Wednesday, February 27, 2013

When friendship nourishes the soul

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Be welcome.  Be warm.  Be at home.  These are the words hanging just outside her red door in the hallway.  We step in and I'm greeted with a trickling fountain of colored pebbles, with golden swirl walls and candles and light fixtures dancing crystal shadows on ceilings.  She offers me her slippers, at least three sizes too small, knowing how my feet are cold, always cold, and instead fetches fuzzy socks to pull on over my own.  

I roam the living room, with the altar in the corner holding Buddha and candles and photos of loved ones passed, her daughter's tiny magical room tucked behind an Asian print screen, the emerald bathroom, and her bedroom with the garnet walls.  All at once I feel I'm in a garden enclosed, inside an antique painting, or nestled in the kitchen of a neighbor back in the days when neighbors sat together and drank tea and ate pie fresh from the oven.

"Please, sit," she gestures to the high wooden table and chairs, while she puts a pot of water on the stove to boil rice noodles. 

"I'd rather stand here and learn," I say, and she smiles gracious and offers me tea, knowing I won't leave her side.

We share small details of our lives as she cooks vermicelli, pulling rice noodles from boiling water as we would taffy.  She shaves thin slices of sirloin with a butcher knife, places them in a red heap in a bowl with mushroom powder and flour, sesame oil and teriyaki, salt, sugar and ground black pepper on top.  She talks of her mom, still running a successful shop of hand knit clothing in Vietnam, and leans into the knife with ease.  And I watch her, like her mama, raising a daughter and working tirelessly through the week sewing exquisite costumes for the ballet company, and coming home to prepare dinner fresh, and here she is, cooking for me. 

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We talk of our men, and she is running huge leafy bunches of mint under cool water, tearing off a sprig for me to taste, wondering if I like it.  My senses come alive, the mint and "spicy" mint and lemony perilla leaves, the fish sauce and rice vinegar and red chilies, the mushroom powder and sesame oil, the garlic simmering in the frying pan, and I relax into conversation. 

She heaps noodles on top of a bed of greens, spoons succulent beef and pours broth to cover, garnishes with peanuts I ground in the mortar dish.  I insist I can't eat it all, but after one bite, my chopsticks refuse to stop and I savor every morsel to the end.  

Her daughter is all giggles, as second grade girls often are, and my friend smiles patiently, her eyes catching mine in a shrug, and I'm all delight here at this table.

They reach for lychee fresh in a bowl, and I peel one open, pop it in my mouth with hesitation.  "It's... different," I grin, "Reminds me of a fruit and a nut in a shrimp's body."  She laughs in surprise, wondering aloud that anyone could not love lychee. "Maybe it will grow on me," I say, and try another bite with the same affect.  "On second thought, I'll stick with mango." 

We're stuffed and happy, and we sit on the sofa against pillows, and we speak now of the hard things.  Of commitment and marriage and love, and we feel the gentle tension in how our experiences are so far apart in this season, and I see the love in wrinkles of concern above her brow.  On that sofa, I'm not planning a graceful escape home, the way I feared I might, and this surprises me.  How much time can pass between visits, how different cultures and languages and faith shape our stories, and here we are in sweet friendship.  And this, too, is a garden and a painting and a fountain, a cup of tea and cozy socks and sweater wrapped tight on a cold winter evening.

Linking up this week with Heather for Just Write and Emily with Imperfect Prose, where the prompt is "Food." 

Monday, February 25, 2013


I chose my word for the year as a 'should,' a way of scripting for myself what this next year will hold and distancing myself from the year before.  So I chose joy. 

I think I wanted to believe that joy could be chosen, the way gratitude is dug out from the landscape of each day or the way a flower is plucked from a field.  If my circumstances aren't going to change, I reasoned, I'll find a way to live above them - in joy.  It's a message I've heard often, and I'm not arguing it here as much as wondering if there's not more to it than this.  More to it than "choosing" joy.  

For a long time, I've earmarked those ancient words in the Psalms, the ones that say "weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning."  They drip with hope, no?  But the way I've understood them has also been a weight around my heart.  

What about when the night shows no sign of surrendering to daylight? What about when the morning comes accompanied, not with joy, but with double-lidded eyes and a sorrow hangover from the restless night before? 

I wrestle with my soul, and in the end, I know.  I am not the one who changes seasons.  Positive or 'faith-filled' thinking does not turn the night to day or call forth the morning, only turns a light on in the darkness.  

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I can no more fabricate joy than I can cover a burn with a bandage and call it new skin.

