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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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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.

Chile: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VI

Why does the night fly

with so many holes in his hat?

What does the ancient ash say

when it walks next to the fire?

Why do clouds weep so often

and yet they seem happier?

For whom do the sun’s pistols burn

under the shadow of the eclipse?

How many bees does a day have?

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

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

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

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

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

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