Are there bags of lentils in the cupboards? Only for you to try to open. Did I give you a cup of water? You’ll drink it nicely and then pour it over your shirt and watch it puddle at your feet. 

Isaac-mess.jpg

You can say all of our names now, though somehow you still get Daddy and Mama mixed up. I love how your relationship is different with each one of us, and I think you are such a shining star in each of our lives. You calm and elevate your tween brother and sister. You play with Leafy and you are wildly delighted by Solo, whose empathy is growing daily through his love and care for you. 

You were what we needed, son. We didn’t know it, but God did. Walking, running, smiling with those dimples, sitting on us, hovering over us, getting into things, singing in your crib, laughing along at the books we read, dancing, making silly faces to make us laugh. 


Oh I love you.


Love,

Mama

Celebration and Show and Tell.

Kai said about us, "You two are the same brand of weird," and Kenya was thrilled by this. This girl is such an amazing girl. I'm so glad she's in my life.

Kai said about us, "You two are the same brand of weird," and Kenya was thrilled by this. This girl is such an amazing girl. I'm so glad she's in my life.

Today I’m celebrating for two and a half reasons. Two and a half! Celebrating!

Reason one: We have raised enough money with our campaign to buy airline tickets to get to North America. This is because of you. I can’t say thank you enough. I’ve never done this before and it was scary and hard but then so many kind hearts came through. Thank you! We’re working out our dates and we’re going to be able to see our beloved families. We’re so happy! I’m leaving the campaign open and any additional donations will go to our other trip costs, which are many.

 

Reason two: I have paint on my clothes again, hooray! I was in the market yesterday and looked down to see that I had purple paint on my shirt. You might think this would embarrass me, but having paint on my clothes takes me right back to some of my happiest moments ever, mucking around in the art studio at my high school, making giant paintings. 

After years of wanting to paint again and saying I’m going to paint and feeling sad in art stores and writing “Paint” on New Year’s resolution lists, and having one dusty canvas sitting in my room, I have worked it out. I have found a way to bring art back into my life and I will keep it there.

Why did I stop? I had many reasons. I didn’t have time, or space, or peace of mind for painting. I had babies and toddlers tearing stuff up. But the biggest reason is that I think I listened to bad counsel about the meaning of art in life, and what works and doesn’t work, and I stopped believing in myself and my own ability to make things. This year I’ve said it: enough is enough. I’ll make things I like and I’ll share them and sell them.

How did I make time for it? I started painting in the mornings. I have a habit of waking up very early, usually before the kids are up, and that’s my time for writing. I started alternating mornings, so I have at least three mornings a week that I can paint, and I have found that painting is such a lovely way to start the day. If I'm working with acrylics (which dry fast) I leave the painting on an easel in our big room, and often find a few minutes here or there to work on it throughout the day. If it's oil, there's nothing for it. It has to stay in the studio. (The little garage room behind our kitchen.) 

Reason Two and a half: I’ve opened my Etsy shop and two of my paintings are for sale there. Right now I have both originals and prints for sale. I’ve started! It has begun! 

This painting is called Nothing Was Ordinary (original here, prints here) and it is the first in an intended series of the same name—a group of paintings that has a kind of playfulness about being a grownup and how the simple domestic things of life can be wild if you allow yourself the richness of imagination. 

This painting is called Bengali Woman (original here, prints here) and it’s first in an intended series called A World of Family, and I guess it’s self explanatory, if you’ve been reading this blog, but I’ve met so many lovely people from many different circumstances in my journey, and I think there is nothing more beautiful than the human face. I will give fifty percent of the profit from this series of small portraits to organizations who are helping those who are in need: in poverty, refugees, exploited or at risk of exploitation.

What will I do to celebrate? I'm not sure. I do have a little brownie hidden in the fridge for later. It's way at the back, where I don't think anyone will find it and ask me about it and then I'll feel compelled to share and sigh about sharing. 

This and that.

Photo courtesy of Solo. Shopping with my kids is both fun and maddening. 

Photo courtesy of Solo. Shopping with my kids is both fun and maddening. 

It’s a beautiful cool morning after a long rain yesterday and I’m collecting my thoughts and thinking about the events of the last days.  There has been this and that and lots of beauty. Lots of love for my family. I am well out of my anxiety crisis and feeling better daily, although my heart still thumps away when I’m running errands or shopping. Oh, who am I kidding, it always does that! 

 

* I sent my manuscript out to some beta readers and have been wringing my fingers and chewing on my hands. I’m so glad to have it out in the world even a little bit, though. It’s time for that baby to be born.

* I’ll be showing you some finished paintings in the next couple of days. I decided to live one of my dreams and bring art back into my life, and I’m so happy I did.

* I’ve also been setting up for selling originals and prints online, which has been kind of fun, because it’s Thailand and I was running around Chiang Mai (heart thumping away) making orders for mats in Thai, measurements in Thai, perusing gigantic markets for the supplies I need. Outdoor markets do help the thumpy heart calm down. Target-like shops and malls- no.

* I can’t think of much that makes me happier than buying a new canvas or tube of paint.

* I made an appointment with a woman here in Pai for earth building at the meditation space, starting on the 25th of this month. We’re going to have walls! Just one full wall, two half walls, and about a meter around the rest so we can still see the beautiful hills. But we’ll be able to put our backs against the wall and be sheltered from the crazy hot afternoon sun.

