Invention

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.” Mary Shelley

According to a recent study, it takes fifty hours with someone before considering them a casual friend, ninety hours for the transition to good friends, and about two hundred hours to become best friends, the kind with emergency contact status.

The six of us gather for dinner at Hotel Harmika, to mark the official start of our group’s itinerary. We met only once prior, months ago in Austin, to review logistics and set our intentions for the trip.

There is some overlap in our Venn diagram of friendships. Each of us knows at least one other person at the table, and confusingly, there are three Sarahs. We are all friends with Erika and ended up in Kathmandu, in large part, because of her.

Erika and Sarah A, not to be confused with Sarah JB or Sarah B, recently co-founded Wild Rising Yoga Retreats. The trip to Nepal is their endeavor’s first-ever offering. We are subjects on the test run.

Sarah A lived and worked with a non-profit in Nepal for several years. During that time, she led service tours in the Everest region. Her contacts and knowledge of the country provide an invaluable scaffolding to our trip. I am relieved to let go of the logistical reins.

For the next ten days, we will travel and live together: first visiting sacred sites in Kathmandu; then flying to Pokhara, for a twenty-four-hour stop-over, before embarking on a five-day trek on the lower section of the Annapurna Circuit.

I calculate that by the trip’s end, we will spend almost two-hundred and forty hours in each other’s company. It promises to be a dynamic time for invention. The friendships, experiences, and insights from which do not exist yet, as we sit eating our first meal together in Nepal, sharing arrival stories.

The day and a half of sightseeing in Kathmandu is a staccato reel of images tattooed in my visual cortex. Unlike my experience on the first morning at the Boudhanath Stupa, I am very much in the observer role as we visit Kopan Monastery, earthquake-damaged Durbar Square, the Monkey Temple or Swayambhunath, and the Hindu temple Pashupatinath.

It is the only way I can handle the heady overstimulation, as I absorb as much of the frenzied, contrasting details as my brain can hold.

Our time in Nepal coincides with Tihar, the five-day Hindu festival of lights honoring the goddess Lakshmi, further amplifying the exotic with an added layer of color, ritual, and celebration.

The velocity of the experience creates a blur, and yet some moments remain frozen in my mind.

Noticing the pink glitter-sparkle cellphone case held to the Buddhist nun’s bald head, as she laughs exuberantly.

Witnessing the bodies prepared for cremation at Pashupatinath Temple, wrapped in ceremonial orange fabric.

Watching the sunset overlooking Kathmandu while surrounded by hundreds of monkeys.

Observing the unexplainable magic of the communal effort between our guides and strangers that parted the dense, pulsating crowd for our van to pass.

The New Day

“You’re under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago.” – Alan Watts

The sudden transcendental shift is completely unexpected. In the hours prior, I still feel guarded and anxious from our late night arrival in Kathmandu.

Hotel Harmika is tucked within a quiet tangle of residential buildings and guesthouses. Our room looks out to a tranquil, overgrown courtyard; a pleasing contradiction to our initial apocalyptic impressions of the city.

While watching the sunrise from our open window, I suggest to Sarah that we walk to the Boudhanath Stupa, the holiest Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.

The front desk staff confirms that the Stupa is a short distance away and directs us to the cobble-stoned path that begins next to the hotel.

Although it appears wide enough for both walkers and motorbikes, Sarah and I reflexively flatten our bodies against the gray rock that lines one side, to let the riders pass.

The refreshed, vibrant energy of the awakening city begins to replace my guardedness and caution from the evening before. Three young children stop their play and greet us, in unison, with a bashful Namaste.

I further soften to the new day.

We turn the corner and enter a kaleidoscope of activity, smells, and striking colors. The narrow street is banked with miniature, cramped storefronts selling food, trinkets, everyday essentials, textiles, butter candles, and clothes. Toddlers sit on stoops eating breakfast next to stray dogs sleeping in doorways, oblivious.

Adding contrast to the chaotic morning hustle are the long, deep, haunting elephantine sounds of the dungchen, the Tibetan long horn used by monks during morning prayers. The reverberations give an invisible structure and vibrational steadiness to the commotion.

Sarah and I join the tide of people moving toward the Stupa, flowing along with the motorbikes as naturally as water around rocks in a stream.

I gaze up to the sky to find my bearings and see the golden spire with the eyes of Buddha watching from above.

The street pours us out at the front of the colossal white Stupa, seemingly buttressed by fluttering lines of prayer flags. The enormous dome and its tiered base are sequestered from modernity by a plaza and a ringed wall of brightly colored three-story houses, monasteries, shops, and restaurants.

Incense float up from a massive, embossed cauldron. A group of men adds wood to the fire below at a stopping point in their animated conversation. The smoke brings shape to the ephemeral morning light.

I watch a hunched, misshapen woman dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes, immerse herself in the fragrant plume before leaving an offering of rice.

Everywhere, the air is tinged with monastic chants, and the dungchen continues to bellow from the second floor of the monastery behind us.

A young monk slides his body prone on the ground, glides to his knees, then back to standing. He repeats the prostration over and over again. He wears a bright blue smock and boards strapped on his palms to protect the front of his robe and hands. His exposed lime green crocks and brown dress socks bring an ordinariness to his sacred practice.

I am acutely aware of witnessing the living edge of a two-thousand-year-old spiritual tradition. The scene is something profoundly different from the commercialized, cherry-picked Buddhism declared on a Be Here Now bumper sticker.

There are at least a thousand people, mostly Nepalese and a few tourists, circling the base of the Stupa, clockwise, in morning prayer and meditation. The current of faces, young and old, is dotted with monks in crimson robes with flashes of their saffron shirts underneath.

Time unfolds into something both momentary and eternal. In an instant, everything is dream-like. There is not one molecule of the familiar.

Sound takes on movement: the patternless but constant clanging of bells; the whirling of prayer wheels; the chattering of melodious unknown languages; the fluttering of pigeons’ wings as they lift off and land; and the thrumming of thousands of footsteps reverently walking.

My sensory perceptions expand, and I feel the nouns I use to describe myself fall away, creating a welcoming space without a center of gravity or solid core to grasp.

I am free; liberated from my need to label and harness this magnificent newness to anything that has come before or predictive future thinking.

I have a pre-verbal memory from when I was six months old, of lying in my crib. The faded roller shades are drawn, covering the two windows across from me. They act as a filter, making everything glow butter yellow, while crystalline-white sunlight curls around the edges of the fabric, illuminating the slender strips of glass between the shade and windowsill.

My recollection is somatic. There is no separation between me and the light. I am the sun, and the sun is me.

Even now, when I can put words to the experience, I physically feel the brightness and can conjure up the radiating warmth in my chest from a lifetime ago.

I feel a similar integration as I sit on the first tier of the Stupa, above the crowd of practitioners and visitors. My sensations and emotions are undefended by my mind. There is no separateness or definition to the fleeting mutuality of the present moment.

I look over at Sarah. She is laughing and crying. Before our trip, we trained together for trekking, shared our hopes for our time in Nepal, and obsessed over packing lists, yet nothing prepared us for this pure joy.

It just happened, effortlessly.

Note: I traveled to Nepal in November of 2018. This is the fourth essay in a series that describes my experience.

It Isn’t Always Comfortable

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“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts. It even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you. It should change you.” – Anthony Bourdain

The pollution is so thick; I instinctively take shallow sips of air as I search the crowd of men pressed against the barricade, forming an amalgam of gray and black winter jackets. Each calls to the tourists coming out of the airport, offering rides into the city.

The mix of darkness and smog creates a dense curtain. Kathmandu appears as an opaque orb of light in the distance. I cannot collect enough sensory information to ground myself.

My stomach tightens. I have always been a plan B thinker, vigilantly so when I travel. I tell myself that this time, plan A will work.