I came across these beautiful words a few days ago, and my insides leapt in recognition and all my 'shoulds' dropped to the floor:

"There is a time when ashes give way to beauty, but before we hold that in our hand and call our cup overflowing, I believe we must fully mourn what has been consumed by the ash... And I know, now, the way you know something whether anyone ever agrees with you or not, that joy is not what lasts.  Joy is nice and sunshine is good.  But it is not eternal. What remains, what has always remained, like those arms that hold us in everlast, is love."

I knew, right then, that my word from the start, the one I didn't want to speak because it seemed too cliche and overdone, is love.  Only love. 

Love that holds us in the mourning, in the emptying.  Love that kneels with us in the smoldering ashLove that heals.  Love that binds up wounds. Love that turns the seasons, stays awake through the night and rises the sun in the morning.  Love that fills and spills over the sides of the cup.  Love that clothes in a new garment, the one of joy, when the time has come, and beckons, Come, take a walk with me

Give me love, I cry, and this will be my bread and water come night or day.   And I will wait, for the new, unscripted song to rise

 [Closing with one of my favorite songs from 2012, still singing into 2013...]

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Just Write: Drum beat

He moved us to the beat of his drum, and so for us, that took us from Phoenix to Portland; from Portland to Richland; from Richland to St. Helens; from St. Helens back to Portland, where we landed when I was fifteen.  I joked that military kids weren't so different from us pastor kids, what with all the moving about.  And so I learned to say goodbye, and how to say hello with one eye open. 

I learned to make friends but not need anyone.  

I fancied myself a gypsy sort, a free spirit in the wind, a kite whose strings could not be fastened to the earth.  I knew no Place as home.

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Except, the day after Christmas when we moved from Richland, I closed my eyes to file every nook and cranny of the town and neighborhood, every spot that held a memory in its chest, and I vowed to remember.   

The tire swing hanging from our Sycamore tree.  My bedroom overlooking the Strickland home where I'd spent hours playing and performing theater productions in the living room window with my two friends.  The basketball hoop over the garage where Papa and I practiced H-O-R-S-E.  The public pool where I continued my transformation from girl to mermaid, the one that began in Phoenix before I could walk.  The library where I hauled mounds of books to and fro with Mom.  The bike path that led our family on adventures and sometimes to Baskin Robbins for my grape ice cream.  Jefferson Elementary School where I left new friends and a fifth grade teacher I adored and a pet hamster named Gorgeous.  Carmichael Hill where we sped down snow on plastic discs in the winter, our legs locking to form a train.  The grassy green island down the street from us with the best climbing trees around.  My very best friend in all the world.  

Of all places I'd lived, this was the closest to home.  For months after moving, I would go to sleep at night retracing this map in my head, with eyes closed, and my heart ached.  I didn't want to feel this again.  And so I didn't.  

Even when I moved from Portland to Seattle, and neighborhood-bounced around the city, I still moved to the beat of his drum.  And when he followed me here, with Mom, and then his drum ceased to beat and I shuffled around with no music at all, it took me while.  To believe that his heartbeat in me was enough, that I didn't need to march to the beat of a drum I never chose for myself.  A beat that held captive even him. 

I could stop running in search of a new rhythm.  I could begin, here, to cast a net from my heart and set an anchor in the waters.  

And I'm still marching that old beat out of my heart, the one that says that nothing lasts, not even friendships.  That it's safer not to need, better not to depend on anyone.  The one with restless legs and a hunger for adventure that is not here.  The one that holds in stories deemed mundane and cries alone and fears the pain of a love that ruins.  

In the quiet now of several years, I'm learning to listen for the beat that is my own.  The one that opens me wide to courage.  

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Linking up with Heather and the community at Just Write for another Tuesday free write. 


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Five-Minute Friday: Beloved

I'd be lying if I said my first thought when I see them, when I smell them, when I hear them, is most often Beloved.  

The man who stands several feet from the counter when he places his order for coffee, eyes cast down, as if he's aware of his own urine stench.  

The tall, lanky one who walks atop his old tennis shoes, like maybe they're too small, and wears his brown and green polyester comforter around his neck at all times, asking for one and then two and usually five cups of hot water a day.  He doesn't even know his age, or where his family are, or what day of the week it is, but we know his name.  

The ones who sit up at a corner table, passing the day in conversation, clipping nails, pillaging food, cracking jokes that sometimes offend. 

The one with the fedora hat that strolls in, nonchalant, and leaves with several bags of groceries he didn't pay for, while my blood boils.  

