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.

 

Wonder

jordan trip 1 278

For a million years when I was a young girl, I thought my mom was 36. If anyone asked me her age, I’d kind of glance about for a second and say, “I don’t know, 36? Something like that.”

It’s possible when I dressed as a business woman at my elementary school’s Halloween party, I raided her closet for a button down jacket in an effort to look grown, like the 36-year old she was. It’s possible when I saw her in her long nightgown, slightly pink from the pattern of faded country flowers, I looked at her as the woman with reigns, like the gatekeeper of all the milk and all the honey, and she was 36. It’s possible when I wrote that I hated her (an awful teenage blemish) in my plastic white diary, its shiny key hidden under my pillow, she was 36. It’s possible when I raided the family albums, carefully peeling plastic away from the yellowed adhesive, to find old photographs of her for a Mother’s Day gift, she was 36.

How strange is it, then, that I recently turned 36. The sliding scale of what I remember about my mom when she “was 36” is inching closer to my reality now. A magical mirror is held up against my perception of this number now.

There are incredible caverns unveiled each time a woman blows out a birthday candle. Somehow, that breath blows away the dust and sand covering the blocks of untapped strength and beauty. It’s strange to recognize that it took 35 for the threadbare puppet strings to release me mercifully into a new space.  Walking through last year reminds me of the slim gorge leading to Petra, a marvel I visited over 10 years ago when I went to Jordan.

In The Condé Nast Traveler’s Book of Unforgettable Journeys, Edmund White describes Petra, one of the world’s wonders which was once ruled by Nabataeans to Romans to Byzantines, and then somewhat forgotten by the outside world for about 600 years, as a place where at ” every turn you’re hard-pressed to distinguish between natural and human creations.” 

At the time, I didn’t know of White’s advice in his travel essay: “Be prepared for lots of walking.” What I remember, though, is that walking and sweating, walking and wondering, mostly with absent-minded appreciation, and finally getting through the Siq, or the main entrance. At the end of the gnarled hallway, I gasped with surprise at the sheer architecture that unfolded under the sunlight. I was so taken by it that it took a few seconds before I realized I was crying.

Like my friend says, I caught the surprise. I hadn’t researched where we were and what to expect from Petra, but I trusted it would be worth it. I feel maybe I meandered this way when I first became a mom, something so many of us do. Like then I have blind trust in future attractions–both as a parent and as a woman.

I’m convinced that the women I’m lucky to have in my life are consistently folding out of rocks and sand and emerging a little stronger, a little wiser, a little more interesting to even themselves. And with this beautiful nod to the women ahead of me and before me, I want to marvel at their magic. When I see a woman standing at the rock of her 40s, I imagine her strength even if its only coming from the soft place of acceptance of herself.

Sometimes I wonder if these are the middle years, the formative years that we’ll need as the next big stuff in our lives change–not only as our kids grow into and out of things but also as we attend more funerals or get more midnight phone calls or get surprised by others’ life changes. I wonder if women have been created from the strongest bones as I am convinced we are, in many ways, the superior gender.

Maybe looking older is worth the swap for intelligence, camaraderie, and subtle self acceptance that comes with it. Maybe what White says about Petra is similar to our own journey: “As we pushed farther into the valley, the strangeness of Petra overwhelmed us. Everything here is improbable–the remoteness, the mineral force, and especially the bizarre juxtapositions of color, which sometimes looked like watered silk, sometimes like batik, sometimes like old rag rugs.”  What was improbable was the most surprising.

I laugh at my naive assumption that mothers of 14- year olds were always around 36-years old. No matter my appreciation of my mother, I likely considered her a flat character of our lives during that time. It makes me wonder about my kids’ impression of me and what they will feel when, one day years from now, they may have the magic mirror held up to their beautiful, older faces.

 

The Brew

When you write in space like this, it’s easy to repeat memories. I thought of this one today, and it’s likely I’ve said it here before. I was thinking of when around 10 years ago my friend Susie told me I sounded like I was ready to have a kid. I hadn’t been talking about kids, just about general place in life.

