Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Corners and memories

There's this game we play at the beginning of Camp Erin called "Corners." Basically, one adult is calling out statements and if they're true for you, you run to whichever corner of the field she is pointing to. It starts off light and fun. If you have a dog, run to that corner. If you have a cat, run to this corner. If you have some larger, four-legged pet, like a cow or a horse or a goat, run to that corner.

And then it starts to get a little more serious. If you've ever been in a hospital to visit someone, come over here. If you hate hospitals, go there. If you've ever visited a loved one in the hospital, move to that corner. The kids, at first full of kid energy and smiles, move more quietly now. If you've lost a grandpa or a grandma, go to this corner. If you've lost a brother, go over there. If you've lost a sister, come over here. If you've lost a friend, go to that corner. If you've lost your mom, come here. If you've lost your dad, go over there.

And I'm standing up high on a step with my camera, but I'm not taking pictures, because I'm frozen, watching all the kids file to each corner. There's about eighty kids at camp this year. Many of these kids, I notice, have lost dads, and it settles in my throat in this big lump and my eyes become moist, because I know. I know this pain. But they are so much younger than I was and it just feels so wrong. I can feel Ricardo's eyes watching me from the other end of the steps, but this year I'm not crying for my own loss. I'm crying for theirs.

The amazing, brilliant thing about kids is that they are often the smartest grievers. Unlike adults, who have grown up and faced grown up problems and forgotten how to play, kids may cry and feel sad in one moment and turn around in the next to play jumprope or kickball. It's like, without trying to, they know they can only handle their grief in little doses at a time. A little dose of sorrow, and then a big dose of playing. I admire them for this, and I think God made them this way. It doesn't mean they don't suffer a lot of sorrow, they do. They just don't necessarily try to swallow it all at once.

The kids at Camp Erin stay in my heart for awhile after camp, like a precious memory I don't often speak of, but cherish deeply. I remember their stories. I remember their tears. I remember their courage. I remember their innocence. I remember their smiles. I remember the ways they reached out to hug each other, to place hands on each other and hold each other. I remember watching them cuddle up in the arms of a trusted adult for comfort and support. I remember how we who were there as volunteers felt so honored to be there for them and how much we, in return, received from them.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Recipe for simple pleasure

My mom is pretty funny. Especially when paired with a glass of wine. It doesn't take much, a half of a glass will do just fine, and soon a giggle will slip out and a mischievous grin, and she'll say or do something that makes me smile, and I love it because she's so innocent. I'm a lightweight like her.

Last night we're hanging out, Mom, Ricardo and I, having a nice conversation about camp and then goofing around, and I got to thinking that life is so good when you enjoy simple things with the people you love. That there are no formulas for this kind of enjoyment, but if there were, one of them might be:

Mom + 1/2 glass of wine + hula hoop + good conversation + Jenga + Ricardo + BBQ kettle chips = simple pleasure

Mom puts Ricardo and I to shame with her hula hooping skills. I think she could go for like an hour or something, looking like it's nothing more than a Sunday afternoon stroll. She says she can't do it that long, though, because it bruises her hip bone.

And then we got to talking about bruises, and I conducted a little bruises show-and-tell for them. Starting with my left ankle, and my calf, my left knee and then the huge black and red splotch on my left quad. Just when the nasty bruise from my canoe trip began to fade on my right calf, I quickly replaced it with three more. And then there's the fading pink scab on my right shoulder, the bruise beneath my chin, and my middle fingernail that's still hanging on its hinges from slamming it in the car door three months ago. Mom's face looked pained, always a mother, probably wondering when her adult daughter will grow up and if she'll live to see it. Ricardo just shook his head in disbelief and laughed affectionately, "Ay contigo. What am I going to do with you?"

Mom wanted to make me promise to take a break from intense outdoor activity after my upcoming triathlon. She tried to reason with me to throw my bike away. "I will take a break, I reply, "after the Hell Run in October." And then I grin wickedly, trying to also appear innocent. "After all, I'll simply be scaling walls, crawling through mud, under barbed wire, through a junkyard of old cars, leaping over fire, running through water, you know, that sort of thing."

"Ay contigo," Ricardo says again.

