The Quiet

Traffic noise on the street is a constant refrain. Music and shouting, cans rolling on the pavement, angry cats fighting, neighbors clamoring for all the air and space they can grab and it never stops. The noise inside me that no one else can hear is just as deep and loud and even though it’s silent, and although I don’t invite it in, it crashes through the door and then won’t leave. I have dreams at night that won’t let me alone when daylight comes, and the next night I dream about the dream from the night before filled with worry and trouble and no control over anything that will happen and walking through mud on legs weakened and weighted and pulling breath into lungs that refuse to inflate. Tornadoes roar an approach and children won’t listen to me to run, and run now, and I can’t gather them in and the wind is screaming and I know with visceral conviction that a suffocating nimbus of death is coming. The noise of my dreams drowns me with their weight in the quiet of the night. My husband sleeps beside me with his hand resting steady and warm on my hip and I lay awake rooted and listening to the noise thrumming through my head, amplified and booming in the dark.

In the morning the coffee drips and I slowly let in the lighted world and my fuzzy-headed waking isn’t strong enough or discerning enough to sift all the information accumulated while I slept and movie stars are misbehaving, and drones are striking and cranky people are bitching about life and it’s snowing again and bad grammar and the things they cannot escape or will not, and I can’t stay away, I have to know it and read it and listen to it and watch the clips and connect and comment because I’m certain my small weak thoughts will power a change and I have to read about the wrongs and the troubles because it is my duty as a voting citizen with all of society and my family and my friends on my shoulders and rail against the injustice that is living, until I want to throw it down and walk away to the shower. I scrub and scrub with hot water and peppermint soap with the water pounding my face and the soap blocking my ears and I think this is what it sounds like deep under Niagara Falls below the foam of the falls breaking where it is tons of pressure in that sonic boom of power and I ponder aromatherapy and the search for peace through my nose and think that if I just knew more I’d be set and quiet at last, and then I’m towelling dry my hair and my ears clear and the noise starts again as the sound of the water drips away and my list of obligations begins to shout at me and I know I’m running out of time to get it all done before I have to leave for work and all I want is a day or two or a week of quiet that is quiet.

How do I explain to the people I love and who love me that I need to be away from them to hear myself? It hurts the ones I run to daily for refuge and help, for calming and care like my husband and my parents, sisters and brother and friends and their eyes and the set of their shoulders say isn’t this good enough and haven’t we been here to prop you up all those times when you sucked out our energy and our patience and we gave it and gave it freely and willingly until it was gone and now it isn’t enough after all? Well thanks a lot and go then, but they’re hurt by my desertion, and when I’m really looking for the quiet I have to run away or drive away or send others away and then I choose my company carefully. My notebook. My fountain pen. My hiking boots. My camera. My orange cat. My night under the moon. Just watching, alone, on my dark porch.

The moon at night is quiet, known and unknowable, a pearl out of reach, and the trail through the pine and oak forest is quiet, pulling hectic energy out of me and dissipating it in the cedar scented breeze, and I could ask you to come but would you hear the quiet and let it be or would you try to fill it to lay claim to it and name it?

That’s the risk right there.

Field 2

The Knowing Of It

They fell for it again, and mailed sixteen Monarch caterpillars to me, no bigger than a pencil’s eraser. They’re packed in a box and overnighted to my front door with a cold pack to keep them drugged with chilly sluggishness. They arrive in little plastic condiment cups, atop a grayish green gel of “feeding medium”. Me and my credit card trusted to raise these helpless fragile beings to glorious adulthood, to teach rambunctious preschoolers all about the miracle of metamorphosis. It sometimes is a different lesson. I have their aquarium habitat ready, and I’m in charge of feeding them. I unconsciously scan the roadside for milkweed all year long. I commit the locations to memory. Their survival depends on me, and that weighs me down. The butterfly people don’t know their efforts to conserve and preserve Danaus plexippus are no more than a crap shoot when they mail that package off to me.

caterpillar

All my life I’ve taken care. Of pets. Of homework. Of my books and record albums. Later, of my husband, my friends, my house, my children. My children like those little caterpillars, needing constant tending and feeding. Attached to me with their sticky silky threads of need and love and touch. The primal attachment born with each one of them, seconds old, placed on my soft welcoming stomach, crying, wet, and slippery. Their blue eyes first looking into my blue eyes. Instinctively grasping my finger to reconnect the severed umbilical cord. An infinitely elastic unbreakable band that binds us to each other for life. Nursed and soothed. Cleaned and wiped. Cajoled and scolded. Limits and largesse. I have three children, and I love them to the dark unplumbed desperate depths of my soul every moment of my life, even while sometimes hating what they did, as they also at times hated me. It was, and is, inexplicably complex and nuanced. The whole time they are growing in my house, even though I am fulfilled, occupied, and stretched to exhaustion, part of me is waiting. Asleep. And I don’t even know it.

My job – I’m a preschool teacher – is odd. It is part-time, but all-consuming. Technically, I work two and one-half hours per day in that classroom filled with miniature furniture and miniature people. Two hundred ten furiously paced minutes that drain me completely. Sixteen 4-year olds never let you rest. They ask, demand, laugh, ignore, challenge, and delight and want me involved in it all, all at the same time. Despite what most parents think, teaching them to write their names, recognize letters and numbers, teaching them to read, is all a distant second to teaching them compassion, consideration, independence and compromise. Teaching them to be caring friends. It is often an uphill battle, and sometimes feels futile. These little people are in my care, preparing for their next step into the world. I need to convince them, and their sometimes reluctant parents, that they can trust me to do that. Any emotional detachment I have for my preschoolers that might relieve some of the exhaustion is negated by their sheer number. There are just so many of them, and in the end, I come to care deeply about them anyway. It is my curse while also my blessing.

