Back to School Night

A Micro-Memoir

Twenty-two years compressed into three short chapters

Chapter 1: The Victory Lap

I was looking forward to Back to School Night. The first door to close in our twin daughters’ senior year, like an advent calendar in reverse.

It was to be the final and twenty-second consecutive Back to School Night of my parenting career. If I counted the years when our kids were divided between two, sometimes three, school campuses, the total would increase by a half a dozen or so. For efficiency sake, my internal tally was of just the singular annual benchmark event.

My grand finale Back to School Night was to be the completion of the circle, similarly to how I like to start and stop my runs at the same spot, touching the smooth gray pole to honor the finish.

In my mind’s eye, I saw myself taking a victory lap around the halls where each of our four children went to high school. In the shuffle of parents, I would recognize a few of the same faces from the elementary and middle school years. We would give each other a kindred nod from across the bobbing heads. A grateful, somewhat resigned, acknowledgment of our random good fortune to have arrived at this point that once seemed light-years away.

Chapter 2: The Trajectory

My younger parent-self attended those first Back to School Nights, notebook in hand, with a nieve surefootedness. I attentively listened, read all the handouts, and signed up for the PTA and every committee with a fierce belief that I could get it all right. The possibility of perfect parenting seemed rational and learnable, like a recipe or math equation.

That was before the twelve-year storm of non-stop and over-lapping adolescence.

For each of our kids, senior year is when the gale-force winds die down a bit. But the calm comes with a new distance, as it should, that they guard like a demilitarized zone. By senior year, I awaken to the fact that they live most of their lives behind the checkpoint.

On the afternoon of my final Back to School Night, my girls texted me separately that none of their friends’ parents were going. It would be weird if I went, Twin A added.

I was undeterred by their thinly veiled embarrassing-parent-prevention strategy, although my husband gladly took them up on their suggestion.

I had a circle to close.

Chapter 3: The Grackles

It went against my nature to find myself standing alone in the small gym where I work and not at my daughters’ school. I watched the minute hand tick across the start time of what would have been my twenty-second Back to School Night.

I was not going.

I felt defiant, yet there was a lightness to my choice as if I was flying up above my life, without a bit of heaviness, regret, or disappointment.

When I closed my eyes, I saw the grackles that sit on the telephone wires at the major intersection near our house. Often, as I wait for the red light to turn green, I watch the flock take flight from their perch and spill across the sky, separating and merging, to form mesmerizing fluid swaths of expanding and contrasting patterns.

I marvel at how they intuitively burst into the air, in unison, and then just as spontaneously, land. The birds make the time in-between look like it matters most.

Moving to the floor, I set up for a final round of pushups, the end of a workout I had planned to miss.

Lower down. Press up. Breathe.

The time in-between matters most.

Happy To Be a Tourist in Pokhara

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Within the first few steps on the tarmac in Pokhara, I feel the downshift from the pollution, density, and relentless sensory onslaught of Kathmandu. After an intense morning at the cremation pyres at Pashupatinath, the twenty-five minute flight transported us to another Nepal.

Pokhara, the country’s second largest city, is the gateway for trekking the Annapurna Circuit and the hub for high-adrenaline sports like paragliding, base diving, kayaking, mountain biking, and rock climbing.

Lakeside is the touristy part of Pokhara that hovers along the north shore of Phewa Lake. It lives up to the views I studied online, with its verdant banks and dozens of brightly painted row boats anchored in the reflection of the Himalayas.

There are trendy western-type restaurants, bars, and stores that make it a magnet for travelers as a rest-stop on their way to and from adventurous itineraries.

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On the afternoon we arrive, Pokhara is buzzing with the celebration activities for the third day of Tihar, the Hindu five-day festival of lights to cast off darkness and misfortune and usher in auspicious blessings for health and prosperity.

There are strings of lights and garlands of marigolds everywhere. Along the sidewalks, at the entrances of homes and businesses, are spectacular Rangolis, colorful designs to invite the goddess Lakshmi to enter and bring good fortune for the coming year.

