split

Last week I wrote a note in my phone. The weather in Georgia shifted for a few days, and it felt like the scent of Fall. It was so surprising that for a moment I forgot that it was the cause of my mood shift, the part inside me who slumbers, sometimes kicking the blanket past her legs, waiting for a gentle shoulder rub and a, “good morning, honey, it’s time.” It was Labor Day weekend, and I sat with family visitors on my brother-in-law’s back patio. One knee to chin, one cup of coffee in hand, I inhaled the weather changes as though I walked into a bakery dusted with powdered sugar. My note to self for this post was, “do you feel that, too?” Artists of the world, I thought, are you looking up at the sky and nodding?

Monday afternoon, though, became like most of the other days now, a search for motivation to work hard, organize hard, get everyone ready to go hard; I did what I had to do. I graded and planned for 6 hours while the beautiful fall-ish light deepened into night. All I wanted to do was seize the quiet feeling that swirls gently like the ghost of a darwish who also wants to just talk, taste, explore, and be. But I felt I had to strap up for the week ahead and carry the effort of caring about kids’ school experience.

This week my kids’ school county said they are going face to face soon and had us elect whether we wanted to remain virtual or go back f2f. A few days later, my school county said kids are going to be welcomed back f2f the week after next. All I could think was that I’m unable to envision the future and unable to make a decision: do I send them back to school, or do they continue to come to work with me most days? I had just settled into an uncomfortable routine, and once again, another change. Do I trust how I feel, or trust what I know?

Everything feels like it’s on sand and not in a good way. Lately, I’ve seen a few friends more, had a few more kids over, even walked into a TJ Maxx and shopped. I’ve gripped onto what a few months ago would be considered extreme: not eating inside a restaurant or being anywhere public without a mask. To be honest, though, I have to push myself into the effort of being afraid despite the fatigue of all the pandemic consequences. Just tired. Still masked and cautious, but tired. Still super-judgy–and maybe even a little jealous at how they ripped the caution tape– about how careless some have been, but just tired anyway. How strange that the chick who wiped down every last grocery item and didn’t leave the house for months is now playing that balancing act of, “is this decision worth it? Is this decision right?” Checks and balances for every move. I’m even finding myself wanting to seize moments because next year will make this one look…fresh. Don’t analyze my choices these days, because maybe they don’t add up as expected.

So when I clicked “remote learning” for them for the duration of the semester, I knew it was the wrong choice. But when I hovered over the f2f option, I felt that was the wrong choice. I’m carrying a suitcase of every tantrum Zade has had and every oddly emotional moment Layla has had, and I’m carrying another one in the other arm for the inevitable consequences from the new grind of living. Though I didn’t make these conditions, they are my children; their effects are my effects. These days I feel like an old lady sifting through moments searching for the right, and then something sharply bright happens and I think all may be okay, Sam, all will be fine, only for the next decision to come. We have been back at school for 3 weeks, and it feels like a semester has passed. We’ve all learned how independent we can be just as sharply as how dependent we are on human interaction and experience. Teachers continue to be outstanding, their inner hearts beaming as loud as possible, and students’ families are trying so hard.

It’s fair to mention that my decision fatigue is not just anchored in school and socializing. I’ve been trying to be a wife to a Libra. In the spring, Kal was with his mom in Jordan. He woke up to a thousand messages from family and friends urging him to come back. Trump said he was closing down international travel, and at the height of the pandemic fear and this erratic president, Kal got on the next flight home. Since then, my mother-in-law’s condition seems more and more dire, and we’ve faced feeling doubly trapped in limited choices about her health and about whether he can even get to her: does he go back to see her in case things turn for the worst, or does he not? Can he live with himself if he doesn’t track the limitations ahead and be there for when she needs him? Can he ignore his best quality—loyalty?  The angst and burden of making the right choice, one that you know may be one thing but feel may be another; this is the analogy that applies to my world lately.  

I’ve also been preoccupied thinking about how much has stalled for artists. In my rabbit-hole reading about how the pandemic has affected the arts, I came across an article in The Atlantic from a few months back. So many considerations, so many people whose moment was right now that I hope will still have their time. The article closed on a few sentiments including, “There are flashes of positivity; most theatre-makers describe themselves as optimists. ‘“ Someone right now is writing a really great play they wouldn’t have got round to.”’ Layla and her friend are writing separate books with names like Anna and familiar plots that transcend into their imagination and onto their little laptops. They share links and edit each others’ works, often facetiming and shrieking about the next climactic scene. Maybe they wouldn’t have time for things like this if things were normal. Art endures, right? Zade and I invent stories at bedtime together where he giggles when I sneak in his name; last night he drove off in a McLaren down a beautiful open road alongside a fictional friend he named Leo. Childhood endures, right?

Lastly, I watched a talk with Alden Jones and Cheryl Strayed this week on where both talked about Jones’ memoir. I quickly wrote this down after Strayed said her go-to line about memoir: “The engine behind Wild isn’t look at me this is interesting, I did an amazing thing, or I suffered an amazing loss. It’s that I have something to say about those things.” She says, “I didn’t write Wild because I took a hike. I wrote Wild because I’m a writer.” And being writer has an effect on how you perceive life just like being a physician has an effect on how you view life or how any line of thought that usually governs your answers affects your cause and your effect.