Our friends arrived the day prior and texted that they arranged for a driver to pick us up. I scan the crowd while watching other bewildered tourists with bulky backpacks load into cars.

Finally, in the collage of faces, I see a man holding up a rumpled spiral notebook, the kind at the bottom of my feral daughter’s backpack, with my first name scribbled in blue ink across the ruled page.

I make eye contact with the notebook holder, grab Sarah’s arm, and we follow two men to a tiny car. After a few grateful glances and awkward attempts at conversation, Sarah and I squish into the backseat.

We do not exchange another word with the men for the thirty-minute ride, while they speak quietly to each other in Nepali.

Our headlights stop short in the dust and pollution, creating a hazy sepia filter to our introduction to Kathmandu.

I peer out the front window and see that we are one tiny bee in a honking swarm of cars, buses, and motorbikes with masked riders.

The dirt road, riddled with potholes, make the decorations hanging from the rearview mirror swing left and right. The driver expertly dodges oncoming trucks and motorcycles with practiced agility.

We pass walls of small storefronts and low buildings, many with scaffolding, evidence of the 2015 devasting earthquake.

Streams of people of all ages, most wearing breathing masks or holding scarfs over their mouths, flow on each side of the street.

There are sporadic risk-takers who defiantly attempt to cross the road, banging on the sides of cars and jumping from one momentary opening in the traffic to another.

I think of Doha, where we left five hours earlier, and its science-fiction-like cleanliness, as I adjust to Kathmandu’s dystopic pollution and poverty.

I bury my face into the top of my jacket to breathe, trying to filter out the toxic air. I look over at Sarah and give a reassuring smile that says we will settle into our new reality and calibrate to the chaos.

We are in a different universe. That is what we both wanted.

Note: I traveled to Nepal in November of 2018. This is the third essay in a series that describes my experience.

Twenty Hours in Doha

img_0133 2We fly into the darkness for fourteen hours, arriving in Doha as the sun sets, glowing red in a viscous sandy sky. The sprawling, futuristic airport is enveloped in a crimson haze, and it feels like we landed on Mars.

As we walk to customs, the call to prayer echoes through the empty open spaces.

Sarah and I have a twenty-hour layover before we continue on to Kathmandu to meet our group. I consider the unknowns in the plan I made months ago, as I review the texted instructions on how to meet our guide.

With a couple of emails, I arranged to tour Doha in the evening and then head into the Arabian Desert to drive through the dunes at sunrise.

Amir meets us at the hotel, dressed in a traditional Qatari thobe, a long white shirt worn over pants, and a loose headdress held in place with a black rope. We learn that he is from Pakistan and has lived in Doha for eight years.

He is one of over two million migrant workers, mostly men, from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Nepal, needed to sustain the city’s staggering growth. In contrast, there are only three hundred thousand Qatari nationals. This influx of workers makes the country skew heavily male, with women making up only a quarter of the population.

Doha is a city of extremes, but the social strains rarely come to the attention of tourists.

We begin our tour from the comfort of Amir’s white Land Cruiser. The interior is pristine and covered in clear plastic to keep out the sand. Amir’s well-worn tour guide persona is charming. He quickly reads that he can be playful with us and flirts with Sarah, referring to her as his queen.

Amir shows us the polished, super-charged version of Doha. Like Las Vegas, the city is most stunning at night when dressed in its colorful sparkle as opposed to the bland brightness of daylight

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The city smells like expensive aftershave and is young and eager to please. The past has been leveled in the last couple of decades and in its place has sprung an emerging financial and tourist center that is a mash of Disneyland, Rodeo Drive, and downtown Dallas.

All of this dazzling, mismatched modernity is tied together by nostalgic themes of desert nomadism and maritime trade.

Everywhere there are images of Bedouin life and markets, falcons, sailing vessels, and pearls that honor a way of life that has long been erased with the discovery of natural gas and high end, over the top shopping malls.

In less than four decades, Qatar went from being one of the poorest countries to now boasting the highest per capita income in the world.

Doha skyline at night

It does not take long to understand that Doha is far more interested in its future as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, the first Arab state to do so. With this massive undertaking, comes more freedoms for women, a welcoming attitude for tourists, and a safe, hermetically clean city that is officially recognized as one of the New Seven Urban Wonders.

What is not as readily mentioned, is that this forward momentum on steroids and newfound status is built on the backs of migrant laborers, many suffering exploitation and human rights violations. The labor abuses around the build-up for the World Cup are attracting international attention and pressure for reforms.

img_0112We end up at the Souq Waqif, a major tourist attraction and popular meeting place for Qataris, located in the heart of the city. The market is a modern creation emulating the old 19th-century Souq which was destroyed in a fire; but like so much of Doha, it feels like a theme park.

The more genuine moments come as store merchants and security guards
greet Amir with hugs and quick, smiling exchanges in Arabic or Urdu as we walk by restaurants and stores selling spices, fabrics, jewelry, and trinkets.

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The most interesting section of the Souq is the block dedicated to the falcon market. Each store displays dozens of hooded falcons on pedestals. Falconry is a treasured vestige of ancient Qatar culture. There is even a falcon hospital within the Souq that provides state-subsidized healthcare for all domesticated falcons. The birds are so highly prized, some are issued their own passports as proof of their Qatari origin.

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I am surprised to see women, alone and together, without male chaperones. In Qatar, women have the right to vote, drive, and pursue careers, but the restrictions of family and tradition are still powerful influences.

Most older women still wear all-black abayas. Younger women dress in modest western clothing or choose colorful abayas with designer accessories. Although there are no official clothing restrictions, tourists are expected to dress conservatively.

Amir leaves us to wander the Souq on our own. Our dinner runs over, and we are late to meet back with him. He is visibly angry, and we apologize profusely. When he drops us off, I silently question if he will return, as arranged, to take us into the desert.

A few hours later, I am relieved when I see the white Land Cruiser make its way up to the front of the hotel where we are waiting.

Amir steps out of the car, grinning, and calls to his queen.

Sarah answers back, “Yes, my king.”

We are friends again.

As Amir heads toward the desert, we pass the buses transporting construction workers to and from Doha for the morning shift change. They live in segregated areas, in accommodations provided by employers.

There’s a feverish, round-the-clock schedule to complete eight soccer stadiums, countless hotels, a visitor’s center, and a new subway system by the World Cup.

Soon we are the only car using the twelve-lane highway lit with poles that look like giant glow sticks, changing to a different pastel color every few minutes.

I am tired of the glitzy artifice and eager to see the desert.

Amir explains that Qatar and Namibia are the only two countries in the world where sand dunes meet the ocean. Both locals and expats pour out of the city on the weekends and holidays to stay in make-shift desert villages of trailers.

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We turn off the highway and stop at a small cluster of tents and metal ship containers.
There are camels decked out for the tourists and a falcon standing on his perch. By now the sky begins to lighten and casts a gray monochrome over everything.

As Amir deflates the tires for driving through the dunes, I notice men sleeping behind one of the metal containers, while others have begun to move about to brush their teeth or make tea.

We are in a unique part of the Qatari peninsula, just north of Saudi Arabia, where rolling sand dunes surround an inlet of the Persian Gulf. Because it’s a weekday, we are the only people driving over the undulating landscape, dotted with vacant weekend trailers.

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Amir speeds up the first dune and rides along the ridge before we take our first stomach lurching vertical plunge. Dune bashing, as it’s called, is a roller-coaster-like ride over the dunes, some as high as 40 meters. As we speed up and down, the sand whips at the windows making Amir have to use the windshield wipers to see.

 

The car maneuvers like an alpine skier. Sarah and I both laugh each time Amir takes a micro-pause at the crest of the dune before we plummet. He is genuinely amused too, even though he has driven this course thousands of times.

When the sun begins to rise, the pinks and oranges give an entirely new definition to the desert. The sky has an apricot glow, and the Persian Gulf comes into focus. Amir parks the car and we get out. The wind covers our faces with a fine, gritty film. We are the only people in view, surrounded by an endless horizon in all directions.

