Snow, Ghormeh Sabzi, and Creativity

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Much of the Georgia around me was swept unexpectedly under what felt like a foot of snow this weekend. In the past, warnings of ice and snow would come in scary tones on the news. This time, though, it felt different; even the weathermen were caught off guard. Later over the weekend when we got power back, I think I heard one of them apologizing on the news. Predicting weather was always somewhat of an oxymoron, so no apologies necessary.

Released early from school on Friday, we all found ourselves back at the house. The neighbors who were making snow men across the street came over. Kids played in the icy play dough with the awkward joy of a southern kid whose mom just quickly stacked them up in some clothes as his limbs jazzed around. Snow melted inside my house all day. We put towels everywhere and put the coat hanger by the crackling fireplace.

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By 7 am Saturday morning, I saw what I always hear under my ears on snow days; I marveled at the “north wind’s masonry” and felt I was part of the “privacy of storm.” The snowman became a relic on the shelf of yesterday’s adventure. I felt good that the kids got to see the type of snow they see in the movies, but I was surprised to reflect that my favorite part of the storm was when I was the only one awake, and I walked outside the front door to take these pictures. I wore Kal’s shoes and made deep imprints in the fresh snow. Tree branches were fatigued and said a crooked hello; the sky and the ground were unanimous.

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By the next day, things were cautiously bubbling outside again–cars picking up some speed and mail getting delivered. I got out of pajamas and got fancy for a Persian lunch with new friends from Oregon. I was in a soltani mood and feeling extra chatty after our 2-day winter shut down. One of our guests ordered ghormeh sabzi, essentially the Iranian national dish. She asked Kal if he likes this iconic dish since like her husband, he’s not Persian either. He confessed it’s the only dish he doesn’t like. We talked about how its the kind of dish whose hard-won scent is so distinct that it will dominate, permeating house and body. She said when she lived in Iran, she never wanted to eat it because of its common and nagging aroma, but now she always orders it whenever she can because she can’t cook it at home, and mainly, she wants to carry the smell with her to her house and to her body. It’s her way of reconnecting.

It’s life–the way we change our minds about something because our circumstances change. The courage we have to say it’s okay to carry something new you’ve discovered about yourself even if its as simple as eating the thing you never loved and relishing in the symbol. I was reading a collection of poems my cousin Shadi bought me called Neon Soul by Alexandra Elle. Each poem best carries the weight of its creation when its read by itself. Micro prose can feel like water color when sped through, but I had the time beneath the snow to just read through the little poems anyway.

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What I liked most about the text is her introduction.

She says that when “healing happened, the fire that was burning within me simmered down…It’s like my senses decided to power off because the darkest parts of me had been healed by the vibrant hues of electrifying truth…Perhaps they figured I didn’t need my vibrancy anymore because, well, I had found it.” She says honestly that she doesn’t want pain and trauma to be her “resting place” anymore despite the art it created; instead, she will focus on “growth and resilience.”

While Elle has her own distinct story, I found a common place here in the words I think all new artists should read: “I feared that my contentment wasn’t what people wanted to read about. In my mind, I assumed more eyes would be looking for the pain to relate to. Who wants to read about happiness when they are still in the thick of aching and turmoil? Nevertheless, I hope whoever is reading this wants a different view and perspective…preparing for joy is just as important as healing from hurt.”

I value this admission. Some of us who seek art to fill our bellies with whatever it so desperately craves fear that the best work is created in the midst of the ache-current. It’s like the escalating, chaotic blooming sound Claire hears when she is about to go through the stones and through another time in Outlander. But that can’t be the homeroom every time you want to make art, at least for me anyway; to rely on that would be more like seeking the pattern of an addict. I’m learning this myself as I’m in the changing room with my own process. I’m realizing that to rely on what used to work is immature. To rely on the ache of expressing something forgone isn’t enough and can produce work that is meaningful, but not in the way I may be seeking in the long run. Like the famous resilient Persian dish, the markers that used to launch the creative process can just flavor on their own while I sit at the same desk but write into something else from another place, in another time, with another way.

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Accepting the Magic

I haven’t wanted to write another post after Chile Part 2. The canvas of that trip has become the image I see when I close my eyes, and I can’t figure out how to create another. I recall those 4 nights in Chile when I need to remember magic. When the background noise is a jagged jutting of nonsensical You Tube kids videos and kids arguing over who gets the remote while I’m trying to pick up after everyone, I have found myself closing my eyes and channeling that magnitude.

Each night when we walked out of our hotel room, I would gasp audibly when I looked up and saw the brilliant stars existing up there. I wonder if they see us with the same awe, stars looking down on us while we look up at them, both of us angling our necks and wondering what is going on over there. Just like I haven’t been able to make a mark here on this site, having a strange fear that writing something else will erase the imprint of the trip, I haven’t been able to take but just a cursory glance at the night’s sky in Georgia since returning. My capricorn sign says I’m a loyal person, and so perhaps the loyalty has stayed firm in my commitment to the blessing of that magical trip and that Chilean sky.

It was only yesterday that I looked up at the night’s sky on my way home from dinner and thought I’d love to smoke a wayward cigarette on the porch and wonder with the sky like I did on so many cold nights last year. I figured then that I have preserved the luggage tags long enough and that it was time to return to the magic of the continent of the real world I live in.