In the evening, troupes of children go from store to store, dancing and singing songs performed only during Tihar. Shop owners reward the dancers with small gifts of money, candy, and fruit. As darkness falls, people set tea candles on their stoops, windowsills, and sidewalks as Lakshmi favors the brightest lights.

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There is an outdoorsy expat community living in Pokhara who have opened yoga studios and businesses catering to tourists. The main drag of Lakeside retains an echo of the bohemian feel of the mid-’60s when the hikers from the West began pitching their tents near the lake.

As the light fades, Sarah and I walk along the water and then explore the shops looking for scarves and singing bowls. We merge into the spontaneous audiences that form circles around the children dancing on the sidewalks.

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Sarah is an old soul in a young energy body. She meanders like a child, taking in the world at her own pace. In contrast, my default stride is a purposeful near-sprint. She rolls her eyes when I admonish her to catch up. We are a good pair, balancing out our extremes.

I first met Sarah at Erika’s house, months before leaving for Nepal. My impression of her was neutral and subdued. There was no immediate spark of friendship like sometimes happens. So I was caught off guard when I read the text that she had booked the same flight as me. I recalled her sweetness and accepted the unplanned togetherness.

Over the next months, we built a friendship, as one might in an arranged marriage, as we trained for trekking on the stairs at Mount Bonnell. By the time we were riding the dunes in the Qatari Peninsula during our layover in Doha, we had formed a bond that felt as if we had known each other forever.

Like most tourists, our group does not venture out to experience the rest of the sprawling city of Pokhara. Life in Lakeside is a soft refuge from the challenging conditions on the trekking trails. This is our last night with a flushing toilet and a comfortable bed.

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On the morning of our departure, I slip out to watch the sunrise over Phewa Lake and the Himalayas. There are only a few locals organizing the boats before the crowds arrive. An American jogger runs by with an intensity that is out of place in Pokhara, as an older, arguing Japanese couple walks up next to me.

I give the bickering couple a side glance with my much-practiced parental big eyes along with a gentle smile. We then stand in silence, the three of us, while the snow-capped peaks that fill the horizon change from an ethereal blue to watermelon, then mango, with a finale of golden turmeric before the clouds roll over the view.

Pokhara is dreamy, but the traveler in me is ready to go.

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Footnote: A brief description of Tihar, if curious.

Tihar is the five day festival of lights that take place in the fall. It is a time to cast off darkness, death, and misfortune and usher in auspicious blessings for health and prosperity.

Tihar tells the story of Yama, the god of death, and his twin sister Yamuna, the goddess of the sacred river of the same name. After being separated for a long period, Yumana sends a crow, dog, and a cow to summon her brother before finding him herself. After they reunite, Yamuna honors Yama by circling him with mustard oil, flowers, and grass, and marks his forehead with five different tikas, colorful powders made with water and rice.

The first day of Tihar honors the crow. In the morning people go to their roofs or gardens to feed the crows sweets, bread or grains.

On the second day, families place tika on the forehead of their dog, hang a garland of marigolds around its neck, and offer their pet extra food. People who do not own a dog, adorn and feed one of the ubiquitous strays that roam Nepal.

The third day, devoted to cows, is considered to be the most important of the five-day festival. The animals are scared in the Hindu tradition and symbolize wealth.

On the fourth day, offerings are made to other bovine animals, like oxen and buffalo. Preparations begin on the fourth day for the Brother-Sister Ceremony that occurs on last day of Tihar. Families gather together to celebrate siblings and apply tika to the brothers in the family as Yumana honored Yama.

Eating the Chocolates at Buddha’s Feet

fullsizeoutput_c415It didn’t cross my mind, not even for one millisecond, that I shouldn’t eat the exquisitely wrapped chocolates at the base of Buddha’s lotus-positioned feet. The small rectangles, packaged in a rainbow of bright colors, looked exactly like the legos I had been playing with all morning.

Having never seen a home alter before, I didn’t know that the chocolates were off limits.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I worked in New York City as a nanny for the sweetest toddler named Paul. His blonde ringlets and predictable, almost constant, cherubesque demeanor were in stark contrast to his kind but wrung-dry looking parents.