The little caterpillars eat and eat and eat. Miraculous machines with an irresistible drive to grow. And they don’t even know it. They just do it. They get bigger by the day and split their old skins and reveal vibrant new bodies; brilliant green, black, yellow, and white stripes. My routine during those weeks is simple. Leave for school early, and drive out into the country to cut sticky dripping stalks of the poisonous milkweed they need to eat. It takes 30 minutes to wash the stems, remove the old chewed stalks and push the new ones into the holes in the lid of the container that holds them upright. I examine both sides of each old leaf, making sure that I move every little caterpillar onto green juicy leaves before discarding the old ones. They settle in seamlessly, and get right to work. If you look closely, you can see their mouths mowing off row upon row of milkweed, like corn on the cob. They never stop. There are times when some have inexplicably disappeared, with no trace remaining. I suspect cannibalism. I try not to think about it.

My children were busy. Intricate imaginative games, craft projects, made-up dramatic play, and construction projects in the back yard that besides hammers, nails, and scraps of lumber, usually involved help from me. Forts. Tree houses. Tents. Bicycle repairs. Endless snacks and drinks. Occasionally small forbidden fires. They loved ferociously and they battled ferociously, sometimes to blood. In turn, I fought too many battles for them, to try to spare them pain and darkness, and intertwined myself with them until we were indivisible, our separate roots indistinguishable in the black loamy soil of our lives. The inevitable separation is exquisitely painful, and the surgeon is utterly unskilled. I bear the fresh scars, as do they, and I hope they fade to silvery white in time. I hope that I can forget, or at least absorb, and push to the background, the grinding pain.

One amazing day, the caterpillars are hanging upside down from the screen covering the aquarium. And then, again, all at once, there’s nothing to do but wait. In seconds, they turn from striped caterpillar to a brilliant green luminous chrysalis with a glittering thread of gold necklacing the top. As much time as I have spent peering into their world, I have never witnessed that secret moment of transformation. Little jewels with a wonder inside them waiting to be realized. I am in awe every time. Some years, if I’ve been diligent and careful, we have 12 or 14 chrysalises. There are so many variables. Have I let the milkweed get too dry? Have they gotten too warm in the sun? Has the milkweed been sprayed with a pesticide by determined road crews? Have I unwittingly poisoned them, the grim reaper in a blue plastic cup with a scythe swinging a wide murderous arc? Last year, and one other year, I fear I did. They all died before achieving their chrysalis stage. We spirit the aquarium to the supply closet, the last body lying on its side in the bottom on the clean paper towel. He hadn’t eaten in days. We talk about death and dying at Circle Time. Everyone knows a cat or a dog or a grandmother who has died. You can see the pain in their open little faces. Sometimes I have to dam up my own tears when face to face with their stark losses and their struggle to understand this permanent absence.

milkweed

I tried to socialize my children, to keep them presentable and well-behaved, but I know I’ve been too cautious. Too conscious of what others will think of my children’s behavior, and thus, mostly, of myself. Why do I not realize this until it is too late for them? I fear I have smothered vital parts of their spirit, crushed their drive, limited them and hemmed them in, and incrementally, unintentionally dimmed their flame. Do they feel that way too? And when they morph into their adolescence, I fuss around on the periphery, begging for clues to how they are faring. I peer in countless times a day while they lead their own now secret lives in their darkening chrysalises, covered in clothing and friends of their own choosing. I am left to wonder just what they are doing, thinking, feeling. They share none of it. They talk with friends on cell phones, instead of with me at the bedtime kiss and snuggle. They seem to no longer want it, though perhaps they still need it. It feels sinister and shifty to me, and it is solely theirs, and dear God, did I do enough with this sacred trust? To have failed them doesn’t bear thinking. Suddenly cut loose, I slowly stop spinning and haltingly reflect on myself, creaky, painful, and unaccustomed. I am losing something huge and substantial, and in the bloody gap I see something vaporous forming. Indistinct. Eerie. Frightening. And it is irresistible.

Over time, the chrysalises darken to black, as if a bloody struggle is staining and obscuring the translucent walls of soft green. And then one day, the mud clears, the chrysalis is transparent, and I see the compacted orange and black wings of a Monarch butterfly. If I look closely, they pulse and vibrate with transformed life. The next day I arrive in the classroom and out of habit, glance at the aquarium. An empty chrysalis is a papery scrap attached to the ceiling of the aquarium with a sticky patch of silk. The damp and crumpled butterfly lies motionless in the bottom of the glassy hatchery, on a wet brown spot. The detritus of birth. It looks like it was painful. And as if the butterfly might want to go through this in private, without the shouting of 4-year olds and the boom of excited tapping fingers. Slowly the wet wings stretch out and slowly they dry, and the brilliant harlequin wings, orange and black and white, fan up and down, drying and strengthening and straightening and getting ready. 

One by one the butterflies hatch out of their chrysalises and they are hungry. The menu changes from milkweed to nectar. I mix sugar and water and soak cotton balls in the solution. They flutter to their dinner, and with their impossibly delicate legs and long curling tongues, suck up the sweetness. I place the aquarium in the sun, and they fan their wings, warming and strengthening for flight. We all like the opportunity to examine these butterflies, forced to hold still and contained for our inspection. We talk about migration and find Mexico on a globe. We read story books about butterflies. We practice saying the hard words like “metamorphosis” and “chrysalis”. We sing songs about butterflies and caterpillars. They fascinate and absorb us. And day after day, until a nice day arrives for release, I mix sugar and water, and tend them in their hatchery. They are beautiful. And they are safe. Nothing can hurt them in there. After the children go home, I kneel and watch them in their gorgeous elemental silence.

When I packed my children up for college, it was with excitement, dread, laughter, and tears. Huge hope. Huge faith. The final release, realizing they would never be wholly mine again. With each successive child’s flight I gain another ounce of freedom, and an emptier house. The departure of my second child is less exciting, and more sad. I see now how their release is also my irrevocable loss. My own chrysalis darkens with the struggle. The departure of the third child, my daughter, my own heartbeat, guts me, and leaves me gasping. It takes me months to remind myself that this is good and right, and even while I enjoy uninterrupted time and freedom, there is also an emptiness that begs for filling. I feel the struggle of separation and transformation in my bones. I ache in every muscle. I have to learn to live calmly again. Again? Really for the first time. Someone asks me, ‘What are your dreams?’ I have no dreams of my own. I dreamt of a marriage that was deep and substantial. I dreamt of babies; children to love and raise. My dreams were those I harbored and nourished for them. I have not thought about what I am beyond mother, wife, and friend. It all is churning and I start to feel my own faint vibrating. I poke at it and I wonder at it; what form it will take when it comes out. It grows and beats and becomes stronger and soon I hear it all the time. It is no longer distant. It is myself, in myself, and it is calling me.