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Sarah and I have been in Qatar for less than twelve hours, bouncing from the edge of modernity to this tranquil, yet desolate, natural beauty. Even as I recount in my head each decision that planted me here on the other side of the globe, this perfect moment seems dreamlike and improbable.

I am comforted by my smallness against the vast expanse and relieved at being temporarily untethered from the life that defines me at home. It must be for this feeling, that Qataris flock to the desert; escaping from the intensity and excesses of Doha to this embracing stillness.

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Before we can drive on paved roads again, we stop at the tire filling station at the edge of the desert. Two men appear out of nowhere and inflate the tires. Amir hands them a couple of coins, and we are off.

On our way back to the city, Amir’s mood shifts. He is all business as he instructs us on how to write his review for Trip Advisor. I had forgotten that our camaraderie is transactional.

Sarah and I show him our posts, and he relaxes back into his previous, easy demeanor.

When we reach our hotel, Amir makes one last reference to his queen, but his attention is already on the family he is meeting later in the afternoon.

As Sarah and I Uber back to the airport to catch our flight to Nepal, I think of the family that Amir will soon bring out into the desert.

They have no idea how beautiful it is yet.

 

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Take Off

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Even the demanding man towing his embarrassed wife and kids from one airline representative to another cannot change the system. I don’t know it yet, but my arbitrary placement in line is the first lesson in what will be the theme of my trip to Nepal.

Life is random and senseless.

The departure gate for our flight to Doha is at the end of long hallway making our group of passengers look more distinct than the usual muddling of people in airports. Most are transferring through Qatar to final destinations in India, China, and the Middle East.

The waiting area is crowded, with only a handful of Westerners and many multi-generational families. There is less child-centered parenting and more collective patience for crying babies and whining toddlers. The older children are noticeably self-sufficient and well-behaved.

It’s against this ordinariness that six manicured flight attendants, dressed in elegant magenta and gold uniforms evoking 1960’s aviation glamor, appear out of the blurry distance.

Each woman’s hair is pulled back into a tight dark bun, and their lipstick and eye makeup are so exquisitely applied that I immediately think of the stylized, mannequinesque women in Robert Palmer’s music video, “Addicted to Love.”

They are so beautiful that I cannot turn away and take note that I have never once in my life ever looked so perfect.

Two of the women move behind the gate desk and announce a mandatory recheck of all passengers. The process quickly reveals itself to be an unexpected lottery. For no apparent reason, the attendant on the left permits only one carry-on bag while the attendant on the right allows for two.

The decision is baseless but consistent.

A sense of community builds through the language of furtive glances, subtle head shaking, and the shrugging of shoulders. The lucky passengers look down as they return to their seats; some cannot hide their reflexive grin of good fortune.

My friend Sarah and I calculate our position in line like chess masters thinking ten moves ahead. In the end, I keep both of my bags and Sarah is forced to surrender her backpack.

While boarding, I pass the previously irate man, now calmly fiddling with his headphones, and deliberately look down the row to smile at his wife and kids. As we take off, the cabin glows with a hypnotic pinky-purple, similar to the color that emits from lights made for reptile tanks.

I sit next to a couple making their way to Thailand for their honeymoon. They are both twenty-seven years old. In the time between their birth and sitting down next to me, I have been married to the same man and raised a family of four.

Their sweetness stirs in me a longing to start over. We quickly fall into one of those buzzy, temporary, confessional bonds that can only happen on planes. After hours of talking and laughing, I close my eyes to rest and remember that life is random and senseless and we each create the meaning.

Note: I traveled to Nepal in November of 2018. This is the first essay in a series that describes my experience.

The Pumpkin Spice Birthday Cake (Recipe Included)

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It’s five in the morning and I tiptoe down the stairs that spill out into our kitchen. I start the coffee in the exquisitely rare citywide silence that only occurs on holiday weekends. Yesterday was Thanksgiving and today is my oldest son’s 25th birthday.

I carry one of the kitchen chairs over to the cupboard. Heaving myself up with achy morning knees, I check to see if I have the powdered sugar that I vaguely remember tucking away on the highest shelf where I put the seldom used items. 

I do.

The flour, sugar, eggs, vegetable oil, and canned pumpkin are already on the counter. I collect the baking soda, vanilla, cinnamon, salt, and baking powder from the spice drawer under the stove and set the cream cheese and butter out to soften.

Our cat Ruby appears and sits by her bowl. She knows my early rising will result in two breakfasts and trusts that this quiet moment will be our secret. I’m always scolded by the veterinarian to put Ruby on a diet. I pretend to acquiesce but have no intention of making the effort anymore. Whenever we put her on a diet, she eats the dogs’ food and gains even more weight. Besides, her zeal for breakfast brings us both joy.

I return to the birthday cake altar and begin. My cooking is utilitarian. For the last ten years I have navigated meal preparation for two omnivores, one with a limited palate, and two vegetarians. Practicality and nutrition took precedence over creativity and flair.

My pumpkin spice cake is the only thing received with equal enthusiasm by every family member. It is my signature dish, if a baked good can qualify as such. Regardless of its merit, my pumpkin spice cake is my culinary legacy.

I discovered the recipe in a vegetarian cookbook displayed in the new arrivals section of the library around the time the twins committed to their meat-free dietary path a decade ago. Like many traditions, there’s not a clear account of how it became the go-to-birthday-cake for each of the kids, but we are all in agreement that it has been forever.

In total, our four kids have thus far accumulated seventy-eight birthdays. During the elementary school years I planned every themed celebration you can imagine. There were bowling, swimming, gymnastics, ice skating, capture-the-flag, and horse-back riding parties along with bouncy houses and backyard petting zoos. It all came to a screeching halt as each child reached middle school. I was set adrift by my sudden embarrassing status and fired as the party planner.

It’s at this middle school transition when the pumpkin spice cake takes on its true meaning and significance. Even after the eye-rolling and the stiff hugs become the norm of the teenager years, a birthday cake is the one offering of maternal love my kids can still wholeheartedly welcome.

The timer beeps and I take my son’s cake out of the oven. I look out the window and see that the sky has become a dark periwinkle. The dogs walk into the kitchen. I open the sliding glass door to let them out and stand in the coolness of the sunrise. I watch the horizon brighten and listen as the birds and the city awaken.

I think about my children and mull for a moment about the things I wish I could do over but then deliberately let feelings of gratitude replace the angst.

There are only perfect birthday cakes. 

 

Pumpkin Spice Cake (preheat oven to 350)

In one bowl place 2 cups of flour, 2 tsps of baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda, 2 tsps of  cinnamon, 1 tsp salt

In another bowl combine 1 1/2 cups sugar, 3/4 cup vegetable oil. Blend sugar and oil together with beater. Add 4 eggs one at a time, beating well before adding another. Then add one 15 oz can of pumpkin puree and beat well. Add wet mixture to the bowl containing the dry ingredients and beat well.

Cook at 350 for 30 – 35 minutes.

Cream Cheese Frosting

Combine 8oz of cream cheese, 1/2 cup (one stick) of softened butter, 1 or 2 tsps of vanilla, 2 cups powdered sugar (1/2 cup more if you like sweeter frosting) Beat well until smooth.

 

Try Again

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My newly licensed daughter maneuvered through Austin’s choke-hold traffic on her final practice drive to the dance studio before I left town for my road trip with my mother.

“What’s the plan for Florida?” My daughter asked, cheerfully unaware of my hyper-vigilant state. 

I rattled off the itinerary while scanning for road hazards.

“We’re in Jacksonville for the first three days with my brother, then Miami for one night, Key West for two days, one day in Sanibel Island with a stop in the Everglades, then to Crystal River and back to Jacksonville for the last two days.”

My daughter grimaced like someone just pinched her hard. 

