Trial Separation

'I want a trial separation, Malcolm.'

‘I want a trial separation, Malcolm.’

I just passed the four and half month mark of living apart from my children. In our new arrangement, I spend Sunday to Thursday in DC for my new job. I plow through DC and Baltimore traffic to return to Harrisburg to be home on Fridays and then a short weekend together. Sometimes I feel like Laura Ingalls spending miserable weekdays lodging with a cold and stingy family during her first teaching job, pining for Friday when Almanzo Wilder would pick her up in his sleigh and take her home to her real life with Ma and Pa and the rest of her family.

The arrangement is made possible only by our generous pastors who are hosting Helen and Mei. They drop off and pick up, drive to track and field meets, play practice, special events. They feed them, nurture them and claim to enjoy them, particularly Helen’s fierce political sentiments and Mei’s perpetual energy. They report the girls get along and are well-behaved, so maybe they have someone else’s kids after all.

And I’ve been taken in by a new friend in DC who welcomed me inter her spare room and shares her home, her son, her cats and the occasional glass of wine with me. What wonderful gifts as I adjust to a new job and continue the near impossible search to find a new home that will check off the boxes of good schools, decent commute and what turns out to be the biggest challenge…affordability.

I’ll be honest. There have been some moments of giddiness. No need to look after anyone but myself! No grumpy children to get out the door in the morning! No dinner prepared? No problem. Stay after work and go out? No worries.

But other parts are a trial. Mei has a meltdown every Thursday night after I pick them up to bring home. She acts out whatever she’s been holding in all week and aims it all at me. Helens grades have all slipped. I’ve missed school events and track meets and teacher conferences. I’ve lost 18 weeks of dinner time chatter, bedtime stories, teenage drama and bickering over who gets the computer.

Last night I called Mei after her 4th grade concert only to hear her whisper, “It was awesome. And awful. There was no one there to clap for me”. That’s when I knew. Time to end this trial separation. It has been a chance for all of us to grow in some ways. It’s been a time to receive the kindness of others. But it has also been a trial of endurance and split lives and the ache of absence. Time for it to end. Time to be there in person to clap one another.


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Curry in a Hurry

I am not the sort of mother who wants to hold onto her children’s childhood. I’m mostly excited by each new passage and stage as they grow up.

Even so, I sometimes feel a pang when I realize they have ceased to do something that used to define them as they pass to the next phase of growth. Which means I never marked the last time Helen called me “MommyNanny” (her toddler name for me, probably based on marathon readings of “I Love You Like Crazycakes”), said “dee-doo” instead of thank you or wouldn’t go to bed without her blanket (which happened sometime last year…I still miss blankie). And I never noted when Mei stopped telling stories to her stuffed animals, no longer stretched her arms upwards demanding “Uppys” or ended the unbearable phase of not eating the skins of any food (I’m not talking just apples here, but also tomatoes and grapes and peas, for goodness sake, things that just aren’t meant to be peeled).

I realize with a start that something precious is gone only when it has been absent for some time. It is of course entirely unrealistic to expect we should be able to calendar our closures and say goodbye on a schedule. Children grow and change on their own time. But it still catches me sometimes, a reminder of how fleeting this life is, the sweetness of moments that will never return.

Today is the first week of fall schedule with after school activities that demanded I make something in a crockpot, and fast. So between meeting the school bus and driving to kung fu class, I put what I could find (tomato paste, broth, grated ginger, garlic, sweet curry powder, cumin, more garlic, carrots, onion and chicken thighs) in the pot and set it on high. I spent the next two hours regretting the decision since my kids had never before welcomed curry of any kind and one or both were sure to turn up their noses at dinner. We arrived back home to a heavenly smell and I threw some frozen nan on the grill. Five minutes later we were eating. “What is this flavor? “they wanted to know. “Why haven’t you made this before?” Far be it from me to point out that past curries had sat, untouched, while they carried on about how awful it was.