Through magic, I’m having the novel of the owner of the Libreria translated to English so I can continue to dig my hands in the mysterious and story-filled sand. I can only grasp the literal words when I try on my own. Spanish seems to be the breeze in my life these days, and I’m trying to figure out if it’s a sign of something I need to pursue or just something I’m observing more now since my senses are heightened. For example, I went to the land of llamas, and I see them in every holiday display these days; Allende came out with her latest novel, and true to Allende’s birth country, the protagonist is from Santiago. Just seeing the city’s name on the page is like remembering a nestled romance. I just went to a show where Spanish was everywhere. Andrea and I joke that, basically, Chilean anything seems to be the new black. My gift to myself tomorrow is both to stay at home since we’ve been busy all week and to watch this incredible documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, for the second time, post-trip, since I’m still pretty nostalgic in a different way myself.

The magical doesn’t just live far away in South America though. Magical is defined as something “beautiful or delightful in such a way as to seem removed from everyday life.” Chile was removed from my everyday life and entered into a realm between spiritual and supernatural. What took me there transformed into marks like an invisible constellation tattooed across my forearm. And now that I’m back, I’m still observing inside and outside of things. I’ve had some unusual magic here in reality, too.

As a teacher, I get a week off during Thanksgiving break. I don’t ever remember this week as a truly restful break; it usually isn’t. We’ve had the sweet company of aunts and cousins, and while pictures of us all together show fun, coordinated outfits, red lipstick, and poised selfies, I have to be honest and say that I can be a total monster behind all of that. Before guests come over, for example, my pleas for help to pick up the house escalate, and I become the worst version of myself. I am disgruntled and even resentful that things aren’t the way I want them to be. I don’t need to have a neat house because it makes me look like a better human than anyone else; I need a neat house because there are so many other small messes and decisions in life that I feel the foundation has to be clean for my brain to handle the other stuff.

So on Monday, I was racing around even more than usual to clean corners. I was up until 2 am stuffing shells and rolling kofta meatballs and preparing dinner for 20 guests. I know they are the most forgiving audience, but I wanted to show them I appreciate them by making the event as elegant as I could. The whimsy of all of this is the big-bulbed, yellow lights strung up over our deck, the cousins putting on dance contests with their own bluetooth speaker—independent of the music we played inside the house—and the fun they giggled at outside. I looked outside at one point and saw kids sliding down the zip line we have up between two tall trees while other kids were eating cookie cake and joking kid jokes probably about emojis and poop, two favorite topics of discussion it seems.

Inside the house, we played old Persian music videos like Hamsafar while my cousin and I used plastic forks as microphones, reenacting the video as two young loves in front of an orange fire, Kal’s crackling masterpiece every evening. Guests cracked walnuts and devoured butter cakes and sang along. Something picturesque was stirring through it all. The preparation monster inside me subsided, and I finally had fun while they had fun. Even though my food may have been a tad under salted, it was made with desire and seemed truly appreciated. Even though I forgot to get little toy tokens for the kids; they didn’t seem to need anything else but their independence outside. And even though I drove myself nuts over details, it seemed to pay off in laughter and in family.

The biggest magic of my reality is my children’s forgiveness. They are like the beach in the morning. All the marks in the sand are erased at night and by morning, the sand is renewed. My kids didn’t even skip a beat at my own shame of being more of the kind of host I want to be rather than of the kind of mother I want to be. They may just have to accept this part of who I am, and I’m working on that acceptance myself.

The truth is, my children who may read this one day, I’m a preparer. My heart is full of desire, and I want to be all the things at once despite my humanity. I sit at Starbucks for an hour or two longer so I can write. I know you’re sad that I am not sitting next to you watching You Tube videos, and I hope you can magically forgive me for that, too.

And the final magical imprint I’d like to share with you of my continent’s reality is this picture of Layla taking polaroids during our nature hike up Kennesaw Mountain on Thanksgiving morning.

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The boys went ahead of us because what was important to Layla was to take photos and to take everything at her own pace. I resisted my urge to speed walk up the mountain.  Layla took her snack breaks. She was proud of what she’d packed for the short journey; she ate granola bars every 15 minutes, which I laughed at inside since she called it “refueling” when we’d hardly burned any fuel.  And I was patient. I gave her what she needed, and she took little rectangular photos and chatted with me about every little thing on her mind.

Both kids had their little cameras. Zade wore my scarf around his neck, looking Parisian (in a NYC hat, nonetheless) while he walked with his hands in his pockets.

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So that’s where I want to end this message, post-canvas. I began it with the memory of my faraway, special place, and I’m ending it here with the magical clearing that’s there when I am able to open my eyes and be what I need to be when I need to be it.

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Chile: Part 2

IMG_3367We’re in flight from Santiago to Atlanta. The air cabin is dark, white rims of devices and overhead lights set the tone for the overnight flight. People are watching movies or flipping through books. A woman wearing a red neck pillow is reading the Delta magazine in front of me while Andrea shares a song with me from A Ghost Story. Every time she turns around to see the changing night’s sky, like sherbet against a black slate, her bud falls out of my ear, and when I put it back in, the matching bud falls out of hers. We laugh. A few days ago, at the end of a tour, the guide said,  “You laugh a lot, you two.” While we waited to check in our flight after our Calama flight, we continued to call each other Blanche and Dorothy from The Golden Girls as we’ve done this whole trip.  He’s right—we do laugh a lot. When Mrs. Larson sat us next to each other in 7th grade, I’m sure we never imagined ourselves in another continent, exploring. Lots has changed since then. And what I can say with certainty that this trip has changed some things for me.