Paul was an only child, although there were grown unseen step-siblings, of an older psychiatrist and his second wife, younger of course. She carried herself wearily, though, without the confidence that I felt around the other young-ish mothers that I met through the service. The other mothers beamed with the good fortune of what appeared to me, a directionless college student, as having it all.

I applied for the job because of the Park Avenue address. It jumped out at me when I was reading the listings in the cumbersome black binder at the Barnard College Alumnae Babysitting Service. I envisioned a penthouse with a wing for me and my toddler charge.

Instead, it was the smallest living space I had ever seen. Adding to the cramped and restrictive situation, was the fact that Paul’s father ran his practice out of the apartment in the living room off the dark and tapestried main entrance.

My domain included a closet-sized kitchen with one window looking out a second-floor air shaft, a narrow hall where I could reach out and touch both walls at the same time, a nursery that fit just a crib, and the master bedroom where a stone carved Buddha took up half the space. The remainder of the multi-use bedroom included a small futon, all of Paul’s toys and stroller, stacks of books, and a clothesline for cloth diapers.

The items placed around and on the Buddha were a continuation of the explosion of flotsam in the room.

Paul’s mother was decades ahead of her time with discovering threatening food allergies and fearful eating. I spent hours squished in the tiny kitchen, my back pressed into the wall as I sat in front of Paul’s high chair spooning foods I had never heard of in his mouth.

I did not speak with Paul’s dad. He smiled and nodded at me when he walked into his office, and I hurried down the narrow hall. Paul’s mother asked me to stay in the playroom, which we pretended was not her bedroom, while her husband saw patients in the morning.

Instead, I would pass the patient time at the playground in Central Park. I ran after Paul and listened to the au pairs complain about their host families and speak to one another in their home languages.

It rained the morning that I carelessly ate the sweets left at Buddha’s feet. Paul and I could not make it to the park. The hours stuck in the apartment were excruciating. Paul’s joyfulness usually softened my boredom and claustrophobia, but that morning, he was cranky. As I read to him, he fell asleep.

I stood up and considered the Buddha. For a month I had shared my workspace with the statue, and surprisingly, not given it much attention.

When Paul’s mother opened the door, I was unwrapping my third rectangle of chocolate. She looked more wrung-dry than usual as her eyes went from Buddha to my hands. I kept chewing and swallowed as fast as possible.

I gave my notice and stayed for a few more weeks while looking for a waitressing job. We parted amicably. I still have the picture of Paul that his mother gave me the day I left. He is climbing on a monster truck tire next to the pond at their country house, smiling of course.

Twenty Times Around the World

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For the first time in twenty-six years, I am not driving somebody somewhere. A rough total milage calculation from all the cars that we owned while raising our four children places me just over five-hundred thousand miles.

That’s twenty times around the circumference of the earth.

I own my acute odometer shame and cringe when I think of my carbon footprint. It’s not the parenting badge that I want to shine a light on and do so only to illustrate what a colossal deal it is for me to be out of the family Uber business.

When I found out I was pregnant with our first child, I followed the hubris of every couple and made the mental list of things that I would never do as a parent. I balked at the thought of ever driving a minivan. It was right up there with never saying a snarky word to my child and the promise that parenthood would not change our marriage.

We went through several ill-fated car purchases including our neighbor’s hail-pocked Tercel, a top-coat shedding Taurus station wagon with chronic heating and cooling issues, and a red Brocho that we discovered later had two bullet hole through the roof.

Several months before the twins were born, we made our last questionable car decision. We were lured into buying a second-hand Suburban because it was so tricked out. We could only hear the bells and whistles and the roar of the impending doubling of our family while letting the accident and mechanical history slip by like white noise.

The Suburban was ok, but just delayed our inevitable car drama correction: Minivan ownership.

As I drove the first of our minivans off the lot, I accepted my life as a transporter of children and understood how people joined cults.

Our two minivans, the second of which we still own, steadfastly saw me through the constant rhythm of activities, sports, play dates, school drop-offs and pick-ups, and general family maintenance. With one push of a button, the sliding door opened and closed as children, mine and others, piled in and out for fifteen years.