Monarch

We look ahead to the weather, and a cool sunny day approaches. It’s time to let the butterflies go. We line up to file outside, me in the front of the line, with the aquarium full of butterflies. The Pied Piper of Lepidoptera. I have my class sit down on the sidewalk so they can all see, and so no little feet, milling around, step on a butterfly. We take the lid off the aquarium and the butterflies are stunned to stillness. Dismayed and frozen at their sudden freedom. I’m holding my breath. I reach in and coax one onto my finger. It is a singular gift to hold a butterfly in its weightless beauty, and pure fragile perfection. Its thread-like legs grasp my finger as I lift it up. Now they are all fluttering around and restless, and one by one, released from my finger up into the blue sky. My class watches them go with enormous excitement, calling goodbyes. I watch them fly away with tears clouding my eyes, saying my silent farewells, and I have to swallow hard to keep the lump of a sob down. How to explain to my 4-year olds the utter sadness of this departure for me. They all are sure they will fly on to Mexico to beget more Monarch butterflies like the story books promised. How to explain the harms that wait for them. How to know all that and still have faith that they will fulfill what they are meant to do. Safe in the hatchery, they remain protected, and beautiful to look at and I can keep them safe. Fluttering erratically away, seemingly directionless and buffeted by the wind, falling, then catching a draft and soaring upward, how will they manage? No one can know, but they have to go.

As they fly from our sight, climbing and spiraling smaller and smaller against that brilliant bluebird sky, rare quiet from my class of little people who stand and watch. Now free, they are more fleetingly beautiful than they ever could be in their glass house. And with a moment of stunning clarity, the darkness of my own chrysalis falls away in papery shreds and it’s like a dream I sometimes have where I am flying. The wind shushes by my ears and my heart seizes, pounds, and thrills to the fear and excitement and the sudden expansive seeing of everything. I soar up and, suddenly falling, dip and dive and soar again. I try out my wings and slowly sense the control that I have, but it’s not much. And I so like that, completely different from when my feet were so solid and so rooted to the ground. It’s terrifying and new and risky, but I want more and more. This new vision, my eye seeing the curve of the world in the distance, is rushing at me on the wind and I turn my face into it to feel it cold and cleansing. It’s not safe. It’s unknowable. I have to take it – whatever “it” is – as it comes, and it’s a celebration. I go on climbing, afraid of the unpredictable, and doubting my own strength. I go on climbing in the face of others’ judgements, still so rooted. My chrysalis is gone. And now, fulfilling its own exquisite timing, I rise, reaching, looking out onto the world with new eyes. My skin and my hair and my fingers and my heart testing the air, sensing the way, following the pulse that began in the chrysalis. Those butterflies know the beauty of it all, and now I will know it too.

Vista 2

Putting It To The Flame

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
― Ernest HemingwayA Moveable Feast

He used to stand in front of the TV in denim overalls, hands tucked into the bib, riotous blonde curls on his head, to watch Sesame Street. Ready to dance, to sing along, to call me in to see at a moment’s notice. He handed out fierce hugs frequently, kissed his aunts’ hands when greeting them, and was my little shadow for years. Lap sitter. Hold me. Can I have another kiss goodnight? A re-appearer on the stairs after tuck-in to tell me just one more thing: Mommy, you’re so smart. You’re beautiful. I wanted to say thank you for my lunch box. He grew up so fast, as busy children – and parents – do. And while I may not remember every little word, gesture or moment of the growing up, I will remember the ache of complete and blindly obliterating love in my throat and my heart forever.

Banquet Final

Reverence for food runs through our lives like a deep dark river, and has for generations. Food is sacrament and sustenance, celebration and consolation. Preparation is joyful meditation, and sharing is a fulfilling communion. Conversation grows like morning glory vines scrambling up a string to bloom. Love is passed along with the roast spring lamb embedded with garlic, crusted with sea salt, rosemary and lemon juice; along with the pasta with fresh ricotta and spring’s baby arugula; with the winter’s chicken and dumplings, rich and feathery. The garnet wine, the black espresso, all become the easing lubricant for a life that can be a creaky and cumbersome burden. And the laughter that leaves us breathless is the real dessert along with the cream and the dark chocolate.

This weekend, I saw my son in new light; the focused laser of a being who hears and heeds his calling. He volunteers to help a friend with the cooking for a benefit dinner that is stalled in the planning. Their welcome of his expertise and practical suggestions turns him into the executive chef, and I’ve offered to help. How did this sensitive little boy grow into this young man so in command of his kitchen? He exerts full control with calm and humor and an understanding of human nature beyond his years. He rescues the fraternity brother, a volunteer, from the dish pan to which he’s been relegated, and asks him “How are you with a knife?” The boy replies, “Uh…OK, I guess.” My son gives him a knife-proof glove, gives him quick clear instruction, reassures him he can do it, hands him his lethally sharp personal santoku knife, and the fraternity brother is suddenly making a good chiffonade of fresh mustard greens to go into the braised chicken. Clearly, he likes this a lot more than the dish pan. My son as mentor with a sense of humor.