I think all the people in this rip current, this family of storymakers who observe angles of any moment, consistently examines the knowing and the feeling, are the people I wanted to spend that Labor Day Monday with. I think that slumbering person wanting to wake up was tired of decisions though aware of her luck in being able to be part of them. She didn’t want to complain and still doesn’t want to. She just wanted to be thoughtful in a room of her own while her kids felt whole and her husband felt whole and the future felt dependable and there was still some glorious early-Fall light left of the day.

into

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There’s this funny story my athlete friends get a kick out of. When we lived in Chicago, we had a basketball hoop in the driveway. Any time I’d lace up to shoot hoops, I’d get a sense that I was being watched. Not in a creepy call-for-help way, but in a way that was more of a possibility than a fear. I used to imagine that cars passing by our street may have someone in there who’d see my moves and instantly say, hey there, what you’re doing looks great. You’ve obviously got talent that even you haven’t noticed. The funny part isn’t that this young person wanted to be recognized for something she hadn’t identified; the general sentiment of wondering if someone sees something different in you than you see in yourself, that it’s infinitely cooler than you’d imagined, has got to be in the hearts of most suburban emotional adolescents. Otherwise, why would we yearn as we do?

My daughter sometimes watches me when I sing in the car, especially when she sees me really get into it, when I move my head with the slopes of the song. We had just left the last stop before getting home from work, which for the time being is as much their digital classroom as it is mine. The trunk lined with Trader Joe’s paper bags, the kids snacking on chocolate chip dunkers while arguing over music. I decided to play one of my writing playlists to tune out the early evening moment parents know, when the rising action of kids’ noise is colliding with the apex of your patience for the day, and you know deep down that you must get home—hopefully safely—to a quiet room for even just 15 minutes. Close to home, I caught Layla looking at me like she saw something in me the way I felt something in the song, looking at me with a recognition that for whatever its ingredients made me feel like I was that kid in gym shoes, only this time, a girl sitting in the passenger seat of my Honda said with one look, hey there, I think you’re cool. I like who you are.

Why is it that with every breathtaking feeling kids give us, we feel warmth and loss simultaneously? Is it that we know kids are impermanent? That their eyes on us could one day shift to inspection as they, too, stand in basketball shoes on the cracked driveway of their childhood home, as they feel the whoosh of yearning to be seen as more than what they recognize in themselves? The inevitability of this is what brings me here tonight, the last weeknight of the first week of the new school year.

This month feels like a book with words on one page followed by a set of intermittent blank pages, familiar and odd, over and over. Notes about this strange time have been written already by beautiful writers I follow. Instead, I just want to put a bookmark on something else this Thursday night when my girl gave me something casually and innocently, something I guess I have always wanted, as though she is the eyes that I searched for long before it was possible. She wasn’t born yet, and yet the feeling matches up as true in reverse as it is forward, so much so that the memory of my standing in the driveway looks different now.

It’s almost time to go inside. I have the ball at my hip, and I look up to the other side where there’s nothing to look at except for blue sky over a line of houses. Patience cradles my chest because even though I won’t know that it will be my child who offers me the purist sense of belonging, I’ll grow to understand it.

Weird

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Lately, I make vegan thumbprint cookies a lot. Finely milled or blanched almond flour and raspberry or apricot preserves are on my grocery list each week nowadays. Baking for me indicates patience, more time, and up until recently, Pillsbury boxes have been my go-to, helping me save both. During some phases of the last few months, I had more of that slow-patient time once I figured out how to harbor it. Layla passed my lazy mise en place on the island one day and said, “You really like those cookies.”

I wonder if any of my family will remember these as a print of the last few months, where times changed, where Mom added a little more baking to her skill set, where Mom explained distancing and its phases, and where Mom talked with us about race. Either batch of conversation ended like the moment you take cookies out of the oven and wonder if they came out okay, looking under them and waiting on them to cool to figure out what else to do better next time.

You couldn’t tell it now, but I organized my pantry and spice cabinets. This seemed like what I was supposed to do once time opened up some; seems like people everywhere turned their attention on stuff inside their house. Once donation sites opened up collections again, I emptied my car trunk filled with trash bags, toys denting little slits in them. After hunkering down for months, I’ve had “porch time” dates with friends where we sit on rockers about 6 ft away from each other and chat. I’ve learned how to inflate pools in minutes with a blow dryer and an empty water bottle. I invested in some outdoor games. I’ve watched a confetto of shows so incongruous that the selection serves as evidence of these unorthodox hours and days since March 12th, a date for us in Georgia, when stuff started to stop being old-normal. Recently, I’ve cautiously shelved—for now—the person who looks just like me who bought 5 boxes of hair dye and extra Tylenol in March. I purchased raised garden beds once they came back in stock.  I’ve grown tomato plants from tomatoes with the moral support of my green-thumbed followers. For months I’ve washed produce extensively and sanitized groceries, but I’ve been a little lax on that the last few trips. Getting up at 4:30 am to go to the gym feels like a symbol of an old life. Even what I was doing in April feels like an old, old life.

By May, clinging on to daily routines through their changed contexts was tiring, but I was still trying. Digital days, treadmill-walking in the garage, long-text message threads with friends about what’s going on in the news, those continued. Working digital life for the family had completed its strange toll, becoming more and more routine until finally, the school year was over. And by the end of it, there was a softness, one of those exhausted breaths that winds down a day of worrying and settles like bare feet on cool grass.

This June has gone by without tapping my shoulder, without that trip to Ireland and Scotland I’d planned with excited students; without typical June weather, without a lot of good things; stuff is weird. Sorry to use such a basic word. Weird, though, things feel. Neighbors’ kids run through the sprinklers. There are cars driving on roads, lots of them, Amazon trucks delivering items, and cereal on the store shelf, but there is a revolution happening, and there is a pandemic panning.

Normal things are still occurring in a changing world; momentum is building; people are strengthening their skill sets in this strange bracketed time; some are just surviving and trying to do right; some are suffering and clinging; some are thriving and feeling guilty; some are cancelled; some are cultured; some are stepping out of their comfort zones and trying; some took a vacation by easing up on the news, and then went back hardcore when they returned; some are mourning; some are resting; some are judging.

