In town the sky is grotesquely cloudless, the sun shimmering like a pool of heat you could drown in. We spend the morning consulting the camping checklist circa 2009 (which lists stuffed animals now obsolete and beer, twice). We rattle up through the dusty pine-oak belt, through the aspens reflecting sunlight like a thousand fractured mirrors, and into the cool, spruce-fir zone, which only Southwesterners could appreciate as green and lush. And we do.
We’ve been here before, every year to be precise. And when Rose hears of our destination she pumps her fist in the air as if she’s just won something, something like a weekend with her family in the mountains.
By afternoon camp is set up, and we’re like caricatures of our own predictable selves: the tarp’s tied to the usual trees, tents occupy familiar ground, spotting scope is set in time-tested elk-viewing location, beers are cracked and Dan sings about how the elk, who’ve just meandered out into the open slopes—the very slopes we’ve been watching them on for two decades—are “so traditional.”
The ultimate elk-viewing scenario.The elk have recently calved and their troop of spotted children frolic and nurse and slip on snow patches. Watching them makes us all feel like nostalgic grandmothers.
We too, are so traditional. Being here is like being inside my own deja vu, while also watching it from a thousand different incarnations that have already come and gone. (In fact, I’m certain I’ve written this very post before. Oy. Apologies.). Rose emerges from her tent in new aerobics instructor outfits while Col looks like an escapee from Woodstock. Col and Rose argue over camp chair placement and then he begs her to accompany him on a spruce sap-finding mission. I want to start a hundred conversations with Dan, but we circle around the same topic for three days. “I’m so happy to be here,” I say. “I know,” he answers. “Can you believe this place?”
Rose goes off on a 5.3 minute solo hike and comes back to report breathlessly on all the wildflowers she ate. “Bluebells and red columbines and the yellow banana ones.”
We take a hike, Dan-style, trail-less and ascending the steepest path to avoid disturbing the elk (who’ve conveniently bedded down in the gentler path). It’s time, Dan announces, to discover where that waterfall we gaze at from camp—the vertical one—starts.
Rose’s journal: “It was the hardest hike I dune.” But, we did have “turke raps” at the top.
We return to camp and install ourselves under the shade tarp. We play scrabble, guzzle icy spring water, read a billion chapters of the Lightning Thief, pass around two bags of chips and stick limbs out into the sun to test its strength. That feeling that I have so often, that time is breathing menacingly down my neck, evaporates. Instead, the hours stretch and pool luxuriously around us.
The solstice sun sinks into the western trees. The kids are at the fire, Col tending flaming sap in a sawed-off beer can and Rose chattering cheerfully, as if she’s a new English language speaker, thrilled just to practice. Whatever agenda I may hold for this time together doesn’t matter. Something bigger and out of my control is happening.
This place is imprinting on the kids.
By evening, swarms of insects are backlit by the falling sun. One second later, swallows are deployed to nab dinner on the wing. A thousand robins wake us each morning, no doubt descendants of the robins who’ve woken us every year before. That waterfall, ever-visible from camp, is now on our mental map, the absurdity and the triumph of having scaled it an eternal family footnote. Col puts down his book to watch a goshawk turn breathtaking circles over the forest.
I can’t quantify this knowledge, these experiences, the enthusiasm with which Rose greets a red columbine, eager to suck the nectar from an elegant, red spur. There will be no “local bird identification” section on the SAT; no colleges looking for students who can scrap together a salad from the forest.
But this education, this spending time in nature feels foundational. It’s a force, an entity, a benefactor shaping our lives, offering us a roadmap to what’s valuable. It’s imprinting truths on all of us: there is enough time, paths may be trail-less, there is value in being traditional, trust the questions, drink the spring water, your sibling can be your best friend, the earth overflows with miracles that require only our attention.
We’re driving up to the mountains. I’m aardvarking up the last dregs of an iced mocha, determined to extract any remaining particles of caffeine and sugar. Rose is sighing heavily between interrogating us on the exact plans. She seems to be mistaking innocuous words like “hike” and “picnic” for something sinister. “So, we’re gonna hike? How far? What’s in this picnic?” Heavy sigh. Col has fortressed himself behind the fifth book in the Heroes of Olympus series and is utterly unreachable.
And it’s my birthday. I’ve requested that we take a short hike up to a mountain spring, have a campfire and picnic dinner. The kids are miserable about this plan. They want to know if we can leave them with friends, if we can skip the actual hike, if we can eat in view of the car.
I understand this. Truly I do. My kids love being outside, they love exploring and playing and tinkering in nature. They don’t love hiking. It doesn’t feel playful or fun. They could exert 500X more energy on the trampoline/soccer field and hardly notice, but a 1/4 mile walk can feel like I’m dragging them uphill naked through the thistles. Plus, it’s always suspiciously our idea.
Dan and I get many needs met through hiking: connection, exercise, meaning, relaxation, learning, participation in the beauty, harmony and order of nature. The kids? They want fun! Play! Laughter! They get nervous about the unknown: how far are we going? How hard will the hiking be? How hot? How cold? Mosquitos!
