Friday, December 28, 2012

Goodwill Aisles

This afternoon on our trip to Goodwill, my daughter and I found a jar filled with tiny baby heads with a baby doll head glued to the top.  It seemed like something from the set of Portlandia.  A young woman who kept singing along to "That's What Friends Are For" was following us around the store.  We met her at first in the shoe aisle.  She commented on how cute my daughter was.  I thanked her and noted how singable these songs were that were being played since I was humming along too.

She approached me a few minutes later to ask me about some candle holders.  She wanted to know how they worked and if they were safe.  I could tell right away something about this lady's brain didn't work in a straight line.  She looked my age or younger, short dark hair, cute scarf, cute lady.  I explained to her how they worked and said that she should be careful to blow candles out when she leaves.

"Oh, so you mean that I should blow them out if I run to the kitchen?"

"No, I think just if you leave the house.  You have to be careful with candles."

"Okay, yeah, that makes sense.  Your daughter is so cute."

She trailed us through the picture aisle, the toy aisle, the electronics, and finally the books.  She laughed at my daughter as she declared all broken toys defective and useless.  She giggled as my daughter tried to get a spinning top to work.  She was always about eight feet away.  She smiled and apologized anytime she came near me or anyone else.  She had a good singing voice.

As I stood in line to pay for my $3 ceramic cow creamer, she left the store.  She waved as she walked out.  She was holding a Starbucks cup.  I wondered where she was going.

What is it about these types of folks that make us so guarded and nervous?  The fragile people we meet in the aisles of Goodwill.  Where was this fragile lady off to on a chilly December night?  I hope she remembers me and my daughter with kindness.  I hope God keeps warmth and kindness around her tonight.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Reader

Michael Jackson dance party going on as I write this, not just in the house, but in the room, right behind me.  A lesson in moon-walking to my right.  "You Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" at a comfortable level though it's not my son's favorite, "Smooth Criminal."

He is dancing as fast as he possibly can, spinning so fast he falls down and jumps right up thanks to the springs in his hiney.

Tonight he wanted to practice reading one of his Christmas presents, a boxed set of ten short books about Star Wars.  We picked the second book which focuses on the "short e" sound, and as we went page by page, I was amazed at how, within the last month, he can suddenly read.  As he read this book tonight about the close friendship of Han Solo and Chewie, I felt a little the way I did when he crawled and walked for the first time.  My child suddenly reading is such a milestone.  As a former literature major, I couldn't help feeling nostalgic and verklempt as I watched my youngest child figure out how to decipher symbols on a page into sounds and meaning.

Thank you, Scholastic Books, for choosing this photo for the back cover of Book 2 in your Star Wars boxed set of early readers.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Cards and Photos

Dining room built-ins covered in holiday cards and photos of the ones who sent them, my favorite thing about this time of year.

After spending all day Christmas eve cooking, we ate yesterday: fancy breakfast food, sausage and shrimp gumbo, sweet potato casserole, roasted brussels sprouts, dirty rice, cornbread, collard greens, ambrosia salad, pumpkin pie, and peppermint cookies.  I didn't eat breakfast this morning: still wasn't hungry.

Gifts opened, just the four of us.

An evening walk in the dark, cold drizzle.  The dog's head wrapped in a Russian-style napkin-scarf.  Another late bedtime.

I packed away a lot of the decorations this afternoon after going in to work for a few hours.  The tree is still up.  It will go down maybe tomorrow. 

I'll leave the cards and photos up through January.  I'm hoping it helps through my bleakest month.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Old Friend

This afternoon, an old friend we haven't seen in probably two years showed up on our front door step with presents for our kids.  I was shocked.  I'd sent his family a Christmas card, and we'd sent a couple catch-up texts back and forth trying to make plans to get our families together soon.  He'd asked what our kids were into these days, but I didn't answer him because I didn't want him buying them presents.

When our son turned three, he showed up at our house on the day of the party with a Woody the Cowboy doll, which was his own son's favorite character from the movie.  He gushed about how wonderful the last movie was, how it will make any parent cry.

Our friend is from Ethiopia, and all the Ethiopians I know seem to have a burning need to buy presents for people.  He wouldn't let me give him tea or coffee (probably knowing anything I offer would never be as good as what he's used to), saying that his teenage son was in the car and that he had other deliveries to make.  I got our kids out of their pre-church bath, wrapped them in towels, and brought them in to see him.  There were hugs and quick updates about jobs and travels.

There are few things that compare to the joy of unexpectedly seeing an old friend.  This surprise reconnection plus the deep, earthy sound of our pastor's mother-in-law belting out "Go Tell it on the Mountain" at tonight's service made it feel like Christmas Eve.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ho, Ho, Ho

As I took a break to pee in the blissful quiet of my neighbor's bathroom, gratitude came spilling into my consciousness on behalf of my daughter, the one who has been here for only sixteen months.  She is, as I write this, next door at the annual "Fishmas" party pretending to steal people's teeth and 'ho ho ho'ing as Santa, granting wishes.  She is drunk on Christmas cheer.  A few minutes ago, she ran to me where I was sitting on the couch, climbed on my lap, and started biting my cheek.  Drunk on cheer.  All I could do was laugh.