Some are lonely, away from parts of life that fill in quiet gaps between work and sleep; and some are having Zoom weddings and celebrations. Some are maskless and promiscuous; some are cautious and controlled. Saharan dust and COVID-19 and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter and PRIDE, the absolutely natural, instinctive fight for normal human existence and dignity; these names, monumental and powerful associations from this time that cannot leave any of us the same as before because then, come-on-now, then, you would have missed something essential. Not the allusion to Tiger King or the eye roll about toilet paper, but you would have missed this time in our present when call to action goes beyond our plans for the summer, this summer of staying alive and well, this summer of learning how to listen and learn, about how to get smarter about things you thought you knew. This season, not defined by weather but by cultural tone and political dissatisfaction, has positioned us powerfully in a state of awareness inside our lives and outside into others’.

Awareness and thumbprint cookies, masks and cereal, Instagram stories and platform exchanges, lakeside photos and reading the news at 1 am, embarrassed or horrified or both. Online shopping mixed with online GoFundMe donations; masks and protests, masks and protests. All the daily juxtapositions may leave us feeling differently about the same things each night. We paused back in March, then unpaused slowly like when your streaming show comes in and out after a storm, and now we’re kind of in this whatever-this-is until school starts again in a whichever-way-it-starts way for those of us in the southeast.

And then what? The weirdest thing is that as a teacher gearing up to face the academic, social, and health realities rolling among us, I really don’t know, but I feel anything coming up is going to be hard work. But I’m going to keep on trying new things, listening to new people to me, and trying to improve in a lasting way so that all of this time we’ve had to think about our lives–about our time, our human race, our perspective, our health, our thinking, our way of life– isn’t just burned; it isn’t a batch of time one would rather forget rather than improve. Instead, we work at it and endure the cracks of discomfort and find time to be patient about it until it has no other choice. At least this is what I know is true for me on my educator timeline, with my elementary-aged children, as July is down the street and old-normal and changed-normal are assigned to gear up and set some kind of table.

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Mostly

My house is mostly quiet today.

Subconsciously, I must have whispered to myself, “Today, you need not over-parent.” Before virus news became in-home U.S. news and before it became Georgia news, the act of parenting turned on before drop off and after pick up. I don’t miss the stress of getting out the door with the right bags and the right shoes and the right lunch boxes, though I recognize I will soon pine for versions of that normalcy. What I mean by parenting here is that off-brand parenting that generally includes encouraging good behavior, mitigating sibling bickering, and—the biggest one—controlling screen and device use. Today, I didn’t want to decide yes or no. I didn’t want to be border patrol.  The sky is gray and cool, giving me the option to let go a little. Maybe I’m resetting, not to inflate obese screen time, but, instead, for all of us to stop affecting each other, thereby, we can focus a little on this favorite grandparent saying, “Bezar rahat bashan;” let them be comfortable.

I have a plaque on my fireplace that says the following: Love grows best in little houses with fewer walls to separate. Where you eat and sleep so close together, you can’t help but communicate. Oh, if we had more room between us think of all we’d miss. Love grows in little houses just like this.

I saw this in small neighborhood shop a few months ago and teared up. By the time I instinctively reached up to bring it down closer, I knew it was coming home with me. I love how this reframes. Think of what we’d miss if we weren’t up close to each other as we are now. It seems fitting to apply this reframing here as uncertainty passes through us in strange ways behind closed doors. Strange because we’ve had the luxury to observe this pandemic from afar; then we saw it get closer with swirling green, yellow, and red on screens like that of a weatherman forecasting a winding storm. Strange, too, with highly juxtaposed social media and news posts, horrifying and terrifying with numbers and personal anecdotes, to then absolutely hilarious ones that are coming from all around the globe—a testament to our humanity; when we can’t take anymore, we have to laugh. The big world is in this thing together.  We’re not dealing with it perfectly, and there is plenty that is not funny. But in my own home, we’ve been socially responsible, and we’ve been in it together.

Mostly, week one of home schooling has brought me closer to how my kids learn. Though I created schedules for all of us on Sunday night, by Wednesday, I knew they needed to be adjusted or we’d all burst under pressure. Something as simple as allowing Layla to start the school day later helped Thursday be a better day. She likes to stretch her morning with an episode and some lounge time; Zade, though, likes to start right after breakfast. They tend to do their creative and outdoor time together, and they are so far not doing a horrible job at being kind and fair to each other. I guess the most surprising is that they want to stay up late and talk to each other even if it is about gaming equations and trades I know nothing about. The days are super long; I’m pretty wiped by 3 pm, but I’m also a little proud of us.

Mostly, I know this is luxurious because the ghost of the storm hasn’t knocked on my house directly. I have read stories and felt deep pangs of empathy for those who have suffered and those who suffer in the effort to help. So far I’ve been able to receive second-hand information and prepare as a result. Of course I will fortify; of course I’ll do my social best to stay inside patiently as I have for the last 12 days. Of course I’ll follow role models around me who are doing the same in their own way and hope that everyone else does the same.  Of course I will extend so much admiration to people working through the knots with all they have. This is not a snowstorm. We won’t just watch the screen, buy some extra milk, see the snow fall, get candles ready, watch it pile up, then watch it melt, and go back to school. Unfortunately, all of that will be figurative this time around.

Mostly, what I do have some control over is the world of my home. Today. I’m letting them graze the pantry at their own will, play devices at their own will, talk to each other at their own will, go outside for exercise (or not) at their own will, and come to me at their own will. I’m going to say yes because today, mommy doesn’t feel like giving the right answer; I just want to give a good one. One certainty is that tomorrow is Monday, and, really, anything after that isn’t in my hands.

