Muscle memory.

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* My heart goes out to all those affected by the hurricanes, floods, and fires this season. I’m so sorry. *

I’m home after a long journey. 

“Hello, house,” I say, unsure of whether she will be angry that I was gone so long. The house says hello, stretches her doors open to me. Beautiful wood, mess for me to clean up, smelling of mildew, a jumble of love and work. She missed me, I’m the careful one. The mother. Organizing, reorganizing, getting rid of the detritus. It will take some time to get this place back in order, and it will always be a tropical order; slightly chaotic, moldering on the edges, a little damp.

It’s been raining, to put it mildly. We have arrived at the tail end of an abundant rainy season and everything is green, exploding with life, growing with mold and spores. This town goes through an amazing transformation every year. When I left, it was brown and brittle under a hot wind. But now… how do I describe how this tropical air feels? The clouds drape around the mountains closely, white against deep green. And the air is wet, close to the face, hot in the middle of the day. Vines trail over everything, flowers heap themselves against the fences on the sides of the road. The world is heavy with growth.

I’ve lived here for five years, but the air and the smells somehow still bring me back to India at first glimpse. I’m snapping back into life her, muscle memory crackling as I take the motorbike to the market. But in those first two days when I arrived, I kept being drawn back into the first months in India, into every monsoon. And the flashes of memory brought deep love, reminders of young children, arms and legs and nursing babies. So it is a comforting feeling, this wet air. And the smells of mildew remind me of coming home.

As I am. I’m coming home. Over the next few days I have to scrub and organize my kitchen and sort through all the clothing in the house (somehow it is all on the wrong shelves). I have a house helper, a partner in crime, and I am very thankful for her right now, as it all threatens to overwhelm me. I’ve never been so great at housework. So much of life is managing things, it seems, figuring out the kids’ schedules and homeschool season, helping friends in town, hours in markets finding good things for us to eat. I have learned to love it, to lean into it. I’m waking the muscle memory for this now. I’m excited to get back into community rhythms at Shekina Garden, and I’ve signed myself up to cook the next two weeks of community lunches. Home.

The kids seem very settled and happy. Especially Isaac, who had lost his mind a bit there, at the end. He keeps spotting me in the house and running over to hug me out of pure happiness. I’m working on habits, all the good ones (writing and exercising) and bad ones (despair and panic) are all in the muscle memory as well. But I have changed, in these months away, and I’m reaching to the light places. Clearing the mold away. Saying hello to my neighbors and friends. Hearing the little bits about what's been going on here and there.

***

A couple of practical things: I wrote a post for The Charis Project after spending a day with them. The post is up! If you are looking for a place for your giving dollars, I can’t recommend Charis enough—they are an organization that works to support marginalized families in order to keep them together. 

“This is the vision I caught so clearly as I went with Charis staff from hut to hut, watching and joining in as they greeted, chatted, answered questions and sat for hours together with women in the lower margins of society. This is the kind of support that allows a mother with a special child to keep him.” Read it here.

Also, I’m soooo close to finished with my final edit on Shaper’s Daughter, World Whisperer Book 3. I’ll be sending review copies out to my Amazing Unicorn Readers’ Group for proofreading and reviews soon. The whole series will be getting a makeover too. (Yes, another one! We haven’t quite hit the genre expectations for covers yet something something, so I hired a professional book cover Artist.) 

And… I’m working on a fourth Journey Mama Writings book. So that's exciting! There are always new days to write, new days to make things. 

A stream of healing.

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The morning light is glowing on the trees outside my parents’ house. We’ve been on an island in our last days here, and it has been a welcome island. Forested and lovely, with parents/grandparents. It’s nearly time to go home to Thailand after our epic, beautiful adventure, filled with love and kindness. 

The world has grown strange and sometimes cold. White supremacists have marched and that is deeply horrifying. We are all robbed by the lack of love for people of color. Being black in the world should be a cause of celebration, not a reason for people to hold themselves carefully, or need to push through prejudice. I pray for fountains of healing. I don’t know how we can change, but I will keep writing with that hope in mind.

Water has washed away homes. Fire has threatened us. Across the sea, children are scarred by war. My heart hurts for the world.