So not all these losses are sad. Like Helen’s mysterious and violent night terrors, Mei’s productive, projectile pre-tonsillectomy sneezes and both girls toilet training, there are some thingsI don’t miss at all. And we can’t wait to eat the leftover curry tomorrow.

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Tracker Jacker

European_wasp_white_bgIt is the second day of NaBloPoMo and I’m already behind on my commitment to write a daily post. Which is why I usually avoid this sort of forced march commitment  to accomplish anything in a proscribed amount of time. Daily discipline has never been my thing (except for regular mealtimes) and there is nothing worse than tripping out of the starting gate and knowing you’ll have put extra effort into catching up. Which is where I am now, eating the dust of the other bloggers already thundering down the track.

My excuse is in a nest of yellow jackets that I not only stepped into, but stood on, yesterday morning. Not ten minutes into a Labor Day hike, my sister yelled, “I’m getting stung” and took off down the trail. If I was smart I would have done the same, but instead I stood looking around, squinting to see what could be the culprit. There WERE little insects flitting through the air but I couldn’t quite make out what they were. Until I felt a sting, and looked down at 5-6 yellow and black striped Vespula maculifrons perched on various parts of my foot, about to commence synchronized stinging. I yelled and ran too.

The rest of the day was spent in a Benadryl haze, watching the swelling and feeling the pain creep up my foot and ankle, unchecked by ice or elevation or a magical concoction of the juice of crushed plantain leaves that a 15-year-old house guest whipped up. She assured me it was the same cure used to counter the venom of the fearsome Tracker Jacker wasps in the Hunger Games. It may have worked for Katniss, but not for me. Today my foot is the size of a football (see what I did there?) and the pain is now mixed with itching, a combination you really want to avoid. The doctor said this could go on for several days, just continue to ice and elevate, ice and elevate.

The silver lining of course is that when you can’t walk or drive a car, you have to stay put. And while laid up, you could even have time to write a few advance posts. Wish me luck. Now back to ice and elevation.

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Chair Prayer

20140731-094551-35151977.jpg  I met a faith healer in the Harrisburg airport today. The girls and I had made our usual slightly-behind-schedule dash to the airport, parked, shuttled, securitied and pulled in at the gate to discover a    flight delay. We settled in to wait.

My back was screaming from some ill advised yard work the day before and I couldn’t sit, so stretched and paced. 15 minutes before boarding I looked across the concourse at a folding screen partially blocking a massage chair. I hadn’t noticed that before. Something made me go over. “How much for 10 minutes?” I asked the woman at the desk. “$10.10,” the woman said, “It will be the fastest and best 10 minutes of your life.” There was a guy behind the screen waiting for a half hour massage. “You go ahead if you have a plane to catch,” he said. The girls were in clear view and sunk into their iPods, so I did.

“What do you do?” the woman asked. Here it goes, I thought, and admitted I was a pastor. I tensed for the usual questions, curiosity or confession but instead she said, “Then this is free, as thanks for all the good work you do. God bless your heart.”

I probably tensed even more then. How could I not pay her?? How could I accept something for free? “God gives us every good thing,” she went on, “and its so important to give what we can.” Over my protests, she said it was an honor to do this for someone who serves God. And she thanked Jesus for me and the opportunity to be together in this moment in what was a statement that seemed very much like a prayer.

I told her about the nun massage therapist I used to see, who would always pray before working on me. “I always planned to be a nun,” she said, “but ended up married to a Baptist and mother of five children instead.” Whereupon she began to pray as she kneaded and smoothed, a long prayer that could have been strange or uncomfortable but it wasn’t. It was beautiful, deeply moving and it left me profoundly grateful.

She prayed for my parents and grandparents, all who taught or raised me. She prayed for the faith of all who believe. She prayed for those who don’t know God. When she started to pray about “America’s enemies” I thought, “Here it comes.” But she prayed that they should lay down arms to seek peace, as should we. She prayed for Jesus’ presence with those who suffer and are in pain. Her words wove God’s presence behind that screen, around that chair and into the crowds of the concourse just beyond.