* Also on my to-do list: find a really good concrete guy to make the countertops in the meditation space kitchen. Right now we have no counters and no shelf space. We need lots of work space so we can make community meals together in the kitchen with music and talking. 

* Let’s not talk about my to-do list. It’s crazy.

* My children are delightful. I really, really like them. They’re quirky, too, and quirkiness is one of my favorite characteristics, so I’m glad about that. 

Kenya in the car on the way home from Chiang Mai: “Daddy? You know how you say we should enjoy the short moment of having a cookie in our mouth? I feel the same way about a wiggly tooth.” 

Chinua: “I get that! Free entertainment in your mouth!”

Kenya: “It feels so good to twirl it around!”

Hmm, perhaps it’s clear where they get their quirkiness from.

* One morning last week, I was sitting with my coffee and writing emails when my friend Kaveh came over. Isaac ran straight to him for a hug, which was beautiful because Kaveh had had a rough night. His wife had just given birth to a baby and there were some complications, so she was being treated at the small village hospital and Kaveh couldn’t understand what they were telling him about what she needed. He had come for help.

Off we went to the hospital, where we talked to the doctors and nurses and decided on a plan of action. Julie was in a general labor ward, so we got her in a private room and everything started to feel more normal again. I saw the beautiful baby and beautiful mother and felt the warm and happy feeling I only get when I am able to be present at the beginning of a little family— the warmth and confusion, the exhaustion and beginnings of falling deeply in love. It always reminds me of having Kai, of blearily watching Star Trek episodes with Chinua in the hospital and glancing down at our gorgeous baby thinking, “What just happened to us?” Having Isaac, in comparison, felt so normal, so easy to tuck him into our family, because we have a family with kids now and we know how we do these things. But that first child is very, very special. The little family is home now. I hope to visit with some love and food.

* The big rain yesterday flooded my storage room. How thrilled I am to clean that up! (Not really.)

* Our trip home fund is at 80 percent! I'm starting to allow myself to get excited about visiting home. Over the last years, every time I’ve thought of it, I’ve stuffed that thought away. “You can’t have that.” It’s one of the refrains of those who live far from where they originated. “You can’t have that.” You fold up the desire and tuck it on a shelf somewhere. But I’ve been unfolding those things and looking at them again. Some have crumbled to bits—it’s been so long I don’t even remember them, like foods I may have missed or coffee I wanted to drink. Some, like the driftwood beaches of BC, the laughter of my brother and sister, the red hair of my niece and kindness of my sister-in-law, the hugs of my parents, the welcome and laughter of Chinua’s family—these are intact, and I am holding them close to my heart. Thank you so much for donating and sharing.

Sharing a need today.

Living away from your home country can be hard, and even when you know deeply and truly that you are doing what you are meant to do, living the life you are meant to live, the longing you feel for things that you grew up with, for your family, for your friends, for the smells of your home air can envelop you at times and threaten to overwhelm you. 

Most of the time, I put all my energy into loving where I live, and it often comes easily, because I live in a beautiful, friendly place. Other times, especially when we're a bit more vulnerable, I feel stuck. Stuck because though I miss my family, I can't hop in a car and go to see them, or onto a plane to get to them. Stuck because it has been four years and I feel sick over it sometimes.

We finally have reached the point where we are asking for help from our larger Internet community. I'm so thankful for my readers here at Journey Mama, for the love and support I've received over the years in this place, for the way you've read my words and said, "Yes, I understand, I'm there with you." I love writing here. The beautiful thing about asking for help in this way, from you, is that it feels safe, and it feels doable, because even if everyone gives just a little, it adds up. 

Anyway, I won't belabor the point. You can click below to read more about what we are trying to do-- in short, to raise money for a trip home this summer/fall. We appreciate every donation and every time our need is shared. 

Thanks, beloveds, and much love to you. 

Any reason is a good reason to celebrate!

My kids have invented a new holiday. The other day they told me about the holiday in the morning, we talked about it all day, and when I brought pizza home for dinner, they said, "Yay! Pizza for celebrating Sun One Jun!" That's our new holiday. Sun One Jun. "We should get pizza for every Sun One Jun," Leafy told me, which I'm not sure if I'll remember, because the next Sun One Jun doesn't happen for another eleven years. 

It seems that Leafy looked at the computer in the morning and noticed that in the top right hand corner it said Sun 1 Jun, or Sunday, the 1st of June, since it abbreviated June--which doesn't strike me as a month that needs abbreviation, but I digress--and was thoroughly tickled by this. This would tickle Leafy, he is a little word play addict, constantly working on rhyming things or making word matches in his head. And although it was Leafy's idea, the other kids supported him in his Sun One Jun bliss, wondering what exactly they could get for Sun One Jun. Could they get ice cream? (Didn't happen.) A break from school? (Well, yes, but not for that reason.) Pizza? (Yes.) 

And where will we be when we are eating pizza in 2025 for Sun One Jun? I have no idea, but I do know that Kai will be twenty-two years old and Isaac will be twelve. Leafy himself will be nineteen and I'll call my tall, broad-shouldered man boy up and remind him that he needs to take his mother out for pizza, it's Sun One Jun.

