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.
- I am still unplugged in Indonesia. Here is a little post I put together back in my other life.
Some day when Col and Rose are grown they’ll recall rambling through spruce trees with Dan on a bow shoot, flinging arrows at rotting stumps. They’ll remember tromping all over forested tarnation searching for bolete mushrooms, small hands plunged into their father’s cupped palm. Dan will star in their memories as the man who taught them to chop firewood and to fish, who orchestrated wrestling matches and ad-hoc soccer games, who opened stuck jars and always had the right tool to fix whatever was broken.
And then, they’ll remember their mother: reclined on our singular, smudged, long-suffering couch, their kid-bodies piled into my soft edges, me reading to them.
There is always a book we’re reading, the three of us. We read to connect, to relax, to tame the wild chaos that bubbles up daily. We read to learn, to travel (without leaving the couch), to numb our hot mental wiring, and to better examine our own lives. Reading is my favorite thing to do after, well, breathing (sorry, honey, that’s #3).
The three of us are our own tiny, nepotistic book club, wondering, collectively, how the Baudelaire orphans will break their cycle of unfortunate events; or commiserating together that there will be no sequel to Huck Finn, ever. (Which was an interesting bedtime book, what with Huck’s perennially drunk dad, the school beatings from teachers, and of course the whole slave issue). We’re all fierce Roald Dahl groupies; we’ve written fan mail to local writer, Will Hobbs (and received a response!); the original Winnie the Pooh stories, written almost 100 years ago, make us quake with laughter.
Reading to Teo, 2016
When the kids—tucked into their beds—rise up and protest the closing of a book (“One more chapter!” they chant like fans demanding an encore), I am likely to concede. Just yesterday when Rose asked how blind people get their sight back, Col sighed and said, “They don’t. Remember Mary?” And we instantly knew he was referring to Mary Ingalls, sister to Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had perfect sight in Little House in the Big Woods, and horrifyingly, had lost it by On the Shores of Silver Lake.
I don’t read the kids books that I don’t enjoy myself, because there is so much truly excellent children’s literature. EB White (author of Charlotte’s Web and more), said “all that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love this world.” Which is exactly how we all felt by the end of the Harry Potter series, that we loved this world and all its possibilities just a little more deeply.
I have come to realize that at least half of our homeschooling takes place on our couch, me reading aloud to the kids. Reading about the Joads (in The Grapes of Wrath) traveling with 12 family members piled in one truck across the west, gave the kids the most vivid picture of the Depression I could hope for. Plus, upon finishing the book, we got to enact a 3-person rally celebrating the spirit of the working class rising up against the machine of big corporations. Now we’re reading a 14-year old American girl’s diary from 1942. (Col wishes it had more about WWII; Rose would like more information on what groceries they bought).
I can chronicle my parenting life through reading, from the days of crossing my fingers, germ-wise, while the kids gummed board books at the library; through exhausting the Dr Seuss canon (again and again); through the grief of finishing the Harry Potter series; to today, Col beelining for the 5-pound, non-fiction aviation books in the adult stacks at the library. The library is our second home, its shelves containing the most compelling magic outside of Hogwarts. Actually, a building full of free, constantly rotating books is the most supreme wizardry I can imagine.
Here is a list of books we’ve especially loved. (I linked to Amazon out of laziness, but please consider getting books from your local library, independent book store or from Better World Books, which has a social and environmental conscience and free shipping!).
BOOKLIST (for ages approx 5 – 100)
Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
These great, humourous adventure stories take place along the banks of the Mississippi River in the mid 1860’s when school isn’t compulsory and teenage boys learn real life practical skills. Beneath the rowdy rule-breaking, is great compassion and willingness to buck the law when it comes to odious legislation like slavery.
My Side of the Mountain and Other Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
A boy goes to the woods to see if he can survive. He develops a small community of wild animal companions, and goes through the highs and lows of solitude, while connecting with the land through the seasons.