The one-legged man, who stripped naked in his wheelchair and wheeled through the store, leaving a trail of cigarette smoke in his wake.  The same one who has a reputation for this - and launching himself face first out of his chair to incur injuries - who the police tire of hauling off to jail so he can have a few meals before hitting the streets again. 

When other words, like nuisance or dirty or thief, I'm ashamed to admit, pop into my mind, sometimes I feel a tap on my shoulder and no one is there -- but my soul turns around.  Because he is calling.  And he calls them Beloved

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And I stand there in my own stench, begging to be scrubbed clean through my heart.  Prying eyes open to see beyond skin and smell and clothes (or lack of), beyond language and stature and behavior.  Stripped down to nothing, we are so much more.  They are, you are, I am, first and foremost, Beloved.

Linking up with Lisa-Jo and the community of Five-Minute Friday writers.  The prompt this week is "Beloved." 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Just Write: Human paint splatters

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Some days at work, my head spins with all the colors of personalities splattered or brush-stroked like paint on the canvas of our coffee kiosk, inside this grocery store. 

Her this morning, one of my favorites, telling us with excitement how her mothers' support group was interviewed by NPR recently - all five couples of women - and how she and her partner have met with this group for over thirty years.  This month, these two women celebrate thirty-five years of committed love, and in a world of fractured relationships, I marvel at this.  Of having weathered decades as mothers together, raising two boys, and this is no small feat.  

And it was him.  So small in his wheelchair on the other side of the counter, one leg missing and the other with a bare foot dangling beneath a ratty red pant leg.  His face covered with day-old scabs, almost fresh. He sat off to the side drinking his coffee, and before we knew it, he'd left a pile of his clothes on the floor in a stench of urine.  I glanced to my left just in time to see his exposed back, wheeling down the aisle with nothing but the chair to cover him, puffing on a cigarette and our manager racing through the store to find him.

Not to mention the her of yesterday, wheeling to the counter and leaning in to hiss, "Turn on the fireplace!" And I apologized, explained that the fireplace is more decorative than useful, to which she blinked and replied, "Honey, fake it.  You know, like when you first get married."  And so I went to the fireplace and turned some knobs and felt for heat that didn't emit, returned to her and said, "Behold, your roaring fire."

It's here, in the gray days of Seattle's winter, that I savor the lines etched, the colors splashed, and how I, on the easel, do gradually transform.  

Linking up these free-flowing thoughts with Heather at Just Write today. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Threads of a life

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We like our huevitos on Sunday mornings, scrambled with onion and serrano and crispy tortilla strips.  Tapatio is a staple in our spice cupboard, suitable for nearly any savory dish, but especially over popcorn.  In our refrigerator is a tupperware holding pickled jalapeno and onion and I drizzle the spicy brine over rice and eggs and quesadillas.  I've never eaten so many tortillas or consumed so many limes in my life as I have in the past nine months.  After less than a year our Ninja blender, thanks to Ricardo's introducing me to fresh fruit water and pureed soups, looks like a windowpane one fatal blow of a ninja's hand away from shattering.

In our 'dining room' rests a humming color copy machine, a computer print station, a scanner stacked on top of metal files of colored paper, a sleek black desk, and a laminator (stashed most often in the kitchen).  Our one living room sofa came from the front lawn of our apartment complex, right before our fourth month anniversary.  Prior to that, we sat on the red bench that Ricardo upholstered before we met, the one with the wooden legs like chocolate shaved down with the teeth of our puppy, back in the early months of dating.

We've discovered a few haunts over the years, ones that carry a whiff of home.  There's Frankie's pizza, where we dined on Valentine's day last year before bouncing around at Sky High, a pair of thirty-something ten-year olds (with creaky knees and stiff backs).  And Luna Park Cafe, where I had my first taste of burger in almost two years, in the early months of marriage when we frequented the turquoise vinyl booths with my crutches and tangerine cast, and we ate every single crunchy fry on our plates dipped in Aardvark-Ketchup cocktail sauce.  Let's not forget our beloved Pho Tai in Bellevue, the site of our Christmas Eve dinner two years ago.  And we've got all the Mexican tiendas mapped out from Kent to Everett, for those moments of churro maiz cravings.  We know the shops with the best homemade tortilla chips, fried pork skins (for Ricardo), or pan dulce, and each time we walk in, I grin like I did at the paleta trucks in Mexico so many years ago.
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Our favorite spot to stroll hand-in-hand is the off-leash dog park at Marymoor.  We step inside and  it's part sanctuary, part circus, and we walk in peaceful hush interjected with unbridled laughter.  We snap action photos of dogs leaping into cold water to retrieve balls and smile huge at the little ones chasing the big ones through the dirt paths and whisper-giggle at the blurred lines between parents and pet owners here in Seattle.  We step through the wooden gate to a low plank bridge snaking through swamp, listen for the bird calls, and reach the end where we stare transfixed across the pond to a heron in the rushes, the ducks skimming the water in formation. 