When I see my children this happy, I am so awake to the elusive bliss this life offers.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Cleaning House

Today we cleared out old stuff in preparation for Christmas.  I left my son's bed for last and had him pull everything out.  We had a pile of stuffed animals, puzzle pieces, dirty socks and shorts, binoculars, a bent black-and-white photo of my wedding dress.  You know, normal stuff a five-year-old boy would have.

I changed his sheets and as he arranged his animals back on his bed, he told me, "I feel totally new when my bed is this clean."  It was reassuring to me that he appreciates cleanliness even if he isn't prone to making it happen independently.

My husband and I prepped for three batches of cookies today.  The kids danced to "Black or White" (classic MJ) and "Gangnam Style."

My son and his best friend made wet farts on their arm and then burped for a ten minute drive home.

My daughter told me this morning, "Mom I bet shoes can't be OB doctors."  (She is understanding absurdist humor at an early age).

 Yesterday on our way down the mountain from sledding, we stopped into a local coffee place for hot chocolate.  A TV showing one of those awful 24-hour news stations was on, and we watched a few seconds about John Kerry's nomination for secretary of state as we waited for our drinks.  Our kids still know nothing about what happened last Friday, so I was on edge, keeping one vigilant eye on the screen.  Sure enough, as they were settling in to a table, the news went to that story, and I made a mad rush to turn it off.  The lady from Texas sitting on the couch knitting told me that she's a "news junkie" who "cuts the TV on without thinking."  I'm glad she was cool with my panicked cutting it off.

This commercial came on before that silly South Korean dance-craze video, and it ended up making both my husband and I cry.  I am a cynic when it comes to celebrities offering their voice to a 'cause' but in this case, well, I get it.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Marriage

Tonight my daughter told me who her brother wants to marry.  She gave some obvious hints that helped me guess on the first try.  It was no surprise; she's a great girl.  He told me though that they will still live with me when they're married.  When I asked why, he mumbled, "You know."

I said, "so I can cook for you?"

"No...you know why."

Turns out it's because he still wants us to cuddle his mom.  He was disgusted by the idea of cuddling his wife.  I love this age. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Fear

Today I spent with my daughter and one of her friends.  We got dressed together before anyone else was awake. She made her own cheese toast breakfast and the girls told each other embarrassing stories about their brothers in the car.  At my work, they helped out and were rewarded with Whitman's chocolates, Werthers, lunch they could eat with their fingers, and a hula hoop from one of my coworkers for Christmas.

I come in the back door usually at work, but today it was locked because apparently, a mentally unstable fella waltzed in yesterday afternoon ranting about the end of the world.  It scared the receptionist, as it would, so we took that little extra measure of security today.  It made me think about how this holiday season seems have been soaked in melancholy, grieving, and fear.  I feel it myself.  I've found myself putting on a happy face and trying to compartmentalize for the sake of my kids.  If I didn't have other people in my house affected by the tone I set as a parent, I think I'd be spending a lot of this season holed up at home reading the news followed by heady books like Man's Search For Meaning and We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (both sitting unread on my shelf).

 One of my daughter's friends from school invited her to come ice skating this afternoon, and when we got to her house after my work, I found out that she already had a friend over but that the parents wouldn't let her go to a mall.  They're feeling that fear themselves, the cloud that is following so many around this year.  I completely get it.  When we got the invitation to ice skate, my brain went to that same place.  Earlier this week when my husband and I had to make a Christmas shopping trip there, I felt the same urgency to get out of the crowd after we'd been there about half an hour.  It was not my normal dislike of crowds telling me it was time to leave; it was fear of violence.

I don't want to live in fear, so we went skating anyway.  It wasn't easy for me.  The girls, of course, felt nothing but excitement about the spontaneous trip.  When we got there, I found one of the seniors from Ethiopia in my program at work, one I've known for over three years now ever since my son was a baby.  He's easy to spot now that he's in a motorized wheelchair.  He can be a  belligerent old stinker who expresses his political opinions tactlessly and orders around the guy who gives him discounted drip coffee, but I like him a lot anyway.  He likes me too.  He's got a great smile which he offers pretty freely between his standard frown.  My kids are a little scared of his neutral face.

We talked for about forty-five minutes as the girls skated.  He commended me for adopting two kids from two different regions of Ethiopia, telling me that I'm bringing people together, as if we'd planned the adoptions for that purpose.

He flashed his perfect, straight, white-toothed smile at me, and  I was glad I went into that crowded mall.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Nail

I didn't realize until I was settled into bed for the night yesterday that I'd missed posting.  My first miss.

Tonight, I'm finding it hard to write.  One issue is that it's literally hard to write: I got a small piece of wood jammed under my thumbnail on my right hand yesterday morning, and it hurt so bad that I got light-headed and nauseated.  That finger is now constantly throbbing and hot.  But go to the doctor, you ask?  For this?  Never.

