Thursday, August 25, 2016

Entertainers

Is it too late to become a street performer at 36 years of age?

I have a soft spot for every human being I meet plucking an instrument, singing, dancing, or doing all three on some street corner or in some public square. In short, I have a soft spot for anyone trying to make a living - a supplemental one - in an impractical, creative way.

Many years ago when leaving my senior prom, there was a gentleman playing the violin outside the party venue in downtown Boise. My date was a talented guitarist. Though I viewed him as a friend, there was something romantic in the fact that he paused and dropped cash into a fellow artist's case.

When my family strolled the fashionable section of Honolulu a few summers ago, there were many street performers, painted to look like and standing as still as silver statues with whom you could pose (not forgetting to tip, of course). We have pictures of our children on the busy streets of Hawaii's capital, standing by a shiny, smiling stranger.

Some of my favorite memories of meeting street performers happened during my trip to England in April 2015. There was a casually but well-dressed man in his fifties with close-cropped hair playing one of my favorite songs, "Mr. Bojangles", in Convent Garden. That was the day my friend Holly and I chose to souvenir shop for family and ate Coronation Chicken at a little cafe nearby called Charles Dickens Coffee House. Though this middle-aged entertainer had an ordinary appearance, he played and sang extraordinarily well, and I was surprised more people weren't gathered around to listen. Holly loaned me money to contribute because I was fresh out of change. (Change meaning good money - for quite some time we didn't realize some of the coins were actually worth one to two pounds; we just threw coins around like they were humble pennies!)

Later, when we went to beautiful Bath, we heard "The Music of the Night" from The Phantom of the Opera soaring as we entered the courtyard of Bath Abbey. A young man was playing the arresting melody on his violin beneath a bright blue sky elegantly adorned in small, wispy clouds, creating a haunting contrast. I regretted that I had no easy cash to show my appreciation, but I would not importune my friend again.

MAGNIFICENT BATH ABBEY

Even my dusty corner of the world is adorned with street performers. I have a friend at church who sings in the company of her faithful dog around sports and entertainment arenas. She confided in me that an old friend of hers thinks she really shouldn't be singing for cash. People either like or hate my voice, she said, but she still performs in front of strangers.

And every so often I see a young black man sitting on the sidewalk outside my local grocery store, a violin case open by his feet, the violin cradled beneath his chin. He seems wholly engaged in illuminating a melody with his bow, indifferent to passersby. I've only ever had cash on me once, retrieved from my car, but I am always pleased to see this talented young man, privileged to hear his gift, and I would contribute to his dream every time if I had the cash.

Lately, I have thought very illogically to myself, Why, I can sing okay...play the guitar a little....maybe I could take flamenco dancing lessons!

Wouldn't it be lovely to make your dough doing something so perfectly free-spirited and defiant?

But whether I ever joined this strange band of lively, brave people or no, I am so glad they have their small, intimate stages all over the world.



Wednesday, August 10, 2016

As time goes by

I cried this morning at my younger children's school, and it took me by surprise. I walked around, trying to avoid eye contact and keep my hat pulled low. It always stinks to not have a tissue when you need it.

It wasn't Gabriella and Daniel's first day back. They're in third and first grade, but they started last week.

The tears started because as I surveyed their school campus this morning, I missed my oldest daughter's presence there. Analisa started at a large public middle school today, the one her big brother Berto attends.  

It's a school where I can't walk in and stroll around with her as we talk, laugh or sing with our arms linked.

All last year when she was still a sixth grader we did just that in the mornings until the bell rang. My younger kids ran off to play as long as possible with peers, but Analisa eagerly returned to me after putting her backpack away. Sometimes I worried that I should push her to go make more friends or hang out with a close friend instead of remaining close by mom, but I confess, too, that I loved that time together and cherished it, because I knew we wouldn't always have it.

And now we don't.

And it just hit me all of a sudden this morning on her first day at her new school, a school where I drop her off at the gate after giving her a long hug in the car. Standing alone, I looked across the tot lot and basketball courts of the school she attended for seven years, and I saw that time had passed by and taken something precious with it. I tried to control my emotion, blindsided, but I soon realized there was no hope for it, and when an acquaintance asked me how I was, I babbled about Ana's first day of middle school, trying to explain.