I have been very brave, on this trip. I have stayed in 46 different places in the last four months, meaning 46 different homes or campsites. (!) That is also how many times I packed up my things, or our things, after the first month, when the other six people in my family joined me. We camped all along the road, stopping in the evening to throw up our tents, and pulling them down the next morning to drive again. We spent time in Detroit with Chinua’s family. We camped with my family in BC. We played charades. We swam. 

Everyone has done well, although I feel that Isaac has gotten a little confused about what he can and cannot expect from life. When everything is epic, it can be confusing for a four-year-old. He can’t figure out the way days are supposed to go. Are they supposed to always contain treats and ice cream? Maybe a roller coaster or an epic playground? He’s a bit demanding these days. I think he’ll do well with a return to our simple life and schedule. 

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and growing as we’ve journeyed here. The whole thing has been a long experiment in the sufficiency of each day, and of pushing myself and believing I have what it takes. A lot of my anxiety comes from fear that more will be expected of me than I can handle, so I have found peace and safety in the reassurance that I have what I need for right now. God is always there, always with me. He is now. I cannot feel his peace four days from now. I feel it now.

And somewhere along one of the roads, I found a stream of healing, and I went down to it and let it run over me. My heart feels different. It feels as though it has found a place of belonging. I feel ready for life to come, despite ten million child conflicts per day, despite dust and cleaning, despite the toll life takes. 

More beautiful things: we spent my mom’s birthday with her, which was a gift to us. Chinua made cheesecake and sweet potato pie. We sang happy birthday off key and off time. We have walked on the beach and watched the kids play on playgrounds. We spent one epic day in the car in which my parents showed again their patience and tenacity. We have talked and played and made food together every day. I cherish this.

Solo has been dropping and doing push-ups multiple times a day. I also love this. His quirky joy makes my heart happy. All my kids do, in a hundred ways. I have also discovered more joy in having quirky nieces, on this trip. Oh, how I love them.

I can’t sum it all up, and I won’t even try. It is very, very hard to leave. But this time has been a gift. I am very thankful for every minute, every person who opened their home to us. I am thankful for every mile we drove, for every minute Chinua and I talked in the front seat, being together, just being. I am thankful to go home to Thailand now, to be in my house and with my community. I am thankful.

What we can see.

We are in British Columbia. Beloved place, mountain covered, more trees than can be counted. A few days ago, Chinua played a small concert. It had been smoky for weeks, with wildfires raging across hectares of land. I have been a bit disappointed, because we haven’t been able to see what is around us and the sun has been a red ball in the sky. Beautiful in an eerie way, but still, looking out, I knew the lake was there, and the mountains, but we couldn’t see them. 

But as we were setting up for Chinua’s concert, winds began to blow. The trees whipped back and forth, and clouds rolled in. It was delightful, but, thinking of the equipment, we set up inside rather than outside like we planned. The music was beautiful. Our friend Andrew Smith opened, and it was an intimate living room concert, including a couple Duke Ellington songs where Chinua joined Andrew, jazz soloing on the mandolin. (He’s creative, my Superstar husband.)

And then I could smell rain coming in through the windows. A long, smoky few months had dried out the ground, and the drops of water reacted like magic. That compressed-dust-meets-rain smell is one of my oldest memories. In the morning, there were puddles on the ground. Rain like this in a time of fire is no small thing. The skies cleared. We can see for miles. We can see all the layers of hills, one behind the other, ringing out. The dry bluffs with scatterings of trees. The orchards. A sliver of lake in the distance.

I keep coming out of jungles and looking around, happy to be in a spacious place, but then finding another jungle to press into. The heat under these trees can be oppressive. I think, “Now I’ve got this family thing down. I know how to mother these people,” but then someone ages a year, or goes through grief, or shifts in a way that changes the air in our family. We have ripples and currents, and these things aren’t things I can control.

Out of control. Perhaps my whole life has been one long exercise in giving up control. When you are a mother of small children, you can’t control their emotions, or whether the jam jar will slip out of their hands and smash in a wondrous pile of glass and goo on the floor. But you can decide on a fun thing, you can smooth over feelings and change the tone. 