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things I appreciate about social distancing time

(a version of an idea I’m borrowing from Porochista Khakpour at her substack page that you should check out and maybe make your own list on your phone’s notepad or add more here):

-some moments of being in sync with my kids

-home gym stuff (mat, weights, bands, bosu)

underarmour “the only way is through” amp up videos

peloton app (Oliver Lee and Robin Arzon have been my go-to)

-free Calm stuff

-seeing how creative people are getting with their talents to help educate and make changes; a great friend of mine became a youtube and facebook star even though she’s so friggin’ humble and would hate for me to say it that way.

-sending random gifts to people via amazon

-sitting on my porch

-using facetime even when I look ridiculous (even though I did not like it, it was fine)

-writing some/ reading some

-watching 3 episodes of Outlander

-sleeping later/sleeping in

-kids facetiming their friends and watching their faces light up

-not making the family master calendar because there isn’t much to add

-receiving an unexpected act of love from close friends

-sitting on the couch; I rarely allow myself that luxury

-group chats

-and more…

things I’ve struggled with so far

-watching enough news; not watching enough news

-worrying about the future

-worrying about my parents who work

-worrying if i’m overscaring/underscaring my kids

-having any kind of hype for Persian New Year since it feels empty to celebrate

-do I have allergies, or am I getting sick

-am I washing my hands enough; is this even going to work since everything is a surface

-parents, please stay home (I’ve struggled finding patience for people who can make better choices but don’t; I know we all react differently, so I’m trying to be fair about it).

-cooking all meals and not ordering food (a personal choice, and so we miss pizza and convenience)

-calling more people; I still have some real malaise about actual phone-talk time

-feeling FOMO about how this time “at home” should look like

-screen time for the kids

-wanting to do everything but not feeling like it

-feeling like an effective teacher; upholding standards was harder this week

-worrying about whether we have enough at home; worrying that I’m silly or selfish for overthinking it

-staying off my phone; it’s currently powered off so I can reset my attention. been doing this more

-being moody sometimes; I love home time, but I know people bring out a part of my personality I like

-feeling guilty for feeling anything good when a lot of bad is out there; and vice versa

-and more…

A Quick Hello in Case Layla is Looking

Layla and I were hanging out on my bed last night. I was scrolling through my phone showing her videos of our friends who have taken two years off to travel and sail the world. “So, where is St. Lucia?” she asked.

Swiping up through images of the Caribbean and chatting sleepily about sailing, she got me sidetracked.

“You haven’t written much on your blog lately.”

I got up on my elbow and said, “How do you know that?”

She said, “Every few days, I google your name to see if you’ve written anything else.”

Incredible, this daughter of mine searching the Internet to see if I’ve written anything new. To her, that I write is something she knows as if it were always there in her life like my long hair or my dark-rimmed glasses. How I have created this identity with her, and how this is vastly different from my own experience with my writing fascinates me. What is natural to her, that mommy is writing this post or that mommy’s office door is closed, isn’t natural to me.

“That is so sweet, honey. I didn’t know you did that. I haven’t been writing there on purpose because I’m trying to write that novel.”

She nods. “The one about Ellie?”

“Yes, baby.”

The best creative writing course I took in college was the only creative writing class I took in college. The classroom had two big windows that looked over the main street at Georgia State.  A baby-writer-me wrote an essay on Persian tea cups, on the process of tea making as a metaphor for the culture, one that in retrospect was pretty satirical. I was exhilarated at creative non-fiction. Surely, we had an array of assignments, but I just remember that essay and that zing I felt when words came out of form, out of turn. I think the best word for this is delight; I was delighted by my submission and its reception in the class.

I remember the day I decided, no, I think concentrating on literary studies is better since I am good at writing about writing. I don’t regret that decision anymore, but for a long while, I assumed that this choice divided me from the realm of creative writing in the real world. So many of my life steps since then negate this truth, yet impostor syndrome overshadowed the little glimmer of something else. I recognize, now, though that if you stick at something for long enough, you may end up proving to yourself that you’re not half as ill-equipped as your inner asshole (a Pastiloff copyright) told you that you were (dang, do I have to censor that now?). What I’ve learned recently about fiction and life is a line half-borrowed from someone else: fiction makes sense; real life does not. Fictional stories about lives make sense partly because the writer spends a decade considering them and learning to tie pieces together practically; but real life, though true, is too linear to do all that fiction can do. We make sense of real life, but we create fiction.

In 2014, my best friend encouraged my story idea by asking me leading questions and writing swiftly in a notebook I had in the kitchen. I have those notes in my desk drawer still. A few years later, I took a class with UCLA and turned that into a solitary short story that is far beyond that place now. I needed a class to stay committed. In this incarnation, and in a more advanced ULCA course with a phenomenal writing instructor, I am currently writing the first draft of a novel. If anything comes from this experience, it is respect for anyone with the endurance to finish, truly finish this art.  While taking this course, I’ve learned that I can’t know the full story until I write it; that all first drafts are shitty; I have to listen to my instincts (and try to stay away from fatal writing flaws so that my first draft is not as shitty); that I am super serious a few days before deadline, refusing to take off my work clothes or wash makeup off my face until my post-work writing is done for that night; and that I feel a little melancholy a couple days after each submission, like maybe I explored so far that I have to find a way back.

I notice that the kids don’t knock on my door as much when I am working. I hear them in the kitchen. “Don’t ask her for that now. She’s going to get mad.  She’s writing now!” I have to fight the urge to go see what’s going on because I’m recognizing that somewhere inside, I’m taking this seriously, and maybe, too, I’m setting a precedent. Maybe my real life and my fiction can get along and make sense so that I can see what I’m made of when I go forward in time to when I don’t ignore the hard-won delight.

My word for this new year was control, to take control over things I let slip away. I know control can only lead to loss of, yet I’ll try anyway. Even now I’m trying to control myself from checking email as I work alongside my creative writing students, a promise I made them that every Friday, we’ll freewrite together. That we won’t focus so hard on the outcome, just let the ideas flow. Our keyboards are tapping away while others write or doodle in square notebooks. But the solidarity of it makes us do it. Yes, we write alone, but we don’t work towards something alone.