Little House on the Prairie Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
This is such a delightful series about a homesteading family in the mid-late 1800’s. The family is full of gratitude even when times are hard (which is practically always), and your children will learn about how fun it can be to play with a pig bladder water balloon when you don’t actually have toys.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
This book weaves Chinese legends and Buddhist principles into a delightful story of a girl’s hero’s journey.
Narnia Series by C.S. Lewis
Engaging classic stories, wonderful, funny writing. The warfare can get a little tedious.
Charlottes Web by EB White
A favorite. Beautiful, endearing writing, and going out on a limb for friendship.
All original Winnie the Pooh books by A.A. Milne
Oh the laughter! The vulnerabilities and earnestness of the small animals! Any book that invokes laughter in multiple generations is worth reading. Multiple times.
Everything by Roald Dahl, but especially BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox
Roald Dahl is the master of storytelling, painting pictures so vivid and suspenseful and engaging. Although he wrote over thirty books for kids in his lifetime, I only wish there were more.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket (warning: there are 13 books. We were entrenched for months). Plucky orphans on a never ending journey for answers.
Kokopelli’s Flute, Bearstone and Beardance by Will Hobbs
Historical fiction (most taking place in the Southwest) with protagonists that are delightfully, honestly imperfect, and have amazing adventures.
Wonder by A.J Palacio
This book is about a child (and his family and friends) with a facial deformity. The author tells the story through several different narrators, allowing you to picture what it would be like to be the mother, sister, friend of this boy, allowing readers to experience empathy for all involved.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery
About the ridiculousness of grown ups and their concern with “matters of consequence,” none of which include speaking with flowers and other important kid-knowings.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson
Oh man, this is a sad book. But also a beautiful, intriguing story about true friendship.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
This book, based on a true story, is about an Indian girl who accidentally gets left behind on an island when her tribe leaves. She fends for herself, creates a special alliance with a wild dog, and survives on her sheer wits.
I often feel nostalgic for books the kids and I have read together, these books being a placeholder in my memory for their different ages. Like Charlotte’s Web. I did cry when the spider died, but was even more moved by the very last lines of the book, where the narrator muses, “it is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” Oh! Good writing is such excellent company.
please share your book faves!
- I am still unplugged in Indonesia. I have a little pre-scheduled post for you all, because I love you.
The interior of the wall tent we borrowed for hunting season. Sort of like summer camp with animal hides!
(Remember I was going to share Part Two of my hunting story? Here it is:)
There are realities about standing over an animal, newly dead, that I am not prepared for. First, to call that bull elk, slumped and emptied of breath, “inanimate” seems a misnomer. There’s the way the muscles, unhusked from hide and already more meat than agent of movement, occasionally and rapidly twitch. Second, one hour post mortem, a release of internal gasses roars so startlingly and without warning from the animal’s mouth that I flinch and duck….Read the rest of Modern Day Artemis II here.
Modern Day Artemis I is here
Also, Dan wrote an excellent story for Edible Southwest Colorado about his DIY meat smoker constructed on the fly at 11,300. Read about it here.
Smoke-cured bull elk tenderloin.
We’re in that tween stage of seasons, where during the middle of the day you might feel an inkling of spring thawing and unfurling. Then, the hammer of night falls and no one wants to go outside and lock the chickens up because it’s cold and dark and wintry, and we’re all kind of banking on Dan doing it anyway. Also, what is happening right now is Col is looking under our stove for “stuff to trade with Rose.”
And then Dan turns to me and winks, “Hey – who said you couldn’t have a gymnastics routine in 800 square feet?”
So, did you notice my subtle little reference to 13,500 islands and maybe are wondering what that was all about? The crazy wild news is that tomorrow we’re boarding a plane for Indonesia (which is made up of approximately 13,500 islands). We’re going with my parents (which should seem obvious, because you know, we hardly like to leave the zipcode unless it’s to Utah or New Mexico, in which case we’re like, “wow – it’s so excitingly foreign here!”).