I taught Mom how to say something slightly bad to Ricardo in Spanish and we laughed our way through Jenga, until I knocked the TV stand it was resting on precariously and it toppled over (I still vow it's the stand's fault). It's hard to rival evenings like this. Hopefully these are the moments I'll remember when I'm old.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Camp Erin symphony

All is quiet on the lakeside beach front, except the music softly covering the background. The Camp Erin kids, gathered this weekend for support in their journey of grieving the loss of a loved one, sit in the gravel of the inlet, stretched from end to end several rows deep. Tonight is the most poignant ceremony of the weekend. The luminaries.

From ages five to eighteen, all have decorated their own white paper bags in honor of their loved one. They will all come forward in a few minutes, the tea light in the bottom of their bag will be lit and placed on the wooden raft and they will whisper the name - or names - of those they grieve, they remember, they love. And then they will sit back down and wait for that raft to fill with lit remembrances of loved ones and slowly be rowed out into the lake. Lighting up the darkness, and then, quietly fading into the distance.

I lay on my stomach on the dock, witnessing it all, capturing moments with my camera, hearing the click resonate in the quiet. I wait, mesmerized. This weekend is a symphony. A group of kids and teens, mostly strangers to each other, coming together with their unique stories blending. Instruments not competing, but converging in individual sounds that create a seamless, heart-wrenching yet hopeful song. A song with notes tender and vulnerable, rumbling with sometimes powerful and frightening emotion; ebbing and flowing, building and building, rising up high to eventually climb back down, never alone.

The two camp facilitators are standing up in front of the group with their backs to the lake, setting the mood with a symbolic reading. I can feel the symphony pulsing, holding back to slowly swell. And then, in the twilight, a new sound joins the symphony from the waters.

Quack, quack, quack... QUACK-QUACK-QUACK. A cackle of Donald Duck laughter pierces the reverent quiet, bursting in with comic relief, then disappearing. A posse of ducks glide in a V toward shore, anchoring just short of the beach. They are feathery buoys bobbing in the water, unaware, or perhaps more aware than we imagine, joining in the ceremony. More laughter popcorns across the beach from the kids, I bury my face in my arm and muffle my own, and the ducks send laughter back to us. The reading continues between these giggles, grateful for the moment lightened, and eventually the ducks burst out in laughter once more, turn their backs on the shore and disappear into the lake, having played their part in the evening's song.

The luminaries finally situated in the raft, the moment again reverent, everyone watches as the glowing lanterns glide across the water. Some kids are crying now, hugged by adults or each other. Up above, the tall trees sway with the music of the wind which, absent during the ceremony, now makes a late entrance, like a peaceful finale. A bird perched in the swaying trees peers down on us all.

For moments, the symphony continues and no one dare moves.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Writer envy

When I hear or see stories told of writers whose writing stirred people, caused an honorable ruckus, I feel a slight twinge of jealousy. I've always wanted to be that pebble tossed in the waters, sending ripples through the smooth calm. Somewhere deep inside I know I'm meant to be that writer. But when I get up every day and do what I do, namely, writing on my blog, I feel so far from that pebble. I feel more like a feather, and they don't stir up the water at all.

I went and saw the movie, The help, a few days ago. I confess, I didn't read the book first, though I've wanted to for months. The movie is masterfully done, in my opinion, all of the characters living into their parts of the story so convincingly. One of the main characters, a young woman, is an aspiring writer. She wants to write big things, important things, and life kind of hands her this story to write, which turns out to be life from the perspective of the black servants - known as, "The help." With the collaboration of about a dozen black women who are maids, this young white woman gives them the opportunity to tell their stories, and in doing so, rocks the status quo of the South in the 1960s. Now that's what I'm talking about.

But as I said, I write a blog.

I'm not putting myself down. Everyone's got to start somewhere, and I've already pointed out in several blogs the cliche, but true, saying: Don't despise small beginnings. I tell myself, I'm developing good writing habits right now. I have an outlet for telling my own story, and for expressing one of my favorite types of art. Somedays, I may even touch someone with my writing. And when all is said and done, I love what I do, ripples or not.