“Does your mom know that you’re the Travelnator?”

That’s the name she gave me one afternoon on our trip around Iceland as she begged for permission to nap.

“Yes, I made her sign the waiver,” I answered with the appropriate Travelnator edge. 

Movement is my medicine, a panacea to the worry and anxiety to which I’m prone. I respect life’s relentless forward momentum. It begs me to be resilient.

I had concocted the Florida trip as a prescription for my mother. Surely my remedy, an epic action-packed adventure, would provide the cure to heal her too.

During the decade that my dad angrily flailed further into dementia my mother increasingly became confined in their home like prisoner. Her life paused as his faded. 

In the end, Alzheimer’s is truly a disease with two victims. 

My brother and I live too far away, with busy families, to have been able to give her any meaningful relief during the worst of it.

She said that she felt like Rip Van Winkle after my dad died. In the year and a half since his death, my mother has worked mightily to reestablish herself but the scars from those barren years are still tender.IMG_6040

The trip started with a bang, literally. My brother works for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department. He took my mom and me, along with my nieces, 15 and 10,  to the indoor shooting range to learn how to fire a handgun. It was a first for both of us as well as for my youngest niece. 

Everyone in the front office knew my bother so we were led into the private shooting range for our initiation. I had not seen my brother and his family for four years. The intensity and power of this new experience was galvanizing and softened the awkwardness of getting reacquainted.

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This was the beginning of a parade of firsts for my mom. She took Ubers and stayed in Airbnbs, walked among the pulsating Miami crowds, sped through the Everglades in an airboat, and snorkeled with manatees in the Crystal River.

It was a list of activities that I carefully arranged months prior. Everything went like clockwork except for the one thing that didn’t.

Dry Tortugas National Park is located 68 miles west off the Florida Keys, in the Gulf of Mexico. The park preserves Fort Jefferson and an undisturbed tropical ecosystem with some of the best, and most beginner friendly, snorkeling. 

The park is accessible only by seaplane or boat. On the recommendation from my son, who turned green on the boat, I booked the seaplane. My mother had never been snorkeling. I thought that Dry Tortugas would be the perfect place to teach her before we went to Crystal River to swim with manatees.

In my mind this was going to be the crescendo of our road trip.

I felt a pang when I watched a fickle cell of clouds form in the morning and then a gut punch when the former Alaskan bush pilot cancelled the only afternoon flight. The last ferry had already left.

I panicked. I wanted this experience for my mother. It was a crucial element of the road trip cure.

I walked over to the little office that served the compound of historic cottages where we were staying. The three staff people listened to the condensed backstory of our road trip and then sprung into action to find an alternative adventure.

The weather passed and in the span of thirty minutes my mom and I found ourselves running to the schooner that would take us kayaking in mangrove islands and snorkeling over sponge gardens. IMG_6279

The earlier storm scared off the other tourists so there were only eight people on a boat that usually brings out twenty. There was an off-duty crew member along with his visiting mom and niece which seemed to help make the group take shape faster and soon it felt like we were sailing with friends.

The road trip was back on track. Forward momentum.

We sailed for about an hour and then anchored off the mangrove islands. The crew put the kayaks in the water and we loaded up. The afternoon sky was beginning to pink up and was reflected on the still water. We followed the guide around the mangroves as she gave us a history of the area, picked up huge horseshoe crabs, and pointed out hidden birds.

We paddled back and prepared to snorkel. We lined up as they passed out flippers, masks and kids’ swim noodles so we would float and not disturb the bottom.

I could sense my mom’s nervousness. I went over the instructions again and told her that I would go first and wait for her in the water. I scooted off the platform on the side the boat and swam out a bit to test my mask.

I turned around to see my mother with her head up. Her mask was half full of water and her snorkel dangled to the side. She was propped up by the bright orange noodle under her armpits. 

As I got closer I could see the fear in her eyes.

I swam up to her with a smile and asked her to hold still as I made the adjustments needed. I rearranged my noodle so I could use my legs to help support her body. I looked directly in her eyes and reminded her that she would be able to get the hang of it and that we had plenty of time. 

Calmly, I lifted her mask to let the water drain. I placed it back on her face and told her to take a small breath in through her nose to create the suction needed. I reached around to either side of her face to tighten the straps to make the mask fit her head better.  

Her eyes continued to tell me she couldn’t do this. I smiled again and said she could. 

I emptied out her snorkel and asked her to open her mouth and bite down. I carefully pulled her lips over the edges. I reminded her to keep the seal tight.

“Try again,” I said.

She tentatively put her face in the water and nothing leaked.  

She swam ahead of me, her flippers rhythmically moving up and down. She stopped, lifted her head and nodded back that everything was working.

I watched my seventy-five year old mother snorkel for first time in her life.

We sailed back to the dock through a brilliant rainbow and a postcard sunset; my mother laughing, silhouetted by syrupy golden light. This is my favorite and most lasting image of our trip together.

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Carl Jung says, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically … on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” 

I sense this angst in my children when they randomly ask me about my regrets. They are searching for the affirmation that I’m at peace.

With that same childlike desire, I hoped that the Florida trip would be big and bright enough to blot out my mother’s unlived years with my father and release me from the helplessness I feel in the face of her frustration and sorrow.  

We expect life to follow our plan but it seldom does. I’m not one of those people who believes that everything happens for a reason. I think it’s a dangerous lie that we tell ourselves and others. 

The only thing for certain is life’s relentless forward momentum. We cannot outrun the unexpected any more than we can erase the past.

The best we can do, is to try again.

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Looking Up

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Spring reminds me that nothing in nature blooms all year long.

It is time to write again.

What a powerful lesson is the beginning of spring. All around us, everything small and buried surrenders to a process that none of the buried parts can see. And this innate surrender allows everything edible and fragrant to break ground into a life of light that we call spring.   – Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

I took the photo at Laguna Gloria, Austin, TX. The 33-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture, Looking Up, is by artist Tom Friedman.

 

Vote! It’s Easier than Eating an Artichoke

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No one really likes artichokes even though we think we should. To be specific, I’m talking about the cut from the stalk version and not the cleaned up marinated-in-a-glass-jar kind.

Every spring I announce to my family that I’m going to serve fresh artichokes. I tend to skew towards all in so I present the proclamation as if dinner may change their lives.

I buy the odd vegetables with great anticipation. When I get home I reacquaint myself with their thorns and creepy prehistoric hairy centers.  An artichoke is the stegosaurus of the vegetable world and when bolted has an unexpected Dr. Seussian magenta bloom.

It looks like something you shouldn’t eat.

I trim the thorns and steam the orbs for what seems like forever. Then there are the individual sides of melted butter, lemon and hollandaise sauce to prepare.

We all gather at the table and I give the primer, again, on how to eat an artichoke. Everyone complies and drags their teeth along the often tough, fleshy leaves.

My family tries to meet me at my enthusiasm but truth be told the strange vegetable doesn’t usually live up to the hype. We each think to ourselves that we could easily live without another artichoke.

I know it’s not an obvious comparison but it seems to me that many Americans treat their one precious vote like an artichoke and have come to the conclusion that voting isn’t worth the trouble or disappointment.

There’s a lot of red, white and blue lip service given to democracy and our duty to participate. Of course we all know that the reality is much messier than the story we tell. Like the artichoke, there are many thorns in the process and all our country’s isms are under the leaves in the hairy prehistoric center.

But what if someone told you that eating an artichoke might prevent one senseless shooting death. Most likely you would eat the artichoke, right?

VOTE.  It’s easier than eating an artichoke.

 

End note: Need more information? Ballotpedia is a nonpartisan online political encyclopedia. Founded in 2007, it covers American federal, state, and local politics, elections, and public policy.  Ballotpedia’s stated goal is “to inform people about politics by providing accurate and objective information about politics at all levels of government.” ballotpedia.org

Ashes, Hearts and Birthday Cake

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This year Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, and my fifty-fourth birthday are stacked on top of each other. It’s the first time since 1945 that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day share the same date.