I guess that settled stage of life I was chatting about happens to us from time to time about different things. It kind of feels like you’re waiting in a long line for something you decided you needed. Maybe you’re leaning your weight at the hip and scrolling through your phone, spacing out with one thought leading to the other.  Then you look up a minute later and have somewhat forgotten that you were waiting in line, and it’s time to move up. It takes a couple seconds to tune back in to the subtle sounds around you and the reason you’re waiting there. By now, a gap has formed between you and the rest of the line.

Been thinking about that gap, about dutifully waiting somewhere, getting comfortable with other pleasures to make the time pass fine, and then finding yourself wondering about that space–the gap–that has been made between you and the destination.  I’ve been aware of that gap and tuning in to figure out what to do about it.  The last few months have had this interesting study behind it all, and behind this study is a sweet comforting world, which always inspires–even in the thick of daily grind ups and downs–a rekindling for reading, writing, and new.

The English teacher in me sometimes feels on this blog (ugh, what a terrible word) like a writing adulteress–teaching drafting and writing with precision in an AP class only to default personally on the lighter way here because its easier, more creative, more immediate. So I asked myself these two questions this morning : what are you trying to say? how do you plan on saying it?

But in a writing space like this, the answer tends to be murky: the space is a mixture of what my former student coined in her own writing once, a diary entry, a letter, and an essay.  I concede, and therefore, if the top of this little expression was some mental context, here is one for the diary-letter-essay meat of the post.

Dear Diary-Letter-Essay,

I’ve recently watched the intelligent, emotive film adaptation of André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name twice in whole and a few other times in sought-after gulps, then read his  novel once and then back at it again and again in sought-after gulps (you know when you’re searching for the feeling an author got just right and want to connect with again), and it has made me close my eyes and think back and back and back. That thinking makes me wonder about memories, and it challenges how much I can think back on details if I concentrate really hard.

I’ve been closing my eyes each night and welcoming a new memory, whichever one I can zoom in on. The look of remembering recently has two faces: I have to tilt my head and notice my ear (the way one looks when he hears something in the other room and can’t figure out what it is). Or I whisper inside to the memories excitedly, “go ahead and appear, honey; I’m ready” right before I close my eyes at night.

I thought about balmy days in Toronto and the scent of vanilla candles; I’ve thought about the way the stairs felt on the walk up to Kal’s old apartment and the chipped paint around the doorway; I thought about the quiet sound and cool air in the town home before anyone spent free time on phones. I called up the sound of stroller wheels on asphalt when everyone else was at work and felt my green terrycloth jacket on my skin. Stuff like that.

In this brew of tuning in to the gap and finding my safe haven, I’ve connected to a literary bubble I’ve crafted up. Between my writer-admiration crush on Andre Aciman, whose articles (try this or this or any) are thought-provoking, the vivid cinema of Luca Guadagnino’s Italy, teaching Adventure Writing, and coming up on my one year anniversary of looking up at the enormous Chilean sky, I am in a beautiful mental state, ripe for literary bad behavior.

Just because I write here and there doesn’t qualify me as a writer, yet Amy Tan’s line caught me a few days ago: “It’s a luxury being a writer because all you ever think about is life.” I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t thinking about life, coming up with mental one-liners about some notion of experience. The lazier approach to writing (or pre-writing), really, is to drench myself in others’ writing, and an even lazier approach to writing is to listen to their writing.

I’ve been listening to The New Yorker Podcast series where writers and artists read from The New Yorker archives. In around 40 minutes, you get to hear brilliant writing and forget you’re driving at all. Tessa Hadley’s reading and discussion of John Updike’s 1996 “The New York Girl” took me on a few rides, raising my craving to be a student in a graduate classroom again, reading and listening, thinking so hard about sentences that I’d give myself a headache well worth the Advil. There is a line I will remember in “The New York Girl” where Updike writes: “Early thirties is a time for fresh calculations.” Yes, yes, that’s right for me. That line confirms for me that writers sneak in their wisdoms any chance they can get.