Layla’s question yesterday became, for me, a memorable act of solidarity, an innocent reflection of a truth she sees, one of which I will continuously strive to fit.

Home

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I waited until André Aciman’s Find Me came out; then several days later, I placed it in my travel backpack for my trip last week. What better place to read this long-awaited sequel, I planned, than thousands of feet in the air on the way to Italy, a setting intrinsic to both books. Italy, a place that allows you to see time especially at night when the cobblestone streets and the iron window grilles are slick from rain. I wanted to see what ever came of Elio and Oliver, how Elio’s father’s voice would begin the tale, and what “an acute grammarian of desire” would weave for readers holding their breath. And then, instinctually, the book became mine, as the journey became mine; the artists’ vision became mine; and then my home, like the book in its simplest state sitting under a lamp on my bedroom console, became mine.

I suppose the trip was always about my return. My thirteenth year of teaching felt lonely.  Last year I observed myself looking like the teacher I’ve always been, making connections and working on new things, and yet I felt odd, like I was in a shadow a few steps behind my former self on some strange auto-pilot, a place where life’s dopamine is deflected. Enough was enough, so meetings and momentum later, a seed was planted. I planted a seed. I signed up to take students abroad in June 2020. To learn how to do that well and to experience the company who will be taking us, I would go to Rome with other educators I don’t know from places I don’t know to a place I don’t know, all because we were doing something similar.

That’s how I found myself on a plane to Italy in the middle of the work week some time around Zade’s soccer practice.

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Leaving home by choice is absolutely strange. Whenever I do, I ask myself, why are you leaving a place you spend most of your time committed to? Any time I do, I focus on ensuring everyone is content, that a balance is there for when I’m not there. Then, came my new focus: any experience or thought that develops when I’m not the decision-maker in my life or the mother in my family but rather the visitor, the observer.  That luxurious role of observer.

I look at my journal notes now and wonder, is travel about the place, or about you in that place? Was this trip about new trips, about Rome, or about you in Rome? But aren’t stories just words until they move us, music just there until it resonates with us?

Feeling the Sistine Chapel relies on an absorption of all your senses, which is attached to the most subjective lens of all. When our tour guide, whose voice and passion felt like more of a cultural ambassador’s than one of a man with a mic, told us stories about the Pope’s demand that Michelangelo paint the ceiling of The Sistine Chapel or when I heard the stories of St. Peter’s Basilica, I got emotional not really for the history but for the kernel: that even the most enlightened, powerful humans in history knew that art was the only way to speak grandeur into the everyday soul.

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One of my students recently debated that travel is in some forms selfish, which reminds me of one of our training sessions. We were asked to follow signs about why we encourage students to travel. Instead of picking groups like, “learn new things about a culture,” I stood firmly in, “finding out more about themselves.” Self-discovery is inherently subjective or selfish, and yet likely one of the most powerful seeds of change in one’s identity. That type of discovery is not about being disrespectful or taking relentless selfies in beautiful places, a sad truth of tourism; rather, travel can be about how you sought to let a place leave its self on you.

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My return flight got closer and closer home, and as frost grew on the windows, so did this peace about my life and where it sits now. I suppose I fear quietly that experiences I have away from my family could sweep me away, indulgent in the ways that strength shapes me anew. I flew away only to want so deeply to return to it, to find the living room just as I’d left it, to hug the children whose faces I saw in kids walking by me, and to find the husband who– in his own living room–steadily awaits as I find, and find.

My friend adventured away from her town to hear Aciman speak a few hours away while I was away.  She shared some notes with me while I, now back home but a little jet lagged, sat in the car while I waited on Layla to finish her violin lesson. Of many, one note caught her attention about Aciman’s comment regarding home: that home isn’t found in a place, it’s in a person, people. How increasingly resonant was this idea of home since I was thinking about home so much.

I listened to her while sitting in my worn leather seat facing the old music studio. Eager to talk about his work, I read to her about nuances regarding music that he explores:  “Perhaps, says the genius [Bach], music doesn’t change us that much, nor does great art change us. Instead, it reminds us of who, despite all our claims or denials, we’ve aways known we were are are destined to remain…Music is the unlived life.”

Inspired by how these characters live their lives, I re-read parts of Find Me on the way back just as I re-read this trip, both of which I’ve barely captured here. I turned over ideas and adjusted my legs; took a nap and counted my lucky stars. I’ve since relished in the nuances of both the short trip and the powerful book. Early this morning when I sat down to write on my home desk, stacked with old flyers and faded October dates, I had to be okay with falling short, incapable of capturing the total experience. I’ll have to settle with the one that is most surprising: I sense the chance that I’m catching this present better than when I was living it. This trip, at its core, was really always about coming home.

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a thank you

I had a run-in with someone I was not expecting to see.

For years after the severing incident, which was my final straw at the ridiculous game of our relationship, the awful night looped in my body like a shock, aftershock, and onward with that same awful rotation. My stomach clenched every time I thought about her and how she treated me as though I was the battleground, though the war was never about me; it is the disease she has let rot inside her that affects how she treats people when their backs are out of view. An irreversible condition that is often camouflaged as sincerity.

It took a few years to finalize what I would say if I was forced to see her again, to really express the gravitas, what words I could project after that night when her skewed perception, this time, aimed its shot at me. I don’t think its possible to forget the first time when your body tell you its the last time it will accept that passenger.

Her performance yesterday was likely the best. A feigned maternal air of forgiveness made it appear to an outsider, maybe, that she was extending an olive branch–limp, stolen, and now moldy and ineffective. Her counterfeit way, her startling ease of expression, though the last words I had heard from her mouth were rude, loud. She lingered around, continued attempts at conversation, started a game of make believe where we’d pick up where we’d left off.  If I were to guess, I believe she thought it went well and will likely report back about her success at poised, sisterly sentences, even boldly asking about how my father is doing or how work has been or, my absolute favorite, to take a picture of her since it’s been years.