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I didn’t feel guilty on this trip. I thought I may be ridden with mom guilt. Before the trip, I ordered gifts for the kids, got all the groceries and made meals for when I was gone, arranged for my parents to be on grandparents’ duty, cleaned and folded all the laundry, and even made scavenger hunts for the kids so they could follow the clues to get to a prize. I wanted to distract them from missing me. I needed my experience to be easy for them. The night I left for the journey, I cried in the uber on the way to the airport. I had this moment of feeling ridiculous for leaving the comfort of my home and family, this world I spend so much energy to maintain, in order to search and support something without them. For a few hours, I felt ridiculous for spending the money, for not understanding the excitement I had hoped I’d feel when the day came.

But when I got on the plane with Andrea, small pieces started to fall into place just as I had imagined. And each day when I talked with Kal and the kids, when they showed either their support or even their distracted indifference, I felt better. They were fine. Their encouragement made it possible for me to turn off the awful, ancient ghost that stereotypes mothers.   Don’t we all need to go somewhere different, and bring back brown dust and dirt underneath our shoes?

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We sucked the marrow out of each day. Our hotel stay included 2 half-day or 1 full-day excursion each day. We took advantage of this option and tacked on a whole bunch of smaller outings on our own.

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Each time the van took off, we’d bobble back and forth on dirt roads. In the village of only 1,500 people, the municipality lives in the past in order to preserve its future, perhaps a mixture that involves not wanting to affect the tourism industry that the area has seen grow over the last 15 years. I never saw one two-story structure; a home that wasn’t in line with its regional volcanic ash rock or indigenous colors. When I tried to send pictures home, I could see how bland and brown the expanse appeared, but this was far from the truth. As I said in Chile: Part 1, pictures try to do it justice, but I can’t capture how each time I’d look down for minute or look to the side to talk with someone in the van, I’d look up to see something new.

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For some excursions, we travelled anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours outside of the hotel, sometimes elevating over 14,000 feet above sea level or more. The best description I can give the ever changing landscape is what the tour guide called “geological stairs.” These elevations would step up in front of us. I’d see dried desert sand and then as if separated by a line, I’d see patterns of saffron-colored blossoms surviving off hardly any rain or water source. I told Andrea that the San Pedro de Atacama desert and its coveted cousins—the geysers, El Salar de Atacama, the llamas, the flamingos, the cacti families, Machuca, Puntana wetlands, the San Pedro River,  Toconao, the lagoons, the valleys of the moon and mars, and the legendary night sky—have been incredibly evocative, staircasing my own emotions.

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For example,  on the road to the lagoons, we chatted and waited for elevation changes. We battled altitude sickness with our greed for even more beauty.  While we gasped for air up there and tried understand the beauty in front of us, the guide set up a private lunch buffet. Since the other tourists scheduled to come with us had cancelled after a night of partying, we got the feast to ourselves. Between the scene in front of me and the feast behind me, I was overwhelmed with emotion. We cried, and then we laughed again. I wondered why I was able to bear witness to such a miraculous trip. Too many blessings all rolled into one, I felt, as Andrea and I sat baffled at the natural beauty around us.

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The 1,500 inhabitants of San Pedro de Atacama, with their conservatism and pride, their aspiring youth, their tiny literary scene, and their overwhelming nature have made their impression. I don’t know how I will feel to be on highway 285 again, seeing billboards and traffic, people scrolling through their phones as they drive.  

I know beauty is everywhere; but the natural phenomena here is magnificent. It’s no wonder I keep questioning, How is this here? How am I seeing this? Where did that huge volcano come from? How is yellow growing from sun and dry dirt?

As if our cup wasn’t already full, we found out about a cultural center and book store off the beaten path and managed to get the driver to go off script to take us there after an excursion. After the joy of the lagoons earlier that day, I was already sentimental. The grounds of the small bookstore had me in tears again. It was one of the quaintest places I’ve ever seen.

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I felt I wanted to dig my hands into the ground and grow up like the indigenous chanah trees here, oak-colored on the outside and green, almost raw, in the center. We bought too many books and just put them on the our credit cards. Of course I had to get some compilations of famous Chilean writer, Pablo Neruda. I couldn’t bring myself to dust off the desert sand off the cover.

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William O’Daly’s introduction to Book of Questions says “Neruda is interested in inquiring about the nature of things, a process initiated by asking questions rooted in experience, offering us what he intuits are true and does not understand. Rather than remain in control, he submerges himself in not-knowing, in the unknowable questions that enter the imagination… ” Also, Neruda’s brief poems are composed “entirely of questions,” and “integrate the wonder of a child with the experience of an adult. An adult usually grapples with a child’s ‘irrational’ questions solely with the resources of the natural mind. While Neruda craves the clarity rendered from an examined life, he refuses to be corralled by his rational mind.”

O’Daly says that Neruda’s last group of poems before his passing allowed readers to use a mind “engaged in intuitive and emotional responses.” For me, this version of his book is fanciful and connected to the earth I wondered so much about in San Pedro de Atacama.

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Why does the night fly

with so many holes in his hat?

What does the ancient ash say

when it walks next to the fire?

Why do clouds weep so often

and yet they seem happier?

For whom do the sun’s pistols burn

under the shadow of the eclipse?

How many bees does a day have?