I was grateful that Gabriella and Daniel, who normally only want a hug and kiss st the last moment as they prepare to walk into class, found me. Daniel embraced and squeezed me. Gabriella, sensing something, held my hand and walked with me for a bit.

Observation became my companion this morning, too, and I saw the profound gift of familial bonds everywhere. I saw older siblings holding the hands of their younger brothers and sisters, showing them the way and speaking encouragement. I watched parents of kindergartners gently extricate themselves from their little ones after a last kiss goodbye. I understood the tears of the little girl who didn't want to be separated from her older sister for the day after the bell had rung.

My husband Matthew said I would be glad when our kids went back to school, and I assured him my emotions would be mixed. Obviously, there have been some rough days this summer. Those wore me down, definitely, but there were really good days, too, built around fun games, visits with friends and nature excursions.

So...just like a mother who prays for her toddler to go down for a nap, not knowing how desperate she may become if she doesn't, feels while watching her sleeping child's lovely face that the house is suddenly too quiet, so I knew it would be for me when summer break ended.

All good things come to an end. I just didn't realize how much I would miss them.



Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Being a mother

A couple of weeks ago, on a particularly strife-filled day with the kids, I exclaimed, "Being a mother is the worst job in the world!"

At least, that's what I hope I said. I am still not certain whether I said "a mother" or "your mother".

When I confessed this to a priest I know well, he raised his eyebrows with a very surprised look on his face.

Yep. It's just something you should never say as a mother, and it's not how I truly feel at all - at least not 99.9 percent of the time. Most of the time I am very grateful that I get to play games with my kids in the morning and afternoon; have spontaneous conversations about important things and feelings during breakfast or on the way to school; goof around, talk in silly voices, and share our weird dreams; and to simply be there, smiling at their small or grand special moments while looking in their lovable, youthful faces.

But being a mother is a very hard job indeed. Here you are, a human with her own many imperfections and weaknesses, and you must raise little humans with their own imperfections and weaknesses. Somehow, they have to turn out more than alright, despite the fact that while raising them to be decent people, you're struggling all the while to be a decent human being yourself.

Sometimes...just sometimes, mind you...it feels humanly impossible to do this job. Like those times when all your children seem to want to do is tattle on each other, threaten each other with broom handles, say biting things to each other, call each other names and argue while doing anything at all together.

And you? Well, you're sick of hearing only a selected part of the story; telling your kids it is never okay to touch another person in a way they don't like; reminding them that family is family, and they should be grateful God blessed them with siblings; and that you will never tolerate them calling each other dumb, stupid or any other adjective that insults someone's dignity or damages their sense of worth.

All that tension and repetition is exhausting.

There are times when I wonder if working parents comprehend just what their children's paid caregivers, teachers or helping grandparents must do all day. All the boo-boos they must fix. All the sleep, nutrition and potty issues they must deal with patiently. All the arguments, temper tantrums and epic battles they must defuse. All the disciplinary challenges among different personalities they must confront effectively. All the repetitive conversations about right and wrong and making good choices.

The continual forming of children.

To be fair, they can probably guess pretty well based on the challenges they face each night, tired from a different sort of work.

Besides, we remind ourselves that the flip side to all that stress is found in the many gifts of the moment: the hilarious or revealing conversations, the laughter, the snuggles, the thank yous and pleases from a well-provided-for child, life in the moment of a child's excited, bashful, mischievous, grateful or grinning face.

Being a mother is a vital job. It's a vocation. A calling. It's essentially asking God for a share in his generative, life-affirming work and professing your dedication to it afresh each day.

It's based on Love. It has to be, or it would indeed seem like one of the most pitiable jobs in the world.

But it's not.

When you wistfully remember the adorable, helpless little creature your child was from the womb and recognize that with the important and consistent help of your flawed but nurturing efforts your child is blossoming and learning to become a kind, helpful, thoughtful and loving person, you realize yet again.

It's the best.



Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Creek Runs Through It


A creek is my favorite body of water. It has a sense of adventure, but unlike a river, it doesn't wander anywhere too far, too dangerous, or too unfamiliar. It is not massive and impersonal like a lake nor small and muddy like a pond. Though it lacks the awesome majesty of the ocean, it has its own sacred rhythm beneath trees and bluffs.

I had a wonderful childhood, and a creek ran through it. I loved that creek at least as well as I loved the woods behind my childhood home.

But now my own family lives in a huge, sprawling city in the desert with a big, arid backyard.

Every so often I ask my husband if we can take our children to play in a creek.

Matthew needs warning. He appreciates nature, but he doesn't feel the need to visit its wilder places too often, and he certainly does not appreciate the condition of the roads that lead there. So weeks in advance I told him I wanted to visit Clear Creek and hike West Clear Creek Trail.

However, on the Thursday before we were to go hiking I had a truly horrendous day with the kids (and they with me, to be fair). Due to exposure to apocalyptic levels of whining, squabbling, shrieking and nagging that day, my adventure and nature-seeking spirit was quelled. I told my man I no longer felt like going; the best thing I could hope for was to sleep in on that Saturday for a very long time, my head buried in his shoulder.

But when we awoke very late the next morning, the adventuress in me had reemerged. I researched anew the directions to the creek and - ever so nonchalantly - acted like plans for the hike had never wavered. My forbearing husband didn't even object when we set out at noon in the 100+ heat.

We had a pleasant drive north until we abandoned normal byways and took a forest road less traveled. As our poor minivan pitched and heaved on the rocky, gutted, narrow dirt track, I was reminded again, as my hands squeezed the armrests, that my sense of adventure only goes so far. I felt an immense gratitude for my stalwart partner in life's escapades, for he drives far more fearlessly and calmly than I do under duress!

Frustration, thwarted plans and occasional feelings of being hopelessly lost or misdirected must accompany any adventure, I think, and we had our share.

Apparently, signs on roads or paths are undesirable in nature.

The forest road seemed to go on for much longer than was implied in the directions. We turned off at a likely and quite pretty spot only to find we were not at the trail head yet. When we finally found the hiking trail, parked and set out in relief, we soon discovered that it was not as "clear" as we would have liked.



There were many footpaths that deserted the trail to head toward the nearest pool of water. They looked like they could have been part of the trail that was supposed to cross the creek several times, but they dead-ended at precisely where there seemed to be a small crowd of people sharing a large swimming hole and perching on coolers. When we asked the patrons of such spots about West Clear Creek trail, we were met with confused faces.

And so we backtracked and took the high, dry ground (marked by pink ribbons) that seemed to eschew the water, and upon the advice of a young man with a backpack and a puppy who seemed to have some wilderness sense, we followed it until it befriended that stream once more and we came to a wide, pristine hole beneath some red rocks. Another family of four was there, enjoying the less frequented places.


It was at this swimming hole that I shed frustration and felt joy while watching my children revel in the water, enjoying nature giddily. They splashed around and fought the current and scrambled up slippery rocks and waded through deep narrow places in the stream, laughing, and I was right behind them, reliving my childhood and drinking from the fountain of youth in the only and best way.

Wading in the creek was an exhilarating experience for me. The water was not the expected frigidity that I had always encountered in the creek of my childhood or in many streams since. Perhaps it was the desert sun and its dry, crackling heat playing on the surface, for though the water was decidedly chilly against my legs, it was invigoratingly so.

We left the kind family who shared space and conversation so generously with us, and I urged my family farther along the trail. We saw a little grotto and crossed the stream once more before coming to a secluded spot with a tiny waterfall. Here our kids tested their strength against the current where it ran no more than a foot deep and two feet wide but surged with concentrated power. This was my husband's favorite spot.

There we also lost the trail, and, anyhow, Gabriella and the other kids were anxious to return to the magical swimming hole. Matthew was anxious to head home, but I whispered to the kids as we kicked up red clay from the path onto our wet shoes and legs that I hoped we would have more time to swim and play.

The large red rock that jutted out into the water over the swimming hole was a perfect place from which to launch yourself into the deep water below. At least, this was what the dad of the other family told me, as they were leaving, when I mentioned it was hot on the trail. He didn't seem the fearful type with his shoulder length black hair, square face and broad upper body, so I doubt he would have understood my hesitation to make such a leap. Berto and Ana? They jumped off that huge red rock repeatedly.