I’m finding it harder to do that with teenagers. What wondrous things they are. A full spectrum of mind and emotion, teetering between hope and fear, full of energy and chaos. This is a more challenging tone to change. To bring peace in these storms is no easy feat. 

I love my oldest more than he can ever know. And in a few short years I will help him walk away from me. Giving up control. It turns out that I don’t hold the world together. I can’t answer all his questions or sweep everything from his path to make sure it is clear for him. I can’t even always get along with him. How we are humbled by our children.

 

Things I love: 

Mornings.

Fast-moving clouds.

Eyes filled with love.

Every kind of tree and bird.

Grass.

Mountain textures. 

Notebooks and pens.

Books.

Days that stretch in front of me, ready for ideas, play, love.

 

Is love the strongest thing? Is the love of God enough? Yes and yes. My dear friend recently traveled to be near to someone close to her, someone who had suffered violence against herself. My friend carried love of God with her and it couldn’t answer every question, it couldn’t alleviate every fear, but it came into the room and curled up beside them and brought the goodness back. 

That is what I want. The goodness back. Not the hate or offense. Not the complications, the misunderstandings, the resistance. The goodness, thrown like a sheet over a soft bed, ready for you to sink in. Love that swirls around, filling the hurt places. To wake up and be ready to be surprised.

 

The other day we sat out on the patio, and as night fell, the crickets started chirping. Well, one cricket, and something else that might have been a cricket or might have been a frog. As we discussed whether it was a cricket or a frog at length(simple pleasures, at heart I live in a village), Isaac piped up.

“No, it’s a star.”

Quiet. 

“Did you say it’s a star?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s the way the stars sound. The night sounds.” 

“Oh, back in Pai? When you hear these sounds? That’s the way the stars sound?”

“Yes. And the way the night sounds,” he said. 

And that, my friends, is when I realized that Isaac has grown up hearing crickets and frogs, and assumed that is is the sound of the stars or the night sky. 

 

Star sounds.

 

We can’t know, really, what’s going on. For now we see in a mirror dimly. We may see a sky full of smoke, and just beyond is the view of mountains, city, lake in the distance. Unless the smoke is washed away, we might never know the mountains are there. 

I often see through the haze of my anxiety. Every once in a while it blows away and I look around, astounded by how bright everything is. But the smoke settles again, the way the smoke has settled here again, a few days after the rain. I’ve been hoping for years that the smoke would clear permanently, but I’m starting to believe that I will always be looking for glimpses. Times when the whole thing emerges, the whole huge picture of love and goodness, what it can all be, and I nearly fall down from the beauty of it.

 

And then we may hear crickets rubbing their legs together and think the sky is singing. So on days when the sky is hidden by smoke, and it seems that there are no stars, we know we can still hear them. They are still there. 

Music and hugs and long summer nights.

Detroit is brick and green grass, people mowing lawns, oak and maple trees, late summer evenings. It is cousins and uncles and aunts, babies and grandparents. Detroit is suburbs and sidewalks, as well as downtown with its blocks of empty, grass grown fields where stately houses once stood. Detroit is autos and engineers, late nights, sleeping in, Belle Isle, museums, huge breakfasts, and drumming. Detroit is pool tables and laughter. 

We got into Detroit late on the night of the 13th, after leaving the house of a very kind reader, Sandwich, who opened her home to us when she found that we were driving through her state. It was already about 8:00 but the sky was very light, and Quran, one of our kids’ cousins, was already at Chinua’s parents’ house. We gave Roxanne, Chinua’s stepmother, a big hug, and then there was his father, and we all hugged him. Then sisters, more nieces and nephews, brother, sister in law. We ate mediterranean food and talked for hours. We felt as though we had stepped straight into a huge circle of love.

The next day was the start of the Bragg family reunion. It is the family of Chinua’s father’s mother’s parents. Their reunions began forty years ago and included all of the remaining siblings (I think there were ten or so) of Chinua’s father’s mother. Now there are three of the siblings that are still alive, and many descendants. Aunt Hattie and Uncle Bo, two of the three, were at this reunion, looking fit and amazing. We haven’t been to a reunion since Kenya was a baby. Can I say we were over the moon to attend this one? We planned our trip around it, actually, deciding to be in Detroit in July so we could go. 