My brief visit to Neruda’s homeland makes me no expert on the layers of his poetry, but I notice how much of these poems unfold in the very nature that baffles me. Some of these stanzas of questions are part of the many senses I’ll remember—like the smell of the hotel lotion, which after walking in the desert, we learned was the natural scent of the healing rica rica cactus; like the sound of Los Jaivas, a famous band we heard live because we were at the right place at the right time; like the taste of coca leaves; like the appearance of people cleaning the channels as a community to ensure water; like the shrubs that blow in the wind like wheat grass but are coarse enough to roof a house.

Like the silver dots painted across the black sky, an expanse, an ancient canvas that’s both forward in time and backwards. Like the image I have of the prideful atacameño people who roamed over Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, and of the families who mine for 7-10 days and move back to their homes in other places, families dedicated to the rugged copper mines intrinsic to this land.

Four days passed, and we were in the same shuttle on the way back to the airport. This time, we expected the scenes unfolding around us and the jagged car ride. For the longest time, no one took pictures. In previous drives, guests pressed their Nikon or Sony gadgets against the glass. Shudders would take 12 pictures a second. But yesterday, we drove and looked outside quietly, satiated, eyes hot under their lids, languid legs tired from climbing. Our mind was half numbed by the bumpy ride and light brown fields on all sides, and half aware of the real life to which we return. No one asked questions. We had all the answers we needed, and we drove on to the airport with some desert yielding under the wheels of our suitcases.

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Tonight, 32,008 feet above ground, I feel like a great act of generosity has happened to me. No photo does it justice. You have to see it and feel it for yourself. It’s like motherhood, or pain, or desire, hunger, or love. Observation is removed from experience. What has changed for me is concrete knowledge that experience is worth more than anything else. That guilt is a double negative. That natural imagery is more powerful than anything I’ve ever experienced in a city. That finding Neruda’s poetry in the small book store was once again perfectly timed. That a supportive family is the best kind of family. And that doing something totally different is the most invigorating.

The last of Chilean pesos in my wallet will go up on my kids walls as reminders that your life doesn’t need to have one currency.  If a cactus in burning heat can bloom the brightest yellow flowers, then a sheltered dreamer can be impractical and track across a new continent in recognition of a true adventure, and maybe she’ll return with a yellow flower of her own.

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Chile: Part 1

The trip has only just begun, but I’ve already been overwhelmed with so much emotion both in preparation for it and in the journey to our final location that I am afraid I won’t be able to catch up to how fresh it is by the time I am back home and sit down to write at my desk. Doing that would surely offer a wider reflection that includes all parts not only behind the scenes but also ahead of them. Using the terms of the many photographers who have tried to capture the beauty of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, it would give me a better panoramic view of my experience. I’d even be able to upload larger picture files. Instead, though, I’m going to work with what I have and write what I know now.

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At some point in the early summer, Andrea and I were talking on the phone. The house was asleep. I had my laptop open while we talked, and I was looking up words like Santiago, Calama, Chile, San Pedro de Atacama, the Atacama Desert, and listening to her tell me again about how she wants to travel there to see all of its wonders and to help write her finish her novel. The primary backdrop to her novel is this astronomical and geological mystery that she knew so well intellectually but wanted to see for herself. I squeaked out that maybe I can come, too. I had some story interest in this region as well, and this was a chance to see my friend’s dream actualized. This became our little writer’s retreat. Andrea, who calls me her practical Capricorn and who has always wanted us to travel somewhere together, might have fallen out of her chair in shock when I said I may come. Getting the family approval was the first struggle, but I was going to try to make it happen. Going with her could only have been written in the stars because there were so many odds against my going to this completely random and faraway place in another continent.

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It’s usually the Geminis in my life, like Andrea, who inspire (or badger) or motivate (or ask relentlessly) me to say yes to something outlandish. Wherever that guidance has taken me is usually something difficult for me at the time, but ends up being something I never regret because it stamps something else to my character and forges something in my relationships. This capricorn who dreams while sitting steadfast in a chair gets catapulted into the adventure she seeks because of these passionate Geminis. So, I worked all day, took the kids to lessons and ice cream, sent them off to soccer practice, got in an Uber with a stranger named Andrew, sat in a flight from Atlanta to Santiago for over 9 hours, in an airport for 4 hours after that, in another plane to Calama for 2 hours, and then an 1 hour and thirty minute drive to the hotel to what has seemed to me now as this: to sit on the edge of something beautiful.

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In the plane, I got to see the path of The Andes and the lines of the desert that Andrea called sand rivers. They looked to me like an open palm, flat to be read. Like anything we see in nature, the awe we have to living art is akin to the awe we reflect in ourselves.

Boarding our flight to Calama, I noticed the plane was filled mostly with men, and the airport was the same way after we got back. It turns out that they are here for the Chuquicamata copper mine, the largest open-pit copper mine in the world. That rugged industry and local information felt incongruous to the music in the restrooms; at one point Elton John was singing “Your Song” to the backdrop of the airport, and Pretty Woman’s theme song played at the previous airport, the comical side of globalization.

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The car ride to the hotel was wondrous. The  land here is incomprehensibly fantastical. Mostly, this area is unpopulated. In the car, I learned there are about 16 million people in Chile, 8 of them in Santiago, and about 1500 of them in this small area we’re in now.