If we get a hankering for a holiday before that, well, next year is Mon One Jun. 

 

The water fell and my heart got lighter.

The joy part of this year hasn’t been going very well, unless by joy you mean Falling Completely To Pieces, which actually wasn’t the idea at all, but tell that to my body, which reacted to the flu by throwing me into an anxiety meltdown tailspin car crash, BAM, your brain hates you. 

It seems I’d been saving it up. Truthfully, the past month was rather strange. Chinua was hospitalized, we had an earthquake, I got the flu and so did Isaac, and we are in the middle of a coup. I saved it up until it was too much and it came pouring out and my mind was in the dark place, the one where I am like a small child cowering on the sidewalk and every car and stranger that goes by is exaggerated and looming. “I need to buy milk,” I might think, opening the refrigerator, and the words leave my  brain as creepy silent shapes mouthing “milk failure, milk failure.” “That doesn’t even make sense,” I say back, but it doesn’t matter because I feel afraid of everything: the sky, the idea of a day, the country I live in, the people on my street, my dog, the fact that my children depend on me. Dread, really, I feel dread. The huge thing that loomed up during this time was how much I miss my homelands. Both of them, the wild northern country of my birth, and the one I adopted when I married Chinua. (Let’s not even start with India, better to not go there.) It became unbearable in my broken mind. The milk and the fact that I couldn’t get on a plane right that second mocked me. The fact that Wookie needed a bath nearly sent me over the edge.

What was there to do? I couldn’t even taste food, the inside of my mind wasn’t safe. One day I cried in my bed until I sat up and said “enough.” I got on the bike and drove. I went up the mountain, I wanted to go to the very top, so I could see everything from a distance, but I couldn’t find a road high enough, so I went to the waterfall. Perhaps a poem will come out of my mouth, I thought, perhaps I can get this bike to fly. Maybe I can go through my days and collect all the scraps of beauty, hold them close to my heart, protect myself from wandering eyes, convince myself that I am not sad. Oh, it has been a long loneliness and there have been so many times that we’ve said, we’ll get back somehow. 

I sat and looked at that water throwing itself down the rocks, and I watched the kids who let the water sweep them down along the rock slides, unhurt, incredibly, every time. How do I get bravery like that? I wondered. The water washed the rocks and it washed my mind. I closed my eyes and asked God to fit himself in all the strange creaking places in my brain and my heart. 

The beautiful things are these: 

1. I am coming out of it. Yesterday was nearly normal, today was a bit wobbly. 

2. My mind hasn’t been sick like this for a long time. The last time I can remember it being this strong was when we first moved to India (I wrote that it felt like a large cat sitting on my chest every morning), but it’s possible that I’m just forgetting. I know it’s been a long time, though. 

3. I held it together for my kids. There were no fits of rage, the Crazy Town girl was successfully kept on the inside, I probably seemed normal to them, though a bit tired and recovering from the flu. 

4. There will be so many more days of light and joy in my life. I feel like a newborn baby right now, raw and vulnerable, but close to the heart of God and needy of him. I told myself the story over and over, remember when you felt like this before? And God brought you out of it, he has you, he won’t let you go.

A journal of the flu, or how I am the worst sick person in the world.

The Flu: Day 1

Argh, argh, meltdown! Everything unbearably sad, fever fever, can't stand up, better get up because Chinua has hypertension, oh, lying back down. Guilt. Sadness. Fever. Darkness.

The Flu: Day 2

Certainly I will be better today, take medicine, get up, make breakfast, go to the market with all the kids to buy shoes for Leafy. Home, bed, whoops I'm no longer okay. Chills, chills, it hurts everywhere. Chinua brings food. Dying. 

The Flu: Day 3

Worse! I'm worse! Body no good anymore, head feels really far away from feet, skin too sensitive, crying in the kitchen, back to bed with you. Sleep, sleep. Can't focus on words on a page which means: REALLY sick. Chinua brings food. Must eat, can't taste.

The Flu: Day 4

Giving in and resting in bed. Why is the sun so bright and ugly? Everything sticks out and pops you in the face with too much color. Legs and head exist on different planets. Baby comes in occasionally to lie on my face. Children's voices like old tin cans banging on concrete. Chinua brings food, bless him. Can't think about anything at all without near emotional and mental implosion. Take me Jesus. 

The Flu: Day 5

(Lifts head tentatively) Wait, I think... fever is gone. Gone! Whoops, unsteady legs, slow down sailor. Up and at em, go to market, look around fuzzily, what am I supposed to be buying? Why must everything be bright? Home, tidy, lie down, write a bit, lie down, moan. Hang out with Isaac. Celebrate standing and talking!

The Flu: Day 6

Life might actually be worth living. Body aches, lungs clearly useless, sinuses in the act of mutiny, but look, pretty! The sun is shining and I guess it's not gross after all, maybe beautiful even? Kids have melodious voices and are funny! Only a little crying, mostly standing, cooking, drinking beautiful water and well, whoa, still not so safe in my head. Let's think those thoughts again tomorrow, maybe they'll be easier another day.

A better container.

I had a birthday on the weekend and I spent some time thinking, as I always do, about the last year and the coming year. Fater a birthday call with my sister first and then my brother, sister-in-law, niece, and parents, I walked away from the computer with that feeling that only comes with the bigger holidays— happiness for a good Skype call and a deep sadness at missing them for so long. 

