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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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.

Like Jungle Flowers

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My academic breaks pretty much never line up with my husband’s entrepreneur life. So over the years, typical breaks like spring break became a time I would stay home with the babies and heal them from that cough they caught at school or relieve them from the pace of a long school day. As they got older, we continued with this pattern, adding productive tasks like cleaning out closets and preparing for the next week.  They are getting older and our break-life is changing, and so am I.

On Friday of last week, I felt this crazy dread of the laundry-list of chores; I foresaw images of my productive energy feeling misspent on preparing for the next week instead of following the hum of this one. We were supposed to attend a wedding in Chicago, and when we could no longer go, my disappointment and my acknowledgement of what I did not want the week to be, caused me to make a change.

I googled “beaches in Georgia” and a few clicks and a state later, I booked a trip to Amelia Island with the kids. I’ve never been there before and never taken a long road trip with the kids by myself. The trip has felt like a momventure to me; if we got badges as humans, I’d get one in the shape of a wave for this one, and I’d try to iron it on before the iron was even hot enough. Like I imagine other peoples’ lives and wonder about their innerworkings, I know, for me, this 3-day trip equates a growth and independence that is a tendency I’ve been nurtured away from, which is why every independent gesture feels so special.

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So two days later, I bought bathing suits from Target and filled up my car with gas. Kal checked the oil and helped pack up the car. I let the kids pack whatever they wanted; the back seat was filled with throw blankets, unicorns, bears, the Switch, crackers, and books. We stopped at Publix to get subs and chips. I downloaded an 80s and 90s playlist for the occasion, and off we drove. I didn’t plan it, but “Don’t Stop Believin” started the journey.

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The Inn I booked ended up being perfect in its simplicity. Breakfast was made by a young woman who wore a bandana like Rosie the Riveter, a sign I nodded to inside my heart. The kids had some trouble getting over the cold Atlantic and the gravel sand that skinned their knees. But what we got was the blessing of the unexpected: the first night there, a folk band with an alluring fiddle player performed original music at a restaurant nearby. Both kids were enthralled, nodding their head to the music. The band was probably 20 years older than me, and they sang with that much experience. Each night the kids wanted to go back to this spot so they could see more live acts “that gave me [them] this feeling, mommy.” By the third band on our last day, they asked me to download songs like “American Pie” and “Sweet Caroline” to listen to on the way home.

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Our little suite had a balcony that was small enough to hang some wet clothes on and enough to get that ocean wind fix in the room, but it wasn’t one I wanted to write or read on, something I vaguely hoped I could do. What ended up happening at night instead is that I read The One and Only Ivan, a book Layla has been recommending to me for a year.  I read her book each night  and finished it the day we came back. I didn’t write (or grade) while they slept, but something better happened: each morning Layla woke up and likely saw her book sitting on my side of the bed. The little book about lives changing other lives, partly about a young girl’s artistic inclination and its triumph, became the literary measure of the trip. Like Ivan given new paints to reveal a message he’s trying to figure out, my heart glowed “like jungle flowers” as we experienced this little break together.

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Books, in fact, became a highlight of the trip when the kids spent hours in a book store in the historic section of the island, which got Zade tucking a book under his arm on the way to each meal. He has turned into a little worm even more these days. I also witnessed his sheer desire to do anything he could to make people around him smile–from jumping in freezing water to encourage his sister to do the same or from making up silly handshakes with kids at the park–this kid is a little extrovert with a big heart. And I got to witness it all alone, a chosen state–nourished by a husband and a home back in Georgia–without gearing my attention to making all of us content. Instead, I was able to just blend into the moment as me and a mom rather than consistently doing a litmus test of the four of us, one a mom and wife knows well. I threw in detours like a visit to a lighthouse by just checking within.

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One thing I asked of the kids was to take an early-morning walk after breakfast on the beach, an unpopulated area where empty spaces let the mind wander.  The water was freezing, the wind was freezing, so I asked the kids to just walk with me and dip their toes in if they wanted until it warmed up and we could go upstairs to change later for some water play.

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They conceded for me, and they ended up finding the “best shells” and chasing “the best waves” on our walk. I hardly got a walk in, but I didn’t care because they looked surprised they were having a good time. What a beautiful gift, seeing kids surprised at their joy. I made a point to say yes to holding their shells in one hand, hanging on my arm their clothes that were peeling off every hundred feet.