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Roads are clear, the land is an expanse of myriad things. In my mind I see a time of tribes or a time of dinosaurs.  Where there seems to be very little human life on the setting around us here, there are surprising images everywhere. I wrote on my phone on the way here that my brain doesn’t understand how snowcapped mountains are the backdrop of a dry desert. I understand roughly that it’s all a result of science from years ago, glaciers, rain, The Pacific Ocean, the Andes of the East, the Humbolt current of the west. But like I told Andrea after seeing the most magnificent, pure night sky last night, this place for me is like tasting different palette-inspiring dishes that leave you wondering about their ingredients, about the Chef’s magic.

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I saw Saturn’s rings, or moons, last night. I saw the haze of the milky way galaxy. I learned about star cemeteries and black holes. After climbing 60 stone stairs to the observatory, I reclined on a lawn chair, like the ones you’d lean on and view the ocean waves, and instead looked up at drops of blinking stars. Our ancestors saw the sky without cities, overpopulation, and pollution, and I felt that I went back in time to join them for thirty minutes when our star guide, Pablo, told us his narrative of the stars. He used words that messed with any concrete resolution I’ve had of time, of humans, of organic matter, and of history.

After eating a delicious meal—while desperately trying to stay steadfast to a diet that may prevent the heavy altitude sickness that prevails among newcomers to this part—and star gazing, we called it an early night to get ready for a day of quiet acclamation.

I’m sitting on the patio of our room with my feet burning in the sun and my hands gently cracking from the crisp, cool air. I see a person or two walking quietly among the grounds of the hotel, which looks more like a sanctuary. Every time I look up from this computer, which is stringing together dusty connection, and see it, I can’t believe it. And I know for certain, just like the pictures I saw of this country before I got here, that pictures cannot do this place justice. And by “it” I mean both the grand gasp this region gives you on the inside and the ancient beauty it displays on the outside. It’s a place of incongruity yet a place of symmetry. I hope I can search these early ideas more as I move on through the days here.

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I wrote this really gentle paragraph about a spider a few weekends ago. With my legs resting on the chaise in a quiet hotel room, I unfolded my laptop. I figured out that the window cranks open, so the cool morning air kept me company as I listened to Amber Run Radio.

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Kal was sitting outside enjoying the last hour before checkout. He sat in a little nook where the day before I had propped my feet on a wicker table while reading The AJC.  I’d snuggled under the spa robe guests were encouraged to wear everywhere throughout our stay, and I’d read a grainy newspaper–from its obituaries to the Dear Abbey column. I even read the comics since I didn’t have anywhere else I had to be.

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In the small weekend of luxuries, we celebrated his birthday and remembered what adult quiet feels like.

So my paragraph was all about this spider I encountered on the other side of the restaurant’s glass during our first breakfast.  A dried leaf had fallen onto the invisible web, and the spider wrestled with the trapped leaf for a little while. Spiders creep me out, so I didn’t stare for long. By the time I finished eating, I looked up to see the spider release the leaf. She was indifferent about it. The leaf fell gracefully down to earth, and the spider went quietly about the business of living.

I’ve tried to figure out why this image stood out to me.  We were at a vineyard, an old, hidden treasure; I had a few moments to write about gratitude, about the tipsy dinner the night before, about how it takes a full day to get the kinks out, and about how commitment can take you somewhere new.

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Maybe to look up and see something release a burden so swiftly is what intrigued me the most. Sometimes it can take us giants years to release just fragments of the matter that doesn’t serve us.

Reading back on the writing now, spider and all, I recognize how much I want to hold on to that temporary calm; a weekend of both shared and independent experience that count in our business of chasing after life.

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Neon Birthdays

I’ve been up since 4 am, and so has the rest of the house (sort of). I sat up in bed, and then Layla came to our bedroom to snuggle, which she doesn’t do much anymore. Her luck would have it that Zade got up a second later and wailed with disappointment that the tooth fairy hadn’t come (shit!). Since it was still dark out, I was able to convince him it was nighttime; she hasn’t come yet. I wrapped my body around his as I slipped a bill under his pillow and clutched the tooth like a clever thief. That tooth for sure was definitely his jewel. He took it out of the container and showed it to the drive-thru teenager at Brusters. It’s his big deal.

Other big things are happening for the kids today. They will have their first joint birthday party at a neon-back-to-the-90s roller skating rink. When I discussed the party details with owner on the phone, she said, “Honey, I’ve done this a long time. You’re lucky if the kids sit down more than 15 minutes to eat. You sure you want to order that much food?” To my request to bring in decorations, she said, “Baby, I’m a mom of four kids, and I run my own event company. From mom to mom, just keep it simple. Really. It’s a roller skating party!” I kind of wanted to hug her.

I had to explain to the kids that slap bracelets and FunDip are essentials for our 90s-skater-themed goody bags. Layla said, “None of this stuff feels old. It feels really cool!” Damn right, it’s cool. I have to say that while I’d really never been to a roller skating rink when I was a teenager, I think it’s hilarious that one of my formative decades is now a theme out there.

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Layla got out of my bed an hour ago. She was angry at me for leaving her to be with Zade instead. She never believed in the tooth fairy, so I explained to her how I had to tiptoe past his room to grab $5 from her dad’s wallet and stealthily make the exchange. I told her how when I came back to her side when it was done, she was already back asleep. She nodded and understood, satisfied with the special truth. Our eyes sleepy but our bodies awake, we toasted a waffle and got under blankets.

Last weekend, Layla was a guest speaker on a big radio station(crazy!). She spoke unwaveringly and had me struck. That same weekend, Zade made me a book–his own story of, as he writes it, “a book with no pictures”–where the hero goes on a funny adventure.