There’s a skill to getting five courses of dinner flowing to the dining room. Even more skill is required when the dining room is half a mile away from the kitchen. He has a crew of volunteers and amateur cooks, a clipboard with pages and pages of notes,Knives recipes, schedules, and lists of tasks to be completed, who’s to complete them, and in what order. This is the daredevil boy who rode his bike down the biggest hill he could find, as fast as he could go, ditching the bike helmet as soon as he left the house and my eyesight. This is the boy who set off a roman candle inside his car just to see what would happen. He runs his kitchen like an engineer runs a locomotive. It can’t be stopped or the whole thing derails. Timers tick away and ring their alarm. Pots are boiling, sauces simmering, oil heating, cold things kept cold, hot things kept hot. 60 plates heated in the oven until they are screaming hot. You can’t touch them without towels and even then you get burned. Bowls for sorbet and tiny spoons popped into the freezer to chill, then kept in a refrigerated truck until the sorbet is served before the entrée. One of the diners has an allergy. We prepare his appetizers and entrée separately, using dedicated knives, cutting boards, dishes, utensils, even gloves. He assembles his crew, checking items off the list as he doles out the duties. It all hinges on him and his organization, and he’s ready.

Instead of engaging in a showy tug of war for control, he quietly does things his way with no discussion and no fanfare, this boy who muscled his way through the terrible twos (and threes…and some of the fours…) with fearsome tantrums. My respect grows. There are two of us that he trusts completely, left in the kitchen to finish the cooking with him. I am honored to be one of them. After a lifetime of cooking for him, I’m now a bit intimidated by his knowledge and his skill. Do I measure up to the standard now set by my son? There are no do-overs here, and I don’t want to disappoint him. We fry 65 creamy polenta circles, we pull apart 10 braised chickens. I am told to thicken the braising liquid, redolent of white wine and chicken stock, and I am relieved when he pronounces it “perfect.”

The food is finished cooking, wrapped and covered, and stored in hot boxes for transporting to the tent at the site of the dinner. We plate the salads in an assembly line. He watches to be sure that the salad will stretch. There is enough left for two additional salads. Good planning feeds generously, while minimizing waste. The salads are cleared, and sorbet is served. A fresh mint leaf and a frozen spoon are settled into each little white cup, and trays are whisked away by servers. We set up to plate the entrées. He tells us all to get fresh gloves. We will plate the allergy sufferer’s entrée first. A circle of polenta goes down onto the plate. Next, a handful of hot chicken pieces. Hands are a much better, more satisfying way to judge how much you’re serving than an impersonal spoon. A ladle of the braising sauce is poured over the chicken. A warm salad of blanched, still crisp green beans combined with chopped peppers and a vinegar dressing is added to the plate. Passed along the line, a garnish of chopped mustard greens is sprinkled atop the chicken, a vivid orange nasturtium blossom is tucked in beside the beans. Each beautiful plate is passed to the “wiper” who makes sure each one is perfectly clean before it’s put on the waiter’s tray. My son keeps a close eye on each step, his final instruction telling the waiters to set the plate onto the table with the chicken covered polenta at 6 o’clock, and the nasturtium on the left. Uniformly beautiful and delicious.

The entrées are all served, and then we plate desserts. First, fresh gloves for everyone. Thick slices of carrot cake with buttery cream cheese frosting gets a rosette of whipped cream. Alternatively, there is a dense moist chocolate cake sweetened with puréed beets, covered with a glorious chocolate ganache. More whipped cream is piped out, and these dark plates get a mint leaf and a fat red raspberry as a little extra gilding. Entrées are cleared, and desserts are served. My son is called into the candlelit tent by the dinner’s organizers, and their chef is introduced to the assembled group who have paid $50 a plate for tonight’s meal. Their enthusiastic applause brings tears to my eyes. He waves a modest thank you. He is exhausted.

The last few diners linger over their coffee and dessert, and then leave, and finally we can begin clearing up. The job is enormous. Everything must be taken away in trucks; glasses, plates, bowls, cups, every spoon and fork and knife, transported to the dish washers waiting at the University. The refrigerator truck must be driven away. Tables must be taken down, linens bagged, chairs folded and returned, food wrapped and saved for donation or discarded as unsafe to eat again. I return to the prep kitchen, which also must be cleaned. I leave my son loading piles of chairs onto a pickup truck. An hour later, he returns to the prep kitchen where we are finishing up the wiping and washing. He grabs a broom and even though he looks ready to drop, he makes sure the floor is clean, he sorts out his knives and cleans and dries them, putting them away in their canvas roll. He packs up the bins of blenders and propane burners, stock pots, spoons, whisks, grill scouring pads, and all the paraphernalia essential to the success of an event like this, and carries them to his car. This boy, whose bedroom was a chaotic stockpile of clothing, video games, books, music, lacrosse pads, sneakers and computer parts for years, puts his broom away. He casts a final appraising eye over the kitchen. He’s left it cleaner and tidier than he found it. And at 11:15 PM his day is over. I invite him to the house. I give him a beer and we share a drink and a cigar in the quiet cool back yard. And we talk over the day and he makes me laugh so hard my stomach hurts. I tell him how proud I am of who I saw tonight, how fortunate to be able to work with him in his chosen and hard-won profession. I am so fortunate to find deep respect for this child of mine. I feel that ache of love in my throat again, as strong and deep as when he was 3. I always will.

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The Runway in Addis Ababa

AddisWe have been flying for 17 hours. Cramped, dried out and restless, muscles aching and emotionally depleted, we are finally landing at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I’m hungry for the sight of this country to which I’m suddenly deeply connected. I look out of my window, just past the wing of the plane. The grass is lush and green at the end of the rainy season, and goats and a donkey are grazing inside the fences along the runway. The plane touches down and powerful brakes slow our progress. To my surprised dismay, I cannot control the tears that overflow onto my cheeks and I catch a sob in my hand. This was Maya’s home; the soil she was born to, and now I’m here for her new sister. I look at my sister, Maya’s mother. She is crying too. We are in Africa.