Still, I laughed out loud today when I read, yet again, another excerpt from Donald Millers' Blue like jazz. His thoughts on being a writer are hilarious, but not far from the truth:

"Writers don't make any money at all. We make about a dollar. It is terrible. But then again we don't work either. We sit around in our underwear until noon then go downstairs and make coffee, fry some eggs, read the paper, read part of a book, smell the book, wonder if perhaps we ourselves should work on our book, smell the book again, throw the book across the room because we are quite jealous that any other person wrote a book, feel terribly guilty about throwing the schmuck's book across the room because we secretly wonder if God in heaven noticed our evil jealousy, or worse, our laziness. We then lie across the couch facedown and mumble to God to forgive us because we are secretly afraid He is going to dry up all our words because we envied another man's stupid words. And for this, as I said before, we are paid a dollar. We are worth so much more."

Minus the part about earning a dollar (because, let's face it, right now no one is paying me anything to write) and the part about not working, this pretty much describes what I'm talking about, somedays as a writer, or aspiring writer. Maybe one of these days I'll get to sit around in my underwear and work on a book that will change the world and someone else will be quoting me on their blog.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What's in a name

I need to clear up one more thing from yesterday's conversation. I wanted to add it then, but that would have made the blog way too long, and I'm sure people would start to get distracted and cut out four paragraphs in and switch to their facebook or twitter pages, because I'm already long winded as it is. Still, I think this is important, at least it is to me.

I say I'm not a Christian writer, for reasons stated in my last blog. Maybe to some people that statement is clear, but to many, maybe just the inclusion of the word Christian is confusing. Christian, particularly Christianity, bears in mind different images to just about every person, it seems, so when people ask me if I'm a Christian and I hesitate a little before I say yes, it's only because I don't know what definition of Christian is being used. I love how Donald Miller, who wrote the candid book Blue like jazz, approached this kind of question in an interview:

"In a recent radio interview I was sternly asked by the host, who did not consider himself a Christian, to defend Christianity. I told him that I couldn't do it, and moreover, that I didn't want to defend the term. He asked me if I was a Christian, and I told him yes. 'Then why don't you want to defend Christianity?' he asked, confused. I told him I know longer knew what the term meant. Of the hundreds of thousands of people listening to this show that day, some of them had terrible experiences with Christianity; they may have been yelled at by a teacher in a Christian school, abused by a minister, or browbeaten by a Christian parent. To them, the term Christianity meant something that no Christian I know would defend. By fortifying the term, I am only making them more and more angry. I won't do it. Stop ten people on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word Christianity, and they will give you ten different answers. How can I defend a term that means ten different things to ten different people? I told the radio host that I would rather talk about Jesus and how I came to believe that Jesus exists and that he likes me."

I'm borrowing his words because I've never been clever enough in a moment to give that kind of response. But I love it. When I first read it, I wanted to yell out, "Yes!" but I think I was probably in some quiet coffee shop at the time, so I just whispered it to myself.

Being a Christian is certainly not as straightforward as it used to be. And that's a huge, sad problem. But while I'm not very clear on what Christianity is these days, I'm clear on Jesus, because we can't muck Jesus up with our human failings. This is the beauty I hope to convey in my writing, but more so in my life; the foundation of beautiful rubbish.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A life without "others"

At some point in this year of writing, I decided, I'm not a Christian writer. I could be, because I'm comfortable with this topic and language, but I prefer the challenge of speaking beyond my comfort zone. I don't want to write to "us" and not "them." I want simply to be a writer whose faith is intricately interwoven in everything she does, somedays directly expressed and others not. To write because I have received the grace to do it, because I love the one who gives me that grace and am loved by him, because I am convinced that this same grace and love are meant to be shared with all who hunger for it.

Right now I'm caught up in reading four books. The author of one of them, Ragamuffin gospel, says a lot of really honest things and I like him for it. In one section, he's making a point about what it means to be a person of true faith and he uses his position on abortion as an example in a refreshing way:

We are not pro-life simply because we are warding off death. We are pro-life to the extent that we are men and women for others, all others; to the extent that no human flesh is a stranger to us; to the extent that we can touch the hand of another in love; to the extent that for us there are no "others."

I think Christians, unfortunately, have a hurtful reputation of assuming an "us" and "them" attitude toward life. I've been a part of that over the years whether I've wanted to or not. To a real degree, there's no way entirely around it, fundamentally, because to a post-modern thinker who is not a part of the Christian faith, who we believe Jesus to be is a huge stumbling block. The Christian faith will always be exclusive, never the cool or trendy thing to believe.

