Monday, October 31, 2011

Prelude to story

In an uncharacteristic display of self restraint - and what a mouthful of unrestraint that was - I'm sharing a few pictures before I tell a story that is part of a writing assignment for my class.  I'll let the pictures paint a backdrop for the story, which I'll post another day this week.  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Old McStarbucks had a farm

If my coworkers and I tally the "interesting characters" around the store where we work, we must begin with a look in the mirror.  Today, that look at myself mirrored a plush pink goat (a.k.a., ram) hat, complete with ears and horns and a protruding nose, and ear flaps for me with a fluffy pink ball dangling on each end.  My coworker, Mandy, was feeling hum-drum until she comes back from her lunch break with a pink piggy hat she "stole" from her nine-month old.  

A transformation takes place when she pulls the hat on, fitting more like a yarmulke, and the ears perk right up as puppet limbs on a string.  Her face lights up.  "Now I'm a farm animal, too!"  

Some Fridays, when Mandy and I work together, lucky customers can catch us in the midst of dancing a jig, making up lyrics to our own songs or to the overplayed songs broadcast through the grocery store radio station, talking in nonexistent accents, or, as with today, mimicking farm animals.  But the colorfulness of our little corner of the store extends beyond us.  It's these morsels of life at work that elevate our jobs beyond just-another-day.  

Yesterday, it's the guy decked in leather and a motorcycle helmet, demonstrating how to package his Venti drip coffee so it doesn't spill on his bike.  "May I have an extra cup and a plastic bag?" he asks.  He takes the lid off his coffee, wraps the plastic bag over the top like Saran wrap, fits the lid back on snug, then slides the second cup up over the bag that's now wrapped around the first cup.  "See," he flips the coffee upside down, "It won't spill."  

"Brilliant," we say.

And then there's the "regular" who leaves us, happily sipping her iced coffee, only to return five minutes later.  Standing at the top of the stairs, she calls down to my coworker, "David... can I have another coffee?  A bird pooped on this one."  I've seen her look before in the face of a child whose popsicle fell in the dirt, and I can't hold in my laughter.  Thankfully, she possesses a good sense of humor. 

And some days, it's the animals.  Customers in Seattle like bringing their animals to the store, and when they do, I like to pet them.  One "regular" is a recent graphic-designer-turned-dog-walker and she has her favorite client with her today, Benny.  Benny is all the stockiness of an English bulldog packed into the petite frame of a French bulldog.  He's a firecracker when I stoop to put him, ricocheting off my knees and elbows and hands, leaving a trail of hairs on my apron.  I don't typically like bulldogs, but I like Benny. 

It's all part and parcel to an average day on the farm, reminding me why I love my job.  

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Inquiring minds want to know

I write nonfiction.  I once thought this genre of writing was self-explanatory, until I became one of these writers and tried to explain it to people with inquiring minds.  Forget those with inquiring minds; just trying to explain it to myself often leaves me stuttering.  

So I start with what I'm not within this genre: journalist, essayist, biographer, memoir writer (not yet, that is), magazine writer, political or anthropological writer, travel writer (though I'd love to be), historical writer, academic writer (though I've been there), brochure or instruction manual writer, food writer, or technical writer.  At some other point in time, I may explore a number of these forms of nonfiction writing and delight in their craft, but now is not that time.

You're not alone if you're asking, What, then, is left to claim?

 I hesitate to say this, because it rings superfluously in the ears, and yet, there it stands as a viable form:  Creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction is writing as true as trustworthy journalism, but with an imaginative, more personal edge.  I didn't describe myself as this kind of nonfiction writer until sitting in my nonfiction writing class, wondering if I belong, wondering if I misread the course description, if there is any place for artfulness or is it all about writing that is information-driven.   

On the webpage for the Creative nonfiction journal, I find my place in this description provided by the editor, Lee Gutkind:

"This is perhaps creative nonfiction’s greatest asset: It offers flexibility and freedom while adhering to the basic tenets of reportage. In creative nonfiction, writers can be poetic and journalistic simultaneously. Creative nonfiction writers are encouraged to utilize literary and even cinematic techniques, from scene to dialogue to description to point of view, to write about themselves and others, capturing real people and real life in ways that can and have changed the world. What is most important and enjoyable about creative nonfiction is that it not only allows but also encourages the writer to become a part of the story or essay being written. The personal involvement creates a special magic that alleviates the suffering and anxiety of the writing experience; it provides many outlets for satisfaction and self-discovery, flexibility and freedom." 

I'm a creative nonfiction writer who has ample space for improving her craft.  I'm also a creative nonfiction writer who believes reliable writing can be both craft and art.  While accurate, well-researched information is important, I believe there's a place for writing- dare I say - perceptions, because they are deeply human.  Because sometimes we aren't just in search of hard facts.  Sometimes we're in search of something bigger, something harder to explain with facts and data, and that's what turns my head and lights my writing fire.  