The pain kept me up for a while last night, and today I worry the same might happen, that my brain will fixate on this foreign object lodged deeply under my thumbnail.  In that middle-of-the-night state-of-mind, I start to imagine getting out the antiseptic and doing my own small surgery in our bathroom.

Funny how one tiny little thing in the wrong place affects so much.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Season

Our kids were being picked up and thrown onto a fold-out couch in the upstairs attic "dream room" at a house belonging to a friend of my husband's agent who is comfortable with hosting large crowds of these loud artistic-types.  The room was lined with white couches with one table and lamp in the middle along with the fold-out couch.  They were thrown, and thrown, and thrown again by a talented young actor in town who appears most weeks on a popular, local, live radio show.

Though shy when we first walked in to the party, they warmed up quickly to the many loud personalities in the room.  They ate bean dip, salmon, crackers with cheese, pumpkin pie, too many cookies to count.  It was all classic holiday party food.  They played guessing games with other guests.  They sneaked crackers to the small opportunist spaniels roaming the party looking for treats.  Sufjan Stevens, Feliz Navidad, Nat King Cole...music mingled with the constant loud of hum of adult voices. 

My children lived it up.  On the car ride home, my daughter asked me, "Mom, can you play Abe Lincoln or Barack Obama in a movie?"  I laughed a little at the idea of me dressed up as one of our presidents, but I know that in our daughter's mind after leaving a party full of actors, why shouldn't her mom be able to participate too?  As we got closer to our house, she sang at the top of her lungs a made-up song with lyrics like, "Christmas is the best time of ever with reindeers and cookies, and I love Merry Christmas."  She is seven.

 As I write this, she's standing on the back of the chair I'm sitting on combing my hair, a ritual we have because she knows I love it. 

It hit me tonight on our ride home that my kids are experiencing this year the kind of holiday season I remember having as a kid: loud parties, sugar, late bedtimes.  It makes me happy.  It really does.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Mourners


"Our tears are on your shoulders and our hands are in yours."

Saturday, December 15, 2012

For When You Find Out

My friend Julie wrote something today that explained well my feelings.  Here is my own letter to my children.

As I write this, you are sitting next to me on our basement couch eating popcorn, apples, and satsumas while watching one of my favorite movies, The Muppet Christmas Carol.  I keep quoting it as we watch, and then you ask me questions about what's going on.  You laughed when Rizzo the Rat kissed Gonzo (Charles Dickens) on the nose and also when the cat banged into the door.  I love your laughter, and I am so glad you know nothing about what happened today in Connecticut.

I dropped you both off at school this morning and handed out our home-made gifts of cookies and candy to both your teachers and the librarian.  At work, I finished a letter to be included in an immigration application on behalf of a client, the one who regularly buys you gum and hot chocolate when we see him at the mall.  As I started on writing a letter of reference to graduate school for one of our volunteers, I picked up my phone and saw the headline that appears there from The New York Times.  The awful headline that I hope you don't know about for a very long time.  My pulse increased, and I checked for more news.

As I realized the severity of what had happened, my thoughts turned to you tucked away in your kindergarten and first grade classrooms.  I called the school and when the younger secretary picked up, my hands started shaking.  I asked her about the doors, if the doors were locked.  I, through tears and shaking voice, told her that I'd lived through a similar event fifteen years ago and needed her to tell me the doors were secure.  She sent me to the principal, who gave me safety-policy talking-points, which made me angry.  I didn't want to hear that.  I wanted to know that you were safe until I could get to you.  I argued with the principal and told her that someone needed to guard the doors because of the risk of copy-cats.  Kids, your mom lost her shit this morning in fear that someone might hurt you. 

One of my coworkers from Eritrea, the really young pretty one who flirted with you at the holiday party this afternoon my son, handed me tissues as I cried through the conversation with the principal and secretary.  She patted my shoulder as I talked on the phone.  I hung up and went to stand by myself in the bathroom.   I stayed there for a few seconds, willing my brain not to imagine horrific images, then walked back outside, and called your dad.  I stood in the cold outside next to our community garden as it rained. It was the cold and my nerves that had my hands shaking so badly that I nearly dropped the phone a couple of times.  I couldn't breathe.  I wanted both of you in my arms.

Your dad made me promise not to watch any of the news.  He knows me well (and knows you well too so you should pay attention to his wisdom).  I met with our Oromo friend who read the letter I wrote for him.  He approved.  He gave me a Christmas card, and we shook hands.  As this was the only pressing thing for me to do, I turned off my computer and nearly ran to the car so I could get to you.

I drove a little faster than I usually do and had my visitor badge on before even walking into the building.  I checked in at the office upstairs and then went to your first grade classroom where you were sitting on a desk playing a game with your class.  I hugged you.  Your teacher, at this point, did not know what had happened.  I told her the briefest of information and said I'd be back.  I went downstairs to find your brother.