The van was part living room, garden shed, dressing area, study hall, storage unit, and kitchen. It became an extension of our family life, and much of our togetherness took place during hours driving up and down MoPac. None of those five-hundred thousand miles were glamorous.

I barely noticed when Leo left the minivan and began driving himself. I have no recollection of the process. What I do remember is standing in our front yard, bragging to the lady next door about what a good driver he was, when at that exact moment, Leo came screeching around the cul-de-sac, jumped the curb with two wheels, and drove through our neighbor’s garden. He parked the car in front of the house and walked by us as if nothing happened. To this day, Leo claims that I taught him how to drive.

Eli and his friends were all gamers and spent way too much time inside darkened rooms. We were eager to get him behind the wheel, out of the house and into the light. We signed him up for a formal driving course, but when he rebelled against completing his road hours with the instructor, Matthew took over, or at least I thought he did. According to Eli, I also taught him how to drive for which he continues to blame me for each of his accidents and tickets, plural.

It was clear that I was pegged as the driving teacher in our family lore. I figured I needed to be more serious about the title with the twins.

Georgia was the most eager to drive. I stretched out the learning process much longer than she wanted, making sure that we completed every item on the parent-taught checklist provided by the Department of Public Safety. Georgia credits me for her being a good driver but quickly adds that it was a hellish process of my constant wincing, commenting on the nearness of objects on the right side of the car, usually in a loud panicky voice, and the dramatic foot smashing of my imaginary passenger-side brake.

Then there was Lila. With three kids driving on their own, I downsized to a Forrester and passed the minivan to Matthew. I nicknamed our Forrester the therapy box, as we took our teacher and student positions in the car. We would begin each session with an agreed upon truce, but it rarely lasted around the block. Take Georgia’s description, double the suffering, and add more obscenities.

It has been three weeks since Lila and I sat patiently in the hard blue chairs at the licensing office. Her turn was called and I watched as one practiced smile for the camera set us both free. I was officially relieved of my duty, and just like that, almost half my life spent driving somebody somewhere was over.

Thirty Years in a Coffee Cup

IMG_3753 2I bet my future and measly graduate student savings on a coffee mug.

It was the shiny, inky indigo rim that made me walk closer. The potter added flecks of gold to the glaze that expressed, ever so modestly, as glittering stars against the almost black gloss that lined the inside of the mug and stopped just short of the flaring matte sky blue base on the outside.

It was a cup of night sky. The kind I had only seen at national parks or when lying on the beach in Maine at night, relieved and finding refuge in my glorious smallness.

There was no rational reason to believe that the mug would save me, but when I held it in my hands, I sensed its power. In that moment I felt on a purposeful course in the universe instead of drifting in the constant fear, insecurity, and loneliness that I had grown accustomed to as I dragged myself through graduate school after a debilitating breakup.

Clarksville Pottery’s original location was next to the import store where I worked when I wasn’t in class or biking. I had given my car back to the dealership during my first semester; voluntary repossession is what they called it. Carless, I often wandered into the pottery store during my breaks to look at the smooth, earthy housewares stacked on shelves and displayed in beautiful arrangements of potential domesticity.

I would trace the trails of the potter’s fingertips on the large plates and salad bowls with my hands. My world did not have lovely household items and homey touches; everything was raw and bare bones. Graduate school was the phoenix I had tied myself to this time and I was burning.

When I flipped the mug over, I felt the sting of the price tag in that place where desire, extravagance, and shame collide. I placed the cup on the shelf and walked back to work to finish unpacking items sent in huge crates from various places in Mexico.

This same scene repeated for several days until it didn’t. I picked up my cup of stars and brought it to the man at the register. He gave me and the item a glance over and asked if that would be all.

“No,” I answered, “I am interested in a set of eight.”

It was the only one of its kind in the store. The owner explained that he would have to contact the artist and warned that a small special order might take awhile. He went on to stress that there was no guarantee that the potter would be able to replicate the stars.

“There’s a lot of dumb luck in how the firing process works. You can’t just reliability conjure up a specific result.”

I would take my chances. The store owner kept my mug as the model for the other seven.