We don’t realize it, but we are arriving on Ethiopian New Year’s Eve. We stand in line in the nearly deserted airport, waiting for our luggage to appear. Amharic, the Ethiopian language, ripples and flows around us, a bubbling and shushing sound with a glottal hesitation, a quick intake of breath which seems to be the sound for “do you understand what I mean?”, a signal for those conversing to indicate shared understanding. Amharic’s 250 characters, in contrast to our paltry 26 letters, make it one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. Any English we hear is so heavily accented it sounds like its own foreign language. Barefoot men on a pilgrimage, dressed in elaborately embroidered silk robes and white skull caps, lounge majestically on the floor against their bags while they wait for their flight. We pay for our tourist visa with an American $20 bill as carefully instructed beforehand, show our passports, and wait patiently while the women behind the table handwrite our visas. My passport with my Ethiopian visas written in blue ink is now one of my most treasured possessions. We change our money for an enormous handful of Ethiopian birr. Seventeen to the dollar. Another perfunctory scan – terrorism apparently is not a high probability in this impoverished nation – and we struggle out to the lobby. There is no one there to meet us. We are the only white people left in the airport.

We decide to wait, as African time is sometimes a fluid and casual thing, and the one pay phone we can find is a mystery to us. Its instructions are in Amharic, and it is not entirely clear how to dial a number. At any rate, we have no coins yet. After an hour, we decide we should try to contact someone, and looking around, totally out of our element, decide to go to the tourism booth to ask for assistance. The handsome young man is very polite. We explain our predicament and he offers to make some calls for us. We become his project on a day when I suspect business is slow in this deserted airport, and he has not much else to do. Shira digs through her enormous folder of adoption paperwork and gives him three phone numbers. The first two numbers are disconnected. We are a bit dismayed, but after nearly two years of waiting, we feel certain anything can be righted. We are here for Lidiya, and she is waiting for us. The third number, the number for the guest house where we are to stay, works. We aren’t expected until next week. Never mind, someone will come to pick us up, and the guest house will be ready.

While we wait, we are given tourism brochures to read. A chair is instantly moved out of the kiosk so there is room for the two of us to sit with all our luggage. Not safe to let it sit outside the kiosk. Our handsome young savior – all Ethiopian men are extraordinarily handsome, and the women beautiful – stands, asking us questions about where we are from, and we have a halting conversation, with him apologizing profusely for his very good English. He earns his pay as he advises us on the things we must see while we are in Addis. His cell phone rings. Someone has arrived for us. He insists on escorting us to the parking lot and takes all our luggage for us. We discover later he doesn’t trust the people who are meeting us and he wants to see them for himself, making sure we will be alright. It strikes us both that this kind of care for foreign strangers would be completely out of the ordinary in our “advanced” country.

Wagayehu, the proprietor of the guest house, welcomes us with open arms. We know him from our previous trip. He tells us we are in time to walk outside the steel hyena fence, the gate minded by a silent man dressed in Biblical robes, down the road to a restaurant to get our dinner. He then invites us to join him and Zmed, his housekeeper, for the New Year’s Eve bonfire after we return. In the driveway of the house, we gather after dark. He tells us he is so glad we are here to celebrate the Gregorian New Year with them, and this makes us feel at home. Our parents have always done the same for friends and acquaintances on holidays. Tonight karma returns Galen and Deanna’s hospitality to their two daughters a continent away. The bonfire is lit, to celebrate the end of the rainy season when roads, even in this enormous city, are awash in mud and potholes, and roads in the country are impassable. But the wood is damp, which is no surprise, so Zmed throws a tin full of gasoline on the pile, and the resulting blaze makes us all cheer and clap. Wagayehu and Zmed sing a traditional song, somewhat shyly, then we all listen. We can hear the enormous crowd celebrating in Meskele Square, the nexus of all the major roads in Addis Ababa. Maya’s Ethiopian name is Meskele, and her parents have kept it as her middle name. It is eerily appropriate to hear the chanting and singing of thousands of Ethiopians from her namesake square, which means “cross” in Amharic. I send my own prayer up into the dark: Maya Meskele, I love you so much, little brown girl of this country, this continent, and we are here now for your sister.

Our friend, Abey Abera, is once again our driver. Without him we would be lost. He is tour guide, translator, macchiato provider, and price negotiator. He tells us that before we arrived, Wagayehu slaughtered a sheep and two chickens in the driveway for the New Year’s Day feast. We are sorry to have missed that. Fresh sheep skins, minus the heads, with legs still attached, are spread out on the highway median for sale or barter. The head of the sheep, a New Year’s gift for the friendly family dog, lays in the front yard this morning, well-chewed. Nothing goes to waste in this country. We buy sweet grass to strew on the floor, to make the house fresh and welcoming for the New Year, and coffee, always coffee, and flowers whose petals decorate the floor as well. Zmed, her long hair, usually braided and coiled on her head, let loose and shiny down her back, provincial tattoos lining her jaw, is dressed in her festive clothing. Irridescent celery-colored silk with gold embroidery. She is transformed. And then Lidiya arrives. She begins to cry immediately and wants nothing to do with these two white women who she doesn’t know. We talk softly to her, Shira holds her new daughter, we stroke her fuzzy head with the little bit of hair she has done up in tiny ponytails. She quiets, and becomes wary and watchful. Lidiya, sweet girl, on this festival day we are here for you, and we already love you.

We eat our dinner, complex spicy flavors, the sour injera, the velvety dark red doro wot, big chunks of sheep and chicken put on our plates first as honored guests, and Ethiopian red wine. Wagayehu is concerned we will be put off by the serving of wine and the Ethiopian reverence for coffee, which is the blood of this country. He explains that another adoptive family stayed with them, and refused all wine and coffee. They explained to him that they couldn’t partake, wouldn’t partake, and then, triumphantly, “Because we are Christians.” He recounts how he told them, so was he, and he drank both coffee and wine. In the face of such generosity, their rudeness astonishes us. He, even now, can’t quite believe it. An enormous circular bread, flecked with black nigella seeds and baked in banana leaves, is cut and offered. The platter is passed to Lidiya. She solemnly takes a gigantic piece of bread, and carefully takes a bite, her enormous black eyes looking out at all of us over the golden crust. We all laugh, and Wagayehu’s daughter-in-law makes crooning sounds and speaks to her in Amharic. We see Lidiya relax and she enjoys her bread.