We have our dreamy literary lands, and then maybe there can be parts of real world that match up, meeting each other like frayed strands at the edge of a sweater. I had to make a choice about something I’ve wanted a long time and an experience, an idea that came up in marital conversation. At the time, I was in the middle of the travel portion of our unit, mixed deep with Anthony Bourdain, Japan, and the spirit of adventure.

I thought about it for a few days, and I kept seeing this image of the kids on the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. So the choice became taking the kids to New York. I could see their world becoming part of my world up there, an exciting notion of being able to experience something together that was once carved in my memory as a single woman, etched as a newlywed, repurposed as a student, but not experienced with a family.

I’m looking at the “the gap” like a woman in a rocking chair, and I’m enjoying feeling like a student twice a day on my ride to work. I’m eternally crushing on wordsmiths and stories that extract uncanny patience out of writers and create worlds where we can park and view and test our own senses. My world seems a little brighter with NYC on the horizon, and hasn’t that always been the case? Its promise for everlasting experience, a new book tucked away for the journey, and some hope or newness to reflect on; isn’t that the brew that should always tempt and color a September?

Sitting on the plane after landing. Unedited. A cut and paste note to myself.

It’s almost immediate. I’m on the plane to Ohio, and I’m reading Mary Oliver’s Felicity. I want to have all her words and let them spread over me. Or gulp them. Anything. I’m smiling at the poems. Clever, true, open. Unpretentious. Natural and wistful. Whimsical. Nostalgic. Yellow.

I can’t remember which teacher long ago said you always have to read a poem twice, that rule I say to my students as casually as, “the sink is over there.” The person viewing casually over my shoulder is probably wondering what’s taking so long to read a few lines.

I want to take three of her books and spread a blanket on the ground under our oak trees at home. I want to call Layla out to me so we can read poems together. She would love that. Why don’t we do that? Why let the baggage I’ve packed weigh down so heavily that we can’t travel anywhere? Time is running out; she won’t way to lay there with me for another 15 years, and by then she’ll have to schedule me in.

Samira, please remember to take an hour to do this. The house is a vacuum. This imagination is not. Do more of the latter than the former. Making a home is more about the mess, about the grass blades decorating kitchen floor when you come in, not the grass blades you have to wipe up later.

Samira, wake up. Be inside it more. Carve deeper; go past what needs doing and do what you actually want to feel.

I’m in your rip current, Mary. Can you tell?

What if parenting had more to do with our own joy?

Yesterday, I was in the kitchen making soup for my mother in law who is in town. Age seems to have hit her hard these days, and she has a lot of ailments coming at her weakened body. Layla saw me using the hand blender and wanted to get on a stool and blend, too. Such started our moment in the kitchen, our hands hovering above a steamy pot. 

We’d just gotten back from soccer games in the healing Saturday sun, so our energy was invigorated. While in the kitchen, I decided additionally to make mulukhia stew, a traditional middle eastern dish that looks like a one-pot wonder but somehow–in the way of Persian or Arabic cooking– takes a silly-long time to make. While I fried pita chips, Layla wanted to bake pita triangles in the oven with a recipe she got from her class. The kitchen island exploded with olive oil, seasoning, bowls, aluminum foil, cutting boards, and measuring spoons.

As usual in the kitchen, I had some music playing. Humming  “My Favorite Things” from the Sound of Music to the kids is nothing new to them. I’ve dropped in these staple American nodes of my upbringing over the years. My friends joke that I haven’t seen any Star Wars anything, but I know a good bit of our 90s MTV allusions.  The kids always like when I get to the part “when the dog bites, when the bees sting…” I decided to play the soundtrack while we busied ourselves in the kitchen.