We’ll be on a boat sailing around and visiting Indonesian islands for a large chunk of time, and then staying in a house in Bali and eating a lot of exotic fruit. (Dan has been reading Alfred Russel Wallace’s Indonesian journals to us, in which the fruit, durian, is described as: “a rich, highly-flavoured butter-like custard…with a smell akin to open sewers.”
We’re all terribly excited and committed to going with the flow (we hear life in Indonesia is a bit more, well, relaxed than here). I’ve been trying to connect with a school teacher in Bali so we can meet her students. She suggested I clear it with the school’s headmaster. Do you have his e-mail? I asked her. Nope, she did not. Also, all students are currently on a 2-week vacation for Hindu holidays.
At some point in the densely crowded city of Jakarta, we’ll need to find this address (which could be enough adventure for all three weeks in itself) to board our boat:
JL.Raya Pelabuhan No.8 Tanjung Priok Jakarta 14310, Jakarta.
We all have our own small anxieties. Me: How will I bring enough books to read? Rose: Will I get to sit next to Mama on every plane flight? Dan: How will I get my marital needs met while sharing a room with 2 offspring? Col: Will they make me homeschool in Indonesia?
I am not bringing my computer and look forward to being unplugged from technology and plugged into the family and Asia. Asia! I have some posts set up to automatically show up on Mondays, though Monday in America is not Monday in Indonesia, but my blog is still hosted in America…anyway, hopefully it all works.
With so much LOVE,
p.s. Thank you for all your shares and feedback on my last post. We’re all in this together. 100%.
One day, back at the start of winter Col was heading outside jacketless, in sneakers. Six inches of fresh snow had just fallen. I stared at his snow boots in the hallway and immediately flashed ahead to his adulthood, where I saw him living in a cardboard shanty, still unable to match his clothing to the season.
No one likes unsolicited advice, so I practiced my childbirth breathing, still forming a response when Dan stepped in and said, “Col, I bet those sneaks are way more comfy than your boots.”
It was like someone pressed the decelerate button on my nervous system. Dan tossed out every other potential response (condemning, warning, advice-giving, ridiculing) to say, essentially, “I can understand that choice.” And then Col, having no position to defend, explained how last year’s hand-me-down boots rubbed his heels uncomfortably. And then we bought him new boots. And he’s worn them everyday since then.
I have approximately 647 blind spots when it comes to my children, all of which have to do with fear.
Our fears often come from stories we tell ourselves about how it should be, stories in which our agenda is in conflict with what is actually happening. This activates anxiety. Maybe we value resiliency and optimism, and when we hear our child express negativity we panic. Maybe we want a child who always tells the truth, but there was an incident where the truth didn’t feel safe to tell. If we can relax our agenda and look deeper, we can make room for understanding.
Understanding: The antidote to fear
Generating understanding can be a powerful antidote to our own fear, actually dismantling our anxiety in the moment. It is an act of love that shines light into the dark, cramped places where we stuff our scariest feelings. Receiving understanding, or empathy, is like putting down the pack full of rocks you’ve been toting around while being led to the sunny meadow of relief. (We’ve been studying empathy experientially in my nonviolent communication group for the past 6 weeks, and I swear, we all walk out of there purring).
I’ve noticed that there are many things we want for our children. We want them to be confident, responsible and to communicate clearly; we want them to resist peer pressure, to care for others, and to always start written sentences with a capital letter. We forget that their brains are still forming, that everyday is an opportunity for practice, that we can help plant seeds by modeling our values. When they receive understanding or empathy, their system floods with oxytocin, a neurochemical associated with care and connection. It is from this place that their frontal cortex, “the reasoning brain” can make decisions and act.
Sometimes, as I’m searching for the right words, I just start with, “I can understand that,” because it sends a quick signal to my brain to prioritize connection over being right. Sometimes it’s easy, like when Rose plops on the couch after eating 5 waffles, and says, “I want to do cartwheels but my belly is sooo full.”