And yet, after approximately 103 hikes with these kids, we’ve noticed something. The kids always eventually have fun. If we can help them release their fears and judgments they can relax and come alive in their wild world.
How to take a hike with aggrieved kids
- Don’t take it personally. People’s behavior always says more about them then you. The fact that my kids are not on board with my birthday plan does not mean they don’t appreciate me, or don’t see the importance of celebrating this day.
- Don’t catastrophize. Because my kids
aren’t excited aboutwould rather clean the toilet than go hiking doesn’t mean that they’ll turn out to be nature-phobic adults who hysterically call exterminators when an insect crawls across their kitchen.
- Look for feelings and needs and empathize. “I know hiking doesn’t sound fun. It sounds hard and long. You don’t like all the unknown. You wish you had more choice in our activity. I can totally understand that.”
- Offer information. “This is the plan I’ve chosen my birthday. It means so much to me to be in the woods with all of you. There will be chocolate.”
- Remember kids may be acting childish because they’re children. If your child is showing her displeasure in an immature way, it’s likely because she is a child. Maybe she fears she won’t be heard unless she whines, threatens and criticizes. Try not to make the whining or criticism the problem (It has more to do with her immature pre-frontal cortex than any true disrespect of you, see #1). Use every opportunity to model the way you want to be spoken to and treated.
- Employ self empathy. If you can identify and take ownership for your feelings, you are less likely to get stuck in blame and judgment of others. As we were hiking on my birthday and the kids were drooping and complaining, I felt frustrated and disappointed. When I gave myself care for that, I stayed out of judgment of their actions.
The hike is entirely uphill and requires a lot of stopping, literal hand-holding, and goofy hijinks to keep moods elevated. I spend much time running through steps 1-6 while practicing my childbirth breathing. As we climb higher, the views open up onto neighboring peaks. Wildflowers pop into focus and aspens sway in the wind. We arrive at the spring a full hour later. The kids immediately shed shoes and pants and get down to business. Rose cartwheels around the small pond, singing a medley of Taylor Swift songs, while Col gathers materials to build a dam.
Dan makes a fire, pulls out a surprise birthday beer, and grills a gorgeous deer backstrap studded with chopped garlic. The kids discover caddisfly pupae encased in DIY shells. They create a target practice course, nailing sticks with propelled rocks. Dan and I take in the moment, the shimmery aspens, the elk tracks crowding the pond, and the kids, happy and engaged. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Dan says, “if tonight, as we’re tucking the kids in, they tell us that they were actually glad they came.”
We pull the kids from their target practice course to eat dinner. We all exclaim over the perfection of the meat, crisp on the outside and tooth-tender rare on the inside. The sun slides west, mingling with the aspen canopy. Swallows dip and dive. With meaty juices painting her chin, Rose announces, “I’m actually glad we came here.” Col nods. “Yeah. Me too. It was a hard hike, but I can’t really remember that anymore.”
Dan and I smile at each other. There’s a lot of things I could say, some of which involve cussing. I discard the told-you-so, the mini lecture, the if-only, and say, “I’m really happy to be here with you all. This is exactly what I wanted.” And it’s exactly true.
It’s Saturday morning and Dan and I are drinking coffee and playing Scrabble while the kids are on the couch, reading. When I ask them to please wash their breakfast dishes, they shuffle to the sink, minds sealed off against the interloping world, lasered onto their respective books. (Col recently came out of the fog of reading to ask, “is it raining?” Meanwhile, our house had been carried off down the street in a 3-day deluge).
It’s like a fantasy novel I might have written five years ago, “Angels visited the house and the children began reading and washing dishes.” Dan no longer needs to sing his version of Twisted Sister’s,“We’re not gonna take it” when confronted with the rising tide of dishes in the sink. (Although, he still does, out of habit. And, to be perfectly honest, dish-washing is an emerging skill. I say this to you warningly, lest you’re at our house eating off a mangy plate).
Later, the kids are roused off the couch to watch YouTube videos with me. They introduce me to Taylor Swift (catchy!) and I introduce them to the decades of music they’ve missed. We play Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime and the kids are fascinated with David Byrne, the antithesis of their flashy, dancing, sculpted young ladies.
And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful
wife. And you may ask yourself-Well…How did I get here?
Last month I taught my last class for Col’s homeschool co-op. This group of four children who five years ago named themselves “The Fertile Ground Life Learners,” and decided that way in the future when they were like fourteen they’d be hitting the road together and…what exactly was their plan? Riding bikes to Utah to protest climate change? Hitchhiking around the country and serving Swedish pancakes baked in a solar oven?
Fertile Ground Life Learners, first class 2011
Fertile Ground Life Learners, last class 2016
Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
We’ve had so many endings already. It’s like the theme song of childhood, the soundtrack that plays predictably as you weep over old board books and the creepy baby teeth staring at you from a small dish on your bookshelf. (No joke. Why am I saving these?)
Parenthood is like going through your file cabinets every few years and realizing that half the documents are irrelevant. Wait – when did they stop needing the bedtime lullaby?
Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/in the silent water
Under the rocks and stones/there is water underground.
These children are the daily reminder that everything is in flux, that signing on the dotted line of parenthood is like entering the Get With the Warp Speed Program of Impermanence. The fine print reads: be prepared to accommodate the next stage, details unknown, but coming your way soon. Start the deep breathing practice now.
Rose and I watched a series of videos from her and Col’s early childhood recently. So much singing! So much nudity! And hints of who they’d someday become. In one video, Rose and Col are dancing in ten pounds of jewelry and nothing else, twirling umbrellas over their head. Rose, age 4, stops dancing, grabs her older brother’s sagging, half-open umbrella and with a quick wrist-flick extends it fully and hands it back to him. Col is obviously, joyfully anchored in the present moment, while Rose’s radar is trained on every particle of her surroundings. Still true.
Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…
Yesterday, Rose decided to help me in the garden. It was a like she had just done a few lines of cocaine while simultaneously discovering we had a garden out back. “I looooove planting – lets plant flowers everywhere!” She shouted, dragging the hose manically through the garden, accidentally strangling tiny kale upstarts. “Time for tomatoes!” she proclaimed, popping in a row of tomatoes in the time it takes me to put on my gardening gloves (about which Rose said I needed a new pair. Mine were dirty.) “It’s so great to have your help,” I told her as I did my deep breathing, reminding myself that this was the day I had been waiting for, even if it looked slightly different than I had imagined.
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?…Am I wrong?
Rose, age 2 under the blooming crabapple.
Rose, age nine, under same blooming crabapples.
Meanwhile, Col was upstairs, inhaling words, currently magnetized to the Percy Jackson books. Col has recently started devouring books. Like, getting so completely engrossed in novels that he finishes them in two days and gives us the “just a minute” finger when we interrupt his reading, unable to actually lift his eyes from the page. I’ve been coming home from the library with new books for him weekly, feeling a little like a pusher, a dealer, trying to get him hooked on the next series. It’s so exciting! And yet, it’s interfering with everything.
Everything changes. I feel the truth of these words like a limb I can’t remove from my body. Things are lost, things are gained. Col and Rose no longer need the nighttime lullaby, because bedtime is no longer bedtime: when I flip off their bedroom light, the headlamps go on, the reading just commencing. What becomes obsolete clears space for what’s next. I’m like one of those Russian nesting dolls: if you remove the outside, nostalgically wistful shell of me, the next layer is like, “Go on you amazing children! What’s next?” Like a tree, these children have their own growth rings, each ripe, rich stage contained in their own archives as the next one pushes forward. There is nothing to do but stay awake, ready to celebrate the next transformation.
Into the blue again/in the silent water
Under the rocks and stones/there is water underground.
Time isn’t holding us
Time isn’t after us
Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…Same as it ever was…
(Derived from the book, “If you Give a Mouse a Cookie”)
If you get 24 hours to go backpacking, chances are Dan will suggest somewhere wild and remote.
If you’re going somewhere wild and remote, you’ll ask to please avoid excessive, steep bushwhacking.
When you make this request, Dan will nod, assuring you he knows a great place. “No other human has ever set foot there,” he’ll say. (Which, retrospectively, could have been a clue).
If you go to this place where no human has ever set foot, chances are Dan won’t remember all the actual excessive steep bushwhacking this hike entails (even though he comes here each spring. “Never seemed so bad,” he’ll admit while your torn-up legs go wobbly from fording precipitously downhill through wild rose bushes).
Because your torn-up legs have gone wobbly, you’ll request numerous rest breaks. And on one of these breaks (maybe because this is a place “no human has ever set foot”), a curious vulture will circle your reposed bodies repeatedly. “Still breathing,” you’ll call out, waving an arm in illustration before the bald-headed bird retreats.
If you’ve had a rest, chances are when you’re back picking your way through the bitingly scrubby brush, Dan will turn around and whisper, “You hear that? It’s the thrush singing!” and you’ll be forced, grudgingly, to prioritize awe for the glassy notes of the hermit thrush over grumpiness for the state of your legs.
(Chances are, if you leave home for one night, just one 24 hour period, you will find a love note from your daughter tucked in your pack)
Dan code name: DOD (dear old dad).
If the hermit thrush sings near by, chances are a grouse will be stationed not far from your sleeping bag, rising with loudly flapping intensity, at first morning light. (As well as swallows, tanagers, warblers, ravens, Clark’s nutcrackers, jays and black-headed grosbeaks).
If the grouse and friends are close by, chances are you will feel comfortable and accompanied while Dan goes out on a surprisingly long early morning foray for water.
If Dan goes out on an early morning foray for water, chances are he’ll find a few elk antlers, which he’ll leave at the spot where he’s found a few other antlers over the years.
Because this place is so wild and remote, you’ll see numerous bear tracks, the uncommon fairy slipper orchid and shade-loving pippsissewa. And even though the hike out is pantingly uphill, chances are you’ll feel lucky to have gone on a 24-hour backpacking trip with Dan.