Four months and three cobbled-together payments later, I heard the message on my answering machine announcing that the set was ready. Before I left the store, I unwrapped each cup. None of the seven had the starriness of the original nor the balance of indigo to gold that I imagined. The owner had prepared me to expect the difference.

I made peace with my disappointment when I discovered the symmetry that each mug shared. There was a weighted uniformity that was unseen by the eye, but in my hands, it translated as a comforting heaviness. I could feel quiet mornings, meals with friends, coffee with lovers, even the laughter of children and the smell of wet dogs. It was all there in my hands, invisible but present.

The last of those eight mugs broke over a decade ago when it splintered against our porcelain sink. I kept a shard of the stars in my top drawer for years until I could hold its meaning in my heart and not stress over the jinx-it power of discarding such a powerful talisman.

I hadn’t thought of those mugs in forever until I stepped out of line at Anderson’s Coffee to pick up the unremarkable blue cup in the corner, the one with the shiny rim. There were no stars, and the shape was all wrong, but there was something about that indigo glaze at the top and the light blue matte finish at the bottom that made me remember.

I felt the lightning speed of thirty years spill over the sides with all the abundant messiness that has passed since I first picked up that cup of stars. The decades have been unruly and surprising, but never despairing and fearful like the tidy emptiness of my mid-twenties. I got back in line to order a pound of Sumatra beans, as intended, still holding the cup.

I had forgotten the depth of the darkness, those tiny seeds of expectation, the weighty hope, and all the random, infinite possibilities.

“There’s a lot of dumb luck in how the firing process works. You can’t just reliability conjure up a specific result.”

Breathing in Dead People

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Death is the only wise adviser that we have. –  Carlos Castaneda

There is no way to escape the smoke coming from the open-air funeral pyres. I lean into Erika and whisper the obvious, “We are breathing in dead people.”

She shakes her head emphatically up and down with an openness to the experience that validates my clinical curiosity. There is no sickening smell from the burning bodies as I expected. It’s the viscosity of the air, made more intense by the increasing morning humidity, that makes me gag. A sticky film settles on my exposed skin, even in the canals and folds of my ears. Holding a scarf to my face, I labor to pull enough breath through the material.

I was eighteen when I first saw a dead body. She was in her mid-sixties, laid out in the grass wearing her still-wet, skirted bathing suit as if relaxing after a swim. The vine and leaf motif winding over the yellowed fabric of her suit was identical to the delicate pattern on my grandmother’s favorite teacup. The initial mundanity of the scene blurred the line between life and death.

A heart attack had brought her instantly and silently to the bottom of the lake until a swimmer spotted her and called out for help. As usual, there was a lifeguard stationed on shore, another on the wooden raft anchored two Olympic-pool-lengths from the beach, and one standing on the small float positioned midway between the two.

Even so, only death witnessed the moment she stopped living.

People hurried to shore when the warning whistle blew. I was not on duty at the time but had just finished mandatory swim practice. The guards carried the woman’s body out of the water. We knew she was dead, but resuscitation continued for almost an hour until the medical examiner arrived. I watched Dot, the fit, middle-aged, lake-front supervisor, and the young lead guard take turns giving mouth to mouth and chest compressions.

Their effort was measured and respectful, without urgency or drama, and spoke more to me about Dot and the guard, than of death.

I feel like the same observer from that summer afternoon, almost four decades ago, as I watch the squatted man, dressed in white, rise to add wood to the pyre and poke the burning body with a stick as he tends the fire. There is a similar ordinariness that erases the morbidity and gives death its rightful commonplace status, visible and natural as any other biological function.

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Hindus believe that cremation at Pashupatinath is auspicious and guarantees that they will be reincarnated as a human. Pilgrims arrive in Kathmandu from across Nepal and India to live their last weeks on the grounds and have their ashes pushed into the sacred waters of the Bagmati River which eventually flows into the holy Ganges in India.