I take this as an auspicious sign.

Since I was a teen, I rebelled against my Valentine’s birthday and the sentimental, craft-store imagery of hearts, candy and flowers. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone tilts their head and through a breathy smile says, “Oh, you’re a Valentine’s baby, that’s so sweet.”

From the beginning of my romantic history, the specter of my Valentine’s birthday loomed large like sick-green tornadic clouds in the rearview mirror. Even my earnestly supportive husband of twenty-six years is often rendered celebratorily paralyzed during the month of February.

In response, I have shooed away my birthday and Valentine’s Day like unwanted flies. Having the two combined sounds like it should be more special than each stand-alone event but the mashup has never equaled my imagined script.

With the addition of Ash Wednesday to the mix, I must admit that I harbor a quiet yearning for something extraordinary to flare.

More accurately, I need a plan.

It’s been a stale start to 2018. I’ve been trying to reboot but the absence of concrete goals past my birthday’s horizon makes me anxious. There are no sparkly adventures or deadlines, no moves or significant transitions. I’m not comfortable with what seems to me like standing still.

We, humans, are meaning-making machines and from that charge, I desperately want to assign significance to my birthday falling on Ash Wednesday. I want this rare occurrence to usher in a dramatic shift.

I grew up wedding-and-funeral Episcopalian in a predominately Catholic small town in the Northeast. More than anything I wanted to go to catechism with my friends and get in on the mysterious spiritual goodies that I imagined being doled out every Wednesday after school. I wanted the rituals, the Friday night fish dinners, and the white confirmation dress.

As an adult, I’m not a practicing anything, but I still love the Lenten season. I’m drawn to the story of Jesus having to wrestle his demons, literally and figuratively, alone in the desert for forty days to find the clarity and strength to go forward.

There’s a nurturing austerity to the traditional pillars of Lent – prayer, fasting, and service – that disrupts habitual thinking.  Ash Wednesday requires change and begins a season to look within, try something different, and think about purpose and mortality.

The message of Lent is a fitting theme to my fifty-fifth year ahead. It honors my discomfort, even my jaded achy birthday neediness.

My husband and I do not usually give each other birthday gifts. So I was surprised last night to find the box that he left on my side of the bed. It was a necklace of tiny blue stones that catch the light just enough to draw awareness.

It’s perfect.

This morning I awoke to the kind of quiet that only happens after it rains. The wet streets muffled the traffic and the sunlight was muted and made tangible by the fog. It was the first time in a while that stillness made me feel sturdy and protected.

I take this as an auspicious sign.

 

Note: I took the photo in Grenoble, France.

 

 

Teaching the Twins to Drive

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“You’re so controlling,” Twin A screams as she steers to the side of the road.

This outburst comes after lurching through our neighborhood with a grand finale turn that made me swallow the gum I had been manically chewing to distract me from my death seat position in the car.

Twin A comes to a stop, gets out, and storms down a side street. Twin B, who had been sitting in the back, also flees the car. While running to catch up with her sister, Twin B turns to give me a look of disgust that makes me feel old and mean.

I remain in the passenger seat and take note of how thankful I am to be parked.

A tippy three-legged stool is the best image I have for the relationship between my twin daughters and me during these teenage years. Teaching them to drive has been like sawing off one of the legs.

“We’re gonna walk home,” Twin B calls.

“Fine,” I think poutily as I plunk down in the driver’s seat.

It begins to rain so I loop around and find my driving students walking. They get in the car and the accusations start up immediately.

“We think you are sexist! You were way more laid back when you taught the boys how to drive.”

The sexist branding makes me crazy and they know it.  Some variation of this conversation has been constant since the girls’ 16th birthday passed four months ago and they didn’t get their licenses.

It’s true, in the beginning I didn’t worry as much about the boys driving.

My relaxed attitude changed fast after our oldest son ended up under an eighteen wheeler on a snowy Chicago highway and then soon after our younger son embarked on a rogue morning adventure that ended in a car-totaling accident at a four-way stop.

Mercifully no one was hurt during either accident but this double miracle only serves to make me more fearful about the girls driving. I worry that all our family’s accident passes have been used up by the boys.

If that is sexist, then so be it.

To assuage my fears I’ve read all the guides on teaching teenagers to drive. They feature pictures of relaxed parents and teens smiling and list suggestions like, “Keep things light, ignore the slip ups, and praise good practices.”

Unfortunately for my girls, I’m the parent screaming STOP while grabbing the wheel and stomping my imaginary passenger-side brake on a simple straightaway.

As with the boys, we have invested in measures to help the twins become safe drivers. They’ve taken classes and completed professionally taught road hours.

The girls’ instructor is about eighty years old and drives on busy roads with newly permitted students with a sweetness that I truly envy. He gently admonishes me to increase the girls’ practice time.

“Perhaps it would be helpful to have your husband take on the driving hours,” he suggests.

To his disappointment, I inform him that my husband is even more skittish.

It is up to me to get the girls on the road. I’m just sixty practice hours and two driving tests away.  I remind myself that my track record is good with milestones. Each of our kids is out of diapers, tie their shoes, read and write, and two have successfully left the nest.

I fully realize that getting a license is THE game changer for every teenager moving toward independence. I want the girls to embrace this new freedom.  And yet I’m surprised to feel more tentative than I did with my sons. I think of the girls’ accusations.

It’s not just about the driving. As the headlines scream everyday, the world can feel like a more threatening place for women and girls. Although the dangers have always existed, the current political and cultural climate has dramatically brought this reality to the surface.

While teaching the twins to drive it has been difficult to relay a message of caution, both on the road and off, without hampering their sense of mastery and adventure. Added to the generic warnings about drinking and texting I think of desolate parking garages and flat tires at night. The stakes seem higher for the girls.

That’s not sexist, it’s the truth.

 

Life Goes On

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On the morning of the first anniversary of my dad’s death, I stood at the kitchen window of my parents’ house that overlooks the marsh. I took a picture of the view just as I had done a year ago.

I scrolled through my phone to find last year’s photo. In a magical thinking sort of way, I was hoping to spot a difference between the before and after images that would reveal some profundity.

As my eyes moved between the pictures, I awakened again to the power of nature’s cycles. The inward, restorative season is never more apparent than in the middle of a Maine winter and yet I know with certainty that spring will return.

My mother and I had a quiet day together to honor my dad. We sat by the fire and talked, made homemade black beans and rice, took a freezing walk on the beach, completed my mom’s application for her first ever passport, and both came down with the flu.

Life goes on and in that simple truth lies both pain and rebirth.

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January 14, 2017

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January 14, 2018

 

2018 We’ve Got Your Back

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Two-thousand and eighteen will be born tomorrow and she is coming into a world that needs our help. There’s no wiggle room to make self-defeating and ultimately abandoned resolutions. Let’s shift from individual goals and focus more on BIG Love and Interconnectedness. I know that my list of intentions for the new year is a tall order but duty calls.

Kindness is a superpower available to everyone. Use it.

Give back and volunteer. It’s the fast way to get out of your head to see and feel the big picture. Put your feet under what matters to you and connect.

Love fearlessly. Look for the real thing and don’t accept imitation or drama.

Whatever your age, today is your prime. You always have something to offer.

Master your mind. You are just one thought away from another perspective. Ask yourself how you would live differently if you could erase all the negative chatter that rattles around in your head – then live that way.

Stay curious and gladly admit when you don’t know the answer.  Be solution focused.

Discipline is freedom. Most of life’s successes are based on showing up consistently.

Welcome 2018! We’ve got your back.