Then I folded that sadness right up and put it under my necklace, next to my collarbone, and went to bake some cakes. I’ve become very good at holding a lot of sadness I thought. But I don’t think I’m very good at joy.  

It’s true. I can live with sadness well, I’ve learned how to grit my teeth and keep making food through hormonal lows and anxiety. To be faithful. But happiness? How do you do that? And I think God wants me to be happy. I don’t mean that God wants me to do whatever I want in the name of happiness (I need to write a book called Wash, Bow, Love) but that he is sometimes waiting for me to open my heart and know that I am allowed to feel happy. I don’t have to scrap around for reasons I shouldn’t be happy. I can look at that sunlight and know that dinner is going to be good and we’re at peace and we might even have some fun.

So here it is- this year- Happiness! Joy. Peace. Lightheartedness. Cheerfulness. A good sense of humor. 

I’m making playful art. 

I’m playing more board games with my kids.

And I’m taking selfies. I’ve been a bit of a snob about selfies, like why do you need so many pictures of yourself? Preferring to be behind the camera. But what I see when I look around the internets and find friends who have a lot of photos of themselves is that they are being joyful. Or at least saying, “Let’s be happy for this photo right now,” and of course, doing something happy leads to being happy. Dear friends, if you are struggling with a deep depression I am not advising you to “act happy,” this is not for you. But for me, I am coming out from under the postpartum cloud (I just weaned Isaac) and I am in the habit of containing sorrow. I want to be a container for joy. I like the way self portraits say, “I was here and maybe this other person was here too and we were being silly and I don't care about eye wrinkles or my wolf tooth, I'll show it all off and it was just another day but we will remember it.” 

This is the year for it. I know it. I'm pretty sure that it’s going to be an amazing year (almost as if God is just pouring the blessings on right now), and I have a book nearly ready to publish and I’m painting, and money is not something I should worry about, and my husband is going to get better and my preteens are lovely, my toddler is adorable and my middle boys still cuddle me. We’re holding meditations and gardening at Shekina. Friends are coming, friends are here, the rain has come back and the sky can sometimes be so, so blue. 


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." 

 

Falling away.

(Photo by Tom Heine, Chinua singing with friends at a charity event in Goa this year)

(Photo by Tom Heine, Chinua singing with friends at a charity event in Goa this year)

It’s been rough around here lately. My Superstar Husband was hospitalized for severe hypertension (very very high blood pressure) on Monday and finally came home yesterday. He was on an IV with anti hypertension drugs and it still took a few days for his blood pressure to come down. (It was at 245/135 when he went in to the hospital.) This is his first inkling that he has high blood pressure, and it means a lot of thought about how to make life different. His diet is great, exercise could be better. Stress could be better. So. This precious, precious person is not well. He was sick in the hospital with an IV and it was very scary. Everything else falls away.

 

My week was about cycling or riding the motorbike back and forth between my house and the hospital (thankfully very close together), bringing him food, visiting, staying there at night while Miriam stayed at our house with the kids. My next weeks are about taking care of my family, my husband being one of the people I need to extend all of my care toward. Everything else falls away. 

 

I feel like we’re standing on the edge of a canyon and I can’t see to the other side. I don’t know what I’m stepping into, how our life will change. Last night a very kind American cardiac nurse came over to talk with us. Chinua is still on bed rest and she was lovely and funny and helpful, but also told us how to tell the difference between a stroke and a heart attack and I looked at her and thought, “You’re using naughty words, those words aren’t allowed in this family.” Like she had said stupid, or hate, or ugly, or divorce, words that we are not allowed to say. Heart attack and stroke are naughty words that we’ve never thought of, and what happens now? Does it go back to normal? Is there a normal? How come every time I get my breath I feel like my feet get knocked out from under me? 

 

All of this happened after a trip that was a bit wild, in the insane Laos April heat, with a few too many obstacles, and does it also mean that we can’t be quite the wild travelers that we are used to being? Do we need to calm down? (For instance, Solo’s passport only had three months left on it and I knew this could be a problem at the border to Laos, but I said, “It’s okay, we’ll be able to talk them into letting us in,” which was TRUE, and we were, but maybe talking border officials into letting us do things is too stressful and we shouldn’t do it anymore. Maybe?) And how much of this is my fault, for not recognizing the stress that Chinua has been feeling? How much is it my fault for being a bit of a basket case of a wife? And when the things that are difficult or stressful are things that I can’t change, like quarreling kids or finances or all the unknowns we are constantly facing, then what can I do to help? 

 

I feel like very suddenly things have stilled or quieted, like a movie on pause, and I look around and see all the things I’ve written or declared for myself, the independence I’ve longed to strike out for, the labels I’ve longed to give myself (I'm an Artist. I'm a Writer), and everything is very suddenly quiet and in the quiet I see that God has given me this family, here, in this place, and this is what I have, and this is what I do. The palm fronds are still, the animals are quiet, my hands are full, my heart is full. I’m in love with them, with all of them. They are the art I make with my every day. 