Somewhere between the foil and the oil, I looked up and laughed to myself. Here was I, this Persian-American (or is it American-Persian?) cooking her Palestinian mother-in-law’s recipe in my Georgian kitchen with my Arabic-Persian-American daughter who just asked for a set of Baby-Sitters Club books, singing along to an iconic American classic soundtrack from a time when my mom sprinkled a little bit of pop culture on me. So we set up our own new stew.

While the sun was up, I loved this idea. Despite all the multculturalisms and the swirl of how life works in my head, the sun set and the yellow of the day turned its trade. I started thinking about what’s been on my mind the last few months: do we want to give our kids a formulaic upbringing?

On some level, maybe the best outcome could be from the ones who can give kids a traditional, safe upbringing nestled in the suburbs with school events on the calendar that we all attend; little birthday parties and seasonal celebrations; high school sporting events and bigger houses. On another level, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of this from a teacher’s stance and have almost been a part of this current, too. We moved up in homes and went to good high schools and carved out the most meaning of what we had. I suppose its from the vantage point of having lived some of this that makes me want to give the kids even more of some of that American life that wasn’t on the menu for me–more freedom, more school events, more sports, more options. But most importantly, something about this pattern feels, well, like a pattern. In the life so many of my peers are living now, it feels the options we earnestly give our children and the careers we try to build simultaneously make life a little harder than I thought it would.

Last year taught me to cancel more and keep more time. I’ve recognized that planning too much even for myself only creates anxiety; it only creates the feeling that there is no more time. I can’t throw away the calendar, but I can fill it up less. This year feels like it’s asking for more of that, too. I had a conversation with friends where I admitted to wondering what a year “off” felt like. One year with nothing but time, options for more spontaneity before time runs out and the kids’ lives get faster than ours. A year of “no extra” unless spontaneous. 

If I’m truly honest, I think I’m feeling this way more for myself as a parent. I wonder when people take their kids out of school for a year if this is less for the children and more for the parents. An opportunity to live differently and change up the formula.

When I sat atop two beautiful lagoons in Chile, I met a family from Scotland. The family of four was driving through South America. The mom and I talked, and she said she was home schooling the kids this year. As her girls circled around her leg, I found out that her kids were about the same age as my own. She told me that her youngest’s birthday was the following week. “Wow, what a cool way to spend your birthday!” I exclaimed. The mom, almost in a whisper, said that her girl is actually really upset about it. She wants to be at home with her friends and have a party with cupcakes. Despite the mountains in the background, all the little girl wanted was that bite of traditional; what the mom wanted for her and even for herself was something new. And perhaps behind all of this was a set of parents who just wanted to feel what life would be like if it was different for a little while, parents who maybe wanted to enjoy parenthood with their kids instead of finding time for parenthood in the midst of so much life minutia. But, alas, there is no right way, is there?

I don’t know of anyone in my life now who isn’t just doing his or her best to make real sense and meaning. In fact, we were discussing the kids yesterday because of some new challenges, and I brought up that tangential story about the family in Chile. When I was done, Kal said, “So do you want to pack up and do something like that?” I kind of looked away and told him the story is less about doing that and more about this realization that at this stage in the kids’ lives, we as parents have this power to do something different (just knowing we have it makes me wonder what we’ll do with it). In a few years, it won’t be as simple. And Inshallah a few years after that, it won’t be an option because their lives will be more theirs than it is ours. It’s a moment of recognition that my kids’ life is also an experience for us as parents now.

I can’t say I want to slow it all down.  Everything has its own time. I can say that I want to feel it differently. I want to look back and know that I felt, recognized, reflected, and changed parenthood for them and with them. I’m opening up this idea that there are only so many years where parents can have equal parts joy and equal parts effort.  Maybe, just maybe, part of the formula is weighing our own joy in parenting and our life experience just as much as we weigh what brings our kids joy in their life experience. Wouldn’t it be something to elevate–this idea that being a parent is just as relevant if not more than being a child. Wouldn’t it be interesting if they both weighed and counted the same. And wouldn’t it be even that much more interesting if they both eclipse.