The middle of a busy airport is a strange place to receive such grace. Its a strange place to get a massage too. But it was the right place to have a holy encounter, to be ministered to and sent on vacation blessed in body and spirit. It was among the best and fastest 10 minutes of my life.

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Candy Land

Candy-Land-Wallpaper-candy-land-2843701-1024-768I wish I had a nickel for every time someone nodded toward my younger daughter’s nonstop action and said, “I wish I had a fraction of her energy,” I would have a LOT of nickels. It happens all the time. Strangers in the grocery store. Parents at school. The other day a young Mom with a very active toddler AND an infant looked at me with pity and said, “You must be exhausted all the time.” Ouch. But yes, I am.

Two years ago our family therapist suggested Mei might have ADHD and gave me a referral for an assessment. I made an appointment, then cancelled. I come from a medication-averse family that doesn’t believe in better living through chemistry. It still doesn’t occur to my mother to take something for a headache, upset stomach or other minor ill unless one of her children urges it. I was troubled about the possibility of medicating my child. I was scared of reaching for the easy solution and thought it might get better as she matured. So we waited.

Fast forward a year.  After a particularly embarrassing public event with Mei, I finally acknowledged that a child who can’t sit still, talks incessantly, drums every available surface to burn off energy and pops up like a whack-a-mole when supposedly doing homework might be more than just active. Maybe it was time, for her sake, to check things out. I made the appointment.

Upon entering the doctor’s office, Mei saw a box with the game Candy Land, took it down and started playing with it. She arranged the cards for the Molasses Swamp, Candy Cane Forest and other sugary locations. Then rearranged them. She sorted the counters with the red, green, yellow, blue squares that instruct you how many spaces to go.  She moved the little gingerbread men around and around the board. I went in to see the doctor and wouldn’t you know Mei sat and played Candy Land with herself the entire time. The kid who can’t sit still SAT STILL and amused herself for a solid 45 minutes. I felt like a child faking sick to get out of school describing symptoms to an increasingly skeptical parent. Not that I know this from any first-hand experience.

I was advised that without corroborating testimony from another source (school) there couldn’t be any diagnosis. Or prescription. No magic bullet to check the constant motion of my quicksilver daughter.

I was relieved. But I realized then how I had secretly hoped there would be a Mother’s Little Helper pill that would make her easier. That my objections to medication were in tension with the flat out exhaustion of keeping up with her. And I immediately felt guilty for wanting that.

Nine months later, multiple tests, teacher meetings and physician appointments and we are in possession of an ADHD diagnosis and have a prescription ready to start tomorrow. I hope its the right thing. Might it change her personality along with her behavior? Because the parts of her that drives me to distraction are also the parts I love and that make her…her. These days I know that children as medicated as easily as giving them grapes for snack. But I do it with trepidation mixed with some small hope.

When I explained to Mei what we were doing and what is was for she clutched me and exclaimed, “It’s going to take my best super power – running fast!” I explained it would help her slow down her brain and focus, but not the rest of her body. “OK,” she said. “Let’s do it. As long as I can take it with some chocolate.” We’ll see where this candy land takes us.


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Best Self Management

We are at the Jumbo Buffet and Grill, sitting in the chaos of the farewell dinner for our two Chinese summer exchange students, Amy and Cherry. Chaotic because after a lengthy talent contest and lengthier speeches, the 40-some students have become restless and are tuning out the podium while tuning into their conversations. The podium doesn’t seem to notice they are drowned out by chatter and my own kids contribute to the noise, imploring me in turn, “I’m bored” and “Please, can we go?”.

We can’t. We were hotly pursued by the coordinator seeking host families for a two week stint. When I said we would be out of town for the first few days she said they would work around it. When I finally agreed to take someone she said, “Great! Can you take four? I really need you to take more.” She pushed aside my protests until I pointed out I didn’t have enough room in the car for my kids and four more. We bargained and finally settled on two, which was probably her aim all along.