 

And I’m so thankful. Thankful that Miriam came from India the day before Chinua got sick (I don’t know what we would have done without her), thankful that I have a new partner-in-crime (house helper) who is helping me for a few hours a day, thankful for the food we eat and the days God has given us and the goodness of lying in bed with Chinua at night, talking about nothing and everything, laughing at silly things we see on the Internet, thankful for visitors in the hospital, for the sunshine, for love and each other and most of all for God sustaining each breath. For in Him we live and move and have our being. Acts 17:28

We could use your prayers.

Driving, Flying

Number of days that we had to stay in the capital city of Laos, a neighboring country to Thailand, because we needed extra pages put in Solo’s passport, which didn’t have any more room for visas: 1

Number of days since someone has asked me if I am pregnant: -1

Number of times I’ve asked Chinua to break out his iPad because I don’t understand the conversion between kip and baht: 5

Amount of kip I pulled out of the ATM two days ago (to pay for the visas): 4,000,000

Number of times one of the kids has made a “We’re millionaires!” joke: 6

Degrees Celcius in Vientiane: 40, real feel 49, with a humidity of 84%

Number of times one of us has said, “It’s hot!”: Lost count

 

*

Our Easter was weird this year. It wasn’t what I would want an Easter to be, but sometimes other things intrude into the normal rhythms of the year and this year it was the need for new Thai visas. So we planned and worked our way right through the weekend and Sunday found us driving to the halfway point between Chiang Mai, and Vientiane, Laos. We’ve done this drive before, two years ago, but since we have a whole extra person in our family and everyone else has longer, wider, stronger limbs, we needed to rent a larger vehicle. 

The drive was nice and we did it in two days. We don’t drive much anymore—we don’t have a car and in Pai we drive the chariot and scooter, or we ride our bicycles. If we need to go to Chiang Mai we take the bus and then take song taews and tuk tuks around the city, so a good old fashioned driving road trip feels special. 

The Laos language is so close to Northern Thai that we’re getting points for speaking it when we don’t actually speak it. I’m sure it would be hard to understand if we only heard Central Thai, which is what we’ve learned in our Thai classes, but we’ve had a lot of practice speaking and trying to decipher Northern Thai in Pai, so we’re getting pretty good and we can understand a lot of the Laos language. 

But at the end of the day, it’s just a visa run and we are in and out without a lot of time or money to explore. Maybe next time, I think, as I look longingly at pictures of places deeper in Laos. It’s gorgeous here, even at this non-gorgeous time of year. 

 

It’s a new season, I keep reminding myself. This is resurrection, that something can come from what seems to be nothing, but is really lying dormant, ready to spring forth, new and more beautiful than ever before (as things are each time they reappear- the yellow flowering trees more beautiful than the year before). 

I was made to live in community, not apart from it. This community will gather and work together, more beautiful than before. 

 

Today we pick up our visas and go home to Pai, driving down highways flanked by trees in full bloom. The air is dusty and often smokey, everyone waiting for the rainy season. Our car full of kids moves quickly and slowly all at once, like our dreams and our lives. 

On goal posts and the real order of things.

Isaac flower (1).jpeg

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.

Still life with ants and dog hair.

We’re home, after a red eye flight and a night bus and a couple of leaky pocket days in Bangkok. (Leaky pocket? Bangkok seems to turn our wallets into funnels.) The night bus and red eye flights confirmed what I already know—the only part of traveling I really dislike is sitting in any sort of upright position while I try to sleep. On the night bus (which was luxurious for a night bus) my legs rebelled from being in a weird position and flooded me with sneaky aches and pains. I’m eighty. I also travel on night buses with a huge teddy bear named Isaac who has to sleep on my chest the way he did when he was a newborn, only several kilos heavier/head sizes larger. Oh I love that baby, though. I’m alight with love for him.

I’m washing all the curtains and wiping down all the walls and ledges because dust would like to take over our world. Dust or ants. We returned to a large population of ants that had moved into Kenya’s collection shelf with all their ant babies and particularly into her tiny Calico Critters (Sylvanian Families) living room set. (“Someone’s been sitting in my chair!” said the father bunny. “Someone’s been moving their ant baby eggs into my tiny plastic refrigerator!”) These ants also enjoy congregating in our toilet bowls. I discovered this on a dark groggy night run to the bathroom.

It’s home and at home we attend to the myriad things we need to do simply to keep living, and we attempt to do it in a way that gives us comfort and welcomes others in. In travel we watch and we let go as we move on. At home we stay and stay.


I read this on Brown Dress With White Dots yesterday:


Home is the invisibles, the take-it-for-granteds: The tarnished brass hook where you hang your keys, the spot low on the white porch wall smudged a hundred times by bicycle tires. The bent fork in the drawer, the half-filled bottle of cologne in the bathroom… Things you know by heart, things you never pay attention to.

Jonathan Carroll

Wookie was so excited to see us and come home. She was happy as a clam with her dog-sitter, who was very sad to give her back, but she seems particularly joyful to be with us again. Her fur was long and it is very hot here now, so I bought a pair of clippers and gave her a haircut yesterday, after watching a few Youtube videos about grooming Shih Tzus. The videos were great! What they failed to reveal was that if one has bad allergies to dogs, and one has a hypoallergenic dog, the fur of the hypoallergenic dog will cease to be hypoallergenic as soon as one releases it from the dog with clippers in a white storm of seizure sneeze-inducing hairs. Perhaps the video makers took it for granted that one would think of these things. One did not.
I suppose I’ll send her back to the groomer next time. I was hoping to save money as well as groom her in a slightly less Japanese doll-dog manner. Maybe I can bring a picture and say, “Like this. Just… a dog, not a teddy bear or a luck dragon or a piece of cotton candy.”