December Changes

I spent a few weeks of December frozen in an image of laser focus on grading and on work. With abandon to the stress,  I unravelled good habits and amped up coffee again along with anything else that would get me through to winter break. In the heart of work dramatics, I was laying in a tussled Saturday morning bed with kids strewn across. I was mentally slotting the day when I got shocking news that drew a line between the days before it.  My best friend’s dad, a family friend of over 20 years who we affectionally called Mr. T in short, had passed away. I sat straight up in bed, the jolt of a different day in front of me, and ran to the guest room to call her.

As soon as I graded the last final exam less than a week later, my own father picked me up straight from my school and drove me to the airport to be with Andrea and her family.  I appreciated that he was with me as I grieved for her loss; neither my dad nor I said anything about the obvious juxtaposition, but it whispered over the entire drive.

Andrea is the first of our friends as adults to lose a parent, and I was so shaken by her news, not only for the man who has lived in my memories of our childhood—of drives from the airport when I’d visit from Chicago, of the way his voice said my name, of the shrimp curry lunches he’d prepare for us, of the mischievous jokes he’d make, of the over 40-year old stories he’d tell us regarding his wife, and of the overarching way he loved my best friend—but also of the way I searched every groove of emotion to imagine how Andrea must be feeling. I searched her mind and grieved for each new moment she experienced after texting us with these concrete words: “My dad died.”

IMG_4634

Everything happened so fast that I wrote sympathy cards propped up on my leg at the gate in Atlanta.  I imagined us putting our familiar arms around each other and sobbing right there on the grounds of the Ohio airport.  I imagined how my friend would be changed over time. I needed so desperately to be there for her, and I envisioned my presence beginning in a certain way. Instead, with the perfect twist of comic relief that life throws in when least expected, I walked off the short airplane ride and  fumbled into an unfamiliar rental car. I hugged Andrea awkwardly from the back seat, and within minutes, we landed at the local Red Lobster at the mall, a favorite of her dad’s and grandma’s, and the place the family would gather that night. I hadn’t been at this chain for decades. I wore her husband, Jarrod’s, coat because I hadn’t had a chance to get one warm enough. Everything was so swiftly unexpected yet familiar.

Later, we walked into her new home. She’d inherited this house from her late grandmother recently, and when we sat together in her living room—a mixture of Andrea’s authentic style, incongruous photo walls and stunning travel tokens, and her grandmother’s life, family portraits with dried flowers and her daughters’ original mid-century beds— I told Andrea I felt like I was on Mars. I bounced from one reality to another, one in which we’d be preparing for a funeral the next day. We sat in this home that raised both Andrea’s mom and aunt, and there was an underlying comfort through it all.

IMG_4686

For the two days I was there, after a heart-wrenching but also beautiful funeral where I saw Andrea at her most raw and most heightened adult self, I still felt like I was on another planet. I sat in the backseat when we drove to the cemetery with glorious, mature, bare trees near a university library. I watched Andrea’s mom as she said in soft surprise, “I walked by this cemetery so many times when I was a student here.” When she was a student in the 70s, how could she know that one day she’d bury the husband she’d meet there on that campus and that one day they would both be buried together here? And yet there was that symmetrical life truth as plain and beautiful as an open road, clear only because of the next 50 years of her life that she’d spent living up to this moment.

IMG_4754

After a long and emotional day, we found ourselves inside a protective snow globe, another levity God blessed us with after such a day.  Snow fell outside and the Christmas tree lit the living room. Andrea found tapes her mom had made over 40 years ago while in courtship with Mr. T. In a house whose walls heard the story of three generations, we gathered around a dusty boombox. We heard the beginning of their romance. We heard Mr. T’s young voice, with an accent aspiring to all the things he’d become later in life. In those personal exchanges in a life that wasn’t mine, I heard an echo of something familiar, maybe faith in my own life and how it can one day round out to something. An understanding of what is truly extracted from a long life with someone, a sentiment about celebrating life and what got us to where we are. In those tapes were the underbelly of life’s hardships all boiled down to an innocent exchange, a ghoncheh—a bloom—of what would be the most important intersection of her life and then consequently of Andrea’s life. There, the parents I’d known all these years became cooler than us, younger than us. Their details hadn’t bloomed yet, but we sat there with all the associations of their life reeled out before us, and it became a story.