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The sacrifice of Mr. Bison

At first the idea is nothing but brilliant, economical, creative.  Ricardo and I, perusing shelves of stuffed animals at Goodwill once discarded by previous owners, sold now for ninety-nine cents or maybe three dollars.  The perfect price range for costume-making materials.  I rummage through piles until my eyes hone in on stuffed horns attached to a bison.  Or maybe a buffalo.  It's hard to say.  But it's darn near perfect, so I add it to my stash of random findings.  Ricardo makes a noise as near excitement as I ever hear from him, his eyes wide and mischievous, and pulls a stuffed dog the size of a five-year old off the top shelf.  "I've got an idea," he says, waving the dog in the air.  It appears the stuffing migrated long ago to the dog's extremities, and so its head slumps over a flat neck and chest, despondent.   I know this because as a child, I mastered the skill of intuiting the emotions of stuffed animals, and apparently, I have this skill for life.  I feel his droopy plastic eyes pleading with me.  

But Ricardo's thread of creative thought is unraveling faster than I can keep pace.  The dog's fate is already sealed.

We arrive home and spread the elements of my costume across the carpet.  I sit, beneath the gaze of a court of stuffed animals on the armchair, holding my scissors.  Snip.  Snip.  Scissors slice across the horns and stuffing sprouts out of the severed ends.  I wince.  I'm so sorry, Mr. Bison.  I really need you for this costume, understand?  Ricardo is laughing at my theatrics, and I know it's irrational, still I actually feel guilty.  By night's end, Mr. Bison's remains lie in a pile on the couch.  

At work the next day, it's my turn to share a story with the customer who is gradually revealing memories from his childhood, and I choose to tell him of Mr. Bison and my costume-in-progress.  It's disturbing me, I admit, that I am an animal-loving vegetarian, and here I am, dismembering a stuffed bison.  He turns counselor on me with his nod and thoughtful hmmm,  and then replies with a story of why he stopped celebrating Halloween when he was eleven.  

Dressed as a gangster, he said he was walking through a frat row when a couple of guys enticed him to come trick-or-treat at their door.  As he approached the house, he remembers a group of guys emerging out of the darkness and chasing him.  Some college guys next door witnessed this and comforted him, saying what a nasty prank that was of their neighbors, and invited him to come to their door for treats.  When he arrived at their door, more guys jumped out and chased him into the street.  He was traumatized.  

"And that's why I can't dress up for Halloween," he says to my coworker and I.  "I'm broken.  A broken Halloween participator."  He pauses, looking me in the eyes without a trace of smile, "Like your bison."

I call Ricardo up on my break.  "Please, save the dog," I'm pleading like a child, my last ditch effort for appeasing a guilty conscience.  "Where is he?"  The dog, that is.

"Oh, Ita... he's drying in the laundry room."  

At least the costumes will be economical and creative.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Old MacDonald had a farm

When I was young, I believed God made me a farm girl.
Then Papa moved us to the city and I got bit with the city bug 
and grew too sophisticated for country life.

Or so I thought.
At twenty-seven, I fell in love with goats.
People like to ask me why, and there's not much of a story to tell
so the best answer I offer is
"Why not?"

Once a year, built into our family traditions is a trip
to the pumpkin patch.  
Even better is when the pumpkin patch comes
with a farm attached, because then I get to pretend
I'm that country girl who never grew up into a city woman.

I love the colorful personalities of animals.
No two are the same.

I think watching animals beats watching tv any day-
well, except for those days when I'd rather be
wrapped up cozy in a blanket on a sofa.
But any other day, animal watching trumps all.

I love the majestic beauty of animals,
those intricacies I'm rewarded with when I stoop 
low to study the works of art that they are.
Studying animals places me in an expansive outdoor gallery
with endless potential for wonder.

And sometimes animal watching offers pure entertainment.

When I'm around animals, 
the child in me wakes up.

I remember those days of rolling in hay,
of not caring how dirty I get.

Days of stomping in puddles of chocolate milk.

And riding in cow-painted barrels through 
fields of mud and corn and pumpkins.

I think we all glow with the happiness of simple joys
when we break away and play at a farm for the day.

We remember.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dialing in the dark

A man walks up to the kiosk counter, rolls the strap of his bulky duffle bag off his shoulder, and says in the voice of a tired traveler, "I'd like a grande dark roast, please."  

It's four minutes before we're open and I'm scrambling to finish the final tasks.  I glance up quickly, "It's just about ready." 

"I can wait," he says, rummaging through his change. "I'm in no hurry."   