I know the only brand of yogurt he'll eat, the bread he craves for his tortas or with a bowl of soup, how dishes in the sink weigh him down when he walks into the kitchen in the morning, the way he fidgets at night or plays games on his phone when he can't sleep, how he can crack a joke almost as soon as he wakes up and his groggy chuckle lights my tired eyes. 

These are the things so often forgotten as a shared history is emerging, as a new life is woven into a work of art.  In the knitting together of strands, the pieces merge to showcase the work-in-progress, and it's easy to forget each color woven separate.  Sometimes, it's good to pause and remember, the beauty of the tiny threads.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Five-Minute Friday: Bare

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I collect bare ones, as one collects precious stones or shells in the sand.  The ones that have weathered the pounding of waves and the grind of salt, smooth on the belly with jagged edges and gleam of pearl.

I am a bare soul, hunting for others with whom to share bareness, to feel each others' jagged edges and smooth underbellies and marvel at the buffing that reveals beauty.

In a world that glorifies strength and defines success as covering up in power suits and tells the stories of those who haven't broken, it is hard to be bare.  Harder, still, to find the bare ones.  For I love the broken, the jagged edges, the incomplete, the gritty surface with the smooth underbelly, the shell worn down to pearl. I cheer the ones who have the courage to break, not knowing how the pieces will be reassembled but hoping against hope that they will. 

As a writer, it is easy for me to be bare.  In person, however, I feel shyness tug at my skin and I reach for covering, something prettier than this nothingness that reveals all.  And I wonder why it's not a clear translation, from written word to spoken word, walking as a bare soul beneath another's gaze. 

But this I know: the more I write the bare-skinned story, the more I live into it.  Until the day when what I write and what I live are but one story, and I no longer shrink from the gaze of ones who have not yet shed their own clothes.

Joining Lisa-Jo today and the writers at Five-Minute Friday, for the prompt of "Bare."  

Friday, February 1, 2013

Five-Minute Friday: Afraid
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In my twenties, my biggest fear was compromise, but not in the way that it sounds.  I feared living a compromised life, one that reeked of settling for less than who I believed I was capable of being.  So, I prayed lots of anguished prayers for direction and wisdom, for trust and faith and strength to carry out my purpose in this life, and then I did my best to wait.  But waiting has never been a natural gift I've possessed, and so I also did a lot of digging and planning and reaching for those faraway places of my destiny as I understood it.  For almost a decade, my faraway sights were set on Africa, and I did the dance of trust and impatience trying to help God get me there.

And then, on the crest of the wave I thought would carry me there - or at least miles further in - I fell off the board into the raging surf.  My Papa died, my lofty post-graduate school plans disintegrated, my priorities shifted like the earth's plates, and all those plans and dreams and identities disappeared deep in the ocean.  I plunged, head first, into the fears that lurked for all those years.

Compromise.  Failure.  Death of someone I loved most of all. Loss of dreams, of confidence, of a sense of direction, of who I believed I was and how I'd defined my worth for years.  Abandonment.  The end of a relationship that, at the time, I believed would lead to marriage.  

Loss of God as I knew him.  

I didn't know then, falling into my fears was grace.  That I thought I would drown in this sea of fears and sorrow - and I didn't.  That paddling out in that wild, raging ocean forced me to face what had been driving me forward, relentless and exhausted all these years, unable to stop and look at myself in the mirror as I was and call it good, the way God did.  That to stay afloat I had to strip down to the bare skin of my soul clinging to him, nothing else, and find that this was all I ever needed.

And yes, fear can cripple the soul and rob the living.  But I found, too, that tumbling into fear can expose the truth and cleanse the cobwebs and shake off the things that weigh heavy.  To free the hands from grasping at anything other than real life - because when you're paddling in the water, you need those hands open.

It's funny, now, how I'm a barista and a writer and the wife of a man I'd never imagined myself with - not in Africa, but here in Seattle - and none of these things make up who I really am.  All because of that headlong plunge into fear and the God who gripped me in the waters and whispered fierce love.

I'll never fail you.

. . . . . . . . . . . 

Linking up with Lisa-Jo for another Five-Minute Friday post.