That said, Amy and Cherry have been easy to host. They say they like my cooking. They clear their dishes. They are quiet, ask no questions (either not very curious or hesitant to use their English), spend a lot of time on their phones, tell me about the boys in other host families they think are cute. The main downside is they take a really long time in the shower and I missed out on mine two mornings in a row. If you saw me Friday, that’s why my hair looked that way. Their only requests have been food-related (which of course endeared them to me), to eat fried chicken, french fries and hamburgers. And to go shopping for Air Jordans. I didn’t know it would take multiple stores across two counties to get to the right pair (actually, pairs). So its been fine, and the adage “Guests, like fish, stink after three days” doesn’t apply here.

When I broached the idea of hosting, Helen enthusiastically supported being a host family. Mei of course is enthusiastic about everything. I already knew her vote. But Helen doesn’t like change and usually goes out of her way to reject things that have to do with her birth culture or language. But she even volunteered to give up her room. So we took the plunge. It’s been good.

Back at the farewell dinner, everyone perked up when awards were handed out. Categories were things like “most improved English” or “best Chinese representative”. We took note when the last award was announced. “Best Self Management” was basically for the kids who neither excelled at language nor were particularly well-behaved, but who got through the trip without inflicting any major damage. As the names were announced, Amy told us these kids were the most difficult on the trip.

A pack of boys rushed forward to get their award, mugging for the camera, talking and jostling while the presenter spoke, acting out after a long spell of sitting still. Amy, Cherry, the girls and I all laughed, sharing the joke together that there was precious little self management actually going on. But lots of wonderful new relationships being born.

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Halyomorpha halys

stink bugIn PA we have a state insect, the eponymous Photuris pennsylvanica,  more popularly known as the firefly.  In some parts of the state (like where I grew up) people call them lightning bugs instead. I spent many summer evenings marveling at the lighted fairy landscape they made of the back yard.  My sisters and I would chase them down, following their trail in the air as the flashing, yellow-green beacon on the tip of their abdomen would always, eventually, give them away. After  a stretch of years where the population was down, and summer evenings dull and empty, they seem to have staged a comeback of late and again light up the nights for my children to chase in their turn. I am glad about this.

There’s a new contender on the scene for an unofficial state insect with the magnificent name of Halyomorpha halys, a.k.a. the (Brown Marmorated) Stink Bug. Nobody is going to be chasing them for pleasure. Like lightning bugs, stink bugs come out when the weather gets warm. Like fireflies, they bring a sensory dimension to communing with nature. Only instead of a pleasing flash of light, stink bugs emit a strong smell that some liken to cilantro. Especially when crushed (I have smashed my share). But believe me, they are not an ingredient you want in your guacamole.

The old adage, if you see a cockroach on the counter there are millions more in the walls, holds true for stink bugs, too. When the temperature plummets in fall they find their way into your house, slipping in through cracks too small to see and take up residence anywhere narrow and dark. I’ve found them rolled up in my socks, on the underside of furniture, inside books covers, clustered behind pictures hanging on the wall.  Here they stay until spring, in a semi-dream state, although occasionally an early-riser will emerge during the winter. I’ll often hear the interloper before I see it, betrayed by the loud click as its wings snap open like a switch blade, just before launching into ponderous flight. The good news is they are slow moving, slow flying even, easily captured and either flushed or deposited outside to freeze. The bad news is there are so many of them, there’s no end in sight. And with no natural predators, they have become a real agricultural nuisance, decimating fruit and vegetable crops left and right.

There’s a poem by Lucille Clifton inspired by a report that the cockroach population was in decline. Clifton imagines this supposed good news is actually “the beginning of the end of the world” and describes “the morning the roaches/ walked into the kitchen/ bold with they bad selves” before they all march away.  Forever. I think of that line every time a bold, bad stink bug emerges, insolently perching on my pillow, brazenly marching up the wall, or insolently flying across the room.  Except I know these guys are not leaving anytime soon. They are here to stay. Better get used to the scent of cilantro.