I pump French Roast coffee into a paper cup, hand it him, ask as sincerely as I can muster at 5:58 am, "How are you this morning?"  He's looking down, still counting change.  

"Oh, I'm... tired," he says honestly, without complaint.  "I slept outside last night." His words snap me to attention, snap me awake to someone beyond this skin of mine.  A smile creeps across his face, "But I have enough money for coffee this morning, and I'm really excited about that."  

I struggle for words beyond, "That's wonderful," and it is.  Beaming back, I'm infected by his simple confession of gratitude and watch him carry his treasured coffee to the bar.  I fill up with thanks for this man, for the lesson he taught me, unaware of the impact of his words.  Daylight is still more than an hour away and my dial is set to gratitude, thanks to an honest stranger.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Glass half something

I'm hiding in the back corner of the classroom, reliving those uncomfortable days in poetry class at community college.  The sheer vulnerability of sharing ideas and artistic work with complete strangers, the temptation to compare my writing style and skills with others and come up lacking, the pressure for ideas when none come easily to mind.  That poetry class I actually argued with the teacher for my grade, something I'd never done before or since.  In his introduction to the class, he said he didn't give As to students unless our writing was publishable, and he alone stood as the subjective judge and critic of our work.  Looking back, I can't say I didn't stretch myself as a writer in his class, but the memory of it leaves a sour taste in my mouth.  Twelve years later, each time I enter the room of another writing class, this shy aura settles over me and all intelligent words exit my brain and my speech comes up dry each time I open my mouth.  I fight off thoughts that are more like a fog of feelings: What was I thinking?  Why am I here?  I can't even write.  Except I know I can, and I'm here to write better than I do now.  I'm here to learn.  So why am I frustrated?

I branch out and attempt conversation with a girl sitting behind me, asking about the type of writing she wants to do.  She's a fiction writer, but she also wants to write about food politics, a topic with endless trails of fascination branching from its core.  What do you write, she asks?  I offer my spiel and at the end, she comments that it sounds a lot like journaling.  She's right, I think, it is similar, and I slump a bit in my plastic chair and inwardly protest, But it's not the same.  For years I've written research and conducted interviews, summarizing other people's words and findings, enjoying the process of learning while stifling the process of creativity.  And now, as I'm finally opening the gate to let my inner creativity romp and play, I feel I'm being led back into the corral, told to be serious and studious, that this will make me credible and profitable as a writer.  In all fairness, I know I'm not being corralled or forced into anything.  I'm here willingly.  My desire to learn and stretch and grow led me here and no one is asking me to give up my creativity.  Still, here in this class, I struggle to find my place as a writer.

My biggest challenge, it appears, is to set aside my previous expectations for this class - that I'd bring in all the writing I've been working on the past several years and work on making it better - and just relax, absorb information, indulge my curiosity on a number of subjects, and focus on what I bring with me to this class. A vision of why I write and how I want to write.  An optimist in most things, when it comes to my abilities, I tend to see myself as the glass half empty because that is how I feel.  And feelings can convincingly parade as truth when in fact they are bald-faced lies.  Could it be that I learn more from this class than the material we are covering?  That these assignments can train me to hold onto the essence of who I am as a writer, while stretching beyond what I know to incorporate new skills and ideas into my writing?  Perhaps the greatest challenge, then, is to gratefully embrace feedback while not letting go of my unique voice as a writer, approval or not.  

I squint my eyes and try to visualize my glass, see it beyond my emotions in this moment.  The glass is murky, but as the water settles, the level rises.      

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gray days

Whoever says fall in Seattle bites...
That all it does is rain...
and rain...
and rain some more...
for the love, just grab some slick rain boots...
take your camera for a walk...
open your eyes...
record all this drab ugliness...
bemoan how gray it is...
or just let the view silence you.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Writers incognito

I delivered my first informal tutorial on writing to a young man sitting across the table from me at Cafe Fiore.  He hunched over his sketchbook, writing, but mostly pausing and staring off as writer's often do, while I sat reading a book on writing for my class.  Striking up a conversation about my book, he proceeded to engage me with his questions on writing.  I could detect in him a similar resistance to refer to himself as "a writer" as I'd struggled with for years.  "I write fiction," he shared, adding with uncertainty, "But I'm not a writer, not really." I nodded the counselor nods with slow intention, thinking.  

"What do you write?" he asked.

"Oh, well, I write nonfiction."  


"Not exactly.  More like everyday life stuff with a little more space for literary prose than journalism."

He leaned forward, brimming with interest, encouraging me with more questions.  "What have you learned about yourself in writing like this?" His question caught me by surprise.  