Lidiya footWhen everyone has gone, and the house is dark and quiet, it is just us and Lidiya. She is resigned that we are all she has right now. She falls asleep on Shira’s lap, covered with a blanket belonging to Maya that Shira brought from home. We are alone with our baby. Even in adoption there is that moment after “birth” when the primal mother inspects her baby, taking loving inventory, committing each swirl of hair and earfold to memory. Our eyes take her in, little hands and fingers, feet and toes, her mouth frowning as she sleeps, her black eyebrows and impossibly long and luxurious eyelashes. We don’t talk. We just look. And we pat her back, and touch her hands, and rub her foot. We tell her the only way we can that we are here for her; that we have already loved her for months.

LidiyaThe next morning, we open our eyes, and she is standing in her crib beside our bed. She absently plays with her fingers in a little gesture of worry. She gazes at us with eyes that don’t blink. Considering and wondering. The bravery of this little girl, barely a year old, is heartbreaking, and I feel grief for her and the painful wrench we bring, along with our love and our suitcases, that will take her from everything she is and everything she knows.

The rest of the week is taken up with embassy appointments, chasing a document that is suddenly missing from the adoption file, experiencing the food and the drink, and sightseeing that we may never be able to do again. Our intent is to return when the girls are older, but Ethiopian politics is always in flux, and it’s not a given that that will be possible. We take hundreds of photographs, and buy gifts to be given to the girls on birthdays in the coming years. We drink it in and learn as much as we can, because we will be the living link to Ethiopia for Maya and for Lidiya. We will be the source of their story, and their history, imperfect, but loving, and we have to do our best. We buy paintings by Ethiopian artists in which Maya now swears she can see the nannies that took care of her when she was in Ethiopia before Mommy and Daddy came to get her.

I think Abey trusts us and trusts that we love Addis Ababa. One night, just after dark, while waiting for a tiny silver bracelet to be engraved with an Ethiopian name, he takes us down a dark alley in the fading daylight. A sloping walkway crowded with people, no more than 3 feet across, lined on either side with kiosks right up against each other, filled with books, shoes, cooking utensils, clothing, food, and other household essentials. I think to myself, this feels real and pure. This is undiluted Africa. We are the only white faces. There is no English spoken. Merchants call out to customers, shouting prices and advertising sales. We walk down the rough cobbled walkway. We are an easy target and hopelessly conspicuous. For once, we are the minority, just as Maya and Lidiya will be in the life we are making for them. Countless dark eyes follow us down the path. I find out later from Shira, that Abey warned a young man away from grabbing my purse with a clipped Amharic word and a stern look. He melted away into the crowd.

At week’s end, we are ready to leave. Lidiya is legally ours, and has an Ethiopian passport all her own with a photo that is all huge watchful eyes. A lilliputian representative of her dynamic country. Abey arrives to drive us to the airport. While he loads our luggage, we say our goodbyes. We all know this is most likely the last time we will see each other. Lidiya knows that something is distressing us all. She is fussing and reaching toward Zmed, who has been her mother this week. She begins to cry in earnest as we hug and kiss Wagayehu and Zmed. We are indescribably sad at this permanent leave-taking. As Abey backs the car up, I look forward, and Wagayehu, this former military man, a decorated war hero, a 4-star general in Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopian army, who spent seven years imprisoned when the regime changed but won’t talk about it, stands in the roadway, waving farewell with both hands over his head. Lidiya is screaming, and reaching out to those brown faces she knows. Her heart is breaking, and her grief and fear and anger tear at us. Tears stream down my face and Shira’s too. Lidiya, Lidiya, we love you and we are here for you, but what are we doing to you in the process?

We go through the scanners at the airport. We negotiate a line in which we are moved farther and farther back as Ethiopians, seeing that we are two white women taking one of their own children from them, push into line ahead of us, and ignore our protests. White adoptive parents are not heroes in this country. I understand their anger. We finally board the plane, and our departure is delayed. The polish is now off this trip, and we are anxious about the next 27 hours of travel, unaware yet that it will stretch to 37 hours, with a little girl who doesn’t really like us and who has not once been really happy with us in the week we’ve had her. Shira holds her and bounces her and sings to her and offers her a blanket to cuddle. We feed her ginger cookies to keep her happy.

Finally we are taxiing down the runway. Lidiya is belted in on Shira’s lap. We are flying her away from the one home she knows, and taking her to another we have made for her. Another home where there is a little brown sister waiting with a Daddy, a Nana and a Papa, cousins, and aunts and uncles. Her sister is the only one who looks like her, but we, all of us, already love her with a fierce encompassing love. She doesn’t know any of this. All she knows is the two of us with our pale pink faces, and our ginger cookies that she accepts with a little smile. She takes a piece out of her mouth and offers it to me. Sharing with me. A milestone. I happily take it and eat that sweetest little piece of wet cookie, and my heart aches and instantly melts. I thank her and kiss her smooth warm cheek. This sweet strong brown baby girl, watchful, careful, and cautious, looks into our eyes, and decides for herself that this might be alright. She snuggles down into the arms of her new mother, and smiles at me over her arm. Lidiya, we have come so far for you, to make you ours. I think though, that you have made us yours. All of us are wholly yours. Yours and Maya’s. The plane gains speed, and lifts off up into the dark African sky.

Lidiya2

Maya

My Mother’s Table

I learned a lot at my mother’s table. Lessons about sharing, loving, acceptance. I learned frugality and common sense. At my mother’s table there was always room for another chair, and another plate, and the food always stretched in a loaves and fishes way. There was a hand on your shoulder. A hug. A home if you needed it. Our friends, students of my father’s, refugees, exchange students from foreign countries, cousins, and, when the time came, grandparents who could no longer manage on their own.

FamilyMy mother grew up wearing dresses skillfully made from flour sacks, in the coal regions of Pennsylvania; the granddaughter of a gruff, taciturn little man, my Pop Pop, who supported his family at 13 years old as a coal picker. Raised by her grandparents, her father, and her aunt, she learned those same lessons from “Mom”, her grandmother Cora, for whom my sister is named. Cora’s dumplings are still the standard. Her soups, her jams and jellies reproduced for us, “just like Mom’s” – the ultimate stamp of approval. Her strawberry shortcake was mashed fresh strawberries with a couple teaspoons of sugar “to bring out the juice,” ladled over hot baking powder cakes, and eaten with milk poured over it all for dinner. That was a supper we always looked forward to, that spoke summer to us in an elemental language. Eating strawberry shortcake for dessert with whipped cream was a frivolous extravagance that strawberries, dark red and still warm from the sun, didn’t need to shine. A hot meal for hobos wandering through on the railroad was always provided. There, but for the grace of God might go any of us.