The thing we don't seem to understand is that our exclusive view on Jesus is to be lived in the same manner in which we received his gift of grace. It is meant to be translated into a life of love that knows no bounds - religiously, culturally, ethnically, socioeconomically, racially, politically, or other. Sadly, we have not done the best job of living that. We have lived, often, treating people as "others," as strangers, instead of as family. This is where Christianity begins to morph into something unrecognizable, something that doesn't look like Jesus.

Why write about all this Christian stuff, when I've just gone to all the trouble of saying I'm not a Christian writer? Maybe because I hope to make it clear that, though some of my beliefs may make some of my readers feel uncomfortable or that they can't relate, I hope in my writing the thing that speaks the loudest are not differences of belief or opinion, but love, grace, joy, hope, authenticity and peace. Because all of us, regardless of what we believe, hunger to know these in our lives.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Vegetarian thoughts

I make multiple trips past these freezer doors nearly every day. Door after door after door, filled with frozen fish this and grilled chicken that, pork tenderloin this and bacon crumble that, salmon patties and breaded chicken, meatballs, tempura shrimp and steak fajitas. Meat is such an integral part of our culture - and the extensive food industry - that we require a separate vegetarian section just to single out a few dinner items as being meatless.

I'm a vegetarian. Not the Monday through Friday kind, or the kind that eats only fish, or the kind that is selective about where they purchase their meats, but the kind who doesn't eat any meat, period. I'm not always aware of this, but somedays, when I walk past these meat advertisements, it feels strange to me. I've been a vegetarian for only nine months now, but I don't crave this stuff. The only time I really miss eating meat is when Ricardo makes his famous carne asada or shrimp ceviche.

Some people ask me why I'm a vegetarian, and I usually give a general reply, like "multiple factors: mainly ethical, environmental, and public health," indicating I have no problem going into the particulars, but only if they really want to know. I've found that many meat eaters don't want to know the nitty gritty details of the factoring farming industry, and I respect that, because I'm certainly not going to force anyone to listen. It's something you need to want to know; but beyond that, it's something you have to be prepared to make a decision about.

Knowledge can be power, but also a burden of responsibility. I feel shy to share about being a vegetarian. I'm not ashamed, I just feel that it makes people uncomfortable, like I'm going to try to "convert" them or like I'm judging them for eating meat. My intern supervisor used to say to us, "You can't un-know what you know," and it's so true. I guess you can sweep facts under the carpet, but that's not the same as un-knowing something. It's merely a refusal to face reality.

Being a vegetarian is sometimes a daily exercise of staying true to my convictions, while showing consideration toward the preferences of others. Of not being too rigid, keeping perspective on what's most important. Ricardo and I are learning how to cook meals together that are interchangeably vegetarian and non-vegetarian. He respects my decision and supports it, and I in return don't expect him to ever follow suit. When people cook for me and didn't know to use veggie broth instead of chicken broth, I eat it appreciatively. For me, the conviction is good only as far as it doesn't devalue my relationships with people. It's something that is continually held in checks and balances, most of the time not requiring too much compromise.

For me, being vegetarian is more about expressing my respect for the value of life in a way that is broader in scope than I've yet lived. It's teaching me something more about living life with gratitude, of realizing the far-reaching implications of decisions as simple and basic as what I eat, of doing life respectfully and graciously with people like me who hold to their own convictions, as varied as the number of people on the planet.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The "other" baristas

We have a lot of regulars that frequent our Starbucks kiosk daily. We try to know their names, their drinks, their taste preferences, and whatever other information they opt to share about themselves in our brief interactions. Some of them have even become friends. I love this aspect of being a barista, and at the same time, I've often wondered what it would feel like to be a regular somewhere myself. I've never felt that and I want to.

When I started the discipline of writing Monday through Friday, I opted to make my writing home at one of my favorite local coffee shops. That's right, non-Starbucks. I'm not a coffee Nazi. Over the past eight months or so, I've been included in this coffee shop's number of regulars. The baristas know my name and where I work (which they think is funny); they know about my writing and they've met Ricardo and they know I prefer a 2% latte, extra hot, in my own mug. I'm often one of their first customers of the day, and we're all a little sleepy, so we don't always talk much, but some days, we have surprisingly good conversations.

I've talked and joked about how many weddings I've been in with one of the baristas who has five weddings this summer alone, showed them pictures of Ricardo's family when they visited, shared my camping adventures in Ross Lake, told them the story of the serenata. I detect their genuine interest, and so I feel welcome to share. I even feel that they want me to. And I, in return, enjoy hearing the tales of their lives.