"Hmmm.  I think I've been learning how to slow down and enter into more moments throughout the day.  To see life and appreciate it for the beauty it holds, even in the ordinary, mundane, sometimes painful moments.  You know, for the way we love to toss around the phrase, 'Live in the moment,' it seems pretty evident most of us have no clue how to actually do that.  My writing helps me do that." 

It was his turn to nod, thoughtful.  I seized on the opportunity to share the most practical piece of writer's advice I've learned, hoping it would encourage him.  

"You know, there's only one step between wanting to write and becoming a writer: write frequently.  The wisest thing I've done all year with my writing is having a schedule and sticking with it.  I can call myself a writer, not because I've published or get paid for it, but because I write consistently.  I used to wait for the 'inspiration' for writing to come over me.  Now I'm learning how to nurture the inspiration myself, to search for it throughout the day.  That's all it really takes to step into writing."

He grinned, "Yeah, you're probably right.  That's really good.  It'd be nice to get paid for it, though, too."

"Sure it would.  That'd be real nice.  But at the end of the day, I'm glad I write for the love of writing, with or without a paycheck."

Our conversation reached a natural drop-off point, and we returned to our separate work with heads down.  Two writers at work on a Saturday night.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Stories all around

 It may look like nothing more than a gunky 
old basement window,
remnants of the vine of plant
imprinted in the paint of a wall...

Large brick columns or small pillars of brick railing,
depends on your perspective,
but peer through and see a doorway,
spindly branches in window reflections

A trail of lifeless leaves and abandoned rubbish,
or a trail of color and textures in tunneled light 
juxtaposed with cement and pipe and brick...

Wooden forms in a darkened room, 
stripped to bare construction;
a spot of light in the distance
surrounded by green...

You never know what you can spot if only you pause in your day...

and give way to curiosity.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tales of five crazy cats

My parents owned some weird cats in the early years of their marriage.  I don't know what that says about them, but I guess after one strange feline, a person, or a family in our case, can be marked.  The first cat Mom remembers after they married took them awhile to figure out.  Dad pulled out the vacuum cleaner and went to town cleaning the carpet, where the kitty was curled up napping.  He vacuumed all around the cat and it didn't flinch, didn't even crack open an eyelid.  But if the cat awoke while he was vacuuming elsewhere and came face to face with the machine, it freaked out, as normal cats do.  Filled with curiosity one day, Dad knelt beside the cat while its attention was fixed in another direction and clapped his hands hard.  Nothing happened.  Mom didn't say how long it took for them to discover this cat was deaf.

Then there was the cat whose mom died when the kitty was just a wee thing.  She never recovered from this early loss and sucked her tail constantly, until Mom said it looked like a wet rat.  The time came for Mom and Dad to move across the country and they didn't want to bring the cat with them.  In a desperate attempt to find a home for the cat, they washed her tail and fluffed it pretty with a blow dryer.  When the prospective owners showed up to see the cat, Mom clutched the tail lightly in her hands and held her breath.  It worked and Mom and Dad said goodbye to the cat, locking the door, closing the blinds and turning off the lights behind them.   

As a kid, the first cats I remember are Patches and Prissy.  Patches was a black and white fluff ball, really adorable, and Prissy was, well, as annoying as her name sounds.  Whiny as they come.  These two were quite the dynamic duo.  They'd steal the waffle right off our breakfast plates if we weren't guarding closely.  We couldn't even leave a bowl of cereal on the table at breakfast for a quick trip to the bathroom, because when we returned, one of them would be hunched over the bowl lapping milk and eating soggy cheerios. Mom said one time she was sitting at the kitchen table with a friend talking after the meal, a plate of barbecued chicken piled beside her.  From the corner of her eye she saw Patches jump on the table and approach the plate stealthily.  Her reflexes were a little more catlike than his that day and before she knew it, her arm reached out and whacked him from the table, where he soared through the air, hit the wall, slid to the ground and delicately scurried out of the room.  

In that same house in Arizona where we had Patches and Prissy, Mom said a wild cat lived in the backyard.  This cat made valiant efforts to streak inside whenever an opportunity presented itself.  When it succeeded, it made a beeline for one of our beds, where it fluffed up the covers, squatted and pooped.  Mom found this out by accident one day when in her bedroom she caught a strong whiff of poo.  Their bedspread was brown and she knelt beside the bed to peek beneath it, putting her hand in a squishy pile of Wild Cat's doo-doo in the process.  One day, Wild Cat made it past Dad into the house and headed straight for our bedroom.  They followed right behind him, and there he was, fluffing the covers on my sister's lower bunk, in the squatting position.  Mom yelled for Dad to do something and Dad responded by cupping his hands underneath Wild Cat's tail right as his poo fell into his hands.