One can argue that I was counterfeit as well, relying on the decorum of the event to help me salute the way I received her. A friend may have wanted an explosive declaration, those redemptive moments that are most visually vibrant. Wouldn’t it be nice to be the one screaming this time, acting out of character despite the crowd?

But what good is all of that energy when you’ve been given a different, most unexpected, most fortifying gift?

What time gave me was the gift of indifference. As the sun rose this morning and I scanned my body again for its reflections, I recognized that word as my blessing: indifference. No quickening heartbeat, no fearful pull for flight, no desire to recall what I had wanted to say, no feeling of anger, no feeling of hurt, no feeling of sympathy, no feeling of friendship, no feeling of a shared past, no disappointment, no youthful forgiveness, no desire to speak anymore, no feeling of anything.  All that woman earned from me yesterday was a shrug.

I think of this me standing in the bright sun and heat of the afternoon feeling absolutely nothing, invoking bland conversational skills, even less thoughtful than when asking where the customer service counter is so I can return that heavy bag that has been taking up space in the back of my car for ages, and I’m convinced that the body can be trusted.

What an incredible gift of mind and body, an unexpected peace I could have never predicted, that if it weren’t for the calm it spread all over my sensors, would be somewhat startling.

 

Lost in Time

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Right before the fireworks started on the 4th of July, I fell asleep to the world. The kids were already in bed; Layla conked out before I could even put the cup of water by her bedside. I tried hard that day to stay awake long enough until a “normal” sleep time. I plopped into bed before 9 pm, sent a goodnight text to my mom so she wouldn’t worry if she called to check on us, and didn’t wake up until 4 am the next morning. And so began a few days of trying to cure some curious jet lag, which the CDC defines as something that “can be a problem for travelers who are crossing several time zones.” What can be the catalyst to a problem, crossing through time zones, was actually a glorious solution to everyday living.

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When we booked our tickets to Amman, Jordan, we deliberately booked long-enough layovers to Rome, at which we roamed in for about 17 hours. And on the way back from our 10-day trip to Jordan, we stayed in Paris for about 9 hours. These book ends of the trip were more like adjacent dinnertime dishes, offering such a connection to each city, such a taste of its promises, that we, in turn, promised to return as soon as we could. At some point, I lost any grip of time trying to figure out what time it was back home, what time it was in Jordan, what time it was where we were, and most especially, how that relates to how we should feel.

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This began the absolute perfect portal where our vacation began. I sank further into the release of time, its constraints, its productive demands, and its hold on my day. I slipped into an old world, though as modern and advanced as any. We allowed ourselves to be beguiled by the roundest corners of the old. 

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0603c9d0-3ce2-40a6-b1b9-51f5f0a8a5f0I suppose this is the effect of any relaxing vacation. Most of us don’t take those. If we go to a trip for wedding, it’s all rush-rush fun about festivities; if we go to Disney, you’re a factory of fun who needs a 3-day nap upon returning home. But when you cross over the Atlantic with clear goals to just be, spend time with family, see what the day brings, and sink into experience, something else can happen: time doesn’t really matter, so other things do. 

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Some realistic factors that play into this concept is that we stayed in my mother-in-law’s house, a home built 40 years ago. Like most homes there, it is built of limestone, sandstone, and marble; floors don’t creek and everything feels solid because it was likely meant to last life phases and lifetimes. It now sits on a manicured street in an area known for its jewelry district, but once it only had 2 other modern buildings on it that were adjacent to blank land and across from a lady who lived in a tin house and sold milk and produce. While Mama’s villa has hotel-style upgrades and all the modernity she desires, her royal, golden furniture collection and faded burgundy, linen wallpaper both beautiful and slightly furled over time, encapsulate the home with inhales of nostalgia. Around it now are sought-after residences, an established salon with neon blue lights which lured me to it often on this trip, and easy-access to basement shops, pharmacies, and grocery corners.

In fact, most places are just open. Somehow, any time we thought the day was over at 9 pm, we all went out to different towns only to be greeted by everyone else who wanted to be out. We’d order dinner–or whatever that meal that was; I’d rather call it a new name, “a justbecause“– at 11:30 pm, and after we’d finished our meal of fast-but-fresh-food like shawarma or dine-in manaeesh, someone else would sit down at the table next to us and start his or her order. Places are just awake, ready for summer visitors and for the night culture of the East, vendors selling twinkle-light balloons, saying “welcome in” when we pass their shops, offering coffee to us as if we were entering their very own living room.

The morning of our first day in Amman, my internal timing was off because we’d chopped up our sleep and spent our day in Rome, only to arrive in Jordan as a second morning.

We arrived in Amman at 3 am, ate breakfast with family at 5 am, and we all went back to sleep. In fact, we often woke up early and then fell back asleep, and didn’t start the day unless we had to before 11 am. This pattern established the decadent pattern of the summers in the middle east I’ve always heard of: we fell into patterns of sleeping late, waking up late, napping after meals—as the old persian saying goes—“bokhor and bekhab” (eat, then sleep). All the yellows of the day, from the ultrabright morning sun to the quiet, dim yellow before dusk just meant more and more beauty was ahead, for soon it would be the hills of Amman with its lights adorning houses escalating and descending upon each turn of the car that would awaken our eyes to a different way of the world.