Fairy slipper orchid
Approaching the car, Dan will grab your hand and say, “Thanks for sticking with me.” And you’ll squeeze that hand, smile and say, “Next time we’re gonna vet our spot a little more thoroughly.” And he’ll say, “You wanna kick my ass now or later?”
And later, home, showered and reunited with the kids, you find your thighs burning as you walk down the stairs. And chances are, if you find your thighs burning as you walk down the stairs, you’ll smile, remembering only the joy of spending 24 hours in a wild and remote place with Dan.
There are so many exciting things happening here. By which I mean, well, arugula and Lewis’s woodpeckers. I told someone recently, a gardening friend, that we’ve now entered the time where the arugula, chard, spinach and kale are so prolific that we won’t be buying greens again until December. And then I felt like a boasting asshole, before realizing that not everyone’s greatest ambition is to simply have more than enough arugula.
And the Lewis’s woodpeckers! Do you know these birds? They’re a little pleasantly creepy with their flappy-swoopy black cape-like wings. Everyday from our windows we watch three of them chase each other with passion and purpose, perching just long enough to screech out a lengthy (lusty? territorial?) song of raspy-squeaks. Are they rivals? Lovers? Relatives? (All three?) Dan pulled a bird encyclopedia off the shelf to read aloud to the (yawning) family on Lewis’s Woodpecker behavior, as if he hadn’t actually heard of this thing called Google.
Otherwise, May has been the perfect mix of rain and sun, like the exact proportion of ingredients to build a lush, green spring. Oh, I just love it.
Bok choi, part of the leafy green take-over.
And, I’m teaching this. Tonight! Sorry for the short notice. I’d love to see you!
And Dan is offering a build your own, have it your way, mix and match hunting mentorship. And as someone said, if he could get me from zero to this, he can guide anyone.
Happy spring, in whatever way it finds you.
We are eating roast chicken, deliciously bathed in its own fatty juices (and well, maybe a little extra butter to help things along), which is the first clue that something’s different about tonight. (With a freezer full of elk and deer, we rarely buy meat, and yet for our novelty-seeking children nothing says special quite like shrink-wrapped, anonymous meat from the store).
“This is sooooooo good,” Col says through a mouthful of drumstick.
“This chicken probably didn’t have a very good life, right Mom?” Rose asks, crunching through a leg, conjuring the video we recently saw of an eagle tearing apart a snow goose.
“Well….it didn’t receive any antibiotics,” I offer with false cheer, imagining industrial chickens picketing to keep chemicals out of their feed.
Rose presses on, meaty juices glossing her lips. “So, do they get to live very long? Or do they kill them when they’re young?”
My goodness. She’s like the cop driving around looking for people having too much fun.
We mutter something about youth and tenderness and Rose is satisfied long enough to shove another tender slab in her piehole. I am alternately wondering where Rose got her sense of timing and secretly applauding her for being an unapologetic truth seeker.
“Do you think our chickens would eat this meat?” Rose wants to know. Rose, who in that very video—eagle chomping snow goose—declared bird on bird predation to be cannibalizing. This has long been a discussion in our house. Our chickens, as omnivorous as any self-respecting poultry, will eat grasshoppers and worms, elk scraps and pigeon bits, but we’ve avoided feeding them any scrap that was formerly a chicken, for our own psychological comfort no doubt.
Not too proud to cannibalize, but lets not actually find out.
“They probably would,” I concede truthfully.
“It’s because they’re not very smart,” Col assesses. “In fact, our rat is smarter than the chickens.” No one argues with that. (Especially because we’ve been sponsoring a HeroRat in Tanzania, trained to detect landmines, and our adopted African giant pouched rat—Roco—is sailing through his TNT-detection training and we couldn’t be prouder).
But why we’re even eating this much-analyzed chicken is because it’s Compliment Night (as opposed to a Portlandia episode in which restaurant customers peruse a scrapbook of happy animals before selecting their corresponding entree), the celebratory night when we read all the compliments we’ve been leaving in the Compliment Jar for each other over the past month.
No meal complete without 32 ounce bottle of hot sauce.
And oh, it’s such a fun and special night! It’s like a party of good vibes, mutual recognition, and contagious happiness. It’s a way to say: I see you, I appreciate you, I noticed that your face lights up with joy on the soccer field and I wanted to acknowledge that; or, it’s great that you’re tall enough to wash dishes now, I value your help!; or, I love watching how you make time to do the things you enjoy.
From the archives: one of my favorites from Col.
It gives everyone a chance to look for moments of appreciation, and then to record them, which is known to actually increase feelings of happiness.
Often, Rose can’t read her own wonky spelling and we puzzle over her words. “You appreciate mom for saying yes to platters? To platypus? Oh, to playdates!”
When Rose reads Col’s appreciation for the fact she “teaches him how to play piano after her own lessons,” the stadium of cheering fans rises in my chest. And, when Rose writes “I like how dad tickles me between homeschooling sessions,” it’s great information. Tickling now permanently added to the homeschool agenda. And maybe the sweetest are the compliments between the children, who take time out of their regularly scheduled programming of comparing, judging, and bickering to notice what they appreciate about each other. Incidentally, this past month both children wrote to each other: “Thank you for playing legos with me.”