Chinua's very well-dressed Great Uncle Bo, one of the elders of the Bragg family.

Chinua's very well-dressed Great Uncle Bo, one of the elders of the Bragg family.

It started with a bone-crushing hug from Chinua’s cousin Derek, and all the family exclaiming over how grown up our kids are now. (They are!) We ate, danced, walked around downtown Detroit, we went to museums and one park. We talked a lot and hugged a lot. I have always felt privileged to be brought into Chinua’s huge, welcoming family, and I felt it all again. There is something about a family, especially one like this, who have had reunions every year for forty years straight. 

One night I babysat my nieces and nephew in the hotel while all the others went out for karaoke. The girls began calling me Auntie Rainbow, because they forgot Rachel a few times and I told them they could call me Auntie Rainbow. To be honest, I don’t know why this is the first time I thought of it. There’s something so sweet about a little niece saying, “Auntie Rainbow? I can’t sleep.”

Other highlights included 

* Many games of pool, which Solomon discovered he both loves and has a lot of talent for. Some of it might be his Granddad’s gentle encouragement. 

* A trip to Belle Isle for drumming, swimming, a giant slide, and a picnic

* A campout at our brother and sister-in-law’s house: more drumming, roasted marshmallows, dominoes.

* A grandchildren photo session too cute for words

* Long talks with sisters

* Seeing more of Chinua’s childhood spaces

* A walk with one of our auntie’s, hearing her talk about her childhood in Alabama

* A visit with our friend Amy.

Detroit is beautiful and full of family and good things. We’re in Canada now, making slow progress across a land of a hundred thousand lakes. But that is a story for another day. 

More thoughts from the road, posted from a campground.

Grand Tetons National Park

Grand Tetons National Park

(Following are some thoughts, written as I've had time, posted now!)

And onward we go.

We’ve had a few starts and stops but we’re on our way again. Our dear van was beyond repair, and we spent five days that we didn’t plan on spending waiting for a solution with Joy, one of our crazy dear friends, and her wonderful parents. Spendthrift with days, that’s us. There were a couple of days when we didn’t know how we were going to get through this one. But our lovely friends cared for us and helped us think it through and we ended up buying a newish van (with financing) that we’ll sell at the end of our trip. Thus ends more than a decade of life with our dear Previa. We were thankful to have it, and we’re thankful for good credit and a way out of a breakdown at an inopportune time.

After a few days at the ranch, we’re on our way, moving a little quicker than we were planning to make up for lost time, driving across the country to get to our family reunion in Detroit. 

The ranch was what it always is, a refuge and place of love. I don’t have a lot of words for what it has meant to me over the years. It has been an anchor, as Kai put it. We are so blessed to know TJ and Mark and to spend time with them. 

I feel sad, as I always do, leaving California. I always want to do everything and see everyone, and it’s just not possible in the amount of time allotted in a visit. I have to content myself with what we have, the time we have, the energy we have for visiting. 

What I want to remember is waterfalls, birds in the morning, Isaac identifying a Stellar’s Jay, the red-tailed hawks that soar over canyons, waking to birdsong, hummingbirds. I want to remember the sweetness of getting acquainted after a long while, the quiet of the mornings, driving long hours, breaking down and finding a way through, good conversations in the car, being together, blue lakes on the side of the road, mountains in the distance, walking through a mission, sitting by fountains, singing together. 

Lakes are amazing, aren’t they? What a gift, a body of water inland, just when you were missing the sea. 

I’m happy to say that I’m 86% of the way through my World Whisperer 3 edit. Soon it will be off to my editor and then out to my Amazing Unicorn Readers’ Group. And then I’ll be writing the fourth. Life is good.

***

I’ve been in wildflower heaven on this trip. I was already very pleased with a month of driving in May, wildflowers on the sides of the road in California. And then we went to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks and it was three days of driving through mountain ranges and forests with flowers scattered in every direction. Fields of color, whole hillsides; lupine and Indian paintbrush, balsamroot and Jacob's ladder.