Endnote: The painting, The Lifesaver, is by the extraordinary local artist John Cruz. Please take a moment to discover his work. http://www.johncruzartist.com

 

The First Anniversary of My Father’s Death

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“She philosophically noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year. Her own birthday, and every other day individualized by incidents in which she had taken some share. She suddenly thought, one afternoon, that there was another date, of greater importance than all those; that of her own death; a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there. When was it?” ― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles

The first anniversary of my father’s death is in three weeks, January 14, 2018.

As a kid, I thought about death a lot. I would get that electric panic that the self sends jolting through the body when it contemplates its extinction. I would jump up and down or turn on the television to block out the dread. I was fifteen when I read the passage in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where Tess contemplates the date of her own death, “a day which lay sly and unseen among the other days of the year.”

It stuck with me.

Every January, when I fill my planner and move my hand across twelve new and unopened months to add appointments and birthdays, I think of the quote.

I thought about Tess on the drive home from the hospice center after my dad died. It was a freezing Maine winter night, so cold that the snow squeaked when we walked outside with my dad’s body to the hearse.

The date of my father’s death had been revealed.

My dad had a handful of touch stone stories that he repeated often. One of his favorites was about how he spent his senior year at boarding school consumed with planning a post graduation, venomous diatribe against one particular teacher. Instead of a cathartic explosive finale, the story ended with a sigh and a tilt of his head.

“It all didn’t matter in the end,” my father concluded, “I crossed the stage, was handed my diploma, and it was over. Just like that. I shook his hand and left the campus.”

The story seemed silly to me when I was a complaining teenager, a waste of rage.

For much of our adult lives, my dad and I overtly and covertly struggled against each other. I visited several times during his slide into dementia, hoping for a neat closure that would finally make everything better between us – a moment that would erase a lifetime of scratchy discomfort.

During my last visit, I apologized for being a difficult teenager and thanked him for how much he sacrificed for our family. I told him that he had done a good job and that his efforts mattered to my mother, brother, and me. He looked surprised and then softer. He turned to my mom and asked, “Did you hear that? That’s really something. I did a good job.”

The exchange held for longer than most conversations but it was soon lost to his disease. Unlike my fantasy, it did not dissolve all the hard feelings that passed between us. Later the same day he looked at me with a familiar annoyed expression and I felt frustrated when he became argumentative in the evening.

Our dance continued.

By the time I arrived at the hospice, my dad was already unresponsive and we would never have another conversation. My mother and I were on either side of my dad when his chest jumped and his face tightened with his final breath. He fell back and suddenly looked younger, at peace.

On the first night when I returned home to Austin I dreamt that I was running through my parents’ house. It was ravaged by termites and about to fall down. I saw my father standing across the street in a park. He looked like he did in a picture that was taken with his best man a couple of days before he and my mom married. In my dream my dad was twenty-five, slender and handsome, wearing a madras shirt and pressed kakis. I told him that he had to leave the house immediately, that he and mom were in danger.

He smiled the most loving smile I had ever seen directed at me and said, “I already left, everything is ok.”

I bolted up. It was as real of a moment as any in a wakeful state. It was then that I knew exactly what my father’s high school story meant and the scratchy discomfort was gone.

 

 

We Are Not Here To Stay The Same

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The Amazon is not picturesque in the post-card sense of the word. It is too powerful and disheveled to be tamed into a crisp, tight, oversaturated shot. Mother Nature still rules and her restless, fertile forward momentum can be seen everywhere. The Amazon Basin is larger than Western Europe and Peru’s piece of it is said to contain the greatest biodiversity of any place on earth.

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Before I arrived, the pink river dolphins, sloths, and monkeys tugged at my imagination25074823_10107648490166277_1691024787625836166_o but when I sat still in the jungle it was the birds and insects that struck me as wondrous and new: husky, stubbled-bodied tarantulas waiting in webs; the purposeful industry of the leaf cutter ants; the silent childlike dance of iridescent Blue Morpho butterflies glowing in the sunshine; and the constant textured soundtrack of birds and crickets.

We landed in Iquitos, Peru, at the end of October, almost a year to the day from when I impulsively signed up for a yoga retreat at the Tree House Lodge led by my friend Erika. The decision came on the heels of an intense month of too many hours at work and houseful of cranky teenagers. I was hooked by the thought of being off the grid. I figured I could always back out. I let the trip lay dormant in my mind, not truly committing, until six months later when the June cancellation deadline loomed. I had to either buy a plane ticket or wimp out. I bought the ticket.

L1030621There were fourteen of us, all but two from Austin. Iquitos is an isolated island in the Peruvian rainforest that can only be accessed by boat or plane. The airport is what you would imagine, small and questionably maintained, with the jungle encroaching from every direction. The air was heavy with smells yet to be named and the busyness of insistent baggage handlers and motocab drivers.

The lobby reminded me of my kids’ elementary school cafeteria filled with disoriented tourists ranging from Ayachasca seekers to elderly riverboat cruisers, along with returning locals greeted by waiting family members. All the new arrivals peeled off clothing as the grey chill of Lima was replaced with jungle humidity and heat. Late October begins the transition to spring and the rainy season.

We were met by Orlando, the lodge guide, and loaded into a van that looked like an old IMG_4793school ice cream truck and began our two hour drive to the Port of Nauta. The colorful three-wheeled motocabs and scooters, piled with passengers, looked like battered antique tin toys and traveled in clusters. Once beyond the outskirts of the small city the traffic thinned but driving remained a creative expression with little concern for lanes or rules.

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Although we were all united by our individual friendships with Erika, only a few people knew each other. I could feel the group’s center of gravity forming as we drove past concrete block and stilted thatched-roof houses, markets, and children in uniforms walking home from school. There’s no separating the vitality of the place from the bright green messiness of the jungle and where the land is not wild the soil looks scarred and depleted.

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The Port of Nauta has an animated center of vibrantly painted concrete buildings
pressed to the river’s edge, with rust colored dirt streets, food vendors, shops and more motocabs. It was not until I walked out on the rickety dock and saw the Marañón River that I fully grasped how this region still belongs to nature even as corporate greed and poverty bare down on the Amazon Basin. The river looks at least a quarter mile across and has a sepia reddish brown monochrome like chocolate milk.

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We walked down uneven wooden stairs that swayed as we stepped and boarded a narrow boat that looked like the body of a wingless commuter plane. My hand disappeared when I put it under the opaque water. We traveled for an hour down the Marañón, across the Amazon River, and up the Ucayali before connecting to the Yarapa and arriving at our final destination.

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There are several small compounds for tourists along the tributary where we stayed but we rarely saw other travelers. The Treehouse Lodge is the only place where the rooms are actual treehouses connected by elevated walkways, stairs, and suspension bridges. The ten treehouses are encased in mosquito netting but open to the environment and the other-worldly cacophony of the jungle. Each has it own bathroom with a toilet, sink, and cold water shower.

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A round, two story stilted building serves as the common area where meals are served buffet style on the first floor and the second level is intended for gatherings with chairs, benches, and hammocks. The compound provides rustic comfort without compromising the remote jungle experience.  The lodge does not have wifi or cell phone service. The reprieve from my unacknowledged addiction to being connected made the space between my eyebrow soften.

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Each day followed a similar schedule of gathering at six in the morning for yoga, meditation and writing with activities and downtime in the afternoon. We were paired with two guides, Marden and Orlando, who immediately became part of our group and enthusiastically shared their knowledge of the jungle. We fished for piranha, learned about medicinal plants, scouted for birds, animals and caiman, swam in the Amazon River, and on our last day visited a local village. There was a discipline to the days but nothing was mandatory and we had the freedom to participate how we wanted.

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It’s against this backdrop that our group became a community, a camaraderie that changed me as much as the Amazon itself. We ranged in age from twenty to fifty-three with all decades in between represented. Whether we knew it initially or not, each of us arrived in the Amazon at some fork in the road with questions that needed time away from distractions to hear and feel the answers.