I've got to confess, I love my other baristas. And I think there's room in the world of one barista to enjoy her job and her regulars and to also enjoy being the regular of other baristas, blasphemous as it may seem. I'm thankful for them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Serenata in Seattle

I awake to a light tapping on the front door. Momentarily stupefied, I check the time on my phone. 2:39 am. The tapping pauses, then resumes again. I stand up and quickly buckle on top of my left leg, which is still asleep, then open the door a crack, fully expecting to see a crazy person staring back at me. I glimpse a guy grinning in a big sombrero, uncomfortably close to the door, and begin closing it when I hear the music.

I open the door wider, and the crazy guy is actually Ricardo, beneath a gigantic sombrero, singing quietly. I look past him and see his godfather and two friends visiting from Mexico, one of them sitting at our feet and one taking pictures, all of them laughing with us. He smiles wide, holding out an iPod on its docket.

"Your serenata, Ita bonita."

Sometime around a year ago, Ricardo tells me about the tradition of serenatas in Mexico. How a guy shows up outside the home of the girl he likes, with a mariachi band or a skillful guitarist and some of his pals, and they serenade her. If she opens the door and comes out to meet him, she returns his affection. After hearing this, I ask Ricardo, "When are you going to serenata me?" It's been a joke for awhile, that we can't be officially dating unless I've been serenaded. I remind him of it every now and then.

I can barely stand, my leg is still waking up from a dead sleep, and I'm at the top of the steps with Ricardo, in a summer nightgown with sleep-wild hair, now laughing. My sense of humor awakes more quickly than I.

"Finalmente," I laugh.

Ricardo hands me a bouquet of orange daisies and a bag of Hershey kisses. "Besitos for one month," he jokes.

I survey him, amused. "Are you drunk?"

He grins back at me in his charming way, chuckling now. "A little. You have to be to do a serenata."

Serenata music plays softly from the iPod, Ricardo is still grinning like a goofball, and no one is singing anymore. I smile, feeling a little like I'm auditioning for a modern, Mexican version of the movie, Say anything. "Why aren't you singing?" I ask. "Cantame," sing to me.

"We're a little worried for the police," Ricardo confesses. "We're not in Mexico after all."

I look across the street, thinking about the crazies that live there, the drunken bellowing at night from the guys stumbling around like cows. "I don't think you need to be too worried about that."

They begin to sing, Ricardo and I swaying to the tunes, and his godfather imitates the sound of police sirens.

Ricardo's friend takes a lot of pictures while we pose underneath the sombrero, and we dance silly, and everyone laughs, and I relish a little taste of Mexico here in Seattle.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

In the company of bears: Part II

We know they’re afraid of our presence, too, but for all our ruggedness, we’re still city girls in swimsuits and we’re trying not to wet our pants on their living room carpet. After ten minutes of deliberation, of praying and standing up on the bridge’s railing to check on the bears that we think are ambling back down the trail we walked in on, we muster some courage. Ruthie finds two rocks and bangs them together, I clap my hands as loudly as I can and yell, and we begin making our way down the trail. The further we go, the more we relax, almost enough to laugh at our pitiful performance, but there’s this reminder that we’re not alone out here.

The transition back to civilization, unlike our exit from it, is instantaneous. From pure and natural creation to cars, SUVs, power lines, perpetual noise, cell phone reception, I feel the immediate distancing from nature. Like we’re walking back through the wardrobe, from Narnia to England at war. Back to newspaper headlines: presidential campaigning, drought and famine in Africa, storms in the midwest wreaking havoc again, economic depression, revolutions and war in the Middle East. It assaults me immediately, this is our reality now.

And yet, this brief escape into creation reminds me of an even greater reality. That somehow, in the midst of all the distress and tumult of the world, another song plays daily, perhaps more loudly and more persistent. Creation shouts joyfully, unceasingly, of her beautiful Creator. Even in the chaos and tragedies of life on earth, creation continues to sing of the beauty and goodness of her Lord. Her song directs us to his wonder and majesty, his awesome power and tender care, his playfulness and artistic genius, his faithful remembering and daily presence.

We do, after all, share this home with bears.