Your class was washing hands in preparation for lunch.  The so sweet 'trouble-maker' kid in class who I have such a soft spot for ran and hugged me, then asked if I'd sit next to him when he found out I was eating lunch with you.  As we sat together in that noisy cafeteria, more and more staff of your school started gathering the details about what had happened.  We all spoke to each other in hushed tones and shared knowing looks and nods.  I helped your friends open cartons on milk and listened to you all talk about the best and worst hot lunches at school.  The assistant principal came to our table and sat with you and hugged.  You love her a lot, so I snapped a picture of you together, her very own "mini-me" as you have come to be known, my little girl, a leader in training.

We left school right after lunch.  As you gathered your things in your classrooms, your kindergarten teacher had apparently heard from the secretary and principal about my freak-out this morning, so she gave me a long hug, telling me how hard this is.  I've always said that she's a lot like Fred Rogers, one of our favorites, and in this moment, it felt very much so.  I am so thankful she was and is your teacher, that we've been able to have her in our lives for two years.

You ate Russian cream horns and Somalian sambusas at my office holiday party yesterday afternoon after school.  For those two hours, I was able to enjoy the moment, and you both were the social butterflies you are so famous for being.  You flitted from table to table, getting hugs from my coworkers, and leading others by hand in games.  My son, you had your own small meltdown when your sister's raffle ticket was called for a prize instead of yours.  Lucky for you that my own ticket was called soon after because I thrust my ticket in your hand for you to get that remote-controlled helicopter while your dad rolled his eyes at me, the sucker.

Now here I am finishing this post a day later as you play at your friends' house a mile away.  I admit that it wasn't the easiest thing letting you leave this morning, but I consoled myself knowing that the mom whose house you're at is a doctor, so I have that safety net to count on.  I am looking forward to your getting back home soon.

Just a few minutes ago, the names of the twenty first-graders and five adults were released to the media.  I read every name, thinking of the names and faces of your classmates.  Several of the names are the same.

Fred Rogers said to look for the helpers.  Look for them if anything bad is ever happening to you.  One of the teachers who survived yesterday said that she told her kids as they hid together in a closet that she loved them.  She wanted them to know that they were loved, in case that was the last thing they heard in this life.

Be like her.  Be a helper.  Reach above your own fear and extend love and help to others who are smaller and weaker than you are.

 Whenever you do learn of this terrible day right before Christmas 2012, this is what I want you to know.

Look for the helpers and make it your life's work to become one of them.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Helpers

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” - Mr. Rogers

Thursday, December 13, 2012

My Freh

I have become friends with a woman who immigrated to this country from west Africa over twenty years ago.  I'm not even sure where to start in writing about her because she's such a huge personality.  One of the biggest joys of 2012 for me was becoming her "freh" (friend). 

Her oldest daughter left earlier this year for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps--Ethiopia.  She has been calling her every couple weeks but hasn't been able to reach her for the last week.  She's been nervous about this, understandably.  She's planning on visiting her there in the fall of 2013 in time for her birthday, and we've already started looking at plane tickets.

This week I remembered that someone I work with was a Peace Corps: Ethiopia volunteer until last year, so I went by her office to ask if she might talk to my friend.  She went on to a Peace Corps facebook page and quickly found my friend's daughter.  There was a gorgeous picture of her standing in Ethiopia next to an elder orthodox priest.  I was so excited to tell my friend.

Today on the way to work, I told her to remind me to show her the photo, so right before she left for the day, she did.  We scurried to my computer and quickly found the photo.  The look on my friend's face made my stomach do flips.  She clapped in joy and couldn't stop smiling.  We have a brand-new printer at work, so I printed her a 8x10 color copy of the photo, which she says she's going to frame this weekend.  I could hardly say goodbye to her because she was calling all her friends to tell them about seeing her sojourning daughter.

Earlier this morning, she'd gone with me to a grocery store where she bought pineapple juice for her sore arm, and tonight when I dropped it off at her house (she took the bus home from my job) while she was at her zumba class, I felt so grateful for the ease of our friendship.  I am lucky.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

When We're Old

Kindergarten afternoon.  The kids are sitting on the floor watching their teacher.  I stand in the back, coat in hand, purse on shoulder.  A minute or two passes.  My son, the social one, looks around and notices me in the back.  He smiles, and I smile back.  He kisses his hand, blows it to me.  I kiss mine, blow it to him.  He catches it and puts it in his pocket.

These days are numbered.  My little boy who wants to give me a second kiss, even in the first-grade hallway if the first one was 'off'. 

Tonight I baked two batches of Christmas treats for the teachers in our life.  I was tired.  I came over and sat down at the dining room table where homework was happening.   I put my head down on the table, and my son said, "You are tired, mom."  He reached over and put his hand on my arm.  In the touch of his hand on my arm, I could feel his hand at age forty or fifty, as he is a man who has lived a bulk of his life.

The other night when I went up to bed, I found him in the bathroom two hours after his bedtime.  He was half asleep, so I picked him up to take him back to bed.  I cradled my five-year-old in my arms and said to him, "Take care of us when we're old." He nodded.