All these stories, Mom recounted to me during breakfast recently, our Sunday morning ritual at Java Bean down the street.  I just sat at the table cracking up and wiping the tears from my eyes.  I hadn't laughed like that in awhile, and I relished the rare moment of hearing old tales from Mom that are filled with such humor.  Sometimes we can be so serious together, we forget to laugh like this.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Steps ahead of here

The first time I stepped in "The Quad" at the University of Washington - the grassy lane split in two by a brick pathway and lined with trees that bloom in pink cotton candy and strawberry swirl yogurt in the spring - I nearly forgot I was in Seattle.  I might be on Harvard's campus, I thought, with the aura of history seeping into my skin.  Always a sucker for classic architecture, I could stand and gaze up at the beauty of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century buildings for a long time.  Their elegantly long, lead paned windows, the washed out stone and brick exteriors, the Dickens' style black lamp posts heralding the way up marbled stairways to wooden double doors and the scent of old beckoning to me.  Deep down, I wished I could be a student in one of those classrooms above The Quad.  I coveted the UW students, with their access to the stunning Suzzallo Library.  Now that's a real university library.  But I'd already finished college and didn't have any intention of applying for one of their grad programs.

Seven years later, I'm studying my campus map, trying to find my way to the first evening of a nonfiction writing course.  I pass Suzzallo Library with a little sigh of pleasure, and shortly after, spot Smith Hall on a sign outside a building.  The building I had stood in front of on that first visit, wishing to be a student inside.  I break into a private grin.  This is too good to be true.  I take my time up the steps, open the door, inhale the history.  

I'm actually nervous for this class.  Here writing has always been my strongest subject, I've graduated with two degrees and I write nearly every day, but still I feel small and vulnerable.  Maybe most artists feel this way each time we lay open our artistic passion, the work of our hands and minds and hearts, spreading it before strangers and inviting criticism.  Maybe this is why I feel so small, like a child.  I have published nothing.  I possess no outstanding credentials.  I simply love to write, am compelled to write.  I know I must open myself to challenge, to stretch beyond what I know and risk not being great.  And so I'm here, in this class, filled with excitement and a case of nerves.

Halfway through the class, I'm looking around the room really questioning, "Should I be here?"  It sounds like a class for aspiring journalists, for writers of science and academia, not for personal narrative.  I squirm at the thought of being asked to squeeze my writing into report formats again, to stifle my in-the-moment style for something stuffed with facts and research.  I'm nearly convinced toward the end of class that this is a mistake, but I force myself to stay after and speak with the professor.  In the end, I tell him of my admiration for Tracy Kidder, of Mountains beyond mountains and Strength in what remains.  I want to be able to write like that, but I'm afraid and I don't tell him that.  I tell him I guess I need to learn the skills this class offers, and I shake hands and walk out feeling discouraged.  I walk back through campus, along the lamp illuminated pathway, and the light slowly flickers on in my cluttered thoughts.

I'm afraid because this class requires me to write not where I'm at in this moment, but where I want to be in the future.  To write steps ahead, where it seems beyond the grasp of my skills, beyond what I know I'm good at.  And there it is once more, shoddily disguised: I don't want to find out I'm not good enough to be this kind of writer.

I sigh and my jaw tightens in a resigned determination.  I cannot run.  I must stay and risk this or I will never know what I can do beyond what I know.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Holding onto the cashews

I lay in bed last night, thinking of where I was three years ago.  Guatemala.  I'm scrolling through pictures in my head, remembering my departure from Portland at night, journal in my lap, gazing out at the sprinkling of airport lights below.  A sprawling Lite Brite board.  I'm running away for a month, away from the life I don't quite want to come home to yet in Seattle.  A life without Papa.  

I write the entire month in Guatemala, stories of adventures, but more so, stories of the grief that has followed me across countries.  I'm jumbled up with emotions, but steady in the midst is this shred of confidence that one day I will write.  Really write.  It's beginning to awaken in me as never before, that though I've been studying Psychology for nearly a decade, this is where my passion really lies.  The telling of stories.

One story in particular is branded in my memory, fraught with meaning that seems to slip through my fingers as it's on the verge of being caught.  Tucked away in my wooden Papa chest at home is a little bag of dried cashews and the memory of a Guatemalan man I met in the lakeside town of Panajachel.  In honor of starting my nonfiction writing program this evening, three years later, I share his story once more.

Francisco had been trying to sell to us all day, out of the three plastic sacks of nuts he carried around town. Up early and out late, he shuffled along in his rancher hat, up and down the main street street in Pana, carrying his goods for sale. He came to our table last night, as my friends and I were sipping cheap wine and eating flan at one of the many open cafes in town. We responded as we have learned to do with most of the local vendors: "No, gracias, senor." And he went on his way. Unlike the others who frequently approach us at the table, he didn't even stay and persist. As we were walking back to our little hotel at the end of the street later on, we passed by him once more. He sat on the steps, in the doorway of an open shop, looking tired and dejected. I felt a pang I couldn't ignore, so with only 10Q (less than $1.50) between us, we walked back to him.