And sometimes it’s harder, like when Col says something hurtful to Rose, something aimed to wound. If I can tamp down my Mama bear sirens, I can say, “Hey, are you angry at Rose? I can understand how sometimes when we don’t express our anger or disappointment or jealousy, it can fester and come out ugly.”
Examples from our own life: (most from today!)
I can understand that this math feels pointless. You’re not using much math yet in your day to day life.
I can understand that you want everything to be exactly fair between you and your brother. You feel left out when he gets something you don’t.
I can understand that you felt jealous at your friend’s birthday, watching her open so many presents was really hard. You’d like all those new, fun things.
I can understand that you don’t want to walk to shared school, it sounds much easier to drive.
I can understand that you don’t want your sister around when your friend comes over, it feels like she takes over and that’s not fun for you.
I can understand that it feels more enjoyable to read than respond when we’re asking you to help out. It’s normal to gravitate towards what feels good.
I can understand that you want some time to snuggle all alone with me without your sister. That feels really special.
- Understanding, or delivering empathy doesn’t mean looking for a solution. We still walked to shared school this morning. Col completed his “morning math.” We didn’t “fix” Rose’s jealousy by buying her something. Being understood is usually enough to soothe the painful feelings and move on.
Steps Towards Understanding
1. Deliver Self Empathy. This is like a rescue breath, or putting your own oxygen mask on first. This slows the spinning out into fearful story (see above: cardboard shanty). Self-empathy is simply recognizing what you’re feeling, without necessarily needing to act. Ex: I’m feeling anxious and triggered. I want to be assured that my kid can always make beneficial choices. This is really hard. Watch how this self empathy relaxes your nervous system in the moment.
2. Recognize your biases and labels. If you’re thinking in absolutes, this may be a sign you’re seeing something in a biased way. Ex: my child always…, or my child never…, or my child is unmotivated, rather than, my child didn’t complete this week’s homework assignment on time. Erich Heller said, “Be careful how you interpret the world; it is like that.”
3. Employ true observations and get curious. True observations are statements about what you have seen or heard, free of evaluation, judgement of blame. It’s like looking through the lens of a camera. Be specific and unemotional. Describe the sights and sounds you observe. “I noticed it’s 22F outside and you’re wearing a light jacket. What’s up?”
4. Prioritize connecting over being “right.” Your child will always benefit more from the lasting power of being understood than hearing your opinion or advice. In fact, all your excellent advice is indigestible until your child feels truly heard and understood. And then, in a “green light” moment, you can check in and see if your child is ready for information and suggestions.
To judge is human; to be understood is divine.
I personally am famous for botching these commercial holidays with my own angsty over-analyzation of food coloring and crappy candy and paper waste and obligatory spending. Which is where you could say something gentle and loving to me like, “hey, look how excited Rosie is to deliver her handmade cards!” And truly, it was so sweet watching Col and Rose create their own Valentines Day cards for their classmates, like good little American kids who didn’t actually have roadkill gumbo in their lunch thermoses.
I’ve been noticing lately how much my kids want to be normal. They love the cauliflower pizza crust I make, but they desperately want to pretend it doesn’t have cauliflower in it. (It has become an issue we skirt around; apparently we can openly discuss politics, religion and sex, but not cauliflower). Rose walked in the door with a friend recently and sighed when she saw Dan at the table carving up a roadkill deer, as if the night before she hadn’t been a baby bird squawking, open-mouthed, for that very same animal’s grilled backstrap. She is concerned with having a Daddy who might at any point smell like deer brains.
As Col and Rose get older, they’ve become a little more heartbreakingly self-conscious. There’s no more cross-dressing and parading around the house. The backyard is no longer a nudist colony for small, ecstatic people. They believe there are “boy colors” and “girl colors.” It’s a little heartbreaking (and seems at least partially due to the 2 days/week they go to the fishbowl of self-comparing that public school can be), but also, I realize, a normal part of growing up.
