What Do I Have That I Didn’t Earn?

Ahmaud Arbery was born on Mother’s Day in 1994. This past Friday – May 8th, 2020 – he would have turned twenty-six, the same age as my oldest son.

I do not worry that my sons will be hunted and killed while on a jog through the neighborhood.

That is an unearned advantage.

Wanda Cooper-Jones does not have the same privilege.

“What do I have that I didn’t earn?”

That is the question that Peggy McIntosh, former associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, and founder of the National SEED Project, asked herself in 1988.

Her answer became the basis for her groundbreaking, still relevant article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which contains forty-six examples of her white privilege.

Written thirty-two years ago, numbers 14 and 15 on her list are still not privileges for ALL mothers in this country.

14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

Talking about privilege is complex. Rage, Shame, Fear, and Indifference often shout the loudest in the discourse.

I have been advantaged and disadvantaged by the circumstances of my birth. My choices have been shaped by a matrix of evolving societal and cultural systems.

What do I have that I didn’t earn?

It is not a complicated question.

It is a quiet, deeply personal, honest place to start. 

More importantly, what will I do with my answer?

End note: I took the photograph in 2008 in Austin, Texas.

Graduation

Most of the details from my high school graduation have long since faded. What remains is a yellowed diploma and a handful of underexposed pictures of me, sulking and uncomfortable, in an ugly polka-dotted dress.

Remembering my underwhelming high school commencement, it was a natural choice to skip my college graduation. Besides, I was ready to escape New York City and start my life in Austin.

When I completed my master’s program, I decided to give pomp and circumstance another try. At the last minute, the University of Texas moved the ceremony for the School of Social Work to the aquatic center – poolside.

It was like getting my diploma at a swim meet.

I married a person with a similar event aversion. Our wedding was an impromptu occasion, with one guest, in the park next to the courthouse.

My husband earned two degrees and attended neither of his graduations.

It’s not surprising that our firstborn, Leo, currently a Ph.D. student, has yet to wear a cap and gown.

In a moment of delusion, I entertained high hopes for our second child’s 8th-grade graduation. It was Eli’s first real ceremony test.

In hindsight, with our family history, the messy, stressful outcome was predetermined. I should have known better than to ask a leopard to change his spots.

Eli went on to boycott his high school graduation. Unless pressured by his girlfriend, I am certain that he will pass on all formal events when he completes his degree next year.

This spring, 3.7 million high school seniors, the Class of 2020, expected to walk across the stage in their caps and gowns.

My twin daughters are in that number.

Unlike their older brothers, who inherited the anti-ceremony gene, my daughters were looking forward to their high school graduation.

I have to admit, sheepishly, that there is a part of me that is relieved.

Planned celebrations make me twitch.

I wish I were one of those people who glide effortlessly through significant events while nimbly navigating introductions, small talk, toasts, and smiling for the camera.

More often than not, my most treasured days appear unexpectedly. However, weeks on end with our four, mostly-grown, children under the same roof, without scattering obligations, was downright unimaginable.

The year began with the exciting prospect of an empty nest. I was so ready, even a bit antsy, for the next stage.

Now, just a few months later, I feel incredibly lucky to be stacked on top of each other, with every square inch of the house and garage turned into bedrooms, classrooms, offices, gyms, and kennels for our old dogs and my son’s puppy.

The endless cooking and clean-up, the binge-watching, the underlying boredom, the half-hearted home workouts, and the White Claw and tequila round-table discussions have combined with the ever-present COVID worry and distraction to form a closure that I didn’t know I needed.

Sheltering-in-place has been a time-machine back to our young family’s rhythm of meals, simple outings, and shared space but with a fast-forward appreciation of being together.

Even the predictable flares of old grudges are balanced with newly forged forgiveness and understanding.

We are becoming friends.

Equals.

We have graduated.

The Belly of the Whale

It has taken sixteen days, midway through the third week of sheltering-in-place, to relax into the boredom and let go of the guilt of being non-essential. 

To live in the belly of the whale as the tempest rages outside.  

It is the first time in almost a decade that all four of our children are living under the same roof for more than a brief holiday pitstop. 

When the chemistry is off, I try to remember that it will probably be the last time too.

Each morning I compile a list of things that give shape to the day and then submit to a blur of cooking, dishes, and endless puttering.

There are boxes and boxes of our lives in the downstairs closet to explore. It is grounding to stumble over many forgotten moments of happiness while sorting through the unnecessary and out-dated. 

Moments that had evaporated are now reconstituted. 

It gives me hope.

Things to Do in the Belly of a Whale   by Dan Albergotti

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.

Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires

with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.

Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.

Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way

for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review

each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments

of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.

Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound

of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.

Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,

where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all

the things you did and could have done. Remember

treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes

pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.

“Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale” by Dan Albergotti from The Boatloads.© BOA Editions, Ltd., 2008.