And this is what I did:


My little guy waits for Mama to take the plunge

I sat and looked and looked again. I couldn't quite get past thinking of exactly what would happen if I pushed off that rock into the water.

That's always my issue. I think too much.

Matthew told me to do it; we needed to go! And all the while he waited for the photo op of me overcoming my fear. Berto and Ana went from the rock to the water with words of encouragement for me, my own coaching and cheering squad. So many times, I inched forward, swallowing thoughts and hesitation, only to fall back on my heels. I watched my children be fearless but couldn't seem to catch the brave bug as they dove past me.

Have you ever said a prayer to the Holy Spirit for something you know is silly? Well, I prayed for courage to jump off that rock, because somehow it meant a great deal to me to be brave at this creek in this small way and to have the memory of it.

Matthew had put back on his socks and shoes and gathered up our stuff. His phone was tucked away in his pocket without the moment with his wife he'd waited semi-patiently for, and the kids were moving away from me.

Standing resolutely, Matthew announced,  "Alright, let's go!"

And I jumped without knowing I had made the decision. I hit the cool water and struggled up in the dark, green shadows, sputtering when I reached air.

I felt as happy as I have felt in some time.

"I did it!" I cried, elated, as I did a victory lap in that beautiful, deep water.

And Berto and Ana congratulated me exuberantly.

*******

Only later did I see the carnage on my side of our poor van. Long, wicked scratches ran along the whole length of it, scratches obtained by passing within inches of other vehicles on an uneven, exceptionally narrow forest dirt road bordered by brush.

Adventure always costs a little something, I guess. But my darling Matthew didn't complain.



Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Can our stories form a better future?

A writer of fantasy, fairy tale, or myth must inevitably discover that he is not writing out of his own knowledge or experience, but out of something both deeper and wider. I think that fantasy must possess the author and simply use him. I know that this is true of A Wrinkle in Time. 

- from Madeleine L'Engle's Newbery Medal acceptance speech



I was reading A Wrinkle In Time to my daughter Analisa around the time of the Orlando attacks. It was one of her birthday books from her dad and me.

And now Istanbul, Dallas and Nice have followed Orlando.

The themes in Madeleine L'Engle's series strike me as appropriate as I continue to ponder with sadness and discouragement all these accumulating acts of terrible violence, and it occurred to me: how many great imaginative tales do we have from authors through the centuries that, in their own fanciful and yet startlingly clear-sighted way, encourage us as children and young adults to chase the best idea of ourselves, one that is strengthened by loyalty, hope, courage in the face of fear, and by choosing love and respect when hate is so easy, highly contagious and incredibly near, breathing down our necks in fact?

What might happen if we returned with renewed vigor to great stories and storytellers with their eternal themes of redemption, sacrifice, and love? Distracting, pointless apps, insipid cartoons and reality TV shows, and incendiary internet chatter cannot compete with what these stories offer us.

How much better could we be, I wonder, if we read these entertaining but necessary tales of good versus evil more frequently to our children - where the good, if narrowly, defeats evil precisely with the tools evil cannot comprehend or espouse: love, compassion, community, fortitude, friendship and selflessness, these lofty implements of right so contrary to the easy by-products of our own fear, ignorance and dejection.

(Survival of the kindest instead of survival of the strongest is an idea Dr. Amit Sood discusses in his book The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living as he explores the way our brains get trapped by fear, by our amygdala, in its own black holes and open files, sapping our love and contentment and forcing us always to threat assess like our prehistoric ancestors did. This undoubtedly leads to miscommunication, harsh judgments and violence, I think.)

I happen to feel that our imaginations are an incredible gift imparted to our race, and that they help us see truths about our universe that our common, impaired senses and faulty brains (just read the above mentioned work by Dr. Sood) cannot examine or elucidate fully. Some of these truths, I feel passionately, are best communicated through the epic works of fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling and contemporary series like Kelven's Riddle by Daniel Hylton, my dad. I argue that these tales are meant to be told; they must be told for our good. And what a great and humbling thing it is to have such a story choose you as its storyteller!