Sometimes it does indeed feel like I’ve made a “melee” rather than a meal.
Sometimes Col is so overcome with the warmth of feeling appreciated that he becomes a mobile snuggler, traveling, emotion-stricken, from lap to lap. Even the rat gets compliments, because like I said: all family members.
The chicken is picked clean. Our table is littered with greasy plates and an explosion of paper scraps. Rose gets up and announces, “I need to write another compliment right now.” She scribbles something and shoves it deep in the now empty jar. I pull it out with ceremony and read it aloud, “Thanks Mama, for making delicious chicken tonight.”
The other night my friend Tara had Col and Rose over for tacos and a movie (which for them is like being bathed in the holy water of sour cream and big screen entertainment). Rose came home with a belly ache from eating too much, but also pleased that she hadn’t missed out on over-eating. Between shared school and soccer practice and then their date at Tara’s, Dan and I hadn’t seen much of them all day and were full of questions. They filled us in on everything, chattering and interrupting, jockeying to share first and most, until Col finally said, “You know, the only thing that really matters is that we’re all here safe and sound.” (Because apparently it’s never to soon to become your own wise grandpa).
Col, the wise old grandpa feeding his little buddy Irie. (Irie’s dad, Sage, lived downstairs for many years. Which is to say, if you too once lived downstairs from us and want to bring your baby over for general uplifting and merriment, please do!)
I am a dandelion salad. There is nothing to be afraid of.
I read this gorgeous and intense book in Indonesia, and when I got to the excruciating part where a very important decision had to be made, a decision that either way was going to be devastating for at least one entire family, I recounted the story to the kids, wanting to see if they saw any other option for the characters. They were so engrossed that during the half hour it took to catch them up on the plot, a thousand little insects drowned in my curried vegetables. The story takes place post-WWII on a tiny, isolated island off mainland Australia. The main characters are resilient, independent lighthouse keepers who desperately want to be parents and receive a very complicated opportunity. The writing is gorgeous, the plot engrossing, and you will find yourself empathizing with each flawed and relatable character. This powerful quote has stayed with me: “You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.”
A Thousand Naked Strangers (by the way, do not innocently Google images for this title at the library or anywhere that isn’t safe for photos of actual naked people packed interactively in a jeep) is a fascinating account of a man’s ten years working as a paramedic in emergency medicine in Atlanta. Kevin Hazzard has seen it all and is unsentimentally honest about it. He and his partners are always waiting—nervously, excitedly—for the BIG CALL. And it comes, many times in many forms. Hazzard catches great details, like the man who, before his adult son (experiencing cardiac arrest) was rushed into the ambulance, asked Hazzard to grab the pack of smokes in his son’s pocket. This is a book full of wrenching, fast-paced, shocking, fascinating, darkly humorous stories, but never depressing or dramatically morbid. Rather, it’s an insider’s look into a very real, very important line of work.
The day after my friend Melanie brought Quiddler to our house I ordered it and we’ve been playing it daily upon Col’s request. It’s technically a spelling game, or a word-making game, but it doesn’t feel educational in that cloaked way that parents often try to sneak past kids’ radars. It’s dynamic and fast paced and you can be like Dan and come up with long, fancy words, or be like Rose and make a lot of 2- and 3-letter words for the same amount of points. (You can also be like Rose and be shocked that it’s your turn again after only seven cartwheel intermissions. You can also be like Col, whistling earsplittingly between asking, “Is quert a word? How about squert?”).
Almost every night we’ve been eating dandelion salads. This has something to do with the equation: two million free dandelions live ten steps from our kitchen + highly nutritious = dandelion salad. Spring is the perfect time to eat dandelions, they are only mildly bitter, and easily offset by adding apples, raisins, nuts, and a tasty dressing. And really, you will start to enjoy that feisty little nip over time, so much so that lettuce begins to appear suspiciously like the baby rice cereal of life: a bland way to enter the world of actual salads.
Our silly kids can’t yet be persuaded to eat dandelion salads, but their friends Seneca and Fawn, who’ve been dining with us on Mondays, love them so much that last night as I was taking these photos, Seneca, who is allergic to nuts, said nervously, “Did you remember about me and walnuts, Rachel?”
Seneca’s dandelion salad, with sunflower seeds and raisins!
My award-winning (at the esteemed dandelion cook off held by Hummingbird Herbals back in 1998) dandelion pesto recipe here.
P.S. if you ever want book recommendations, go to the Category on my right side bar called “What I’m Reading.” Like so.
What are you reading and eating?
Oh, it’s greening up with such promise here. The trees are in that baby stage, hatchling leaves erupting and surrounding the limbs like a fuzzy green cloud. (Also possible that I need a new glasses prescription. Do the trees look sort of fuzzy-green to you right now?).
The lemon-yellow goldfinches swarm our feeder, becoming more colorful by the day. (I would normally think this was my well-known tendency toward exaggeration, but Dan confirmed that the goldfinches actually become progressively brighter during their breeding season, peaking in May. Exciting illustration here).