His tired eyes lit up, just a little, at the prospect of a sale, though it took us a few attempts to communicate that we only had enough for 10Q of cashews. I crouched down on the steps beneath him and attempted to speak with him in poor Spanglish. As he spoke to us, I studied him: his two-toned, worn green sweatshirt; white socks and old black tennis shoes; his eyes, once vacant, now with a small spark of life, set kindly in his weathered face; his smile, missing a few front teeth, beautiful and haunting. And my own eyes took me by surprise, filling with tears. I tried to look away before he saw, but our eyes locked for a brief moment, and he smiled, as if he knew something I couldn't speak.

I cried silent tears as we walked back to the hotel, clutching my tiny bag of cashews. Once in the hotel, I waved the girls upstairs, found a dark corner, and wept. I knew I wept for Francisco, this kind man, living a quiet, hard life. But what surprised me more is that I wept for the glimpses of my Papa I saw in Francisco, and I ached to wrap my arms around Papa once more, wearing his two-toned old green sweatshirt. My Papa would have loved Francisco.

I fill with gratitude this morning, remembering how far I've journeyed over the past three years.  Thankful that I am given the gift of writing still, for that handful of cashews and the snapshot of a man, and the memories of my Papa that live on inside of me.  

Monday, October 10, 2011

Parenting preview

I'm cool for like five minutes of our evening together.  Five minutes between Laura and Chris sneaking out the door to Isaac's first meltdown.  He's sitting in his chair at the kitchen table, and I'm the nice Auntie who's drizzling maple syrup and dispensing whipped cream and banana slices on top of his pancakes.  This is all going very well, until he twists in his chair and reaches his little arm over the back, pointing and making frantic questioning noises.  I don't speak "Isaac" all that well, but I know he's wondering where mom and dad disappeared to.  I try to distract him.  "You want more of these yummy pancakes, Isaac?"  Food usually works, this I know.  He swivels back toward his plate, regards me curiously with a sidelong gaze, and spears banana and pancake, stuffing his mouth like the squirrels fed by peanut ladies.  I'm a little concerned that his mouth won't fit all this food, and I gently put my hand in front of his fork that's returning to his plate for more.  "Isaac, chew what's in your mouth first, sweetie."  

It all dissolves so quickly.  His face scrunching, his lower lip pillowing out and quivering, his eyes filling with tears.  This is when the crying first begins.  I feel my coolness points rapidly dwindling.

"Hey, Isaac, it's ok," I reassure him in my best calming voice.  "You want to go for a walk?"  He nods, still crying.  "Ok, we'll go for a walk.  We'll bring a friend.  You want to bring your bear friend?  I think he'd like that."  I hear a timer going off, the one Laura set for her pot of steaming potatoes.  I turn it off and bounce Isaac on my hip up the stairs to find him a jacket and his teddy bear.  I grab the Bob out of the garage and pray to God I can figure out quickly how to unfold it.  Isaac is close to screaming now, and I wonder if the neighbors can hear.  I maneuver him into the stroller seat with his back arching.  He won't give me a clear answer when I ask if he still wants to go for a walk.  I remember that walking usually calms him down, so I figure we'll give it a try.

Once out the door, he's dialed down to sniffling.  I wrack my brain for kid songs to sing.  "Twinkle twinkle little star" is a good night time walking song.  One time around the block.  I'm onto "Old MacDonald had a farm," wondering how many animal noises I know to keep this song going.  Dog, kitty, cow, horse, pig, goat, baby bird, chicken, lion, I'm running out of ideas and then I notice he's totally quiet.  I peek down at his face and his eyes are closed and he's snuggling his bear.  I check my watch.  6:49 pm.  His bedtime is somewhere around 8 pm.  Shoot.  I didn't expect the kid to fall asleep on me.

We stroll the block two more times and then I bite the bullet.  At this point, I guess it'll take us 45 minutes to get him into bed, sleeping.  Once inside, I successfully lift him out of the stroller and then I hear little hissing noises.  I sniff the air and detect... something overcooked.  Potatoes.  Isaac slumps against my shoulder and I hurry up the stairs to the kitchen to turn the burner off, mentally smacking my forehead.  I can do this, I tell myself.  How hard can it be?