I console myself with the knowledge that Dan was a toe-the-line jock for much of his school days, and now he’s looking for any opportunity to dance around wearing elk hoof-rattles on his ankles while singing one of his self-composed hunting chants.
I think I know how this works. Kids need to explore what shimmers unfamiliarly on the horizon (which in Rose’s case are the single-serve, peel-top, key lime pie yogurts while a half-gallon of homemade yogurt appears wholesomely and routinely in our fridge every week.) Col and Rose will bob out into new territory while an invisible, symbolic tether anchors them always to home, to family. They will voyage out seeking normalcy, and we will lovingly wave from our unconventional home, while elk and deer bones simmer on the stove. And they will circle back around, eventually.
These truffles are safe for Valentines Day; they’re completely normal by anyone’s standards. No masquerading kale bits, or bone broth-soaked walnuts. They are insanely delicious: nutty and date-sweetened on the inside, with rich, silky chocolate on the outside.
Ingredients (makes about 16 truffles; takes approx 30 minutes to make)
For the filling:
1 1/2 cups pitted dates
1 cup walnuts
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1-2 TBSP melted coconut oil (butter would probably be OK)
For the chocolate coating:
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/4 – 1/2 cup cream or half and half (add slowly).
1/4 cup sugar
4 TBSP butter (or coconut oil)
pinch of salt
OR you can melt a chocolate bar
Blend walnuts, dates and coconut flakes in food processor until it becomes a uniform paste-like consistency. Roll into firm, small balls and place on cookie sheet covered with wax paper. Next, gently heat the butter, cocoa powder, sugar, cream and salt, whisking as it melts. Remove from heat and dip each walnut-date ball into the chocolate, using a spoon. When balls are coated with chocolate, place on wax paper. Place truffles in fridge for one hour. Store truffles in fridge.
Last Saturday at 7:30 am Rose and I hopped in our truck to rescue Dan. He was about five miles from our house watching elk and deer emerge from the dark, early morning when his car battery died. I hadn’t been in the truck for awhile and noticed a few things. In the front seat were two game bags to optimize spontaneous roadkill opportunities. Perched on the dashboard was a milkweed pod, its hundreds of tiny, feathery seeds the perfect device to illuminate wind direction, determining if your scent is moving towards or away from the animals. You know, basic emergency tools.
It’s so great to just be your weird, unconventional self; to love what you love without apology, explanation or a need for approval; to know what brings you meaning and to follow it like a bloodhound. How lucky it is to have passions, to be called to investigate the endless mysteries of life, to have a reason to get up before the sun rises. It’s like taking out an insurance policy against boredom, depression, restlessness. It doesn’t matter what you love – honeybees, cast iron cookware, the thrill of the opening notes of a concert, spotting antlers in the forest newly cast from an elk’s head. It only matters that you’re here, loving it.
Some Dan quotes I’ve been collecting:
:: “I feel so decadent to have a new compost bucket!”
:: “Doesn’t this snow make you feel so rich? It’s like filling the bank account for a green summer.”
:: “I was hiking uphill and I noticed my sweat smelled just like when you open up a deer: like musk and juniper berries and a little minty.”
:: Dan: “John and Sue’s dog was a little standoffish until he smelled me. Then he became verrrry interested.”
Me: “What did he smell?”
Dan: “Oh, brains, deer head, hide, antler marrow, turkey feathers and sinew tidbits.”
I want to say this: trust your passions. Follow them with the open mind of a child. Don’t worry about making money off them, or what society says, notice the joy that pays off like maturing dividends. Maybe you’re obsessed with knitting, or running, or educating your children, or finding delicious ways to eat vegan. No matter the topic, it belongs to you. Dive in, and enjoy
I don’t really know how to set the stage here. Ok, lets try this: if you’re interested in atomic weapons, or high-secrecy, high-cost, highly-destructive government projects funded by your tax dollars, or the insider scoop on abysmal conditions in WWII Japanese POW camps, or starving dust bowl farmers making their way to California in the 1930’s in ragged jalopies, I have some book recommendations for you! *also, one bonus, feel-good, book, too.