IMG_4873

I’m writing this now in a carriage house at a beach we used to come to when the kids were toddlers. I’m in a small den upstairs with an overflowing suitcase opened next to me and the constant sounds of kids bickering all over. I’ve imagined finally writing at the cozy bookstore I love here. Each morning I walked on the beach at sunrise and thought in metaphors, but I could never make real writing happen. Never a perfect moment I could anticipate. This trip is proof of that. This vacation felt like a mistake most moments. The kids no longer like the idea of a cold beach; they don’t buy into sweaters on the beach and bundled up scenic walks. We spent most of the trip exasperated trying to consolidate whims and moods with our whims and moods. Learning about the four of us under a different roof was unsettling. We spent most nights in bed by 8:30 pm weathered by parenting. At some point, I sat outside on a cold bench and wrote in my journal, “I surrender.” Surrendering took two days. The third day was better. Yesterday was the best. We actually had a family moment where we laughed until we cried. We rode bikes and took pictures at a candy store. We even ate dinner at a restaurant and made it through dessert without compensating for each other. But it was a hard won day.

IMG_4921 2

IMG_4917

IMG_4881

In the morning light now, I’m on a crumpled bed with damp towels drying in front of me, a rummaged, overflowing suitcase next to me, and two siblings who love quietly and bicker loudly. I’m writing this now because it’s the eve of the new year. Nothing about this setting is inspiring, but I’ve surrendered. It’s the only way I can save my might for other lessons to learn.

When we were outside last night by the restaurant, I felt like I might have a chill, but I couldn’t tell if I was actually cold or if I was feeling what the kids may not have been articulating. Sometimes, this is the hardest and most beautiful thing about being a parent: you’re feeling you while you’re feeling them. The empathy is an exhausting miracle. My kids are changing; our dynamic with them in a lot of ways has to change, too, and with that comes a natural sadness. But that maternal simultaneous feeling I have with them is something that will always be with me in its weight and in its beauty. When I talked to Andrea’s mom after I heard the news, she cried that she has to be strong for Andrea; she doesn’t know how she can do it for herself, but she has to be strong for Andrea. In her mind, her daughter’s pain was even harder to bear than the quiet house she’d return to after she’s back home.IMG_4894

I have to remember the warm faith of that night after Andrea’s dad’s funeral. In his eulogy and in the words of his family members, I understood firmly that most everything worth anything is usually not like how you’d pictured it. His dreams for his life broke many times before he could pull himself back into them, and he insisted on bringing his loved ones with him as he burrowed into newer dreams. But it seems like if you do your life well enough and have some good fortune and investment in good people, that some beautiful poetry of your life can be recited and rounded out and delivered through the mouths of those who have witnessed your most raw and surrendering moments. That these markers of your world will be the echo you need to move on to the next note and the next note, through the changing sounds and the drops you can’t expect, through the small symbolic changes to the big stuff—these are stuff of this life, I see. And this is a life to which I surrender palms up, sometimes feeling at the particles like surprising shell fractures through the strain, sometimes straining to gather the prose through it, and always thinking with it and what it’s snowing down.

IMG_4871

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.

IMG_4134

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.

IMG_4137

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.

IMG_4139

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.

IMG_2803

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.

IMG_2833

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.

IMG_2758

IMG_2786

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.

IMG_2814

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.

IMG_2844

IMG_2863IMG_2861IMG_2886

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.

IMG_2883

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.

FullSizeRender

Window

IMG_2376

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.

IMG_2456

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.

SubstandardFullSizeRender 8

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.

IMG_2430But my focus included this independent spider who untangled something out of its careful design.

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.

IMG_2451

New Framing Turf

IMG_1861

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. 

IMG_1858