Mornings, we all gather at the windows, gasping in delight at the brightening trees and birds, our collective blood pressures dropping, our heartbeats synching up. And then our neighbor’s cat slinks predatorily into the picture and the birds evacuate in an explosion of panicky feathers.
How like my mind this is! So quick to pounce on a lovely scene, claws extended with fear and fretting. I had recently convinced myself that the problem with my children was that at 11 and almost 9 they hadn’t made anything of themselves yet; somehow they weren’t, like, completely passionate about, I don’t know, writing comic books, or kayaking, or chicken husbandry. And somehow, if I had done something different when they were little, everyone would be spending their free time preparing for the quilting bee state championships or at least cheerfully decluttering their rooms. (Rose recently told me, “You know that pile of clothes in front of my dresser? I took care of it! I slid it under my dresser).
And Col actually said to me last night, on the occasion of me washing dishes for the fifth time that day, “You do so much for us, and in return we do so little for you.”
Me: “Would you like to do more?”
Col: (thinking for a nanosecond) “No.”
Of course, the neighbor’s cat eventually gets spooked (could have something to do with us pounding on the window fiercely) and prowls away. And my mind—the fearful, analyzing and judging section— too, scampers off to do something more useful, like entertain the possibility that everything is, in fact, ok.
It’s hard to remove the worry-colored glasses that get affixed to your face about 3 minutes after your children’s conception. Dan told me recently, with concern in his voice, that when he jumps on the trampoline with the kids, Col can only go about five minutes before wanting to fall into a snuggle session with him. “It’s kind of strange,” Dan said, his face pained. “Honey,” I replied gently. I think that’s actually lovely.”
Any parent knows, soon as your newborn squints up at you all cross-eyed and utterly helpless, your heart pounds with fierce devotion followed by maybe the smallest bit of concern about those weird crossed eyes. Which is to say, motherhood is like submerging yourself in an ocean: vast waters of boundless love inextricably and forever salted by your own fears. While baby Jesus was visited shortly after birth by three wise men acknowledging his greatness, the rest of us were visited by nurses whispering of car seat regulations and newborn screening tests.
But I can hear my mom saying, “Love doesn’t have to be so neurotic.” I know. I want to free up my mind to trust that my children are always evolving, adjusting, growing, developing, learning. They are working out hard shit everyday. If I want them to lean into the light, I must at least be one source of that light, beaming trust and belief upon them. This doesn’t mean turning a blind eye towards what needs attention, but practicing discernment so I don’t get swept under the bus of needless worry.
Worry sucks all the joy from your mind, inventing and distorting facts. Worry points to the tiny storm cloud in the distance when right now the sun is shining on your beautiful children sailing ever higher on the trampoline, their laughter sweetening the air.
Signs that we’re truly home: (I think there’s a dreamy part of us still in Indonesia. I have weird grieving spells over the possibility of maybe never eating a ripe, raw jackfruit again. And the kids ask regularly where we’re going next).
:: World class shit shovelers: (And available for hire! Rose says she’ll deliver complimentary chocolate with each bucket of manure).
:: Dan apparently biked out of the woods with this bull elk skull on his back (and another pair of deer antlers). He says his bike needs a small tune up now. Here he is scraping out the molderingly fragrant brains with a chisel and calling out to rotten brain-phobic Rosie, “Hey Rosie, did you check out these brains?”
:: The root cellar apples are rising up slightly bruised and selectively moldy like the ghost of fall preservation, meaning Dan spent last weekend saucing approximately 256 apples. “Does this mean we picked too many apples last fall?” I asked Dan. “Oh no, we just didn’t eat enough.”
Dan and I shared a camera for the three weeks we were Indonesia. You can tell through the 300 assorted photos that while he was fascinated by the ancient stone carvings (we have, oh, about 8 photos of the statue of Hindu god Arjuna shooting his bow) and bamboo scaffolding (bamboo!) leaning against the sides of buildings under construction, for me it was all about the food and people.
Ancient ruins are fascinating and all, but what about these sticky rice treats sweetened with palm sugar and rolled in coconut? I asked the Javanese woman serving these what gave them the bright color. “Oh, all natural, colored with leaves,” she reported.
I decided to believe her, and more importantly not to care. I was so determined to eat like a local that earlier in the very hot day (Indonesia is hot and humid. It feels like every air molecule is exhaling its own continuous drop of hot water) I bought two “popsicles” for Col and Rose. I had seen a bunch of kids sucking colored ice out of a plastic bag and followed the children to the source. After paying 10,000 rupiah (80 cents) for two popsicles, I watched a barefoot man run a block of ice across a blade and catch the shaved ice into his hand before sliding it into a plastic bag and squirting a large bloop of sugary food dye in the bag.
(Before having to fully confront my position on Red Dye # 4 vs. eating as the locals do, I remembered that we couldn’t actually drink the water, and passed the popsicles onto some local kids).