When he's fifty, and I'm eighty, I know he'll still catch the kisses I blow to him from across the room.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Thank God

I could never be any sort of administrator.  The stress of trying to wrangle too-big personalities and narcissists who self-promote under the guise of philanthropy makes my neck burn red and creep up into my cheeks with the onset of nausea.  I am not exaggerating.  It's that stressful to me.  So today at work, I felt deep relief to be at my beloved tasks of tending to elders by doing things such as hugging, checking in on those with doctors' appointments, giving the one who lives close to my kids' school a lift like we always do on Tuesday mornings, helping another work on his application to bring his wife here (a wife he has not seen in five years). 

At one point this afternoon, two of the East African staff began talking about a little girl they know who suffers with nightmares about witchdoctors in Ethiopia whom she calls "buda."  This led to a discussion about the supernatural folktales of rural regions and how it affects those who grow up being told that certain families are of the devil, can possess others and cause blood to leak from their eyes, and ride on the hyenas in the darkness of night.  No wonder this poor girl has nightmares.  Those are some scary images there.

Scary also was the moment when I got a text from a friend-like-family back home across the country asking if I was okay and letting me know about the shooting that had just happened in my city.  I hadn't heard about it before that point as we texted while I sat next to my daughter during her dentist appointment.  I immediately read on the news that two had been killed, more wounded, and of course, my heart started pounding in sense-memory of this day fifteen years ago.

I went on facebook and saw the messages from locals expressing their shock and letting their people know they are safe.  What bothers me is when people then say they are "thankful," especially those who had been close to the crime scene.  How does thankfulness ever factor in to this?  On that day fifteen years ago when I was down the hall from a shooter who killed two, I never at any point afterwards felt thankful.  Thankful that it wasn't me?  This notion that, in these tragedies, God protects some and leaves others to perish is something I have a huge problem with.  It reminds me of that line by Bono in that awful song "Do They Know It's Christmas": "And tonight thank God it's them instead of you."  From the time I first heard that line, I wondered if it was supposed to be ironic.  I hope so, because if not, that means that Bono is a tool and a douchbag.

This is my blog.  I can say 'douchbag' right?

So tonight be glad it's them instead of you.  Thank God you and your loved ones were the one who missed the bullet, that your daughter is not the one suffering nightmares about witch doctors, that you are not the one separated from your beloved spouse for five years and counting.  Better them than me.

Thank God.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Grandma

This morning, in an effort to get our kids out of bed on a dark Monday, I turned on the radio in their room to the holiday station and sang along loudly to "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer."  That was a serendipitous song choice, though what had them running down the stairs was telling them that whoever got dressed and down first got to plug in the Christmas tree.  Those who know our family at all will know who won that contest.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sunday

A perfect night's sleep.

pancakes for the family and then a morning to myself at home in quiet, pandora's 'Nutcracker' station as I do laundry and wrap gifts.

A Jewish friend of ours has a party every year to help decorate her family's Christmas tree.  Yes, there is contradiction there.  But not really.

This year the party was a loud one with toddlers, preschoolers, and big kids all equally destroying the playroom. 

Jars of home-made jam with hand-sewn labels given out as gifts.  Soup, cheese spread, latkas and rukla made by Jewish mothers who fret over the sour cream not being set next to the apple sauce.  I love Jewish mothers.  They make elaborate rainbow jello desserts for Christmas tree decorating parties. 

Noise, noise, noise.  Fancy wing-tip shoes by one of the eight lesbians at the party.  I asked to instagram them, and she obliged.  She teased me later when I pulled out my phone, as an addict does.  So many nice people.  This world is chock full of such really nice people.

Packed up food for my husband who had to miss the party due to teaching class.  We meet five minutes early at our Sunday night church, and he devours the food.  Our eldest goes in to do Bible drills and songs while our youngest stays with us for punishment for back-talk at the party.  He squirrels around but settles in to my lap during the sermon, and I turn a blind eye to the thumb-sucking which his dentist says must stop.  For this sermon, it keeps him still.

I lean down and whisper to him that I love him.  He says he loves me too.  He sniffs my hand the way he's done since infancy, a way he lulls himself to sleep.  He says I always smell the same, like mom.  He's been difficult lately but my heart melts.

A spoken-word poem by a congregant with piano and drums to back her up.  I was feeling it.  I was amazed. 

Introverted us make ourselves talk to people and are rewarded by warmth and love and hugs.  It's only been two months, but this church feels like home.

Apples on sale for 99cents a pound.  Satsumas for a little more.  A bottle of wine while I'm at it.  Meet at home.  Pack the lunches for Monday.  Eldest astounds us with her reading skills in our Christmas storybook from my mom.  To bed. 

To bed.

This was Sunday, two weeks before Christmas.

Bride

My daughter and I had been to a craft-day organized by some of the women in our church where she got to make a felt scarf and learn to crochet.  There were only four other girls there plus three adults, and I was reminded why I will always prefer a small church to a big one.  There is something that speaks to a deep part of me that I want to be known and to really know others. 

After napping until it got dark outside (which is early these days), I sat myself at the computer slowly waking up with some dark Irish tea.  My son had dressed himself that morning in all black.  I told him he looked like a ninja.  He walked up to me and quietly asked, "Mom? Can we listen to 'Smooth Criminal'?"  Though I wasn't in the mood, I thought for a second about his sweetness in asking and realized that Michael Jackson can fit any mood.