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On one of our car rides, we drove down Kal’s memory lane, taking pictures of his old school, one in which late King Hussein attended in his youth, and Layla asked Kal why he left Jordan anyway. He said he felt there was more out there for him, a sense that he could do more, and that his brother was in the States, too. I think this can be a package phrase as to why many–who have a choice–may leave their home: promise of a life more fulfilled accompanied by the allure of a loved one already in a vivacious new place. It seemed to me in my conversation with so many who left and came back or who left and consistently bring their kids back every summer that coming to Jordan was not only a way for kids to embrace their culture and connect with their parents through it but also–and likely one I’m ascribing–a way for the kids to enjoy a different way, the way of the present.

In a loosely “orientalism” way, I observe that my regular days in America are all about herding and gathering for the future, and yet it feels for many reasons that other countries–most importantly the people within them–take each day as it comes. In fact, planning is relatively loose–something may or may not happen on this day or that day whereas dates and times are paramount back home, so much so that it breeds an anxiety and current that harms our bodies when all we truly need is a nap, a damn good nap where the world around us understands that it is just rest time. You’ll hear the infamous echoes of a prayer call 5 times a day, and whether it means you will kneel down to pray or get up to inhale the enchanting echoes of everyone hearing the same poetry in unison, they punctuate the day, each day. And then the day starts anew with the first prayer call, and then it ends with the last one, and so the week continues in a series of gradient yellows and sounds.

Like our South, old homes are born with new purpose. A home built by an old Syrian businessmen was turned into an art gallery in the new art scene in Jordan. I nearly cried when I saw the oval gallery office with its layout of art for sale and of the balcony overlooking old Amman. In fact, I felt more emotionally-gripped on this trip than I’ve felt in some time. From the art show in an old home with lemon and clementine trees around it, we walked up to a modern coffee house with its elegant new-ness, always going from a beguiling old and new, old and new.

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I’m choosing not to rehash our time in Petra on horseback or when I floated in the Dead Sea, because while they were memorable, they were not the experiences I can’t stop thinking about.

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The most decoratively beguiling image I have spent waking moments researching is the courtyards of Amman. Courtyards are one of the oldest architectural features of a home. Some argue that it was Africans who brought the concept of the porch to the front of the house; it is relatively clear, too, that both the front porch of West and the courtyard of the East can be traced back to the ancient Romans. 

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I took walks in the neighborhoods and entered homes wanting to take millions of photos of the house entrances and courtyards. But I couldn’t do so without violating the essence of a courtyard: privacy. As a result, all I have of my courtyard fancies are in my head.  Every home–or villa– seems to have one; and each one is adorned with such breathtaking air and charm that I know it will somehow affect me forever. In fact, when we were at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, I asked for a book on balconies or terraces–not knowing then that the word I was truly searching for was courtyards–and while there was one in that delicious store, they couldn’t find it.

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The courtyards of Amman, before I knew it then, were the symbol of a different time. In history, they have had their functional stages (i.e. cooking outside), and even more so, they offer a conservative culture a chance at an open space for gathering. One description says, “traditionally, the Islamic Arab world has adopted the courtyard house design because it can satisfy the privacy and social activity requirements of its residents. This spot that often leads to a welcoming, cool balcony or veranda or a magnificent foyer filled with family pictures and benches, is the visual stamp of this trip.

At this current time of reflection, now here in the States, 3-days post-jet laggish feelings, no longer filled with the spike of arabic coffee and gently easing back into our southern days here, satiated with the beauty of family moments and thoughtfulness, I have connected this trip of a welcoming and modern Jordan– where I lost track of time and lost myself in it–to three of the oldest entrances of sentiment: the fascinating courtyards and the ornamental gates that sing open; the feeling I had when I saw the art gallery center for the first time, and the sound of my elderly mother in law’s voice against the cool, immeasurable Jordanian breeze, saying that at this stage in time, at this point in her life, all she craves from people are “kind words and peace; that’s all I really want.” I can’t imagine a phrase more timeless than that. 

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just a little more outward than I’m used to

I woke up to a kaleidoscope. As it got brighter and brighter, I knew what it was, some sort of aura or ocular something that if you google, it may scare you into calling a doctor. I asked my husband to get me three Advils and a Coke to ward off the threat of a migraine. I rested in bed as my thoughts raced they way they always do, and I eventually listened to an “emergency meditation” on Calm. Just like the web engine doctors said, the blinding light is gone now. They throbbed and danced possibly to remind me of anxiety in the most blinding yet beautiful way, all those colors and light refusing to be unseen. Underneath slime-making wth kids and summer photos and hydrangeas in vases, I feel these jabs of sadness that are not unfamiliar.

I was getting an annual physical the other day, and my doctor, a passionate woman who has lived 5 lives colorful lives under that white coat, said that I’ve looked better than I have since 2012. All my working out has paid off, she said. But when I told her about this newer thing—this chest tightening—that I had easily named because it’s just part of American life, we continued chatting as we normally do, like two friends over coffee. She mentioned that our brains make these pathways that they remember. For example, if something triggers another emotion, it’s likely the same or similar thing will trigger the same exact line of thought you felt the first time. It’s important to fork that pathway to go to another street, the metaphor suggests. We casually talked about this because I told her about my unexpected blip at a Korean spa, this place that can’t be explained (people have tried; trust me, you just have to go to one), only experienced.

It took me years to agree to go to one—the kind where you can’t wear clothes and where you’re given “humble one-cut prison pajamas” when you go into the common area— and it was at my literal most naked moment where someone’s grandmother was dutifully scrubbing skin off me that I had this irrational thought of something awful happening to my daughter and this realization that I was unreachable. I knew the kids were with Kal, and I knew better in general. My phone was just one room away locked with my other belongings, and I couldn’t reach it from where I was. I had to assure myself that I could, indeed, get up and check it. At any angle of my brain, though, something awful was happening, and I was unreachable. The larger the thought, the larger the panic. It took me about 45 minutes of imagery and self patience to get myself away from the desperation of that feeling. I already had tools to help myself because I have reviewed them with my students; I’ve had to use it before, but it’s never been this essential. An hour later, it was done, and I was in the “pajamas” with my friend who is like a walking amethyst crystal, full of healing. In fact, she is the one who first gave me the idea years ago that imagining a river of cool water helps her ground into reality. I noticed that when we joined together, walking from from hut to hut inside the spa, that I quietly held in my experience. I didn’t want to ruin the occasion, but I told her about it later and casually over ice cream.