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Orange You Glad?

"The Gates" - Christo

“The Gates” – Christo

Blame it on the 70’s.  Not knowing any better, I embraced the worst that decade had offer, the big bug-like eyeglasses, the even bigger hair (thank you, Farrah) and a wardrobe of flammable polyester. I grew up watching sitcoms  where the ranch houses (and my own house) were  done up in the trinity of requisite shades: avocado, harvest gold and pumpkin orange. I’d put all that behind me, or so I thought, until I realized my favorite color came straight out of the Mike and Carol Brady decorating play book.

It started  out innocently enough. An orange sweater (chosen by the only boyfriend I’ve ever had with any fashion sense) garnered me a compliment, and then another, then another. I realized whenever I wore the color orange I would get positive feedback. I started to wear more orange. Pavlov would be proud.  Years passed. I was drawn to orange things but wouldn’t admit the attraction.When asked my favorite color (which my children did ask with alarming frequency – they knew I wasn’t telling the truth), I would still reply blue or green or something respectable. Then I turned 50, and I realized life was too short to not own up to my passions and that orange is, indeed,  my favorite color.

Why? Well,  it makes me feel happy. According to color psychologists (yes, this is a field) orange is “optimistic, sociable and extroverted. ” Me too! At least once a week. Others opine that orange is warm and happy. It offers a clear alternative to its neighbors on the color wheel. Face it, yellow is intense and red is aggressive. Apparently orange stimulates the appetite (which may be a reason to wear it rather than decorate with it). It  is attributed with healing properties.  Orange is celebrated in the robes of Buddhist monks, as a sign of  Autumn, a symbol of Protestants and of the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. Less popular connotations include an infamous herbicide, Agent Orange, and infamous homophobe, Anita Bryant.

In Alice Walker’s Beloved, the character Baby Suggs takes to her bed at the end of her long life “to think about the colors of things…because she never had time to see, let alone enjoy it before.” After a lifetime of struggle she  spends the rest of her days contemplating her quilt. She only speaks to make a request for color. “‘Bring me a little lavender in, if you got any. Pink, if you don’t . . .It  took her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green. She was well into pink when she died.”

I am committing myself  to contemplating orange this year, although I won’t be taking to bed for it. I’ve started by painting my kitchen. My friend Jan, an architect whose color instincts are always right, assured me orange would work with cherry cabinets and blinding white counter tops. It does, though it took several trips to the paint store after weeks of poring over color chips before I hit the jackpot with something called Kumquat. Wow. It is gorgeous. I keep walking into the kitchen to turn on the lights just to take a look. The more I look, the happier I feel. That’s orange for you. Definitely the new black. Now if I could just figure out why I can’t stop snacking.

What color makes you feel good?


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gingerA Mei Moment: I am making peanut sauce tonight. Mei is sitting at the counter, downing her third dinner (1st course before tap lessons, 2nd course after tap and before gymnastics, 3rd course after gymnastics). All courses include pasta.

I take some ginger root out of the freezer, slice off the skin and start to microplane it into the sauce. It is still amazingly moist and fragrant on the inside. The scent of ginger wafts and coils around us.

Mei snaps out of her reverie. “Mom, what’s that stuff?” she demands. “That, my dear, is ginger,” I say.  I hold the stump of the root under her nose and she inhales. “Mmmmm”, she says.

Then, urgently, “Mom, we have to keep this stuff around all the time!”

“Why is that, honey?”

With the conviction of a true believer she said, “If we smell it when we are sad then the sadness will go away.”

I stop stirring. “Really? Can ginger take away our sadness?”. “Yes Mom, that smell will take away sad thoughts and leave only happy ones.”