In other news, I’m scheduling a week or more of kid letters. For whatever reason, I haven’t written a birthday letter in a year and it weighs on me. I’m catching up with some letters to my kids in a grand letter festival. If you like the kid letters, you’re in for a treat. If you don’t, tune back in after the storm.

Now, Part 3.

I wrote the following post while I was still in India, and though I landed in Thailand at 3:00 this morning (hello red-eye flight with five children!), I'm posting it now. I also want to say thank you for your generous and loving comments and emails in response to my last post. I am glad you understand, and even resonate with the crazy things I write sometimes.

*


The people in my Goan village like to practice tooth hygiene in public. Each morning I say hello to people who are brushing their teeth outside. One of my neighbors has a toothbrush in his mouth for what seems like much of the day, and I even pass people driving scooters with toothbrushes hanging out of their mouths. Recently Johanna saw someone hammering at a wall and brushing his teeth at the same time. In parts of India, using the facilities is a social event (and I’m using the word “facilities” lightly, because the facilities are a field or the train tracks) but in this Goan fishing village, the cleaning of one’s molars is the social event.

I went to the Mapusa market a couple weeks ago, to buy fabric for Kenya’s birthday dress. I fall in love with India again every time I go to the market— there are just so many moments of quirkiness in every excursion. This is what I miss about India, when I am in Thailand. The quirk. It’s there in Thailand, of course, but you have to dig for it a little more.


There’s the slightly outrageous Romeo of a perfumer, carrying a respectable paunch and sporting a mustache to be proud of. “This perfume is completely you. I know.” he was saying to a woman sitting on one of his stools, when I walked up to buy perfume oil and handmade incense. He applied some to her hand, and she sniffed at it. She seemed skeptical. “No, I know,” he assured her. “This is you. You are from Italy, yes?” “No,” she said. “From Mexico.” “Oh,” he said. “Well, this is for you, I can see.”

I bought some oil, he had prescriptions for me, too—though he always wants me to buy light, floral things, when I like stronger, fruity scents—people are always judging me by the color of my hair. As I left the shop, he was talking to some Russian women about perfume and wowing them with his Russian words. He’s the kind of Indian shop proprietor from olden days in Goa, the kind who buys chai for his customers. A little more outrageous than normal, but he always keeps it on the right side of respectful, despite the flirtatious eyes.

At the cloth shop the polite elder man who is the father of the shop called to me from the door. “Yes madam?” He helped me find the satin I wanted, and then asked, “You are from Denmark?” I can honestly say it was the first time anyone has ever assumed that I was from Denmark, though people often ask if I am Dutch and sometimes speak to me in German. (My makeup is actually mainly British Isles- all the United Kingdom’s countries in one- with a splash of German.) This cloth shop owner is a certain type of Indian man, the kind that reminds me of my own grandfather, exceedingly refined and rather elegant in his simple way. “We are famous in Goa,” he said. “Shop number 10. Outside, also.” In Goa, everything is “In Goa,” or “Outside.”

At the craft shop where I bought ribbon and zippers, the owners were just as contemptuously dismissive of me as ever. Comforting. I drank a mosambi juice and drove home in the golden light of the end of the day.

*

This week I have been paying my dues to the gypsy community by looking at various pieces of fabric that the gypsy beach sellers call “sarongs.” I made friends with some of them years ago, and so each time I come I have to look at what they are selling at least once. We talk about our children and how life has been for them this year (hard) and how much they have to work (a lot) and then, after a significant pause during which we sit together and watch the sea in silence, because it is their job to hustle and to live they have to do it, they ask, “Look at my sarongs today?” I usually put them off with “not today,” until a day close to when I will leave. This week I found a couple of sarongs from each person, a string of lotus seeds, a string of blue glass beads, and two scarfs for Chinua. I bartered, but not down to the ground.

A new road is being built in front of our house, blocking us in so that we live on a sort of island now. The villages pulled out all the coconut trees that were in the way, hiring a backhoe to do it, and in the process broke half our front wall down. Right now the rock breakers are breaking huge piles of the Goan volcanic rock to form a sort of rock road which will be covered in sand and then asphalt. In true Indian style, no one told us anything about this, (you have to take care of yourself in India, no one will deliver a letter to your door saying that the road will be closed from this date to that date) and one day it just occurred to me that I had better park our scooter somewhere else, because I wouldn’t be able to get it out of our yard after the rocks spread to the front of our gate. So I moved it, and this morning the first pile of rocks were dumped right in front of our gate. The rock breakers are migrant workers— and they have made a little camp under the banyan tree in the coconut grove, including a toilet area made by forming a triangle of privacy with an old sari and digging a hole in the ground.