We swam in a lake that reflected the peaks of the Grand Tetons. We collected stones and the kids caught garter snakes. Solomon, who is an incredible extrovert, brought his snake, curled around his neck, to the picnic tables of unsuspecting people who didn’t love snakes quite as much as he does. 

We hiked along a lupine trail. We saw Old Faithful, the geyser that can mostly be counted on to erupt every hour and a quarter or so. We saw rainbow pools that looked like they came from another world. Now we drive across Montana and Wyoming and into South Dakota, still on our way, on our way. 

I don’t ever mean to communicate that everything is easy, when I talk about our life. If you have teenagers, you will know what I mean by “flashes of harmonious living,” or “moments of peace.” It is these moments of peace, of being in wilderness together, that make it worth it. But traveling and camping is not exactly restful, though it is restful for the mind. My mind is always happy to have a break from billboards and price tags. But we are cooking our food and breaking down and setting up camp every day, as well as driving for hours in between. We are navigating the questions of why we can’t live in a country where we all speak the language as a first language. We are doing the work of raising young people who are wrestling with big questions. Sometimes I feel that I never stop moving, relating, packing things in and out of bags, cooking. 

But it is worth it. We want to form a family culture of wonder and talking about all the things, even the hard things. One thing we’ve talked about lately is that every kid gets the family they get, and it is what kids do with what they’re given that makes the difference. We also talk about keeping their choices open, learning as much as they can so they can grow up and choose where they want to live, what they want to do. I believe some of my kids will choose to live in North America. Some of them may choose to live in Asia. Some of them, who feel very certain of their future, may change their minds when they get older. 

Some practical notes: 

- We’re traveling with a two man tent that was a wedding gift and is still in great shape, and a six man tent that Christy gave us. Kai and Kenya are in charge of the big tent, where the kids sleep. When we stop, they set it up and Chinua sets ours up. They inflate the two air mattresses I bought. Chinua and I got Hiker Thermarests, and they are my new favorite thing in the world- just enough padding to keep the stones from breaking through. But we are already used to a hard bed in Thailand. We have two kids on one double mattress and three on the other. While they set up, I set out snacks and start cooking dinner.

- Egg tortillas with salsa (crack an egg in a hot, oiled pan and smash a corn tortilla on it, flip it after the egg is mostly cooked), egg burritos, macaroni and cheese with tuna, and canned soup, are our quick foods. I make oatmeal in the morning and we drink tea and coffee. I have a pour-over filter which is my best friend. We have a cooler and buy ice daily. We eat a lot of sandwiches, Clif bars (which the kids think are the most amazing things ever made) and drink mostly water. I feel like I’ve discovered an antidote to the slow leak of money from buying coffee on the road. I buy a big bottle of concentrated cold brew coffee and milk and keep them in the cooler- at that afternoon need coffee moment, I pour some of each into a thermos and am content.

- We sleep in state parks, national forests, or national parks, which are all still very cheap. The best deal we got was $15/night. The best moment we had was stopping at a campground that said ‘FULL’ in the evening in Yellowstone, ready to ask if they knew of any campground in the park that had space. “I’m not full,” the lady told me. “I just had a cancellation.” I cheered. 

- I have a moment each day when I think I might not get through the day. An afternoon of driving, needing to find a campsite, and do dinner and clean up and all that stuff feels like too much. I may meltdown. Mostly I don't though, and the moment always passes. 

 

This seems to be true of life. 

Pleasures:

  • Isaac singing in the car
  • Leafy telling stories in the next tent- “There were three magical rainbow chickens. They had waffles for eyes.”
  • Solomon weaving rope out of grasses, asking, in the middle of a sage field, “can’t you just leave me here for the night, and come back and get me in the morning? I’m making a pillow out of sage.”
  • Kai spotting a mother black bear and her cub, twenty feet away from us.
  • Kenya’s dreamy eyes and her excitement when she hears about ranger work.
  • Birding together; osprey, orioles, bald eagles in the morning, red-tailed hawks, trumpeter swans and their babies.
  • Every flower, every single one, calling to me.