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The jungle is a continuously changing collaboration of rivers, sky, vegetation, and creatures. Looking from above as I flew over, there was a redundant sameness, but once on the ground I realized that nothing stays the same in the Amazon. There is a natural, effortless cycle of renewal and growth. The environment was like fertilizer, an accelerant for our questions, that oddly made the passage of time feel slower and more intense.

Erika is one of those gigantically hearted people with the rare ability to share her story and beliefs while maintaining healthy boundaries. She set a tone for each day that encouraged rest and introspection, along with a lot of remedial play and laughter.

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I was only in the Amazon for a week but it was the aliveness of the place and people that gave me back a sense of hope that I hadn’t even realized I had lost. The past can be a trap. I’ve been attached to a narrative that has resisted the future. The jungle reminded me that I have the tools, earned during fifty-three years of living, to move forward.

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It’s all in the power of letting go. The truthful silence of a blank page to create a more meaningful future and accept, with curiosity and open mindedness, the inevitable changes that will come.

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Like the jungle, we are not here to remain the same.

It’s easy to embrace change when surrounded by new experiences and people. However, in the two months since I’ve returned to Austin, I’ve remained committed to a new path. I’ve made three simple adjustments to my day that maintain my focus: a morning practice; reducing screen time; and reaching out to be more connected, even if it goes against my default mode.

My morning ritual includes a ten minute practice called the Five Tibetans, a collection of five yoga postures repeated 21 times each, followed by meditation, and then a stream of consciousness writing practice. Depending on time constraints, I can complete the routine in 30 minutes or extend it up to an hour. My morning ritual gives me an intention to hold on to throughout the day and a reference point to return to before bed.

Screen time is my monkey mind’s drug of choice. I have not been completely disconnected from the electronic frenzy for any length of time in over decade. I was surprised to find how easy it was to leave my computer and phone behind. My attention span needed several days to recover, to be able to lengthen and slow down.

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In my life in Austin there’s not much wiggle room in our busy family’s schedule. However, I’ve managed to recaptured hours in my week by limiting screen time. I’m writing again and feel less distracted. I have purposely cut back on my news consumption, too. I’m finding that I’m no less informed and if anything I feel more energized to get involved in the causes I support.

I went to the Amazon thinking that I wanted to be isolated and left alone. The sweetest surprise of the trip was our group connection. We had time to hear each other’s stories and develop fast friendships. The abundant laughter and encouragement buoyed us even as we struggled at times. I have nothing against social media platforms but the rapid fire pictures and quick comments are not a replacement for spending time with people, face to face.

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We are human beings and have evolved as communities and tribes. We are not designed to live alone in our computers and phones. I returned home with the commitment to be a more present mother, daughter, partner, and friend.

My visit to the Amazon was a turning point and the lessons I took back with me were not grand like the jungle. I do not feel like I have to make sweeping cataclysmic changes. Instead it is micro adjustments and the return to simplicity, kindness, and the warmth of human contact.

Within the collage of jungle sounds, the weaver bird makes a distinct call like an electronic plink of a stone being dropped into still water. While in the Amazon, the sound became a welcomed anchor, the recollection of which I can still feel in my chest and is a reference point for me to stay present and mindful that we are not here to stay the same.

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“Each day has a story that deserves to be told, because we are made of stories. I mean, scientists say that human beings are made of atoms, but a little bird told me that we are also made of stories. We are the sum of our efforts to change who we are. Identity is no museum piece sitting stock-still in a display case, but rather the endlessly astonishing synthesis of the contradictions of everyday life.” Eduardo Galeano

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Thank you Laura and Erika with OneYogaGlobal for organizing such an affirming and healing adventure. Extraordinary locations, exceptional teachers, and life-changing experiences. http://www.oneyogaglobal.com

Family Vacations and the Headlock

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I know there are families who travel well together. They move in unison as one organism in pursuit of meaningful time together. Our family, on the other hand, slams into each other like molecules in boiling water. Our trips are often prickly, loud, and always include more headlocks than expected during a vacation.

The first headlock occurred when our oldest son, Leo, was about ten. Leo ambushed my husband, Matthew, with the classic vice grip as he walked into the living room, beginning one of our longest-lived family traditions. It starts with the surprise headlock and ends in a wrestling match. Now that the boys are older, the contest is more focused between Leo and Eli.

Matthew, the elder silverback, worries about his neck – and losing.

The headlock appears at random, but occurrences spike when we are on family vacations. There are no off-limits places for this male-bonding behavior. It can occur while waiting to be seated at a restaurant or on the beach in front of bewildered normal families. I watch, horrified, while the girls record every moment for their snap-chat stories.

I’m a planner by trade. People actually pay me to organized events. However, when I think of planning this year’s family summer vacation, I’m paralyzed by the intensity of it.

My husband is already trying to opt out. He fears that his co-dependent bulldog, Otis, will die of a broken heart if he leaves him longer than a weekend. Matthew looks to the future and our impending empty nest. His ideal vacation plan includes a small RV tricked out with a satellite connection for his work and a custom, shot-gun seat for Otis.

Given our family’s collective temperament and the headlock ritual, vacationing together is a planner’s nightmare. Our kids don’t want to be seen with us but somehow they’re always making a scene.

Traveling with teenagers is an unnatural arrangement and comes at a time in the family lifecycle when tired, middle-aged parents and antsy teens both long for their freedom and space. And yet there’s something very necessary about having to learn to get along; to sow the seeds of a common narrative, a running joke, and shared experiences that form the stories that will be recounted over the decades.

Creating that narrative has to happen in real time and there’s only one take.

The best thing I ever did for my sons’ future relationship was to bring them on a three week road trip through Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier National Park when Eli was thirteen and Leo was nineteen. They fought and occasionally got along, but it was during those three weeks that their friendship truly took root.

So I will brave the boiling waters of our togetherness, the headlocks, the arguments and complaints, all the while reading RV catalogs and calling the kennel to check on Otis.

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PostScript:

My three guiding principles for a manageable vacation with teenagers.

1) Plan a vacation that allows room for each teenager to safely have time to themselves. Choose destinations where they can explore together and alone. Think twice about that camping trip that includes carrying a 30lb pack and sleeping in the same tent.

2) Don’t take every complaint about being bored or mad seriously. I used to waste a lot of time worrying and trying to prevent all forms of discomfort. Now I realize that it’s just the teenage mind ping-ponging from one thought to next, fueled by hormones and crushing self-consciousness. The same goes for the middle-age parent.

3) Give teens a couple of days to decompress and get used to the new schedule and surroundings. I have found that it take at least 48 hours for everyone to synch up and stop bitching about what they are missing.

Blog Posts from our National Parks Trip

https://daysinthefifities.com/2013/08/02/20-miscellaneous-things-that-i-learned-on-our-road-trip-through-grand-teton-yellowstone-and-glacier-national-parks/

https://daysinthefifities.com/2013/06/29/life-on-the-verge-road-trip/

https://daysinthefifities.com/2013/07/30/the-unexpected/

https://daysinthefifities.com/2013/07/06/absolution/

 

Alumni Magazine

Long term visioning and planning has never been my strong suit.  I’m not a plodder and tend to leap before I look.  Reading the news from the class of 1987 in my college alumni magazine is a humbling reminder of how productive the frogs are who plan for a few hops ahead.

Reading the class column becomes a blur of fabulous jobs, PhDs, throngs of uber-successful offspring, just finished books, and global volunteering stints.  How do they do this?  I admit that my focus can be a bit wonky but I have an impressive energy level.  I just don’t understand how some people squeeze so much from their 24 hours. The back pages are filled with frogs who must have an extra gene for planning their lily pad track.

As I put down the magazine and pour my umpteenth cup of coffee, I remind myself that people who report into their colleges thirty years after graduation are in a high-achieving micro-niche.  Most of us garden variety frogs don’t remember that much of college and have trouble with our next leap let alone tidying up our leaping image for people we haven’t seen for three decades.