How many nuggets of wisdom and beauty have I paused and marveled over while reading them? For instance, there is a beautiful part in the second book of L'Engle's series, A Wind in the Door, in which the cherubim character Proginoskes discusses with Meg, a teenage human girl, Namers and un-Naming and what they mean for the fate of the universe and particularly of her brother Charles Wallace:

"All I want to do," he was murmuring to himself, "is go some place quiet and recite the names of the stars..."


"Progo! You said we were Namers. I still don't know: what is a Namer?"


I've told you. A Namer has to know who people are and who they are meant to be. I don't know why I should have been shocked at finding Echthroi on your planet."


"Why are they here?"


"Echthroi are always about when there's war. They start all war."


And then later, explaining Echthroi further:

"I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming - making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn't need to hate. That's why we still need Namers..."


Un-Namers are a real thing in this world, it occurs to me, and we as a race need far more people who will Name others through acts of love, faith and encouragement. We need to name people Beloved, Worthy, Found, Redeemed, Part of God's Great Glory, United, Connected, Seen, Respected. Having Dignity and Talent. A Contributor. Teammate. 

Peacemaker.

We need more stories that model for us how to and why we must do so.

And please, please God...

...may there be an ever growing abundance of Peacemakers.


Monday, July 11, 2016

Summer's dream derailed and reclaimed (a little)


This summer has not exactly gone to plan. It started out much busier than we all would have liked, a continuation of the crazy school and sports year. And the kids got sick. Again and again. My youngest daughter is sick yet again. Because of the illness, I broke my long-standing summer rule that the kids must go outside and get exercise before any screen can be turned on. So the young ones fell into a bad habit of stumbling out of bed only to grab food to munch before one screen or another. And I fell into a bad habit of allowing it; it distracted them from their stomach virus symptoms and thus reduced whining considerably.

My eldest son reminded me of summers not so long ago, when the TV couldn't be turned on before a a certain time, when I made my kids play in the early morning sunshine after eating their breakfast at a table either within or out of doors.

He reminded me of this mainly because his younger brother adores video games, had the worst of the stomach bug and thus started playing video games at around 6 am daily. My oldest was pointing out the inequality, but it made me realize: boy, had my standards suffered!

So, after illness grew tired of toying with us, I jumped back on the better parenting bandwagon and forced all my children to play tennis and/or soccer with me in the back yard, and I got great exercise, too - was a superb role model of healthy habits, if I do say so.

We weren't quite living up to the ideal of the old, hot days. In my defense, though, there were less of them to haul outside in past summers; there was less complaining, less fussing at each other, and less resistance period.

Truly, I've tried this summer under persistently hostile circumstances that could turn Lord of the Flies at any moment!

Believe me, some days I have yearned to throw in the towel and take an eight hour nap until their father comes home, but I've done my time. I've played looooong stretches of poker with the kids during which I rejoiced with dancing, clapping and singing when my chips were finally gone. I've offered repeated games of mini pool, and then listened to my kids fight for the chance to play me first, nearly coming to blows with cue sticks and tiny, hard balls. I've read for hours and hours, and I have even forced my oldest daughter to read to me so that I could doze off and regain strength to face a few more hours of sibling warfare.

(Why don't my kids like each other? For years I made them watch all those PBS children's shows about loving your neighbor, being respectful and kind, using your creativity and helping your parents. And what did it get me? Children who fight with each other any time I force a shutdown of screens.)

Despite the initial busyness, I was grateful for my children's company after a rough first year at home with no little ones during the day. I felt like I had rediscovered my meaning in reading, playing, and laughing with them.

Then illness and infighting derailed us.

***************

I feel sorry for my city kids. I've felt this before. Earlier in the summer I was telling them about Paca's (my dad) rules for his kids about when we could start swimming in the creek (not before May) and about when we were to get out of the water for a break (when our lips turned blue). That creek was incredibly cold, but the stretch of it that ran under the culverts of Warf Road was all ours, a little slice of gurgling paradise beneath tall, broad-leaved trees. I reminisced about the rope swing, too - I miss it all still!