I turned the song on and came back into the room half-way through and found that my all-black-ninja son had found a white hat to put on his head in an attempt to get as close as he could to what Michael Jackson looked like in the video.  Turns out the only white hat we have in this house is one I got from a friend's yard sale that says "Bride" on the front in gold sparkling thread.  He was very seriously copying the moves in the video, wearing all black with a white "Bride" cap on his head.  It was a nice moment, and I felt thankful that his reading skills aren't high enough yet for deciphering sparkly cursive fonts.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Wham!

It's twelve minutes until midnight, and our kids fell asleep only about fifteen minutes ago.  My thoughts have been drifting today to this story, and for whatever reason, it is utterly heartbreaking to me.

A group of our relatives in the area got together tonight for a Christmas gathering, which is why we are all up so late.  One moment tonight: my husband and one of his adult nephews were playing guitars side-by-side as everyone sang Christmas carols.  The wonderfully awful "Last Christmas" was requested, so they obliged.  As the crowd jumbled the words to each verse and sang loudly during the catchy chorus, I kept looking at our daughter as she watched the guitar players and sang along.  My heart swelled.  She has been with us for only sixteen months, adopted as a six-year-old after she lost both her parents in Ethiopia.

As this horrible song was being enthusiastically played and sung by my husband's relatives, I kept looking at our daughter.  She was facing my husband and his nephew as they played. She was singing along, her face bright and happy.  It felt like a miracle, a miracle that she is here with us, a miracle that out of such loss, a moment like this can come to this really beautiful girl, a miracle that I'm conscious enough to notice it.

Soundtrack by George Michael.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hug

It's 5:30pm, and I've only seen my family for about an hour today.  It's a school day for the kids, and when I got home from work, I had to go pass out upstairs.  This is Thursday.  Mundane.  Maybe.

A moment that stands out in this incredibly busy day was when one of the Ethiopian Oromo women in my program at the nonprofit I work for walked into the room.  She missed our Tuesday class because her eyes were bothering her, and I could tell immediately that they still were.  They were puffy and watering.  As I hugged her, I realized how genuinely I had missed her on Tuesday, so I held on longer.  We switched sides, and hugged more.  I just hung out there in that hug for a little while.  She is soft and comfortable, warm and perfect to hug.  She asked me, "Denanesh, Loriye?"  "How are you, my Lori?"

She asked about my kids and my kids' father.  I brought her coffee that she didn't drink, and before she left a couple hours later, I made sure that she was seeing a doctor about her eyes.

I dream sometimes about these elders in my program at work.  I dreamed last night about this woman's best friend, another Oromo Ethiopian woman.  We were together at the nonprofit's holiday party, and I was taking her room to room looking for savory food while only finding sweet.

It's hard to write on Thursdays.

I don't want this blog to turn into a dumping ground of interesting links, but considering how tired I am, here is a really interesting link to a story I heard on NPR today.  It sort of blew my mind.  It's about pigeon-hunting catfish.  Seriously.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Titanic

I listen mostly to NPR while I'm in the car, usually catching only small portions of programs since it never takes me too long to get from one place to another (after living in Los Angeles for a couple years, I see this as a huge blessing).  One of these snippets I heard one day this week while on a work errand put an image in my head that I won't forget.  Some of the explorers who first found the Titanic wreckage were being interviewed, and one of them talked about how, in the excitement at their discovery, it was very easy to forget the human tragedy.

He explained how the hundreds of pairs of shoes they found on the ocean floor got there: For the many who ended up freezing to death in the water, their bodies eventually sank.  He described how, from the bottom looking up, it must have looked like it was raining human bodies as they sank like stones.  Once the bodies hit the ocean floor, animals found their way to them, and eventually all that was left were hundreds of pairs of shoes.  He described the many images of female shoes right next to child-sized ones, the bodies of mothers having rained down on the ocean floor next to their children.  Ever since I first saw as a child that National Geographic devoted to the discovery of the Titanic wreckage, I have had dreams about that event, several a year.  Hearing this story on NPR is not going to help in barring these dreams from my subconscious.

Perhaps instead, I'll focus on my son's blessing before dinner tonight: "Dear God, thank you for Oliver, Mom, Dad, Beti, everything in the whole world except for E.T. and bumblebees and mean words.  Amen."


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sneh

I'm still figuring out the constraints I am going to put on myself for this blog, so forgive me if I try looking into the past right now for a moment.

My closest and oldest friend in the little country where I used to live in central Europe posted a photo today of the 'prvy sneh', first snow, of the year.  Seeing this photo appear in my facebook news feed filled my chest with that sudden tightness that comes when you are suddenly bombarded with sensual memory.  Usually, this feeling comes for most people, including myself, upon smelling something, but this time it came with an image of soviet-style apartment buildings, little 'skoda' cars, streetlamps flooded with white specks of snow, all from the vantage point of a window from one of the top floors.