Back in Seattle, I relish this day off at home before heading back to work tomorrow. I run around Greenlake, fast and free, kicking up dust all the way around in the partly cloudy sunshine. As I run, I think of life in the mountains, on the lake, in the vast, vast expanse of wilderness, out in the majesty of nature. How different it is here in the city.

I feel a nudge, not really, but in my heart, saying, “Pay attention.” And I look at all the people around Greenlake. The old men sitting on benches, the moms pushing strollers, the runners in all shapes and sizes, the couples holding hands, the delightful ruckus of children playing, the dogs running happy with tongues rolling out, the Indian grandpa all regal in white robe walking with his granddaughter in her pink dress and dark chocolate skin. There’s so much life here, I think.

And the one who nudged me waits, me who can be so slow to see sometimes, while the knowlege of his love lights up the dim places of my heart.

The truest beauty in God’s eyes is not in the rugged mountains or the wild waters, the green forests or the crystaline deserts. It’s not out “there,” secluded from all this madness of humanity. It’s here, it’s us. We are his most beautiful creation. What we see as ugly, messy, unfinished, tragic, chaotic, he plops down in the midst of and sees beauty. The mountains and rivers were not made in the image of God; we are. And he, transfiguring into our flesh and bones, coming to sit with us in our mess and offer a way out of emptiness, is the real beauty.

Now if we can only learn to sing joy songs with the rest of creation, what a beautiful sound that will be.

Monday, August 15, 2011

In the company of bears: Part I

It’s mid August, and Ruthie and Naphtali and I are fleeing town in a big ol’ Subarban. Patty, the Subarban, wears a metal canoe and bumblebee yellow kayak on top like a tight party hat. Inside, we’ve got gear for five days of camping. This is our third year, so we’ve got it down to an art. Bliss.

Traveling to the mountains, it’s a gradual transformation from civilization to wilderness. The bustling city of Seattle behind us, a stretch of interstate before us, we turn off one highway onto another, and now the landscape changes to bigger lots and fields, fewer restaurants and shops, bigger sky. Another thirty minutes, and all we see from our windows is green pasture, farmhouses, cows and goats grazing, signs advertising berries and fresh produce for sale, creeks running swiftly beneath wooden bridges. And then, we’re swallowed in mountains. Snaking alongside Lake Diablo, lost again in its jeweled green, hypnotic beauty.

It’s perhaps as close to paradise as I’ve been. Nothing for transportation but self-powered canoes and kayaks in clear waters, mountains jut snow-peaked and majestic, stately and awe-inspiring, on either side of us, cradling us in the lake below. We’re sojourners, settling one night here and one night there, sometimes with other humans in sight and sometimes not.

Out here, fashion doesn’t matter. We wear the same thing for four days straight without showers, without mirrors. Money is almost useless in the wilderness, with the exception of our portage fare from the bottom of Ross Lake dam to the top. No cars, no cell phones, no towers or power lines, no running water, no internet or social networking, no television or redbox or music.

On the vast expanse of lake, stretching up into Canada, it’s almost eerily quiet. It takes awhile for my ears to tune into the music of the mountain wilderness. And when they do, I’m overtaken with peace and gratitude and wonder and this feeling of smallness. The song of creation. It takes my breath away. It’s the tune of the wind dancing up high in the tall, tall trees. It’s the melody of the water lapping, the waterfalls crashing, the waves breaking. It’s the high pitch of the chipmunk’s call, the tweet of the common birds dipping and playing, the crackle of fire at twilight, the gentle whoosh of breeze tunneling through the forests.

There’s a sense of reverence and vulnerability out here. We pack in and pack out, trying to leave no trail of our presence behind, staying overnight in the home of the creatures who dwell here, trying not to cross them. On a short hike nearby camp, Ruthie and I hear a crackle of branches off to the right, and she stops. “What is it?” I ask.

“A bear.” She says it as nonchalantly as she can, but I feel the tension in her voice. I look to the right and, sure enough, I see a little black cub staring back at me from a stone’s throw away in the woods. We walk quickly up a nearby bridge; underneath us the icy waters of glacier run-off flow into rapids. Mama bear’s got to be close behind her cub. Bears in paradise.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mas recuerdos bonitos

Learning to cook Paella with Don Pancho, "El Chef"

Traditional Paella
Paella, "Amber style"

We discover Pancho is also ticklish

Ganging up on Pancho - in love, of course

And more abrazos

Admiring the boat parade at the Locks

Adults that still know how to tap into their inner child

Like sister and brother, so cute

Uncle Ricardo and his beloved Yashir

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Standing among an assortment of eight carry-on bags at the airport, after over an hour of redistribution of belongings among all the luggage, Ricardo's mom, Betty, looks at me with some relief and amusement. Yashir finishes clipping a camera around her waist, and she shoulders several more bags.