I could see Zade searching my face every time he got closer to falling into a wave. Later, when I asked them about their top moments during our short adventure, they noted that morning walk; Layla said, “I looked at you, and you were smiling at us when we were getting all wet again like you told us not to, and I knew you were happy and that it was okay. You were having fun, too.”

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Our drive home was filled with a mental gratitude list. In traffic, I played a Calm Masterclass on gratitude and let the kids take from it what they heard. I wanted the kids to come home safely, and when we hit our main road, I exhaled a prayer so thankful that we did something for me, for us, for the week, and life returned back to usual as soon as I walked up the side-door steps. If you walked into our house an hour after our arrival, you’d smell a simmering stew and hear the faint knocking of zippers going round and round in the dryer.  Kids with damp hair and fresh pajamas were in bed just in time for me to turn the page on our trip.

The eccentric greek bar owner in the second Mamma Mia gets young Donna to grab the mic and sing. She says she can’t just sing just like that. He says, “Here on the island, everything is just like that. You think too much, you get unhappy. Thinking and all this, it’s pretty much a mistake.” I know I’m a teacher who encourages analysis, and we spend most of our lives up there in our heads, but hypocrisy to the ocean wind: that line is the truth right now.

This trip marks a spontaneous and independent bookmark on overthinking a little less and re-learning a little more.  Like Tamara Levitt’s masterclass, the best type of happy isn’t a feeling of excitement or productivity; those are great and separate. It’s one of surprise and gratitude. Had I let practicality or fear take over, two usual (but aging) suspects in my way, had I let myself stay comfortable in routine, or had I overthought the details of this trip, it’s likely I’d submit to previous outcomes and miss not only a chance at proving something to myself and my family but also re-learning simple gifts about life.

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A Nintendo Aphorism

In one of the writing electives I teach, I start out the semester with the loosest guidelines possible. I tell students the relative end game and ask them how they want to get there. The allure of the class–perhaps both in teaching it and in taking it–is the truth that we are on the journey together. I know a few things about teaching; you know a few things about googling, so let’s put it our brains together and invest in the class together.

The class was interested in talking about zodiacs, astrology, and personality types. So two different students who light up about these subjects spoke to our class over a couple days, thrilling us with notions of ourselves–giving us an a la carte language by which we can figure ourselves out. A quarter of my class is Taurus, so the introverted bulls nodded to each other; a third of my class is introverted, and they smiled slyly when the video clip said introverts may tell you, “I’m fine,” because they don’t care to spend taxing emotional energy explaining themselves to strangers.

As I gave them options for our lesson this week, they gave me the “yes please!” gestures when I mentioned Shonda Rhimes’ resolution to push her introverted workaholic self to say yes to everything for a year. It took two minutes of listening to her to know without a doubt that she must also be a Capricorn. When she said her consistent, vibrant work gives her this “hum,” I couldn’t help but remember when I tried to name an inconsistent but reliable spike of creativity as “zam” so I could point at it in a real way.  And when I looked at her and saw a mom of 3 who struggles with playtime, she became like so many women I know. And then per usual I knew the talk fell into my lap for a reason. Not only did I go home and play hide and seek with the kids for 15 minutes but also I figured something out:  I have reached a time in the year where I’m burning out, but I don’t want to relax just yet, and I’m sad I’ve had to pause some systems to keep others going.

Like my fellow Capricorns, productivity in whichever form is an essential part of my day.  But I don’t always allocate my time right, at least not right for me. And sometimes I finish something just to finish it. And when I bury what I want to complete in order to complete essential tasks, I get really down on myself.  I may vent to my friends about what is going on during a weekend or during a class day, and I can sometimes get a hint of the following look: why are you doing all that or in that way?

This doesn’t mean I’m doing more at work than my peers or more work as a mom for my family. What it does mean is that I drive myself a little nutty with pursuing or weighing each “should do” because there is something inside insisting it is my responsibility to do it since the idea came to me.

This weekend while I was cooking lunch and spinning with Sunday housework, my brother set up the Nintendo Switch, an eagerly-awaited Norooz gift for the kids. Hours later I sat down to see what old games it offered. When I saw my favorite old game, Super Mario Bros. 3, I won’t lie; I almost cried at the display of the yellow overworld map, a throwback to a time my own brother and I bridged our 7-year gap with sweaty controller-hands and high fives. A few rounds of playing later, I have no idea how my silly momentum got me trapped. I took this comical picture below and shared it with some students on Monday.