In our community we are closing up the houses for the season and Johanna from Germany (we also have Johanna from Switzerland) and I brought bags of stuff to the recycling place, where men sort through all the plastics and bottles and paper and cloth and get what small amounts of money they can. In the caste system, this is a low job, and these men are poor and work very hard. One man took our things from us and Johanna had brought some of her recycling in a cloth bag. The man took the bag and emptied it, and when I started to take it from him, he pulled it back and folded it very carefully, smoothing the fabric together before he gave it to me. This small act of courtesy touched me more than anything has in a long time. I go about my days never knowing what small thing will reach deeply into my heart.

I have chopped endless tomatoes and onions in my old kitchen and cooked the food that I am most comfortable cooking. Cooking Indian food is like a long happy sigh, though my feet have ached on the marble floors. In these last weeks, people in our community here have daily walked by my window, popped their heads in our doorway, have come in to help while I make community lunch on Wednesday. This is something I can do. I can cook for a big group of people. I can make chai.

In many ways I tried to make myself into a proper Indian woman in the years that I lived here, and in many ways I shrugged that idea right off of me (running away alone on my scooter, scandalous!) but when I moved to Thailand I didn’t know what kind of woman to be. I look around me always, searching for a template or a form to pour myself into. This friend does life like this and this one does life like that, and I’m always watching. Lately I’m thinking that I need to stop the looking around, stop trying to find a culture to fit myself into, stop thinking about other people’s kitchens when I am in my own. What are you, Rachel? What kind of woman are you?

The kind who is more comfortable reading and writing and drawing than making grocery lists or remembering more than one day of shopping at a time while at the market. The kind who has a big family but has never been a very organized mother, who loves spontaneous things most of all and can’t seem to get her kids to bed before ten these days, because they read quietly and she forgets to check on them. The kind whose temper flares up quickly, causing her eleven-year-old son to use his “let’s appease mother quickly” voice, but who makes up for it by spending all her hours with them, beside them, reading to them, cooking for them. The kind who can be very selfish inside. The kind who loves beauty and making beautiful things for her home, but when given the choice, will always choose to write or read.

Truthfully, I have always wanted a set of rules for what I should do or be. This is one of the reasons I like traditional cultures so much. I can get through any interaction in Thailand gracefully. In Canada or the U.S., it’s anyone’s guess. Chat? Don’t chat? Make eye contact? Don’t make eye contact? Sigh. But I am a girl from a country that prides itself on being multicultural, on being a collection of cultures rather than one assimilated culture, and there is no such thing as a proper Canadian woman. Unless, of course, it is a woman who watches and observes, and love and learns. And then, I guess, I’m doing okay.


Now, Part 2.

Kingfisher in flight.

Kingfisher in flight.

There are two things I can do with writing. I can tell stories, and I can be honest about the broken down machinations of my mind. Of the two, telling stories is easiest and the most fun. I like to write fiction and I like to write about the small things I see around me. The problem is that if I don’t continue to be honest, my writing stutters to a stop, a car with a giant rat’s nest in the engine. How can I write honest fiction if I can’t write honestly about my insides? It may work for others, but somehow it doesn’t work for me.


It gets harder and harder to be honest, because you have heard it all before and this blog has sprouted arms. Really good friends read it. Acquaintances from my town in Thailand read it. I am a walking glass display case, like the kind that house the sometimes larger-than-life Catholic statues of Mary here in Goa, except that I am holding Isaac, rather than the baby Jesus, and Isaac is covered in mud, grinning from ear to ear, and squirming to get down. I am sweaty and hot and I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing those long nylon robes or the inch of makeup that the statue Mary sometimes appears to be wearing. I forgot my hat in Thailand, so my face is getting rather bronze and freckled, but at least it’s not orange or garishly white. Ah, good, an old-fashioned rabbit trail. I’ve distracted myself, and I hope it’s working with you.


But if I’m not going to be honest I’d be better off quitting here, because that’s what began all this, and that’s what should continue it. So here’s me. Sorry that I’m not fixed yet.


There is simply a lot of self-loathing going on, the kind that is pervasive and stinky, like bathing suits that haven’t been hung up to dry. I often feel fairly certain that I'm the kind of person who ruins life for other people, which is simply another variation on the constantly humming anxiety that drones under my ground— everything is your fault. Yesterday, when I sat down to listen for the pure voice of God to tell me the truth and to wipe this away, the droning went up an octave in pitch. He frowned at me, but only in my wildly distorted imagination. What are you doing ruining everything? my imaginary god said. (Sometimes our imaginations get the better of us, don't they? When we are children, we are afraid of monsters. When we are adults, we turn God, the very nature of love, into a monster.) Later I got off a joyful phone call with a friend and could only think, Why do I wreck every conversation with my own self-centeredness? She must be so tired of me.


Clearly I had veered off toward some terrible lie. It could have been because Chinua is away and I haven’t had the kind of solitude I need to pull it together. It could have been hormones, or lack of sleep. It could have been the heat, oppressive and thick. But let’s think this through, because Mary was a real person, probably very young, definitely Jewish, certainly slight and bent and a little afraid. And very brave. People now imagine her in a sort of distorted way, standing in a glass case, wearing purple and gold, holding a baby with a large crown, wearing what appear to be false eyelashes. This imagining is not even related to reality, the translation full of flaws, and I suppose this is how I am translating myself, in a myriad of mistakes and undone things that I feel define me, that actually are just circumstantial. In my glass case I see an unfinished woman who puts her foot in her mouth far too often, who is often unyielding and ungiving, who makes far too many mistakes. I am in my own glass case. But I don’t see you there. I don’t think those things about you. I have far more grace for you than I have for me.