At a traditional outdoor dance performance in Probolinggo, Java, while everyone else was watching the impressive costumes, Rose and I were using rudimentary, invented sign language to communicate with the group of girls who had circled around her, giggling, wanting to practice their English. (Besides the island of Bali, the rest of our stops were to Indonesian islands where pale faces like ours were unusual).
“Your age?” we asked, counting on our fingers in demonstration.
Quiet contemplation followed by fierce discussion in their local dialect, including playful punches and hair-pulling.
“Ten. Number one. Ten number one!” they replied.
“Yes! Elay-vahn! Elay-vahn!” They shrieked.
I pointed to Rose and held up eight fingers.
“Ahh…yes,” they said, turning to each other and giggling.
The three girls conferred in rapid-fire Bahasa and then parsed, slowly and carefully, “How. Do. You. Do?”
“Good!” We answered. “How do you do?”
“Yes!” They replied, punching each other playfully and falling apart in laughter.
Rice fields. Home to frogs, herons, water rats, egrets, snakes, free-ranging dogs, chickens, ducks and cats. One night, walking along the rice field paths, we passed a barefoot man with a machete. No problem.
After a few weeks in Indonesia, you begin seeing Americans as this slightly different species: large, pale and quick to sweat. You realize you’ve spent your life cultivating innumerable preferences and sensitivities (“I like eggs but only fried in coconut oil with runny yolks, heavily salted…”) while every Indonesian you’ve met explains cheerily, “We eat rice three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner!” (Besides fruit, the only desserts we had in Indonesia were also rice-based, including an amazing black rice pudding).
You begin to wonder how much effort goes towards maintaining your own likes and dislikes, and whether the cheerful, friendly disposition of Indonesians is partially a result of being freed from myriad choices to have opinions about. Novelty is in low-supply in Indonesia. There is considerably less of what we like to think of as freedom, as ones birth comes with prescribed roles and expectations (including the understanding that you will make space for your elderly parents to move in with you someday). One man, a rice farmer, told us his 18-year old son wouldn’t be going to college. It was expensive, and for his son’s future, “high school was enough.”
The outdoor food markets were steamy warrens of commerce. As the sultry day wore on, women slept alongside their colorful displays. Cats, too, were sacked out in the heat, teats ripe with lactation. Bloated rats scurried under tables propping up baskets of fragrant jasmine flowers. Slaughtered chickens, laid bare in the heat, attracted battalions of insects.
Col and Rose were alternately filled with wide-eyed fascination and horror. The displays of fruit could send you into fits of desire. But, the live chickens—feet tied together—awaiting death, haunted Rose for days. (Had I forgotten to tell her about 99% of American chicken farming?) The fish, whole and silvery in the sun, were splayed on tarps, never having known refrigeration. For the vendors, shoes were optional, smoking (for men) typical.
Everything you’d need (and nothing you don’t) you could find at a local market: an abundance of fruits and vegetables, fish, eggs, rice, tofu, chicken, spices, palm sugar, and nuts.
I bought a sack of veggies I could hardly heft for $6 (and I’m certain I was charged tourist prices) and spent the next five days happily obligated to sweet potato, eggplant, long beans, bok choi, cabbage, cucumber, bean sprouts and rice, seasoned with chiles, pineapple, lemongrass and fresh coconut milk.
Notice the long pants and long sleeves. We foreigners dripped sweat while sitting perfectly still long after the equatorial sun went down
If there is a residence (or business), there is laundry drying. I began to see laundry as its own sort of colorful prayer flags.
Children seemed generally trusted to do things that you don’t see here in America: 3 year olds sitting, wobble-torsoed on a bicycle pedaled by an older sibling; packs of kids walking home alone from school (at noon! Typical school closing hour) alongside the highway. We saw a group of small boys swimming unattended in the ocean (on Komodo Island, where a young boy from the fishing village had been killed by a dragon), and when a little boy began crying, it was an older brother who scooped him up and comforted him. In the fishing village school is compulsory only until 4th grade, because what a fisherman needs to know, he learns from the sea.
In the big cities, driving was less of an organized, regulated process and more like water droplets flowing in and out and around each other. (When I returned to Colorado, I was immediately amazed at how much room cars allowed for each other on the highway). In Makassar, Sulewesi, a city containing over 2 million people and possibly no crosswalks, we watched four school children cross six, chaotic lanes of traffic simply by putting their hands out and muscling their way across the stream. Rather than streetlights, tree trunks lining the road are painted fluorescent colors.
Food was always beautifully presented. Pineapples were cut into architectural wonders, and vegetables were turned into colorful confetti to accent rice. Restaurant meals for six of us were between $12 – $20.
Col’s plate has tofu in peanut sauce. Meat (in the form of fish or chicken) was a flavoring, an accompaniment to vegetables. I saw no dairy in Indonesia at all. Mostly rice and fresh vegetables in amazingly flavorful sauces. I didn’t see any white flour and not much dessert. People seemed generally lean, especially the men.