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But what makes me laugh about the picture is where I am as the player. Just look at the picture again. Lately, I feel I may be that little Mario looking at the question mark because I lost my energy somewhere among school, social, and work life. But look harder at my predicament. I’m literally stuck down there going back and forth, back and forth with vigor and good intentions to get to the next level. One student asked me, “How did you even get trapped in there?

Another student took her one earbud out and said casually, “It’s a glitch. There is nothing you can do about the glitch. It’s what makes the game great.

And there it is. Out of the mouth of babes, from the hot game of the 90s, through the ridiculous Sunday moment, comes the most unusual connection befitting this often ENFJ Capricorn.

Exhibits

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We walked in and out of 7 art installations today.  An attendant timed our experience, opening the door for new group rotations every 20 or 60 seconds depending on the installation. Each time we walked in, we were visually stirred with lights or dots or pumpkins in a new way, awakening our senses like a visual carnival. Every time I set my purse in the cubby and walked into a 3-man exhibit, I was ready to be surprised.  

Months ago I got tickets to see what a student recently returning from New York said was a magnificent show coming to Atlanta’s High Museum. I got tickets based on her description and the website’s hype as to how Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit will sell out immediately. I panicked when my online turn came up as the bell rang at school, and I accidentally got tickets for a weekday. So today came, and we all played hooky and went on a “field trip.” The best part of the trip was–without fanciful responsibility to feel this way–seeing how much the kids enjoyed it, both of them wanting to take another round at some of the infiniti mirrors experiences.

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On the way to an exhibit encouraging us to experience love as Kusama designed it, there was a line of artwork, starting with a piece that was so simple I didn’t photograph it. In fact, I didn’t take a lot of pictures especially in the installs because I wanted to actually feel it for myself and not through the lense. I’m glad Kal snapped a crooked picture of the sketch for me when I confessed I have no idea why I like it so much, this small doodle of dots in the presence of so many other more sophisticated pieces.

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Clearly Kusama, whose exhibition occupies an entire floor, is coveted, and my small entry into her world, and my surprise in looking at this piece that surely art students around the world have elevated and examined is naive. But the act of its personal resonance and how I talked about it later tonight connects –in the way of art crumbs and timing–to my entry into Mary Oliver’s poetry.

Oliver was renowned and already recognized for brilliance long before she,with her eyes up to the trees or through the morning, came into my life. Some of my friends sought guidance from Oliver’s poetry years ago, and all of us agree that it is the magnitude of her plain expression that swoons us and then balances our vision.

In fact, every tribute or article of her life that I read last night mentions her poetry’s notoriety, accessibility, and simplicity. Summer Brennan, once Oliver’s student, wrote a unique little look into Oliver in The Paris Review yesterday. Brennan remarks on how long that simplicity could often take; in one example, she notes one of Oliver’s published poems had stayed in draft format for 12 years. Even more beautiful is Oliver’s willingness to bring in “failed poems” to dissect with students to help them improve. 

When Oliver says “the world offers itself to your imagination,” and when she reminds us that “every morning the world is created,” or when she says, “you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your life depends on it, and, when the times comes to let it go, to let it go,” we instinctually bow our head because, gently, she put the spoon near our mouth. 

Artistic threads just help pull up a grey January. When I watched this film last week and watched interviews like this one about it, I fixated on how the art was born and what it did to the people making it–what are the circumstances of their magic? Thinking about art and wanting to quietly commemorate her life, I re-read this article about Oliver and her late partner last night; Mary’s poetry and Molly’s photography complemented each other over their 40 year relationship (see this glimpse into their lives).  In a different journey, I wonder, what life circumstances brought Yayoi Kusama to say this?: 

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Maybe it’s the English teacher in me that cannot divorce artistic appreciation from wondering how an artists’ work affected his or her real life.

While on our excursion from the routine, Kal was getting call after call from real life because that’s in full swing, and we oscillated in and out of that real-life during the art-life we were immersed in temporarily. For as long as my life allows it, I want to be carried away with art-life phrases like “orange sticks of the sun,” songs born out of magic, or art born out of necessity that help simplify and resound because there is always and always other life that is also in full swing.