This is how I think God thinks of you: I think he looks at you with a little bit of wry pity and overwhelming love, the way you would look at your eleven-year-old who just pronounced menagerie “minna Geary.” Or the way you run to your baby to pick him up when he falls down. Or the way you feel about your husband when he is sleeping and you reach out and touch his face. I think God feels more love for you than you can possibly imagine, that on your driest, hottest, most slug-worthy days, he is rooting for you, cheering for you, on your side, working to help you, nudging you closer to himself. I think he is singing to you. I think he is over the moon for you.


Oh, how to bring it fully in? How to take what my head knows and crack my dry, old, withdrawn heart open with it? I know it is not God’s fault. I know he shows me love in a million different ways. But I am stubborn and I often run and I don’t know how to receive love or compliments. I pull away. So he has to somehow reach me where I am.


I was on the scooter yesterday, driving to get bread for dinner, and I felt rotten through and through. I put back my head and yelled, the way one does in moments of crisis, “Jesus!” Not a curse, God forbid. A long call in the desert, almost a song. Two heartbeats later, a brilliant green parrot flew across the road in front of my bike, a bright flash of green and blue in the gold of the late afternoon sun. I caught my breath. I heard it very clearly. “Like that. I see you like that.”


I’ve never had a parrot fly so close to me. My heart caught with love and longing and God was speaking my language, the way he always does if I listen closely enough. This small bird was not worthy of contempt. God, in the mystery of his genius and his sacrifice, loves me. His breath catches in his throat when I stand in his circle, a small bright bird. How can this be? Again I recognize my life work in learning to be loved. Again, God comes to me and speaks to me in a way I can understand. I feel unworthy and cherished, a smooth, firm place to be. My imaginings can be transformed. I can find Mary again, under the robes, bent and steady, sorrowful and full of joy, poor, with her tiny perfect child with her. My monsters can disappear and the real God will come barreling through the waves, out of the sea, running toward me across the water.

 

Now, Part 1.

Kite.jpg

I don’t want to let a single thing go.

When Isaac wakes up, he smiles and starts talking immediately. Sometimes he starts talking before his eyes are open, or sometimes even while he is asleep at night. “Badababadajajamaja?” we hear from the bedroom, and we wait for more, but he goes back to sleep. He wanders around grabbing things and trying to put them into other things, a piece of bread into someone’s water glass, a baby book into a bucket of water. Yesterday I went to pay my bill at a café and found a half-eaten piece of watermelon in my purse. He is extremely good natured and only gets angered by barriers, like the closed bathroom door when I’m trying to use the toilet for five minutes please just let me use the bathroom without screaming, Isaac.

At the beach the kids are transformed into shining wet sea people. They shake their wet hair and the droplets fly off and gleam in the sun, and they laugh and dive under the waves. They are tall and healthy, heat and crankiness forgotten. The sand is in its proper place, rather than under our feet in the house. Solo rolls and dives, he is a sea creature. Isaac is a sand creature, covering himself in it before crawling head first into the surf. He stands up and runs back, getting knocked down, grabbing my legs and putting his cool face against me for safety. I follow him as he toddles around the beach, chubby and brown, naked and adorable. A strawberry vendor walks up and offers me strawberries. When I shake my head no, he opens one of his boxes and takes a strawberry out, putting it into Isaac’s mouth. Isaac chews it, toddling after the strawberry man as he begins to walk away. The man turns around and sees Isaac still following him. Isaac signs “please” at him, and the man stops and squats down again, putting another strawberry into Isaac’s mouth and then walking off down the beach with boxes of strawberries balanced on top of his head, looking for someone who will buy them.

Kenya spends her time feeding Viktor Krum or drawing, reading and writing comics or stories. Solo and Leafy work on their fort in the yard, mixing red earth with water to make paint. They use the paint to cover the  broken marble pieces they have found to make a tiny table. Solo picks up half a coconut on the way home from the beach to hold his collection of stones. They have about a dozen sticks, each one spoken for, fiercely protected. I walk out one morning to find that Kai has used the red earth paint to paint half of his face, warrior style. He looks fierce and beautiful, up for air from the books he dives into for half the day.

We live simply here. We guide meditation and meditate, write, read, sing worship on the beach, and swim. Chinua is doing a lot of filming, to make a video. He's also playing a lot of concerts. We make food for people to share with us on our rooftop. We have a full schedule of meditation, devotion circles, community lunches, dinners.  It is a very good life.

The villagers are paving a new road in front of our house and I take Isaac out to see the tractor (Tractor! And India moves along into the 21st century) while half the village stands and watches as well. I tell Isaac all about what the tractor is doing and he points at it, saying his words in his language and looking at me as if wondering whether he got it right. All of these people are so familiar, the families with children we’ve known for years. This home in India is the longest home I’ve ever known—I moved so much as a kid growing up and afterward too. In our hearts we are travelers, travelers with a history in many places, our kids forming their earliest memories in a place that smells like sunlight and burning coconut fronds, cashew flowers and incense. Now we live in another beautiful place, and we all grow together, learning who we are in the different places of our lives. I don't want to forget a thing.