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My kids are getting older. One is finally losing his teeth and the other knows the game. I feel like I’m witnessing this absolutely unique time in their life. It’s unclouded with teenage emotions, all the stuff ten years from now and ten years thereafter will bring. I’m not ready for all that. It’s still a time where they seek me for the answer, and their forgiveness is quick and honest. The height marks we’ve continued on the walls are smudged from how often they run their fingers up and down their numbers and letters. They are fascinated with their growth, and I’m fascinated with the whole picture of it all.

I hope matching t-shirts, green glowsticks, hodgepodge birthday cakes, and decad-ish goody bags help make some timeless stories for these two enchanted markers of my life. 

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New Framing Turf

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I am new at this official sport stuff. It’s no secret to my friends that sports for me can be like walking through a zoo; I stop and pause at the exhibits, nodding and reading the descriptions, and then I decide I want funnel cake and wander off. But yesterday, we bought a couple of red sports chairs so we could sit at the sidelines. I sat in one while getting to know parents on the same green turf as me while we watched kids play their first soccer games. When I got home, I noticed my chest and shoulders got red from the sun. I’d say we are officially in new-soccer season terrain.

We’ve somehow branched away from the rec soccer camps we’ve done before–the kind where not knowing the rules of the game was okay. I had to find a blue shirt from Layla’s closet to turn inside out for her game. I’d ordered one color and not the other, so I had to make do. It’s when we ran from one soccer game to Dick’s to buy cleats and shin guards for the other soccer game that we decided to really get sporty with those chairs.

Looking up to the week before the games, I could see all the black expo ink on the house calendar and worry about the stuff I knew was coming up that hadn’t even made it on there. This year I made the hard call not to not sponsor any extra clubs at work and that I would be smart about what I let slip into the work/activities week. I even had to put up a limited-number sign-up list for students who requested a college rec letter; I’ve done 30 each year in between all the things, and those take so much time for me.  A lot of last year had seemed less of a time management issue and more of an omg-there-is-too-much-on-here-to-be healthy issue. So I’ve started clipping coupons with time, so to speak.

After the games, the kids left a path of wet jerseys and black shorts across the floor. I picked them up while I got ready to head out again to help a friend write a college admission essay, a promise I felt worthy enough for the calendar. Each part of the day was full. I came home wiped out like most of the women I know on Saturday evenings. I’ve written stuff like that before, but I hope the small difference between last time and this time is lasting: it is going with the flow of things rather than against it.

Natural disasters like the ones going on around us now, of course, change the answers to the question, “To what are you committed?” To echo one of my students, we need essentials like safety in order to reach up to happiness.  With the privilege of safety, I started thinking about my commitments and the things that make my family happy (happy wife, happy life!), and once again like the women around me, it feels like everything–to my family, my students, health, authenticity, home, etc.  Recently, though, I co-presented on a professional development for the classroom that involved how we should frame things–and change the way we think about overarching unit questions– to promote cross-curricular understanding and critical thinking (for all parties involved). Extending beyond the classroom, I got to thinking today about why this academic year feels more peaceful than last year despite similar demands, a busy calendar, and the same “busy busy” text messages. I think some credit should be given to how this year is framed.

The way the crazy is paced this year feels more deliberate. It doesn’t change the load, but it changes the way I feel about it. If I frame this stage of my life as, “What kind of mom do I want to be during this short stage of their life?” or “How do all these black expo marks add up in the big picture?,” it helps me find true steadiness in things I have to let go and things I’ve had the privilege to keep.  It doesn’t mean I won’t serve the questions that frame other characteristic of my identity or that I haven’t stopped writing this piece at least 40 times to break arguments or pour cereal into bowls,  but it does mean I am a little less weary of all the things. It means that more than before, I feel peace with this. I’m tired but full because it’s clicking–those small changes and the feelings around them. 

You know that game we all play of what would you do if you won the lotto? Kal and I will do that sometimes on car rides or on the porch. That conversation can start broad and then get personal. After all that imaginary money is spent, I usually tell Kal that the simplest thing to do instead of criticizing aspects of your life is to just change your perspective about it. Not easy, but simple. We usually rock back and forth on that for a minute and walk back inside the house.

Lastly, I attended Jen Pastiloff’s “On Being Human” yoga-ish writing workshop a few weekends ago. Over 70 women sat mat to mat in a hot room while honesty poured out of them after a pastiche of yoga moves, dancing, and hugging. Of her many thought-provoking questions (I think on so many of them even now), Jen asked us, “What is your bullshit story?”–that story that keeps you from doing something, makes you feel shitty, or is in rotation on your feedback reel. I think when you’re a working mom who is also so curious about experiences outside of your family, it’s really challenging to just focus on patience with the stuff it takes to raise children, and even more to to find genuine satisfaction in it. I have several bullshit stories, one of them being “she’s too busy.” Busy can be misconstrued as exclusive (of the things we don’t have time for) when it really is the effect of being the most inclusive as possible. Busy doesn’t mean I don’t have a choice; I’m just searching hard to make the right ones. 

At the end of the evening as I drove home from tutoring, I–for the first time ever–listened to college football news on the UGA and Notre Dame game because, hey, I’ve been telling myself that bullshit story for awhile about not understanding sports when really I just didn’t care to. These kids, my new red chairs, and their blue soccer uniforms may guide me otherwise. 