My mother wore the same clothes forever. I thought for a long time it was just because she loved them. She never said it was because all their income went to clothing us, giving us music lessons, buying us books to read, instruments to play, music to listen to, encouraging any interest we might have with trips to museums and cities, for riding lessons and any of the countless pets we wanted to adopt. At Easter we would go with my father to the florist. We’d buy her a corsage for her Easter dress; yellow rosebuds and baby’s breath with feathery ferns, and the wonderful green florist smell when the little plastic treasure chest, chilly from the refrigerator, opened just before church.

Their yard is overgrown by gardener’s standards. I suggested cutting some things down, to neaten it up. “We all have to share this earth.”, was her reply. She feeds the multitude of birds that come to her window – hummingbirds, wrens, finches, cardinals, bluebirds, chickadees, doves. They have bushes and trees for cover, houses, and pieces of string and dryer fluff for nesting, seed and oranges and nectar for their nourishment. Toads have a little house under the magnolia, and the trees she planted all through our childhood are now soaring green groves of cool shade. Little dishes of food are put out for the neighborhood cats, and they all have names.

When I drive somewhere in the evening, I look without thinking for deer at the edges of woods and fields, look for hawks, chipmunks, and weasels, keep an eye opened for foxes, bears, and butterflies. My father mows around the large spreads of violets that come up in the yard solely because they’re so pretty. I see and feel the wonderful beauty of nature and know the names of countless trees and flowers, and birds because of her. When I hike, her voice whispers in my ear, “Sshh…or you’ll never see anything.”

partyAt my house, I like to cook for people. I like to cook with people. We like to laugh, and we feed birds and squirrels. We love our three cats and care for them well. I plant flowers and bushes to entice butterflies and birds to stop awhile, and celebrate the arrival of honeybees. Family, and friends who are so dear to us the line between “family” and “friend” blurs and disappears, gather together. I spread my mother’s hand sewn tablecloths on the tables, and place the family china around. I make the food whose recipes aren’t even written down. We sit, and eat, and talk, and tease, and laugh, and reaffirm our ties that don’t so much bind as they hold. As they embrace. We gather in and welcome back. We settle in and we look outward. And we go forward. And we carry with us the precious glowing lessons we learned at my mother’s table.

Headlong

LiddyWhen I was a kid, we grew up in a rural farming community outside the college town where my father taught piano and music theory. In the winter, we skated on a fire pond on an Amish farm. We hiked through the frozen rutted cow pasture while the dairy herd solemnly watching our progress. We crawled through the three strands of barbed wire protecting the cows from the pond, and the pond from the cows, and laced up our skates – whatever pair in the Box Of Skates approximately fit that year. Too big, we filled them up with lots of socks; too small, we wore one pair and knew that our toes would be numb and dead on the walk home, then roar back to burning stinging life as we warmed them up on the hot air register in the kitchen. How it was. We didn’t mind, and never pined for “new” skates.

After a cold snap, my sister and I would go over to check the ice. 9- and 7-year old experts. We’d throw out a rock. If it bounced, we’d step out on the ice. Carefully walk out from the edge toward the center of the pond. We’d stamp a foot. The surface of the ice didn’t budge, and no crack appeared. We’d walk out farther. Then jump with both feet. Pops and cracking sounds didn’t mean the ice was too thin – we judged it was “just settling”. Safe for skating. I don’t remember any adult ever checking it for us. Certainly no adult ever warned us off when we skated on it at the end of the winter, the ice thick, but flexible, and wavy like a sheet of frosted plastic. We used the “jump test”, and even though it waved and radiated out from our feet, it didn’t crack or break. We deemed it safe. 9- and 7-year old experts.

On that pond we were Peggy Fleming and Eric Heid. We were Bobby Orr and Dorothy Hamill. Bundled up in two pairs of pants, and 3 shirts, jackets, hats, and wet mittens, we would practice spins and turns, skating in pairs, and always getting so tangled up we’d fall down. Hard. Skating season meant spectacular bruises on knees, hips, and elbows.

Joined by friends from the neighborhood, all of them trudging through the pasture to get to the fun, by ones and twos, we put together a “hockey” game. Splintery barn boards, a discarded baseball bat, an old field hockey stick and a good sized rock were our equipment. We divided up, the hyperactive out of control boy on one team with the big tough farm boy on the other team, the girls evenly divided, and my little brother added in as an incidental extra. The designated referee – usually me because following the rules was my life’s creed, and the boys certainly couldn’t be expected to uphold the rules like they needed to be upheld in order for a game to proceed – tossed the rock/puck up in the air, and the game started with barn boards slashing and whacking each other’s shins.

One winter found me with a huge scabby upper lip that ballooned up absorbing the momentum of a slapshot with a barn board. After I regained consciousness, the game was temporarily suspended while we trudged home for medical help. I never mentioned the loss of consciousness. That would have just worried my mom and was just so cool. Who wanted that cool factor to be diminished by too many adult ministrations? I still have the little white knotted scar. I’m lucky I didn’t lose some teeth. That same winter found my sister with a fractured occipital orbit, confirmed by an X-ray, and a fabulous purple and red speckled eye that swelled up like a baseball. Another casualty of a wildly swinging barn board. We all secretly wished it had been us.

What has happened to headlong living? Too cautious by far, too hemmed in by self-control, we tiptoe along, sure of our footing before we step. Sure, we avoid the black eye and the loosened teeth, but we also cheat ourselves out of the indelible memories recalled with warmth and laughter. I think the lessons of caution we learned as we grew were too well-learned. It’s time to snip the barbed wire, lace on the skates whether they fit or not, and step out onto that ice never really knowing how thick – or thin – it might be. It will snap and crack alarmingly, but it’s just settling, and I’m skating out into the middle.

kids

The Funeral

“…I know mine own, mine own know me.
Ye, not the world, my face shall see;
My peace I leave with you, amen.”