The kids and I are cocooned in words surrounding the historical time period of 1930-1945. Admittedly, it all started with Rose’s American Girl Doll, Kit, who, according to the brilliant and slightly sinister Mattel marketers, “lives” during the Great Depression. And then, in December, we took a trip to Los Alamos, New Mexico (site of the conceptualizing and manufacturing of the first atomic bomb), where even now upon entering the city, your car will be stopped and a serious looking man in uniform will ask the car’s driver if they can vouch for the people in the backseat (i.e. the two small people in back buried in crumbs and flotsam).
I’ve been cleared for reading, concussion-wise, which I’ve been abusing like the drug it is for me, finishing approximately one book every 2-3 days. Otherwise, healing continues to be non-linear and unpredictable. I’m functioning at half capacity, and operating under the very un-American goal to do less than I think I should every day. If I overdo it, I get extremely tired or grumpy. Yesterday I blew up at the entire family and Col said gently, “it sounds like you’re a little angry and maybe looking for someone to blame.” Damn emotionally-aware kid.
Ok, the books:
This book, 109 East Palace, is an enthralling, suspenseful account of the Manhattan Project, which was so secret, that wives didn’t know what their scientist husbands were doing 50 hours a week. And yet, somehow a city of 3000 of the brightest minds, average age 25, sprung up in the high desert of New Mexico to work together on a horrible project that also appears morally defensible. At the helm was Robert Oppenheimer, a pacifist who quoted from the Hindu spiritual text, The Bagavad Gita, after watching the first test bomb detonate. I now see that if our government wants to achieve a goal, they will funnel unbelievable amounts of time, money and brainpower into the project, which leads me to think there’s hope for renewable energy, ending income-inequality, and slowing climate change…if we want it bad enough.
Six years after publication, Unbroken is still so popular, that even in our small town all five copies were checked out of the library and I had to read the one “large print” book available. (Also, holy moly: 26,000 five-star reviews on Amazon). This book is about an Italian-American delinquent, Louie Zamperini, who marshals his defiance into running, and then becomes a bombardier in WWII. Zamperini’s airplane goes down in the Pacific, and he and two crewmates float for 47 days, during which Zamperini reaches deep into a well of resolve, cunning and a mix of acceptance and hope, which literally keeps him alive. Although things go from bad to worse (sharks! enemy aircraft! malnutrition! abusive POW conditions!), Zamperini remains “unbroken,” filled with compassion and enough of his defiant, youthful rebellion to get him through numerous trials. (Plus, bonus: Col and I now gawk together at photos of B-29s, and he’ll rummage through his collection of books to show me exactly where Zamperini, the bombardier, crouched on a B-24 liberator).
The Grapes of Wrath, which I read to Col and Rose, is about a large, extended, share-cropping family from Oklahoma who loses everything during the Great Depression and moves to California, where they believe work and fertile land will be abundant (spoiler: not so much). Although the Joad family faces one hardship after another, they remain dignified, generous and upright. The writing is simple, beautiful and funny, and John Steinbeck truly exemplifies the writing advice to “show not tell” by revealing entire notions of financial inequality through dialogue. Plus, it was the kids’ first experience of a non-happy ending (over which they almost rioted), which is sort of a poignant and sad manifestation of their own growing up.
Ok, one more (mostly upbeat):
I found Love is a Mix Tape at our library, and after reading it felt a little shocked that this book had likely been sitting quietly on our library’s shelves for nine years, and then fate brought us together and now my life is a little different in the best way. This book, as the title says, is about “love and loss, one song at a time.” If you’ve ever made a mix tape, fallen in love, danced and sung your way through 1990’s, are curious about how to rebuild your life after widowhood, you’ll probably love this book written by a Rolling Stone writer who knows music is holy.