The real challenge is I'm eyeing the changing table, trying to figure out how to get a sleeping child out of his pajamas, change his diaper and put him back into dry pajamas without waking him up too much.  I make it a third of the way into the task before his eyes open and he's really crying now.  I talk soothingly, softly to him, trying to work quickly with as little disturbance as possible, but by the time he's been changed, he's fully awake.  We sit down together in the Lazy Boy rocking chair, gather a few books, turn on his bedtime cello music, and I begin to read.  He's still crying, but more quietly now.  I read the same book three times, changing the story each time to include a bedtime theme.  He reaches for another book, signs "more" with his little hands, and I continue reading.  I tell him I love him and that it's time for him to go to sleep, and I kiss his face and lay him down in the crib screaming.  We'll see how long this lasts, I think, not terribly confident of this method.  

Five minutes of screaming goes by and then I return, pick him up, read a few more books, say goodnight and lay him down.  Then ten minutes of screaming passes.  I pick him up and we walk downstairs, saying goodnight to anything and everything I can think of.  Chris says this is his nighttime ritual, and I neglected to do this.  Goodnight Guppy Street, the pet fish.  Goodnight arm chair.  Goodnight remote control.  Goodnight curtains, goodnight moon, goodnight puzzle, goodnight toys, goodnight cars, goodnight little hanging Easter eggs, goodnight lamp.  He's waving adorably at everything with little sniffles.  We turn the lights off and as I take the stairs, he breaks into screams.  He's pointing to his parent's bedroom and I take him there, turn on the lights, explain to him that they are not here but they will be home soon, that first he needs to sleep.  I'm not sure he understands any of this, and I feel rotten.  Poor kid.  He probably thinks he's been left with a crazy lady, who tells him not to stuff his mouth with banana and pancakes, who wakes him up from a nice sleep to change his clothes and then tells him his mom and dad aren't here.  I might as well have told him Santa Claus isn't real.  

I lay him down once more.  He's bouncing around now, wailing, and I call my mom.  "How long should I let him scream before I go back in?"  She advises me to wait fifteen minutes, then go in and pray with him, hold him once more, tell him gently he needs to go to sleep now.  I've tried that, I think, but one more time won't hurt.  Fifteen minutes passes and I do just what she said.  He doesn't calm down, but five minutes later, his crying is fading.  I wait with bated breath for the screaming to start again, hoping for his sake he can finally surrender to sleep and feel calm.  Silence ensues.  Nothing but the sound of his blowing out sniffly breaths.  I check my watch.  8:45 pm.  All is well in the Harbert household.

It's not until the next morning,  when I come into work, that Laura tells me the reason for Isaac's woes.  He had no "plugs" around (i.e., pacifiers).  I was hosed, she says.  Now I know.  Hopefully Isaac will give me a second chance.  It's moments like these that are easy to dismiss, to wish they would pass quickly.  But they are the ones that teach me a little something about hanging on in the moment, being present, trying to see life through the eyes of a little child, laughing through tears as I tell the story of the evening when Laura and Chris arrive home, expecting to see me frazzle-haired with Isaac bouncing up and down on the couch, but instead see me curled up in a puffy jacket, wrapped in a blanket on the sofa.  My first night of parenting class and my teacher is sleeping soundly upstairs.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Tiny threads

Nothing cohesive is formulating for me to write.  I'm sitting here for nearly an hour, and then my memory jogs in a trail of fragmented pieces leading up to the end of this work week.  Beautiful moments I recorded throughout the week in my journal.  I was doing this every day for months, all throughout the day, but I let it slip and one day of forgetting turned into several weeks.  The problem with forgetting to write down the gratitude moments is that it means life slips into blur, running together as one giant piece of fabric instead of the thousands of tiny threads that bind it together.  

Gratitude remains hidden, forgotten, if not spoken.   And so I indulge in remembering...

Dark-skinned, dark-haired baby boy swallowed in a white tuxedo at Spanish mass, melting my heart.

Music in my head, dancing the cha-cha on the sidewalk as I walk to my car after Zumba class.

Practicing new communication skills with Ricardo after reading Men are from Mars, Women from Venus. 

Speaking Spanish with a Mexican customer, talking about Mexico and tortas.

The heartfelt gift from a loyal customer who supports my love of goats: the outline of a goat etched into a polished stone.

Annie, the 10-week golden retriever with huge doe-like eyes, silken fur and razor sharp teeth; sitting for a friendly chat with her owner in the coffee shop.

How kindness transforms interactions.

The 70-year old man sharing that he lives with prostate cancer, thanking me for my smile and flashing a nearly toothless one of his own.

Time spent with a truly amazing counselor, challenging me to see bigger.  

Protection from a potentially bad car crash.

A mechanic offering to fix Ricardo's car for barely more than the cost of the parts.  

Time for writing.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

When gratitude is expensive

If you've never wondered how to drive from the boondocks of Federal Way to downtown Seattle without taking the freeway and how long this route takes at a speed of 30 mph, neither had I.  Until last night.    