For sixty years they cared for each other, these two children of the second World War. He, Latvian. She, Yugoslavian. He told stories of a boyhood of Russian occupation, of searching for crayfish in the frozen sniper-patrolled darkness to feed a starving family. He couldn’t bring himself to eat spinach anymore after living on it for years. He was called to minister to others, and he did it well, with intellect and emotion and humor and clear eyes.

She was elegant and lovely. Sparkling blue eyes, a perfect blonde, then gray french twist chignon, and small pearl earrings. She always smelled so good, had luminous skin, and was always happy to see us, interested in our lives and what made us laugh. She had a beautiful voice and sang like a professional, but without a trace of the ego. She loved music and dance and good cooking and the beauty in life. Always a laugh on her lips and a hug in her arms.

They raised two children; quiet, intellectual, their daughter a dancer who transcended the small town she grew up in to dance and then to teach others to dance.  I thought her calm and graceful, with slavic cheekbones and straight blonde hair I coveted.  I was too in awe to talk to her, she was so perfect.  Her name, Marina, so beautiful, we named our sweetest most beloved dog with the liquid brown eyes after her.

He retired, after a lifetime of serving others, and God, but his work wasn’t finished.  Soon, slowly, day by day, she faded into the streams of the past muddied with the present. Alzheimer’s stole her away, fluidly, gradually, inexorably. He cared for her and bore the burden as if it were no burden at all. Just part of a marriage whose vows of in sickness and in health were indeed sacred. After ten long years of moving farther and farther away from them and down into herself, she died.

The day of the funeral was bitterly cold. Snow and ice making treacherous walking for the gathering of elderly friends who made their way down into the cemetery. We arrived first, surer of our footing, and I looked back. The sky was sharply clear and deep blue. The wind roared like a thing alive through the towering pine trees topping the frozen hillside. He carried her ashes himself in the polished wooden box on this last journey, their daughter holding his arm, strengthening and strengthened, the final loving act of a deep devotion. This woman from the Old World, who married a Latvian man, was given her rest on this crystalline afternoon, while the wind howled and tore at our coats. Prayers as talismans, offered for glorious deliverance from her failing mind, were blown out of our mouths and down the hill as the wind overcame all. Their daughter gently wiped the tears running down her father’s face, then wiped her own, and together they walked back up the hill.

In loving memory of Milena Gobins.

Funeral 1“Built On A Rock” by Ludvig M. Lindeman and Nikolai F. S. Grundvig, Service Book and Hymnal of the Lutheran Church in America, ©1958

Argentina Speaks

CafeNot being able to understand anything anyone is saying is both humbling and liberating. On the one hand, I can’t order my own coffee, and someone has to read the menu to me like I’m a preschooler, then help me figure out how much it will cost when the waiter asks for payment. But listening to a conversation in a language you don’t understand, you are free to be an anonymous spectator, to watch the face, the eyes, the hands, the set of the chin, the forehead, the turn of a lip. Eyebrows alone tell a story in the language of the body that is too often overpowered by the noise of the words.  The tone of the voice, the upward or downward inflection at the end of a sentence. It all sounds somehow familiar, like listening to a toddler speaking – that if you could listen just a little closer, you would understand the words – but there is no real comprehension.

Two men, over coffee, looking sad, speaking quietly in short bursts, avoiding each other’s eyes. They examine their fingers, a fork, their untouched food, anything but the other’s eyes. They finally eat, silently, and then one leaves. The other stays, stirring a second coffee, looking out the window at nothing.

Two academics with bulging leather book bags and heavy beards, have a spirited and loud conversation.  Passionate, gesturing with animated hands, almost angry, but laughing as well. Their joy in the debate so clear.

PrideI’m sitting around a table with a group of people. Rapid conversation, short bursts of laughter. Quick sideways glances at me, then eyes sliding away.  I’m being discussed, and perhaps not kindly. I think it is good that an American feel self-conscious, on edge, and out-of-place. We so often assume ownership and welcome without earning it. The little dog on my lap licks my chin. She only knows the language of my fingers slowly massaging her tight shoulder muscles, and she’s happy with me.

Argentine spanish is lyrical, musical, singsongy and soft, with buzzing j’s and ssh sounds, the r’s rolling out of the mouth like bubbles of water.  When asking a question of someone, the language sounds always, to me, apologetic. I’m so sorry but could I ask…? No, I’m so sorry, but it cannot happen…., with shoulder shrugs met with entreaties to reconsider, have you thought of this? What about this? Then finally, the No, I’m so very sorry but we are out of that flavor of helado. Ah well, alright. We’ll choose from the other 30 flavors today. World weight and ceremony given to ice cream, to grilling meat, and to wine.  A country that understands priorities.

JacarandaWhen I have travelled abroad, someone with whom I’m spending time apologizes to me for their English, their second and sometimes third language, and I feel deficient and ignorant. I know no Spanish. I know so little French anymore I couldn’t communicate if I needed to, although I comfort myself by knowing I could still read a street sign. And so tonight we go to visit new friends who have apologized ahead of time for their English. Our friend translates freely, happily, tirelessly for me and my husband, and these men are gracious and make the effort to speak English to us so we feel a part of the evening. The food, tender baby goat roasted with potatoes in cream and almond sauce will be new and deliciously mysterious, the bottles of deep red bonarda will grease the wheels, and I know we’ll have a nice time. They will be able to communicate so much better in English than I will in Spanish, yet at some point, everyone will relax, Spanish will rightfully take over the evening, and I will again watch the conversation like a recital. I don’t mind. I love the music of the language. The build to the laughter, the fall to the quiet pronouncement. The calm of agreement and consensus, and the clatter of discord. Hands and eyes and mouths communicating more than the words themselves. Real friends. Affection pouring around the table with the wine, and two Americans folded into the circle. A privilege.