I pause. I’ve heard crazier theories and tried less effective remedies for sadness. I take a whiff of the spicy root. Its worth a try.

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The God of Small Things

whipped-cream-DSC_5504Our small family had gotten out of the habit of  occasionally serving the evening meal with Helping Hands Ministries, a soup kitchen in downtown Harrisburg. So today we rectified that. Helping Hands is one of those amazing loaves and fishes efforts held together by the passion and commitment of one woman,  Kathleen, who has been keeping this movable feast going for eighteen years. Over that time she has built up an impressive line up of donors, area restaurants and stores that give their surplus, leftovers, and almost-expired stuff to be served up for dinner.

Lord knows where she stores all this food, but every Sunday she arrives at the church with a van full. The buckets and trays get whisked by volunteers onto serving tables and portioned out onto the waiting plates of those who line up for what may  be their only meal of the day. Kathleen is everywhere at once, supervising the kitchen, lining up the food trays in the right order, directing and redirecting volunteers, and barking out orders, including the dictum that no one, NO ONE, can have a second desert until everyone has had one. After that its open season.

Today Helen was on sandwich making detail in the kitchen and Mei and I landed the important job of squirting whipped cream onto the diner’s sweet potato pie slices. If you know Mei, you know this was an ideal job for her. My role was preventing her from spraying the entire can into her own mouth when no one was looking. Since we were stationed by the sweets we also had to guard the deserts from opportunists.

Folks came through the line, the curious mix up people who needed a meal tonight. Some looked and smelled as if they were chronically homeless, sporting the wild hair and raw skin of people without shelter from the elements,  lined up next to others who  clearly had some way to keep themselves clean and pressed. The crowd was mostly men, and one couple with a baby.

Near the end of the procession came a man more weather beaten than most. His cheeks were sunken in, his teeth bad, hands ingrained with grime, his eyes a bit unfocused. He dithered over the deserts, undecided between red velvet cake and banana cream pie, settling on a slab of the latter. “Do you want whipped cream on that?” Mei asked (coals to Newcastle being no problem to her). He turned and noticed her, his face brightening. “Hello little girly!” he enthused, then put down his plates on the floor and began to rummage in his sack. And coat pockets. And pants pockets. And rummaged some more, until he pulled out a book marker and handed it to Mei. “For you” he said, then picked up his meal and shuffled away. She glanced at it and handed it to me. There was a picture of Mother Teresa at the top, and  this quote:

God does not call us to do great things but to do small things with great love.

Wow. I breathed out. A homeless theologian. Here I was wondering if coming down here to squirt whipped cream onto plates had any meaning, and this guy had answered my question, bringing in no less an authority than the Angel of Calcutta.

I spent the rest of the serving time musing over the wonderful message God had slipped to me and resolving how I would continue to do small things with great love. Until my friend  shuffled past on his way out, flipped through an enormous stack of book marks and and pressed two more into my hand. I held them up, wondering what wisdom was there. “SAVE SEX” one proclaimed. “Don’t waste your heart, body, future on the pretenders. WAIT FOR YOUR MATE” . The other assured me that abortion is a sin.

OK, not the messages I was looking for. And given the enormous stash of book marks this guys has, I assume he scoops them up by the handful at another church where he gets his meal on a different night. and hands them out indiscriminately. Which means Mother Teresa’s wisdom may not have been selected just for me. But I’ll take it anyway. They are good words for a new year. Pretty similar to these words from one of my other favorite Catholic Saints, Dorothy Day:

“The sense of futility is one of the greatest evils of the day…People say, “What can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?” They cannot see that we can only lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.”

Meanwhile, I watched Kathleen as she spoke to each diner, giving them focused attention when they came up to her, often ending with a big hug. The clean and tidy right along with the smelly and dirty. And I wonder if the real miracle of small things here is not the food, although organizing this meal week after week is beyond me, but the gift of attention, respect and seeing the humanity of each person. Thank God for such small things and may it be multiplied by us.


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