I took the photo in the atrium of the Children’s Museum in Fort Worth.

Drift Dive

Elephant seals can dive to a depth of more than a mile, and stay below for an hour or longer, on a single breath. The seals roll over on their backs and spiral towards the bottom of the sea in a slow descent known as a drift dive.

Our guide described the motion as resembling the fluttering of a leaf falling to the ground.

As they descend, the elephant seal’s lungs collapse. The oxygen is transferred to their spleen and then routed to the animal’s muscles, digestive tract, heart, and brain as needed.

Scientists believe the seals use the long dive to rest and process their food. Their gentle decent makes them less noticeable to predators.

That bright February morning at Ano Nuevo State Park was a lifetime ago.

I had tacked on the visit to see the seals during their breeding season on the recommendation of the ranger at Big Basin National Park, where I had hiked the day before.

There was one other person on the tour, a woman from New York City visiting her daughter at Santa Cruz. We spent three hours together, talking and observing the clamorous colonies of elephant seals.

Our guide explained that outside of the breeding season, both the male and female seals are solitary creatures. Alone, they spend between 250 and 300 days a year at sea.

On the walk back to the parking lot, the woman told me that she and her daughter had a troubled relationship. She confessed that when she arrived at the dorm, her daughter did not want to see her after all.

She came to visit the elephant seals instead.

In the six weeks since I returned from California, the entire world has gone into a free fall.

I wonder if the woman, like me, takes comfort in the indelible image of the elephant seals drifting, leaf-like, toward the bottom of the sea.

Resting. Processing.

Alone.

The Clipping Gene

When I was in college, my grandmother would send me twenty-five dollar checks along with newspaper clippings. There was always a handwritten note with the unarticulated, but deafeningly loud suggestion, that the included articles, if read and followed, would keep me safe and change the direction of my life for the better.

What remains with me, almost four decades later, is a low-grade uneasiness when I’m in a flat-roofed building during a storm.

Sheltering-in-place with three of our children, and more frequent phone conversation with our oldest in California, has awakened my clipping gene.

Clearly, I have arrived at the precise genetic algorithm of age, nature, and nurture.

It’s undeniable; I have a biological urge to share valuable information about positive life skills with my children. I can convince myself that sheltering-in-place is the natural time for these helpful discussions.

With each passing day of confinement, it becomes more difficult to thwart my salmon-up-stream desire to share fun facts, graphs, and gentle suggestions. This urge is most potent when our kids at home are staring into screens while surrounded by mountains of laundry and bio-hazard dirty dishes.

But the real trigger is my twenty-year-old son, home from college with his newly adopted puppy. I rationally understand that he is an adult, and I have no business giving him unsolicited advice. I genuinely want to honor that boundary.

But I can’t help myself.

Just seeing him stand outside, waiting for his Uber Eats delivery, makes me want to find my scissors for the article I read in Science magazine on the post-teen frontal cortex.

The clipping part of my brain is old school and sees no value in emailing or texting. Real knowledge must be in a tangible form, something that can be held and put in an envelope.

I’m thankful for our printer.

Sheltering-in-place makes the clipping process much more immediate, leap-frogging the postal service completely.

I’m thinking of placing a corkboard in a shared space, like the downstairs bathroom. I will start with innocuous inspiring quotes, pictures of the family, and a listicle or two.

Who doesn’t want to read a fascinating, life-altering article while sheltering-in-place?

Shelter-In-Place

“Then there are those who plant. They endure storms and all the vicissitudes of the seasons, and they rarely rest.” Paul Coelho

Sitting at my makeshift desk in the dining room, I learn that the shelter-in-place order for Austin is a sure thing. I immediately remember the tomato plants in the back of my minivan.

There are only a few people at the community garden when I arrive. We uncharacteristically ignore each other, mindful of our uncertain covid-19 status.

I carry the tray of tomato plants, carrot seed packages tucked between the containers, along freshly wood-chipped paths separating the plots. The sun feels like summer, but the showy neon green of spring is everywhere.

Summer will have its turn soon enough.

My plot needs more work than I remember. It will take several hours rather than the thirty minutes I had planned. On second thought, I am thankful for the project.

I am not predisposed to sheltering-in-place.

In-place sounds impossible. I imagine pre-dawn escapes to the trail to slow my breathing.

My friend Terri says that an earnest gardening effort reflects a certain level of mental stability because of the enormous patience and delayed gratification required.

It’s always more sacrifice than expected at the onset.

She believes that a garden reminds us of life’s relentless forward momentum.

A practice of giving without guarantees.

I think about her words as I pull weeds, pour the orange oil and molasses mixture on fire ant mounds, and harvest the last of my red chard and kale to make room for the tomato plants.

I water the tomatoes carefully. It is stressful to be planted.

Be well world.

Grow.

A Room of My Own

I have not had a room of my own for twenty-eight years. More specifically, a place with a door that closes with the expectation of a knock to enter.