Pashupatinath is one of the most important religious sites in Asia for followers of Shiva, the god of transformation and destruction. Only Hindus are allowed in the inner sanctum of the main golden-roofed temple that contains the Lingam, Shiva’s symbolic representation, and the enormous golden statue of Shiva’s bull, Nandi. The rest of the sprawling complex,  including hundreds of smaller temples, shrines, ashrams and the cremations platforms, is open to all visitors

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Five pyres are burning in various stages when we arrive. Our guide tells us that there are usually about twelve cremations performed daily. The corpse is washed in the Bagmati River then wrapped in cotton shrouds of orange and white and decorated with garlands of flowers. 

Male relatives carry the prepared body on a bamboo gurney from the ceremony in the temple to the pyre arranged on the stone platform, or ghat, jutting out over the Bagmati.

It is customary for the oldest son to light the kindling near the head, as to hasten the soul’s release through the mouth. When the pyre ignites into flames, the corpse is covered with a mass of wet straw producing a temporary cloak of white smoke to shield the view. It takes between three and six hours and a half a ton of wood to burn an adult body.

The cremators, who belong to one of the lowest castes, are paid a minuscule amount to keep the fires burning as the family waits. The process concludes with the ceremonial throwing of water on the ash, and the wet remains are swept into the river.

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The Bagmati River, a source of spiritual salvation and renewal for millions of Hindus, divides the temple complex as it makes its way through the Kathmandu Valley.

This morning the Bagmati barely flows. The once pristine river has become an open sewer, littered with the garbage from the city’s ever-increasing population. Two boys wade knee-deep in the stagnant water below the ghats, made grey by the ash. They are looking for fragments of jewelry that escaped the flames. Discarded shrouds and bits of marigolds float around them as they search.

I take in the scene without strong emotion, realizing that I have adjusted to the absurd density of every moment in Kathmandu, each experience weighted with infinite contradictions.

Our guide walks us up to the low hill across the river from the funeral pyres, giving us a respite from the smoke. We pass the bearded and deadlocked Sadhus, some half-naked and covered in ash, other dressed in saffron and orange robes, and all adorned with colorful tika markings, rings, and long beads. They live in and around the temple complex and rely on the alms from worshipers and tourists.

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A Sadhu, a Hindu ascetic devoted to Shiva, renounces all worldly comforts and relationships. Like Shiva, they make liberal use of intoxicants as a path to spiritual insight. A true Sadhu is viewed as the living divine, having reached enlightenment and liberated from the cycle of birth and death. However, many consider the Sadhus of Pashupatinath as glorified beggars.

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They happily pose for the camera in exchange for a few coins. Kelly, Erika, and Sarah stop for a picture. The Sadhu sitting next to Kelly mumbles through his groggy smile, “twenty dollars.”

We rest at the hilltop. The welcomed distance gives us each a space to assimilate the morning before we leave to catch our flight to Pokhara. Several monkeys appear to survey if we have anything worth stealing.

Unlike my visit to the Stupa the day before, where my sense of self dissolved, this morning I want to take possession of my shape, inhabit my body and senses fully, and pull my life closer.

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Another memory comes to me from the summer of the drowning.

As part of our lifeguard training, each of us had to pass the Walt Jacoby test. He was the conference center’s executive director. A giant of a man, he stood six-foot-seven and weighed at least 250 pounds. He played the role of a struggling swimmer, grabbing us from behind in open water. The goal was to break his hold and perform a successful cross-chest carry to shore.

On the day of my initiation, the sun was sinking behind the mountains and the light fading. The glassy lake reflected the colors of the sky. Unprepared for the reality of his weight pressing down on my shoulders, I misjudged the immediacy needed to produce the appropriate counterforce. From below, the water was the color of smoky quartz. My heartbeat pounded in my face, and for a flash, I wanted to inhale the water and give up.

Instead, the burning sensation in my chest triggered a rush of strength and focus. I pushed up his elbows that formed the corners of the box he made with his arms around my neck and descended deeper. With one powerful scissor kick, I projected myself to the side. My arms took me to the surface like the levers on a corkscrew, and I filled my lungs with a triumphant breath. An electric surge ran through my body.

Weeks later, I would recognize the same jolt as I watched the medical examiner place the swimmer in the body bag.

The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.  – Alan Watts

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One of the only pictures I still have from that summer at the lake.

 

 

 

 

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

 

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.