Ricardo's red Jetta alerts us with a jerking motion.  An unsettling sound, like a ball cranking over and and over, whacking the ground.  My car knowledge extends so far as the yellow "Maintenance Required" button near my dashboard, the feeling of a tire gone flat, the squeal of a bad belt, the smell of oil or rubber burning.  Beyond that, I'm really no help at all.  Ricardo, thankfully, he knows his car stuff, and I know by the focused, hush-hush way he tunes into his car and the subsequent groan that something is wrong.    He's had this car for all of one week and I can feel his elation deflate as the lurching and noise continue.   

We stop at his friend's house and he stands outside as his friend drives it forward and back, testing the brakes.  I watch as the whole frame of his car seems to shift forward and hug his front wheel.  They speak rapidly in Spanish and I can't make out what they were saying but I understand "caro."  Expensive.  Ricardo and I get back in and he drives slowly, careful not to break suddenly or bounce over bumps.  We stop at a gas station and he calls a mechanic who advises him not to take the freeway.  Go slow, he says, or the system holding the front wheels in place could slide off and the car take a nosedive.  It's a good thing this didn't happen on the freeway, he says.  That could have been a bad accident.  

I watch Ricardo and I'm amazed.  He's frustrated, of course, disappointed.  He's worked so hard to get these wheels, this freedom he gave up two years ago, endured long bus commute after bus commute, building his business again from the ground up.  I watch as he shrugs - "What can I do?" - not casually, but with gracious acceptance.  Not one to bemoan his problems, I marvel at how he just faces them head on, finding something positive each time.  It's a huge part of how he's gotten as far as he has today.  I don't know what else to do to support him, beyond a heartfelt, "I'm really sorry you have to deal with this," so I just thank God out loud for both of us.  For keeping us safe, for loving us.  I ask God to provide for Ricardo in a huge way, a way that lessens his expense.  And then I thank him, because he asks us to put our trust in him without first seeing what that's going to look like.  It's what I read that morning all blurry-eyed and tired before work began.  To thank God for whatever circumstances the day may hold, this is a discipline I'm still breaking into.  

I fight sleep for much of the journey, but in the last stretch of backroad, I surrender at Ricardo's encouragement.  In case you're now wondering, the trip takes roughly an hour and a half.  On I-5 it takes no more than 30 minutes.   I awake in downtown as Ricardo's parking the car, grateful just to be together.  

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Best friends and barista counselors

I've got a pretty nice setup with work.  I generally work Monday through Friday and I'm off between 1:30 or 3:30 each day.  I've got pretty decent medical and dental benefits.  I like my regular customers a bunch.  I enjoy the team of people I work with at my store and there's never really drama in our department.  But one of the best perks of all is that I get to work with one of my best friends, Laura, nearly every day.  I forget that most of our customers have no clue that she and I were good friends prior to working together. That we lived together and I was in her wedding and that we have a friendship that exists outside of our shifts.  

We're learning to master the art of heart-to-hearts, three sentences at a time.  I never thought I'd be good at talking when I knew I'd be constantly interrupted.  Of course, since we're at work to work, not to catch up on the innermost workings of each other's lives, there are no hurt feelings when a deep thought is waylaid by a quick "Hi, what can we get for you?"  I laugh at how many times a story has taken the span of several hours to be told in its entirety.  I credit Laura for this skill, though she's still much more proficient at fragmented conversations than I.  I guess it comes, in part, from being a mom.

Laura and her husband and I ran the Hell Run, a muddy obstacle course, together on Saturday, where we received red capes emblazoned with "HR" in flame-like font.  Monday we decided to wear our capes at work.  We managed to convince a slew of customers that it was National Wear Your Cape to Work Day.  I think it would do most people a lot of good to wear a big red cape to work on Mondays, period.  I think it would help liven up the Monday blahs.  Everything feels a little better in a cape.  We dubbed two of our regulars honorary cape wearers and took their picture and laughed together that this is where we get to work. 

Unintentionally, we also solved the problem of what to do with my degree in counseling.  In a conversation with one of our beloved regulars, he admitted he worries all the time, about everything.  Most of his life, he said, is spent worrying about the past, present or future.  He said this with some dry humor, because he's a pretty funny guy, and so I responded with humor: "The question I want to know is, what on earth happened in your childhood?"  Since all barista interactions are by nature brief, we decided each time he comes in, he needs to share a story with us from his childhood.  He played along with us, and now, we've got some mini counseling sessions going on, all for the price of his drink.  While I doubt it's significantly changing his life, he must get something out of it, because he keeps coming back and we eagerly gather around the counter to hear his story for the day.  

The things you can do with a best friend at work.