I think maybe I’m my best self when I’m around people, engaging with them or answering questions, fixing a plate and offering a space to talk. Like this quote by Amanda Palmer: “Just letting someone speak their truth can sometimes be the biggest gift you give them, to just hold the space for them.”  And like anyone else, I need alone time to patch up the likely invisible slits in my armor. My husband is too busy in his work life to know what to do about it. Which means that like so many other things I sense we need in our family life, figuring out how to fix, organize, and encourage the momentum of our life falls on me. It makes me feel like I’m letting my life down when I just don’t feel up to the challenge. I recognize I need to find the space and time to do this for myself, but it’s hard to arrange. It makes me feel there is yet another thing I have to plan and prepare to do, which perpetuates resentment and stress.

This has little to do with him or really any supportive partner taking out the trash and working hard to make ends meet, two symbols I equate with marital patterns and necessities that are easy to overlook unless, well, they stink.  It’s not at all an appreciative or fair to him, but even knowing that doesn’t get me less frustrated at how much unseen falls on me: list making, travel anticipating, life-sensing.  In short, I feel when anything in our life coughs in the middle of the night that I’m the one whose eyes pop open and think about ways I should follow up on it the next day. I’ve learned that this, for me and for my mother and mothers I see, is the component of being a woman and a mother and my version of an adult. It’s not unlike when I fought against daily lunch unpacking + packing always falling on me–right alongside all the other nightly stuff–until one day it became clear that I just do it better, and because I want that for my kids, I took it on with renewed mission.

I watch women who are 20 years older than me waiting in line at the store, and I can see this look in their eyes. It’s different than the exhausted new mom who stares blankly because she’s overwhelmed and the baby is still crying; it’s actually one of impatience and almost irritation. I look at those eyes now and can sense that life does that to a woman. It makes her wiser of herself and what she doesn’t want to do, like maybe in this case waiting for the teenager to find the right buttons on the register, but it also has a curious sediment. It’s a little terrifying and mostly fascinating that women’s eyes are keenest storytellers.

Today the kids aren’t home for a few more hours. I’m supposed to be hopping from one store or place to another in preparation for a family trip coming up, likely another source of the blinding but beautiful lights. The house is still, and I don’t feel up to the race just yet. I will post this message and walk away feeling relieved for a moment, then hyper aware of feeling I overshared or that it doesn’t fit with what you may see in me when you meet me especially because people bring out the best in me. It is, however, something I needed to share, and it is, however, the acknowledgement of the thing—the sense that my instinct doesn’t want to be muffled—that has gotten back to this computer. A runner-up to talking with that one friend, trying to write something out is probably the closest, most meaningful effort to truth-finding and space-holding as I have likely experienced.

Sisterhood Motherhood

My mom and dad never cared for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. The biggest reason they gave was because it makes people feel sad for what they don’t have rather than what they do have. We always celebrate it for them anyway, but each year since as long as I can remember, they urge us not to make an extra effort. Some have lost their mothers, they remind me, or were never able to become one, and the list of complications can grow from there. I understood what they meant, but I feel it even more as an adult. Even still I loved the idea of carrying my mom a tray of breakfast in bed the same way I loved receiving mine this morning.

I find my empathy radar pretty high, though, as the media announces with trumpets that today is that day. My friend recently sent me a heart wrenching article about the most inconceivable motherhood situation, and it makes me at a loss for words at how all of this, this earthly construct we are in, works.

Tradition here or maybe mass media (or maybe because moms deep down just want to feel they are doing a good job and that they are appreciated) may contribute to disappointment since expectations tend to do that sometimes. I learned long ago that today is a day for the kids to feel they’ve done well by you, and you can celebrate yourself in the best way you know about yourself later on or in another way. Anything else is just a lovely surprise after that, which is the cure for expectation.

As this is a place where my motherhood reflections go, and as the world has kindly let me keep my rose-colored glasses, I stand by what I’ve written about here in the past about the subject. I believe, stronger than ever, that it is children who elicit the most surprises out of us. They make us pause; they force us to bloom for their sake. That I want to mark all of these days with short, folded corners is an understatement. And these little holidays or traditions can help stop time and reawaken a sentiment that can get lost in daily tasks.

But the most notable thing I noticed today was the sisterhood of text messages and phone calls that were exchanged. I sent more and received more Mother’s Day sentiments from the women in my life, and I found myself beginning the day doing the same. I searched my phone for pictures of some of my friends with their children (or the days without) so I could share it with them (a yelp of…look how far we’ve come!), and in turn walked on my own memory lane with old photos of the kids. When I talked to my mom later in the afternoon, she mentioned that her phone was ringing non-stop with little memes and messages, too.

From sending cheers to getting a pat on the back from a peer, the sisterly messages flowed. The day became an exchange of women nodding to each other like sisters in the street.

This day that has become a mother’s rite of passage in our society, a day demanding an expectation journey for each woman, has seasoned itself once again: today more than any year before was more about absolute female camaraderie, which may be a mark of changes. I saw it backstage at my elementary school daughter’s play where girls told each other “you got this” and wiped away each others’ nervous tears. I saw it today as friends checked in to see how the day felt or sent positive messages to each other.

This day became a sincere way where women served as the surprise for each other yet again, affirming what we see—how we see each other as motherly or as mothers—in one another, thereby bringing together an interesting dimension of this holiday.