In that span, I have lived in two apartments and five homes with my husband, four kids, five dogs, three cats, one hedgehog, and a chameleon.

To compensate, I have taken over corners of shared bedrooms, put my desk in halls and entryways, and stored my treasures in piles on the floor and forgotten boxes in garages.

Currently, I have taken up residence at our dining room table in the middle of our open-plan common living area. I work at the edge of a constant flow of people and pets.

From under a heavy quilt, I watch the pinky-orange, slow blooming, Michigan winter sunrise. It crosses my mind that I am living my remedy.

It begins to snow, exaggerating the quiet, and then I hear my Airbnb host start her morning in the kitchen below my room.

I am in Grand Rapids to tend to a tenant transition. My visits follow the cyclical nature of leases and maintenance projects. Each time, I stay in a different Airbnb room in a home near our two rental properties.

The neighborhood has become popular with tourists, giving rise to a proliferation of Airbnb offerings.

The first room I picked was in a beautifully renovated historic home. My Airbnb hosts were a hyper-meticulous young couple. The week before my stay, they sent me pages of rules to adhere to, many of which concerned their newly adopted 110-pound nervous dog.

My room was on the second floor, and the bathroom was downstairs. On the first night, I walked up and down the stairs as the couple entertained in their living room. They introduced me to their friends as I held my toothbrush in my hand.

My hosts’ new dog had a needy love for everyone and abandonment issues. Upon arrival, it was mentioned that the dog may want to sleep with me, although I was not obligated to do so.

The dog slept in my room both nights.

In contrast, I stayed at another home where I had a private entrance. The back door led to my room through a hall that was most likely the servants’ access during the home’s glory days.

I never met my host in person. However, we had robust text conversations about life and being middle-aged women. When I returned to Austin, she sent me an email inviting me back, along with the suggestion that I join her women’s only hiking group. I attempted to re-book with her twice, but she seldom has vacancies.

More recently, I splurged for one of the best-rated, trendier Airbnb locations. The steeper price came with breakfast. When I arrived, I was greeted by the homeowner. He looked the part of the hip host. We talked about Austin, travel, and the Grand Rapids food scene.

He had grown up in the home, and his wife supervised an exquisite, museum-quality overhaul of the place. I was warned, with a smile, that their two small children have run of the house.

The next morning, I had breakfast with farmers who were in Grand Rapids for an agricultural conference. As we waited for food, we talked about the pros and cons of pest control.

Childish laughter spilled from the kitchen as their mom, our host, burst through the swinging door with a pot of coffee. She was genuinely welcoming but scattered from a morning of kids and cooking breakfast.

She kept forgetting our names and asking us the same questions. Her conversation devolved into happy, breathy blather. It was endearing to me, a person who raised four kids, but it was an unfamiliar state to the childless farmers.

Over the last couple of years, circumstances have required more frequent trips to Grand Rapids, usually by myself. A routine and structure have evolved and taken an anticipated form. I have a favorite bakery, restaurant, and grocery store. There is seldom the need for Google maps, and the front desk person at the YMCA remembers my name.

My visits are spent in the solitude of fixing, painting, and preparing homes for other people. Most of my conversations are with the old men at the hardware store, contractors, and servers at restaurants.

There is relief in my aloneness.

I live in strangers’ homes like a benign ghost. There is an awkwardness in being surrounded by other people’s lives, but also a soothing freedom in the detachment required for the arrangement to work.

Finally, a room of my own, in the most unexpected place, thirteen hundred miles away from home.

For a few days, it is my space, just mine, every square inch.

Gravity

I can count on one hand the times when I have bolted upright in bed in a state of clarity that allows me to receive and preserve a dream’s message.

Last night’s dream came through my gut as I sat, alert, in the darkness.

Gravity. That was the message. It makes perfect sense.

Over the past year, I prepared for 2020 as if readying myself for a mission. I have mythologized the new year and decade with individual and collective narratives of hope and optimism.

Today, in the last hours of 2019, I am a racehorse at the gate and confidently ready.

I cannot be distracted with the usual New Year’s lists for self-improvement that get lost in the margins of the calendar’s first months.

Gravity, in all its meanings, is my resolution.

The new year pulls me to the ground with its weighty balance of solemnity and promise. As I prepare for an empty nest, I am calling back the parts of me that I let scatter, flotsam-like, within the decades of parenting and too much doing. There is a lean muscularity and precision in the new configuration. It has density.

I am returning to the things that are real – family, friends, community, and the earth.

I want to live in full embodiment – to feel my feet on the ground, see the faces of the people I love, work shoulder to shoulder for a common purpose, and be guided by my head, heart, and senses.

It is serious work. It takes sacrifice and discipline.

I feel the gravity.

“The trouble is, you think you have time.” Buddha

Endnote: The picture is of my husband’s Christmas dinner fortune cookie message.

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, 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 master 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 as 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.