My kids don't have a creek or a rope swing. They don't get to run down a long lane and climb the bluff on Mr. Spann's property, or hike between his slow-moving cows to the blackberry patch. There are no nearby woods for them to explore, in which they can build forts from dead limbs or sit silently observing wildlife.

And I feel sorry for them. They don't have what I had, and I wish they did.

I tell myself that they have other things that come with being in the city - city pools with tall, twisting slides, more visits with friends, public parks, theme parks - but in my heart I think these are poor replacements for nature.

I wonder if they would agree?

Last week I took them out to recapture summer. We went to a riparian reserve in the city and saw dozens of bunnies and dragonflies, long-legged egrets and herons, and some beautiful, overgrown trees. And there was a cooling desert breeze that blessed our presence among nature's bounty.

And I saw them dig for "dinosaur bones" in a huge shaded sandbox. Even my 13 year old joined in, pitching sand over his shoulder as he cheerfully helped the little kids with their discovery. I smiled.

This is what it's all about, I thought.



Next, I'll write about how our family took a beautiful, if sometimes exasperating, hike to a lovely creek in the Arizona wilderness.


Friday, June 24, 2016

Anniversary

My husband and I just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. We spent the evening at home over a simple meal of cheese, meat, fruit and crackers and an inexpensive bottle of champagne. We had cheesecake for dessert and watched the 1961 film The Hustler starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason on Netflix.

I was glad to be at home, but it wasn't what I thought I had wanted.

After arranging for a babysitter, I spent the days leading up to our anniversary trying to find the perfect date at the perfect location. It wasn't enough to go out for a nice dinner; what on earth would we talk about that we didn't already discuss at home? Seeing a movie was so ordinary. No, this was our 15th, and I wanted  an exciting celebration. I wanted to dance the night away. Unfortunately, the usual place wasn't open on Thursdays.

I tried to find another, even better location: a place not entirely patronized by single twenty-somethings or by pretentious party-goers who cared only about fashion and status; a venue not too dark, claustrophobic, or bizarre in its design; a DJ who would play music we might actually care to dance to. 

My husband, meanwhile, was researching other options in case dancing didn't work out. He and I got into little arguments as we searched for our celebratory place, growing more frustrated the harder we looked. It seemed neither of us really cared too much for the other's suggestions.

Slowly, as irritation mounted, I began to realize my priorities were all in the wrong place. Because it was our 15th, I didn't believe we could just dress up and have a few drinks and a steak dinner. It wasn't enough to simply be in each other's company. I wanted excitement, motion, electricity, a unique night to remember.

What snapped me out of it? The fact that my youngest daughter passed her stomach bug on to her little brother. As the day drew closer, it began to look less and less likely that the date night would happen.

Instead of feeling disappointed, I was relieved. My expectations had gotten out of hand. I was glad to be free of them, brought back to earth by children clutching their bellies and complaining of cramps. 

Ah, this is what it is all about, I thought. It wasn't about what dress I would wear with what heels, or which venue would cater to our kind of crowd, or whether or not we would eat a fancy dinner and pick up a bottle of Dom Perignon. It was about the family we had made together, and the fact that comforting our sick kiddos was more important than any night out - even on our 15th. 

I thought about my own parents and how outrageous my expectations had become in light of many of their anniversaries.

How many times as a child did I see my parents walk wearily in the front door on the summer evening of their anniversary, hot and tired from a long day working in the humid Tennessee woods! They sat in their old chairs in the living room eating a very ordinary meal, holding hands. Many years, we kids performed a sort of play or sang cute songs while wearing costumes for their amusement beneath a homemade sign that cried, "Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad!"

They never complained about the meal or the entertainment all those simple years.

15 is just a number, I realized; a nice rounder one, sure - but just another step on the journey of love. Thankfully, love's journey doesn't require glitz and glamour and expensive treats. The journey is not about increasing expectations year by year. It's about recognizing and appreciating simple pleasures and blessings in your life, holding your children close while they cry or laugh, learning to place the good of those you love above your own good, and about gratitude for the years you've spent together building a family and being in community.

Just being together, it turns out, is more than enough. 

Nerdy girl and her man