I’m positive that no one wants to know that I’ve arrived at a stage in my life with my husband and four kids where I have found the time to shower regularly, garden a little, walk the dogs, prepare lots of meals, and herd my imperfect family through the day.

Matthew is fascinated by my alumni magazine in the way that you can become interested in a stranger’s story overheard at a restaurant.  He pulls the glossy edition from our mailbox and grins.

“Oh look, my alumni magazine has arrived.” He emphasizes the my.

We read it together and laugh, not at my classmates’ lives but at our fallible selves. Matthew and I have attention challenges at the opposite ends of the spectrum. When we operate together, we form a rather well-functioning unit.  I push him to leap and he reminds me to look.  We agree that together we might be alumni magazine worthy.

Several years ago I had an essay published in my alumni magazine where I told the story of how skydiving with my oldest son prepared me for dropping him off at college.  It was the only time I’ve made contact with my alma mater since I graduated.  Perhaps my classmates think I’m too busy skydiving to get a PhD.

https://ebreston.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/how-skydiving-prepared-me-for-my-first-college-drop-off/

Mother’s Day and the Bag of Shit: More in Common Than You Think

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Friday is our trash day so I get up early to pick up our two dogs’ business before the garbage truck arrives at our house. My daughter comes out on the patio and looks at the weighted HEB grocery bag and asks me about its contents with a hopeful look that perhaps I have brought her an extraordinary breakfast treat.

“It’s a bag of shit.”
“No really, mom, what is it?”
“Seriously.”

There’s an eye-roll and she returns to the kitchen to contemplate what to eat now that I have ruined her breakfast fantasy. I return to my task, hearing the garbage truck rumble, brakes squeaking, a few streets over.

It’s the Friday before Mother’s Day weekend. I think about my Mom in Maine, alone on her first Mother’s Day after my dad’s death, and then about my own kids.

Mother’s Day is May’s cultural emotional land mine, only to be followed by a second sucker punch, Father’s Day, in June. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to diss the annual Mother’s Day brunch if it’s a true celebration, but for many the day is conflicted, at best.

I think back to the bag of shit that I’m holding and the approaching garbage truck. And then it hits me – a thought, not the garbage truck.

Picking up the shit is the price we all pay for being able to love and care for other beings. You have to search it out because if you pretend that it’s not there, you’re going to step in it. Not only that, but you have to keep doing it until the very end of the line.

There are no perfect moms and kids, even if we all want to pretend it to be true on Mother’s Day. The reality is that what spans between unconditional love and the bag of shit is what it really means to be in a relationship of any kind.

So whether you love, like, or hate Mother’s Day remember to give yourself a break. Relationships are messy and there’s a lot of never-ending cleanup. But that’s the brilliant part of it too, because if you are alive and willing, you can pick up the shit.

Seriously.

Trumpet Vines Against Gray Sky

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Wild Love

Is not impermanence the very fragrance of our days?

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness

Give me your hand.

– Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Joanna Macy

I’m not a practicing anything, but each year I design a DIY version of Lent for myself. The season arrives on the calendar just as my lofty, good-intentioned New Year’s resolutions fade.

The new year promises a quick fix while Lent is the real deal – transformation through disciplined action. It’s a forty day contract.

Prayer, fasting, and service, the traditional pillars of Lent, provide a container to hold my wandering attention span. There’s a nurturing austerity inherent in the rituals that helps me filter the distractions of everyday life.

Where I live, this penitential season is marked by the pairing of the natural expansion of spring – tender neon green leaves, noticeably longer days – and the measured restraint of deliberate choice.

I feel that true freedom, not the mindless kind that comes with passivity or the jagged edge of defiance, can only develop with discipline. It’s about finding balance through confronting the interplay between sacrifice and renewal, effort and ease, life and death.

Too often I’m like a fish jumping at every bait that dangles above the water – work, teenage drama, the internet, even happiness. We all know the feeling of twisting and flailing on the line, hook-in-the-cheek caught.

Most religions have a prescribed season to examine what catches us. A time to anchor our most spiritual questions back to the body, while simultaneously providing the discipline to tame our habits so that we can concentrate on a higher purpose.

It requires an often uncomfortable, committed, day-to-day effort that seems too big to make during the sweltering heat of summer or the reprieve of a Texas fall and winter. It’s spring where the overlap of Life and Death is the most visible.

The acceptance of duality is at the heart of being fully human and ultimately gives us room to renew, forgive, love and eventually die.  As my friend Erika says, “We are not here to struggle, nor are we here to stay the same.”

We come spinning out of nothingness,
scattering stars like dust.  – Rumi

In memory of my father 12/15/1939 – 1/14/2017

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Eat Your Pie

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During the past two weeks since I watched my father take his last breath, I have been powered by the frantic metronome beat of Live-Now-Faster. I have thrown myself back into work, political outrage, my daughters’ gymnastics and dance competitions, and tying up the loose ends of our year-long house repair project.

But when I wake at 4:30am to start my day, it’s then, in the quiet morning peace, that I think about the pie.

In the hospice where my father spent his last twelve days on earth, the kitchen is partitioned off from the vistors’ common room in a similar fashion to restaurants where diners can sit and watch food being prepared. Although sequestered in his own space, anyone can observe the cook go about his tasks of making meals for the patients who are still eating, and the homemade cookies for visitors.

He is a tall, sturdy man but has a gentle, Downeast Maine quietness and does not readily make eye contact or engage in small talk. As I make my mother’s tea, I covertly take note of how he is carefully wrapping pieces of pumpkin pie on plastic cafeteria plates.

A hospice volunteer pushes open the swinging half-door that separates the visitors’ area and the kitchen and stands next to the cook. She comments that he doesn’t usually make pumpkin pie. He tells her that room 107 wants to eat only pumpkin pie, as he wraps the last piece.

There are six pieces of pie on the table.

How many times did the man or woman in 107 say no to a piece of pie because of some unfounded fear that eclipsed their freedom to enjoy tasting the sweet, nutmeg earthiness of a favorite dessert?  How many times did some regimen for self-improvement gobble up the thrill of being alive?

As you can imagine, sitting at my father’s bedside for six days gave me an uncommonly long pause to think. I saw my father’s face soften as the emotions of a lifetime left his body. He grew oddly young, like a blank state. Our choices shape and contort the body. Every time we betray our finest impulses we deform ourselves, both inside and out.

I want to let go of the maddening monkey-mind chatter that convinces me that I must be better, that I must do more.

None of us are extraordinary. I felt that with certainty as I watched the soft animal body of my father struggle to live and then stop. All that my father accomplished vanished into the nothingness of the past on every labored exhale. In the end, our legacy is measured by how our presence makes others feel, and how freely we are able to love and let go.

Although my dad died at 8:45 in the evening, it’s the cold, steel gray day that came before that is my reference point of time and place. That morning, I had been thinking of Miami and its hustle, warm white sand, blue raspberry water, and old men in tee-shirts, sitting on stoops, holding small dogs, loving their breathing, heart-beating lives.

Eat your pie.

We waste so much energy trying to cover up who we are when beneath every attitude is the want to be loved, and beneath every anger is a wound to be healed and beneath every sadness is the fear that there will not be enough time. When we hesitate in being direct, we unknowingly slip something on, some added layer of protection that keeps us from feeling the world, and often that thin covering is the beginning of a loneliness which, if not put down, diminishes our chances of joy.It’s like wearing gloves every time we touch something, and then, forgetting we chose to put them on, we complain that nothing feels quite real. Our challenge each day is not to get dressed to face the world but to unglove ourselves so that the doorknob feels cold and the car handle feels wet and the kiss goodbye feels like the lips of another being, soft and unrepeatable.

― Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

I took the photography from my parents’ kitchen window, at Goose Rocks Beach, Maine, on the morning of the day that my father died – January, 14, 2017.