My own cozy little apartment was on the 6th floor of an 8-story building, so I am familiar with looking down onto the snow like this.  For a girl from the deep South of the United States, I never got tired of seeing the world outside my windows covered in snow.  I didn't even get tired of it when it was gray and old at the end of the winter.  As I looked at this photo today, I let myself, just for a few seconds, step outside of a Slovak apartment building into the friendly cold, my black winter coat buttoned to the neck, hat pulled far down on my head, backpack on, the cold filling my nostrils, the sound of traffic and the 'elektricka' muffled by the falling snow.  I never got tired of this feeling.

I liked it best on early mornings when I taught 7am classes. I'd sometimes leave half an hour early to walk the whole way to work so that my tracks would be the first ones on the night's snow.  I'd be almost completely alone in the early morning winter darkness, maybe passing another another riser with a tiny nod to the head but never a smile (this is Slovakia after all). 

This was a moment I experienced today.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Halal

I pulled into the back parking lot at work this afternoon and saw the manager standing there with a big smile.  As I got out of the car and walked towards him, he laughingly said, "Lori! You are halal! In Islam, we say someone is blessed if they appear right after someone was talking about him.  He kept laughing about how I am "halal."  He never told me what was being said about me before I got there, but if I'm blessed, I don't guess it matters.

This same manager said during a lunch on Friday that his religion teaches that when you get to heaven, God's first question to you is about how relationship was like with your neighbors before you died.  If all was well, you get into heaven, but if you died with bad relations, God sends you straight to hell.  He is from the central African country of Chad, where the first thing you do when you wake up each morning is to go check on your elderly neighbors to find out how they made it through the night.  He talked about how big of an adjustment it is for newly arrived immigrants when they realize how isolated Americans are.

Hearing him talk about this reminded me of an afternoon I spent last summer in Addis Ababa with the daughter of an Eritrean man I know.   Behind her gate lived two households, both sharing the same yard and garden.  As I sat on her couch eating her amazing doro wot and injera, drinking cup after cup of coffee while watching Amharic music videos from the '80s, people kept coming in and out of the house.  Some ate, some did not.  I was struck by the closeness of these people who were not family to each other.  The doors to each building were open most of the time, probably since neither had any windows.  The two cats, named China and Sweet, walked from house to house, roof to roof, begging for scraps from whoever was offering.  Sweet found a nice spot on my lap for a long stretch as I talked to an older kid living in the next house about his schoolwork.  I could easily see how, when living in such close proximity and sharing so much more of life than we do here, it would be natural to wake up in the morning, open your door, and check on your neighbor.

It just doesn't happen that way here.  My coworker from Chad calls me Halal. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Haggis

We missed the annual December party hosted by my husband's Scottish friend last year but remember it vividly from two years ago.  The smell of the haggis wafting up from the basement and later the crowd of musicians filling a small bedroom are what stick with me the most.  This year, we arrived two hours into the party and heard the pipes from the moment the car door opened.

We had shown our kids a few videos online of Scotland scenery, tossing the caber, and the making of haggis, so they could have a little context before getting to this party.  I actually think it helped since the house was full of Scottish...stuff.  I found it interesting though that our host served the quintessentially English PG Tips tea.

Our son, despite viewing the making of haggis online, was eager to try it, most likely for the gross-out factor in seeing his sister's face as he did so.  The stuff was in a crockpot next to the neeps and tatties.  The smell was, once again, overwhelming.  We put one spoonful into our son's mouth, and he immediately asked for more.  Before we left the party, he'd eaten two bowls full of it.  What started out as an attempt to disgust his sister seemed to have turned into a genuine appreciation of the dish.  Who knew?

After having nice conversations at a gathering across the river with a lovely group of misfits, we thanked our hosts, telling them how educational the experience was for our kids.  My husband's friend, the ruddy-faced, huge one in the kilt who won the caber-tossing games at age 21, had slipped deeply into his Scottish accent by this point in the evening despite being mostly American and assured as we walked away, "You are always welcome at my fire."  If you're offering haggis at this fire, my son will be there.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Concept

Eleven months ago, I went to a doctor asking to be put on anti-anxiety drugs.  There were many things in my life that led to this, but the low point was that on New Year's Eve, I found myself at midnight laying on my bathroom floor crying for no concrete reason.  My husband stood helplessly in the doorway.  No big welcome-2012-with-a-kiss-moment for us that year.

Within a couple of weeks, I was sleeping normally again, which was, by far, the biggest and best change I experienced.  For those who have never experienced full-blown anxiety-ridden insomnia, it may be hard to understand the bliss that comes in the simple act of turning off the bedside lamp and falling asleep.  Being able to do this again after several years changed my life.

I don't intend to go into many, if any, of the difficult details of 2011.  I don't think this would be necessarily helpful for me or anyone who happens to read this.  Here is what I do intend to do with this blog:

I want to catalog the present moments of my life.