We are now open for babysitting:
Also, 2 more books, both about adoption, both written by celebrities, and both funny and light with just the right side of heavy:
Two weeks ago I got a concussion after losing my footing at the ice rink and falling on my head. I know. Highly cautious middle-aged mothers are not the typical profile for concussions. (And, not the first concussion in our fam). I’m still a little baffled, but there’s a small slice of time that has been blotted from my memory files.
The EMT who rode with me in the ambulance reported: “that young girl – was that your daughter? – gave us a very detailed account of what happened.” I can already see that since Dan’s memory is skewed towards events like “5 elk seen at Columbine wallow in 2009” and Col’s towards “WWII airplane design,” that Rose may turn out to be the family historian.
The healing has been slow, steady, and completely non-linear. The hardest part has been when the kids are both needing something different but simultaneously, and it requires all my mental skills to chip away at the avalanche of words and emotions and get to the heart of their request. Okay, so you’re offended, Col, because Rose has been blowing her nose in the top bunk? And Rose, you love pears, but Daddy ruined the oatmeal by adding pear sauce? I mean, it’s mind-bending enough without a bruised brain. Sometimes I walk into the already-brewing chaos and ask, “How can I help?” and Dan says, “Go hide in our room.”
On a really challenging day, nauseated, dizzy, and weak, Dan called the ER nurse who asked if I had been playing any contact sports. “Just parenting,” he answered.
Of course the kids have also been my greatest medicine. Our friends have generously stepped in to invite the kids on playdates, and having just one kid at home is like having Mother Theresa come by with art supplies and comfort. Because I haven’t been able to homeschool, nag, worry, evaluate, or any of my usual parenting activities, I’m kind of like a friendly, slightly confused, noise-sensitive auntie who’s moved in. I join the family for meals, smiling benevolently at the children, even if I’m sometimes sitting at the table with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears.
With Mother Theresa (Col) I invent Pokemon characters and he draws them.
Also, if your mom is in bed, you don’t need to check with her first before receiving a haircut from a friend!
Because complete brain rest is crucial for healing, reading is sadly forbidden (my mom even texted me at one point to say: “no thinking!”), so I began listening to podcasts. For many days I stayed mostly in bed listening to podcasts from the live radio show The Moth (in which incredible storytellers tell mesmerizing stories) while the kids drifted in and out of my room.
(Recommended: Anything by her. This one about a free ride service for the GLBT community in Oakland, CA. Also this one about an exorcism for depression caused by evil spirits in rural Africa. Masterful storytelling about a wedding toast gone awry by Malcolm Gladwell.)
(Note: beloved local writer/performer Sarah Syverson is bringing The Raven Narratives, a live storytelling show—like The Moth but with Southwest flair—to Durango. More here).
I really don’t understand exactly what happens to the brain during a concussion, but it seems like some mental armor that leans towards busyness and self-protection gets stripped away. It was like some intellectual part of my brain checked out, exposing something more primitive. What was left was raw emotion, heightened physical sensation, and a bewildering appetite for food and, well, my hot husband.
So, for days, I laid in bed listening to The Moth Live Radio podcasts, crying and laughing and falling in love with all the storytellers. And then I’d ambush Dan, who may have just been innocently checking on me, though always willing to oblige. After it seemed that a pattern was being established, Dan mused in his grateful but unattached way, “I guess this must be part of your healing.”
Col’s lego narwhal, which in my highly emotional state, had me convinced it was OK that he doesn’t always start written sentences with capital letters. If he can build a lego narwhal from scratch, he can do anything!
Last night, upon my mom’s recommendation, we put on Mozart, for its brain-organizing benefits, while playing Ticket to Ride (our current collective favorite board game). Between my turns, I tended dinner; Col whistled and tapped the table; Rose smuggled the rat to the table via her hair and then shrieked when the rat scratched her neck. Which is to say, it was ordinary family life, requiring highest brain function and tolerance; and it all felt reassuringly normal.