"Recuerde que esta manana -" she pauses, bending forward at the waist and releasing a laugh in demonstration - "Y se rien." Remember this tomorrow, and laugh. A smile spreads across her face, lighting her eyes. "Soy como un arbol de Navidad," she says wryly. I'm like a Christmas tree.

We both break into laughter.

And I wake up this morning with that memory, smiling.

I remember saying goodbye, the tears we shared freely. The ones Ricardo held back. I remember the mixture of joy and sadness.

I remember Yashir's arms clinging around my neck, his tears and "te quiero," I love you, returning my own.

I remember Pancho and Betty each standing in front of Ricardo, crossing him and giving him a parting blessing in the tradition of Catholics; proud parents, filled with love. I remember Pancho turning to me and asking if he could bless me, too, his eyes moist, his prayers in Spanish.

I remember Pancho whispering "te quiero" in my ear and the moments before I could find my voice to speak it in return.

I remember my conversation with Betty in Spanish on our car ride to the airport, thanking each other for the time together, the special memories.

I remember hugging Dafne goodbye, Ricardo's beautiful cousin, and feeling for her the love of a big sister, receiving her love in return.

Mis recuerdos. My memories. I cherish these, and many others, as I start this day.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The bubble in my hand

More often than not, as a writer, I inhabit quiet, unspoken moments. Somehow, many words may never make it out of my mouth in conversation, but they find their voice in written form. Within these moments are those rarer, held in my hand with wonder and care like a translucent bubble. To speak, I feel, may pop it, as if this were a common moment inserted into passing conversation, easily blown upon and replaced with another moment. To write it, however, may preserve it, prolong enjoyment, even honor its memory when it has passed.

As I write today, I feel I hold one of those bubbles in my hand, peer through, yearn to merge with its beauty. Memories of the past few days with family not my own, but somehow, still family.

In the kitchen, where life and love and conversation mingle, I stand with Pancho, Ricardo's dad. Conversing in Spanish, in gestures, and then, in a language of the heart, passing from one to the next with surprising ease. Pancho is talking about how much he loves his family, how close they are, and because of that, how much he misses Ricardo. He pauses, head cocking to the side and tilting upward, eyes closed, waiting as the tears suppress the words.

My own tongue chokes on my words, but I touch his shoulders, look him in the eyes, and the words eventually tumble out, "Yo entiendo, Pancho. Extrano mucho mi Papa, tambien." I understand, Pancho. I miss my Papa, too. Now I'm the one who looks away, wondering why I'm crying with this man, this father I barely know, and then I feel his arms wrapping around me and our tears on each other's cheeks. And I bury my face in his shoulder, savoring for this moment the embrace of a father once more, and the sharing of our hearts without words.

We stand back and smile, then laughter spills out as a joke passes between us. He grabs his glass of beer and I grab my wine and he says, "Salud!" And no more words are needed. I hold the bubble and see through; this moment received, an iridescent gift of love. Though my heart speaks volumes, I dare not clutter the air.

Friday, August 5, 2011

When life is dessert

Life tasted like dessert every day this week. When it's not the usual fare, I tend to appreciate it more, knowing I won't dine on this every day. But today, this day, I eat dessert.

Monday, early evening, I biked to the Ballard Locks and ran across, ducking through the masses who came to watch the ships and salmon pass through. I relished the trail run through Discovery Park, the sun beating down on me, my sweat tempered by the breeze, the water sparkling like diamonds, the sun casting shadows through tall trees on my ascent up from the lighthouse beach to the bluffs, the tiredness of legs allowed to run again.

Tuesday afternoon and evening, I chauffeured Ricardo's family to the beach at Golden Gardens, picnic dinner in hand. For hours, we kicked a soccer ball, splashed in cold waves, skipped rocks, dug holes in the sand, ate sopa (soup) and ensalada (salad), and consulted my Spanish-English dictionary when needed in conversation. When the air grew chilly and the crowds thickened, we packed up our picnic, with our windblown hair, and said goodnight to the beach.