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Unrounded thoughts on the way things line up

IMG_8629It takes a certain patience to watch women speak in different stages. This weekend at a crafty and beautiful baby shower, I heard the voice of a young lady sitting next to me, and it went up and down with a higher frequency, filled with a pattern I’ve heard before and probably abided by myself. That equally heartfelt and feigned adult. That voice represents a smaller waist, a confidence that looks over her shoulder, and a youth that makes me want to swear I never sounded my age.

But the truth is that girl–kind of a symbol of all of us when we were in our 20s–really wants to be 26, talking in a steady voice about the career she’s started right after college. And even that curious girl at 26 will still wait for things to happen and be glad she’s not 19 anymore, barely remembering details that were once important to her.

To my left sat a great grandmother, poised with nails painted red and wedge heels crossed at the ankles. We talked intermittently–exchanging dessert recipes and inappropriate jokes–and then we just sat and looked around at people engaging at the party. I couldn’t help seeing myself trying to forgive myself at 20. I wondered how all my exuberance and practiced maturity sounded to all the older women around me then.

At the same time, though, when I was 12, my mom had a friend in Chicago who would ask me to come over to hang out, which sounded so adult (and maybe a little weird out of context). She’d make me tea and she would vent to me about the disappointments in her  life. She had three kids and was probably in her late 30s.  I loved our conversations. Like many of my mom’s friends, she said I was so mature for my age, and that made me feel grown. My listening ear is sharp, but what about the things I said and felt when I was younger? Did I embarrass myself? Did I not embarrass myself enough?

It takes a lot of patience and empathy to remember how it is when you’re younger.

I wished I could talk to the great-grandmother about what she sees when she looks out at all the chatting women. How do you lean over someone at a party and say, “Hey, how does this all look to you now that you’re so much older from it?”  I imagine she is far removed from the young ladies and sees it all as stages she passed without realizing she was in them. Her generation’s popular culture didn’t insist so much self-awareness.  

In light of the solar eclipse heading our way, NPR’s science correspondent Nell Greenfieildboyce wrote a captivating article on umbraphiles, or shadow lovers, who are a “part of a small community of people whose lives orbit around total solar eclipses.” Many are captivated by its “otherwordly” or “emotional” charm. I was instantly captivated by this idea of shadow lovers roaming continents for this experience. One man says, “You may intellectually understand the workings of our solar system, and the vastness of time and space, he says, “but a total solar eclipse makes you feel it.”

How much about that sentence captures your own world? Don’t we intellectually understand how things work–college, marriage, divorce, childbirth, sacrifice–but a particular moment, most often after it, that makes you feel it.

I think back on most of my 20s–mainly before I had kids–not with a view of superiority like it may seem I’m referring, but with a sadness for moments I didn’t understand. The times I felt I understood what I didn’t, like trying to fix a family feud that I had no business doing or giving up control over my life over to others, and I feel like there is a sliver of me who was acting the part instead of truly chasing authentic emotion for the wonder of it.

The most fulfilled I am is usually when the moment has passed and I have quiet to think about it. I’m not busy engaging, preparing, entertaining, or adjusting. 

 The eclipse we may stand in a shadow to feel next week is a symbol, too, of the gift of experience. 

This “cosmic quirk of geometry” feels so intriguing to me because it’s impossible to remove the timeliness and the wonder of it; for most of us, this is a once in a lifetime experience. Isn’t that with every moment in our life? Every night I tuck my kids in, every show I watch with Kal at night; they are unique despite their ordinary.

With this eclipse, we are responsible for knowing the time is now. It makes me want to put the hype and energy for the moment in a bottle, ready to down it when I’m caught up with everything else. It also makes me want to go back to that younger self–voice of higher frequency and all– and visit for awhile. I’d want to wake her up somehow, maybe even urge her to be young a little longer without worrying about how things may line up. It will have beauty either way. 

The men in Greenfieldboyce’s intriguing article agree that the trouble of seeing any eclipse is completely worth it; it’s only the ones they miss that they regret.

Mexico

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I looked down at my bare feet coated in sand while we waited on the small speedboat that was to take us to the two jet skis Kal rented for us. We were at a truly immaculate resort in what felt like sleepy Cancun. The Yucatan Peninsula made the blue water near the beach almost as still as a lake, and when after midnight I stared out of the window of our hotel room open to Isla Mujeres, the low and bright moon cast a white pattern on the Caribbean. I knew taking a picture would disrupt the moment, so instead I just watched.

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It was daytime and bright now, and we all wore our hats and sunglasses. I didn’t realize we would be taken to another pier to ride the skis or that we’d take a shuttle back barefoot to the hotel a couple hours later. A day before that I didn’t realize that I like to kayak until Layla, who learned and ventured off on her own kayak daily, taught me how to do it. And I didn’t think I’d get on a paddle board and stand while wading through the ripples until Layla said, “Hey Mommy, you need to try it.”
_DSC0069A 2-minute tutorial and an engine start later, I was on my own with Layla on a jet ski. She begged me to go fast at first, and I was terrified. I knew if I went too slow, we’d fall with the ski, and if I went too fast, the risk may not be worth the reward. So for the first 15 minutes, I held on with white-knuckle concentration as my daughter urged me to speed up. She was the main reason I didn’t want to speed up, but she was also the main reason for when I did.  

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Kal and Zade rode on one like pros, forming circles of white foam in front of us. But when we finished and the instructor waved us back to the pier, I thanked God that we never tipped over! Kal said, you guys actually went faster than us. I told him that while we were on the jet ski and Layla’s hands were holding on to me, she yelled out like a mini sage, “Mommy, just close your eyes, open your heart, and go fast. Don’t be afraid.”