Here is why:

I heard a program on what I think was my local NPR affiliate's "science Friday" in which scientists were attempting to explain why it is that life seems to go so much slower when we are children and then speed up the older we get.  Their explanation went something like this: as children, our brains don't have the neural connections yet to categorize new experiences.  When I was in graduate school learning about linguistics, we called this "schemata," which is a form of
scaffolding inside our brains that allows us to place new input into the right drawer.  So for example, when a child sees a starfish for the first time, he has no folder for this new input, and his brain is working really hard to form a new neural pathway/folder for all the new stuff hitting his senses.  Time, in a sense, exists for as long as it takes for his brain to  create the drawer for "starfish" with all of the sensory input surrounding that moment when he is holding this creature in his chubby hand.  His brain is creating folders like "wind blowing my hair," "sand in my toes," "heat from the sun on my face," "ocean smells," etc., just whatever that kid is experiencing in that moment.  This is a lot of work for the brain! From that moment on, the  neural drawer has been created, and the next time the kid sees a starfish, his brain knows where to put it and what to relate it to. 

By the time we are adults, we've already experienced so much that our brains hardly have to work at all (unless we make them, which I'm getting to).  That kid on the beach experiencing a moment of eternity with a starfish in his hand is now an adult who takes his own kid to an aquarium and hardly experiences anything.  He looks at each animal, each exhibit, each placard, and his brain basically keeps saying to him, "Yawwwn, borrrring.  Been here before, know what that funny looking thing is, gotta get going, lots to do tonight before bedtime."  Throw on top it the recent technological advancement of smart phones, and the dude is now completely distracted from the present moment into what is going on via the screen in his pants pocket.  His brain keeps telling him to check it, check it, check it, and he's not paying attention to his kid.  The day flew by for this adult while for his son, it seemed to last forever.

For children as their brains work to form this 'schemata', days last for an eternity, a summer break from school feels like a year, and they are present in this life more than most any modern adult.  Children are often happier and more at peace than adults are, and I really believe this is one of the biggest reasons why: they are present in life whereas most of us grown-ups are not.  So what can be done?

My oldest friend (who just happens to be an atheist) wrote a profound piece on the concept of what is holy.  I highly encourage you to go here and read it.  Even though I still consider myself a Christian and he does not, I believe strongly in what he wrote about here.  I think about it all the time and try to find moments every week to slow down and experience the holy.  Have you ever noticed that some of your best ideas or thoughts come to you while you're in the shower?  That was a holy moment because you had nothing pulling at your brain.  All you
had to do was stand there in the sensual experience of feeling the water over your body, the steam on your face, the rush of the shower.  Anything outside of those shower doors was muffled.  Your brain was having a break.  It was a captive of that moment, and so suddenly, with no distractions, boom...ideas show up on the scene.  In fact, the idea for this blog came to me last night while my brain was being held captive in the hot-tub on our back deck as it rained.  I could do nothing but let my brain rest.  In the 'zoning out', we become present; we have holy moments.

The problem is that so few of us take the time for this.  In his piece on what is holy, my friend suggests going outside and just sitting in your backyard and listening to what is around you.  It's a simple exercise in being present, but one that takes discipline.  Unlike the experience of being in the shower, this time we are (usually) fully clothed and quickly able to run back to check our screens.    Honestly, I struggle with this.  It's why I suddenly feel so free when I've
forgotten my smart phone at home.  The temptation to feed myself some brain candy via an app is gone.

So here is what I have come up with: I want to start cataloging at least one moment each day in an effort to be more present.  This is a small attempt to slow time down by forcing myself to start looking around, to force my brain to create new drawers, or at least new folders in the old drawers.  By the time we're the age I am now (creeping up on forty), there's maybe not a whole lot of new
schemata/drawers my brain can build, but at least I can try to fill them up more, right?  My hope is that by spending more time noticing, time might slow down.

An example of what I'm trying to explain happened to me in the winter of 2009-2010.  For most of my life, I'd had an infatuation with New York City, so when one of my husband's friends in Midtown Manhattan offered her place to us for a month, we jumped on it.  From the moment we got off the train in Penn Station to the bus ride to Newark Airport four weeks later, my brain and senses were working overtime.   Every morning when my feet would hit the concrete on W. 29th Street, I'd look up, down and around, studying.  I began cataloging one moment from each day I was there. I didn't miss a single day, and it's probably my favorite thing I've ever written.  That beautiful month seemed to crawl by because I was present in each moment.  When the day came for us to leave, it
felt like I'd been there for a year, the way it feels for a school-kid at the end of summer vacation.

So can I manage to slow time down when I'm in my boring old humdrum daily slog of life, not in an exciting new city I've been enamored with my whole life?  We shall see.  I'm going to try it, and I'd love it if you came along with me, sharing with me your own holy moments each day.  I'm starting here on the first day of December because I'm making it easy on myself.  With the onset of the holiday season, there are going to be plenty of moments for me to catalog.  Once January gets here and the slog is back in full effect, this will get harder.  They say that it takes forty consecutive times doing an activity before it becomes a habit, so I'm hoping these 31 days in December will be sufficient to have habitualized myself for January (my least favorite month).  The true test starts then.

For now, here I go.  If nothing else, my hope is that we've made it through the Mayan apocalypse and that my husband gets a kiss at midnight in 30 days.

"There's so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see, but everywhere I go, I'm looking."
--Rich Mullins