Wednesday afternoon, I met up with a friend at Greenlake, and with rented paddle boards, glided through the waters. From one end of the lake to the other. Much to our delight, we successfully located the area around the lake that is home to a hoard of turtles, where we admired them from a distance, alongside the elegant, gangly blue heron.

Thursday evening, I felt a rush of motivation to do some triathlon training, minus the biking. I ran myself tired and sweaty around Greenlake, then shed my clothes down to my bathing suit and plunged into the water. Perfect temperature in the water, I caught it, right before the sun disappeared. I swam hard, only my second swim of the year, and made it about half a mile, tired and grinning contentment as I sloshed out of the lake.

A customer commented today that this has been an amazing day for him. "So good, in fact, it makes me nervous. Things should not go this smoothly, and I'm just waiting for something to mess it up."

It can be a challenge not to live this way, I think. "I get that," I said. "But maybe you could just... enjoy it? As long as it lasts, eat it up."

He nodded slowly, "Yeah. I should try that."

Because life isn't dessert every day, but when it is, eat it up, nice and slow. And make sure to smear chocolate across your face.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Water in the desert

Many of us have heard a story similar to this imaginary scenario: In heaven, having an honest conversation with God, we ask him, "Why did you allow so much suffering in the world?" God pauses, answering without the slightest trace of sarcasm, looks us in the eyes: "I could ask you the same thing."

Obviously, we're not God. Not even close. But we're not helpless, either. While many problems of suffering cannot be fixed or quickly alleviated, we can often still do something. For every problem? we ask, incredulously. Sometimes the problems in our own lives, the ones in our own homes, are overwhelming enough that it's hard to look out beyond our front door. And when we do, we're literally bombarded with tragedies of human suffering, animal suffering, suffering of all creation. We shake our heads, eyes beginning to glaze over, But what can we do that will make a dent in all this...?

I know. Because I've been there, lived there, and still visit there, time and time again. Opening the door to the suffering of others and then, upon seeing the magnitude, eventually shutting it again to catch my breath. When I catch myself feeling fatigued by suffering, I have to remind myself: "I can't fix this. But something is better than nothing." Whether that something be money given, resources shared, my time offered as a gift, writing a story to raise awareness, or offering prayers (which I always have to give), more often than not, I have a little something I can give. Not to every single problem, but to the ones that I open my heart to.

From that perspective, when I think of the drought and resulting famine spreading through east Africa, I know I have something to give. Several gifts, actually. They may be small, but they are something. Just a drop of water in the desert. And when I think of hundreds of us giving our little drops of water together, what we have is a lot of water for a lot of thirsty people. Imagine that. It's nothing to scoff at.

My encouragement is this: Let's not dismiss our little gifts or despise our small beginnings. Even just one life spared is infinitely worth the effort of giving. And who knows, but that God may be waiting for us to bring him our little offerings so he can multiply them.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


The child's face haunted me while I ate. Peering back at me through vacuous, paper eyes, imploring me to care, I shifted uncomfortably in my plush seat in the break room at work while trying to eat my lunch. I forced myself to eat, as I forced myself not to turn the face aside. I picked up the front page of today's paper and read, transfixed by those eyes, by the faces, by the taut dark skin pulled across skeletal frames. Famine in Somalia, again.

The worst famine in over 60 years, the paper stated, but I remember a horrible famine when I was a child. Images of children, neighbors of Somalia, in Ethiopia. Starvation looks the same, regardless of location. But surely, in the desert, it's even more ferocious. More urgent.

And then, I remember a documentary of a famous war photographer in one of my grad school courses. He compassionately, courageously, sensitively, captured starvation among people in the Horn of Africa. I went home late that night after class and stayed up crying, unable to erase those faces and living skeletons from my memory.

What to say when it's so uncomfortable to speak it, to even hear it? What to say when the guilt eats us as the food slips down into our well-fed stomachs? What to say when the faces are so far away, in a foreign place, so real and unreal at the same time? What to say when hands feel tied, though wallets perhaps can open and money can flow, as inadequate as that may seem?

Guilt will feed no one. But I can give. And I can listen to the stories and not turn my eyes away from the faces. And I can pray. And I can thank God profusely for every morsel of food that nourishes my body.