A dog lounging on the front steps of your restaurant? No problem. Is it your dog? Who knows? Restaurants, shops and houses were permeable. It was not unusual to see dogs wandering through a business. Geckos scaling your inside walls (and all the insects they sought) were neither special nor a nuisance.
Cabbages, harvested on the caldera below Mt Batur.
Fruit at a market in Bali. Oddly, the apples were imported, which I didn’t see at any other market (maybe from Australia?). From left to right, clockwise: mangos, apples, mangosteens, dragonfruit, snake fruit.
Motorbikes were the transportation of the people. I saw people with three flats of eggs strapped the back and a hunk of bananas at their feet. People traveled with six bags of concrete tucked into every surface plus all the family members who could fit. Col and Rose hopped on one whenever possible. One day they were offered a ride home from a restaurant while Dan, my mom and I decided to walk the 2 miles. After they were on their way, helmetless, with a driver I didn’t know, none of us with cell phones, I realized I had relaxed my American mind into the Bali way.
I’m ever grateful for the experience of a different culture, to see a man stopping traffic by waving a palm frond as his buddy 35 feet up in a palm tree drops coconuts to the ground; to wonder what exactly “grass jelly drink” means; to contemplate what we Americans have traded for convenience and comfort; and to experience a people who are beautiful and dignified, warm and generous.
Thank you for listening to the stories.
We’re home! It’s so good to be home (even if I’ve been lying around sick with a tonsil infection, binge-watching
educational documentaries Orange is the New Black on netflix). I feel forever, gratefully changed for the experience of spending three weeks in Indonesia.
And somehow, we are back to our normal Southwest existence.
Rose is noticing that she did better left-hand cartwheels in the Eastern hemisphere. Dan is asking if I can do something with the soured, raw cream in the fridge that smells too much like cow ass to put in his coffee, but apparently not enough like it to toss in the compost. Col is lobbying clemency for our hen who apparently turned into a rooster while we were away. (Rose is on Col’s side: “Other families don’t just kill animals all the time.” Huffy sigh). And I just made a vet appointment for Rose’s rat (who has an alarming abscess. ETA: now healed!) which may be the clearest sign that we’re back in a first world country.
After 24 hours of being home, Dan and I marveled at how our time in Indonesia was a brief and shallow swim across the surface of a hugely different world, but for those 249 million Indonesians, it’s just everyday life. Nyoman, the 63-year old man (whose wife is also named Nyoman – because the Balinese name their children according to birth order) is likely climbing a coconut tree barefoot to retrieve a coconut for a tourist, smiling without his full complement of teeth and insisting, “no problem,” a phrase we heard so much it may well be the national anthem. Baby ducks are eating cooked rice, and full grown ducks are peering out of cramped bamboo cages on the back of someone’s motorbike, rumbling off to market.
There was so much our American minds simply didn’t understand. How do the dogs navigate the busy streets? Who’s supervising those children swimming in the ocean? How can a family of four all fit on one motorbike (including bobble-headed infants, snoozing toddlers, texting teens)? Why are those boys carrying snakes in water bottles? Will anyone clear away these roadside piles of garbage? How do people drive in a city of 2 million with no traffic lights? (Rose asked one of our tour guides, “Are there any rules here?”)
“Camera please?” we were asked by many Indonesians who wanted to take photos with us. Besides Bali, the islands we visited were not tourist destinations and clearly people weren’t used to seeing white faces. Photos of Col and Rose are likely floating all around Indonesian social media.
Indonesia is mostly a muslim country, except the island of Bali, which is predominantly Hindu. It is illegal to buy guns in Indonesia, and despite the low standard of living, we saw no homeless people and I always felt very safe. One local explained that they simply took care of each other, feeding hungry neighbors, taking in elderly parents. That was their social security system. People were disarmingly friendly, generous and cheerful.
Every morning on Bali people leave beautiful and ephemeral offerings for the Hindu gods. Placed inside woven baskets of banana leaves are assortments of fresh flowers, a small bit of food and incense. These are so ubiquitous, found in front of every home and business, also on people’s car dashboards, check-out counters of major grocery stores and the airport. I found them to be beautiful and uplifting. Rose asked, “What do we do for the gods everyday?”
These are the rangers on Komodo Island, charged with keeping the highly dangerous dragons away from visitors with forked sticks: (the dragons’ attunement to the smell of blood is so great that menstruating women or anyone with open cuts were advised to forego the tour).
This is a two-way street in Bali.
We didn’t exactly plan to feed this dog we met on the island of Lombok after swimming in the Indian Ocean (The Indian Ocean!), but she really liked coconut. The man selling coconuts for 20,000 rupiah (about $1.50) said to us with maybe the tiniest bit of amusement, “Maybe you buy another coconut for your dog?”
For the first time, I think I understand why people love to travel. How everyday your senses are unlocked, your mind cleared for the next inexplicably fascinating, confusing, amusing, odd and delightful moment. How, somehow it’s both disorienting and reassuring to be somewhere where English is not the first language. Ultimately, I am an ever-grateful resident of the pinyon and juniper, the high desert mountain landscape, although now I feel a little more like a world citizen.
More coming. So much more to share.