There were these hidden moments I jotted down in my journal. Right below notes about my core gratitude that my health picked up and didn’t affect the trip, are notes of relief that everyone loved the resort and that we were able to make this memory together. Below that is a list of things that randomly stood out. One of which was that when I was on a kayak earlier that day, I learned that to direct your kayak to the right, you have to paddle left. To row faster, the current had to face me instead of behind me–a perplexing situation that was true for me over and over again. Another one is that the sand, though traditionally beige, had these flecks of red in it, probably a keepsake from the coral but nonetheless surprising.

And there were other things not so pleasant on there that come from travel with family in those tough moments: that sometimes family takes the fun out of the family vacation. You want your kids to see from your tall perspective, but their perspective only starts at your hips. Zade knocking over tienda-bought fruit loops at the fancy Japanese infusion restaurant; Layla’s dramatic reactions when she’s not getting what she wants, a contrast to her otherwise maturity. We are the gatekeepers of their fun; and they are gatekeepers of our sanity. The opposite of what we expect often is the story that lingers, whatever it is. 

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What took us to Mexico was a promise made a year and a half ago that we’d go on a family vacation with my parents to celebrate my mom’s birthday.  What brought us to more adventure is Kal’s refusal to let fear, an emotion that was the backbone of my parents’ and their generation’s parental handbook, stop our kids from certain experiences. In fact, my mom wouldn’t leave her chair until we returned safely. My parents are perfectly content with watching the ocean from the shore, and I’m sort of there somewhere with one foot on cozy sand and the other foot itching to push past myself.

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This time last week, we came home. My mom, who had to have been a palm tree in another life,  says she stills sees the lit resort at night and the crystal ocean when she closes her eyes. While in the hotel lobby, my kids sat on top of our luggage filled with sandy, damp clothes.  I remember leaning over to my dad and saying that I’m 34 and my kids have done way more than I did at their age, that they are under 8 years old and have already gone to Central America. My dad said, “Honey, I’m almost 70 and this is my first time.” We laughed really hard at that. 

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Stones

I’ve avoided coming to the computer because I don’t know the end of the story. It feels like ten minutes ago I stepped out of a speeding, shaky car of which I had no control, and now my feet are on the earth again, as if I’m walking away from an experience that just minutes ago consumed my grip and took prayers out of my mouth, but I’m steady now. I’m kind of just relieved to be out of it, a little stunned from the experience, one part effected and another part ready to move past it.

Over a week ago,  a pain in my side I thought I got from working out too hard turned into a monster. It wrenched my gut, caved in my back, had me throwing up in the ER, ripped the soft June rug from under me, and stuck an IV with morphine in my arm. Out of nowhere, it turns out I had a kidney stone that went rogue and another hiding in the shadow, just waiting.

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It took close to a week before I could get the rebel stone shattered, and that waiting time is the sandwich of this story: a slowly trickling outpour of club members, or really family veterans, came through to commiserate and share either their rogue-stone stories or magical remedies with me.

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After the ER, my dad took me to the doctor and entertained Layla for hours; my mom, who pulled a muscle just the day before, limped around my kitchen to feed and care for the always-snacking kids for the weekend while I stared out, high on medicine and disgusted with food and myself; and Kal stayed with me as much as possible, like the days where he was near me more often for long stretches of time, taking care of the stuff I normally do.

Before surgery I truly wondered at how people with long-term illness function in daily life–how can you remember dates, raise kids, pay bills, or function when you’re just trying to breath without throwing up? You need help and the hope that you can come out better enough to thank the people who stepped in to run your world or give you steam while you suffered.  

While in the thick it,  I tried to think about how I’d write about the experience. Philosophy had little room in my pain fog though. I was so scared at what my body felt so violently that I could only grasp at moments. I lay in the bed trying not to excite any senses. I’d hear thumps of my kids’ feet running patternless across the hardwood. I’d grip the handlebar in the car and crack the window open to get through the ride.  I’d talk slowly and try not to let the sound waves exhaust me. I’d apologize for all the trouble I’m causing.

I remember what I used to think about kidney stones–you hear they are worse than childbirth and know some vagueness about how stuff goes down when they occur. But this stone situation has made me feel bad for any time I haven’t been a better friend to someone in pain or someone unsure about their health. I’m in the club now. It’s made me wrestle again with that thin line that freaks out this capricorn all the time–how do you live without the trust that the life you try with all your might to build won’t be blindsided by some unforeseeable pain or change? It’s a reminder of all the stuff out of our hands. One day you’re forgetting what day of the week it is because you are nestled in the glow of June, and the next day you are counting the hours to see which pills to take.

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Today, I felt relatively normal. We drove home from gently celebrating the 4th with friends, and I leaned closer to who I felt like before the last two weeks. My body and I are going to have to trust each other again. I have this new thing to deal with, a new thing to check off on medical history forms. But pain is a necessary evil to rattle us. I’m listening to music again, and tonight Amber Run sings, “It’s all a fickle game. Oh life’s a fickle game we play.”

I won’t wrap this up with a metaphor or advocate with any certainty because I’m not there yet. If anything, I’m closer to the reality than the reflection. The only certainty I have tonight is that while the last of the fireworks beat on outside our house, I consider today’s health and the possibilities it has offered–however ephemeral–and the kindness I’ve been shown as a personal celebration. 

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