Hello September


via Daily Prompt: Critical

“Mama, I’m so sad for her.”  My sensitive daughter, as awkward socially as I was at her age, has a big heart.  She has had friends battling big demons, problems that I hope my children and your children will never have to deal with, and comes to me with questions on how to help them.  She wants to know why her friends who are so sad, can’t see that she wants to help them, to be a shoulder to cry on, and a listening ear, and can’t understand why that is not enough to fix their problems.  These friends thankfully have loving parents who are getting them the help they need. My children have been lucky enough to grow up with plenty, a mother and father who love them and each other fiercely, a family bonded across miles by real affection and goofy humor with both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles and innumerable cousins, friends who are steady and enough of a tribe to create a blanket of security. But even having all of the above doesn’t make you immune to trouble.  Having to confront the turmoil of the teenage years so early definitely feels like summer is over.

September

It’s September, which for most people bring to mind crisp, cool evenings and pumpkin-flavored everything (to my husband’s chagrin).  Fall is my favorite time of year and the smell of school supplies makes my nerd-heart want to dance.  But September also stands for something very real and very critical.

September 1 kicks off National Suicide Prevention Month.  I remember the first (and unfortunately, not the last) time suicide touched my life. I was 13, the same age as my daughter now, and a boy from my school whom I did not know had taken his life over the weekend.  I saw girls crying in the hallways.  Many of them talked about the last time they had seen him, their last words with him, or memories they had shared.    The question overwhelmingly asked is the same question my daughter asks me now. Why?

SuicidePreventionMonth

For those who have never felt this way, it can seem incomprehensible.  Many of my veterans struggle with this, as well as many first-responders, but we can’t forget that even kids can feel this way, and don’t have the maturity to think through the very real consequences to actions that can be heart-breaking.

I tried to explain to my daughter what I think it is like when you are so depressed and full of despair that you think life cannot get better.  I told her that even though her friends know that she cares deeply for them, it is like being at the bottom of a hole so deep and so dark, that even though you know the way out is up there, it feels so far away that you cannot even see the light, or if you do, you’re not sure if it’s just your eyes playing tricks on you.  And you feel so tired that trying to get to that light is hard, and curling up in yourself feels so much easier.

She said hopefully, “I could climb down in the hole and pull her out. I’m pretty strong, even though everyone calls me skinny.”

Man, I love this kid so much.  So I hugged her, even though at 13, she’s not always into hugs no matter how much I tell her everyone needs a minimum number of hugs a day to stay healthy. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-hug-a-day-keeps-the-doctor-away/

And I told her that being a kid, it would be too hard to climb down in that hole, because it’s her friend’s pit, and even adults sometimes can’t climb down there, but that she could keep trying to extend a hand to her friend by being the best friend to her she can be and telling her that she cares about her so she knows which direction is out, but that no matter how far down she reaches into that deep, dark hole, her friend has to climb up far enough to grab on, because no one else can climb those walls but the person who is at the bottom of the hole.  And hopefully with help, they can do that, but it takes work and time, and never giving up. And being with someone who is trying to do that can make you feel helpless.

We aren’t helpless though.  What we can do is to recognize that those we love may be at the bottom of that pit of despair even if it doesn’t seem like it to everyone else.  We can shine a light to show the way out, share words of encouragement and provide nourishment for the soul with kind words for the hard journey, but no one can travel that road for them, though we can walk with them.  It is a hard thing to say to a child of 13, and a harder one for an adult who sees others suffering to know, but the hardest task is figuring out who is in need and trying to help them before it is too late.

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My attempt to capture the eclipse

I’m sharing this because you can never know what lies in the heart of another.  Please be kind to one another. Be that light for someone. We never know what demons others are battling, with bright smiles and shining eyes, Facebook posts filled with kids starting school and Labor Day plans.  It starts with awareness.  And a good heart, whether you are a confused 13-year-old with skinny arms or a mom who wishes she were better at these kinds of talks.

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Finding Our Stars


When I was 12 years old, I wrote a silly poem called “A Well-Rounded Gal” featuring lines about being able to recite poetry while standing on my head wielding a sword with my left hand, and all manner of other skills that a prepubescent girl who’d read all the classic Arthurian, science fiction and fantasy novels thought were requisite to qualify as a Renaissance woman. Though the list was a bit on the fantastical side (though I would still love to learn how to properly sword-fight), in reality, like everyone I think, I kept a mental list of things I wanted to be knowledgeable about, skills I thought a real adult would know. Perhaps it is part of the pitfalls of perfectionism or some crackpot bill of goods sold to all of us, that dangles that carrot of “If Only”, this feeling of inadequacy that comes from knowing less than I should.  It’s not that Socratic knowing-what-I-don’t-know inspiration that prompts us to seek knowledge, but the palm-sweat inducing sensation brought on by the sound of “should.”

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On that mental list that a Renaissance, always-prepared Girl Scout dragon mama carried in the toolbox is the ability to navigate by way of the constellations. Now as anyone who knows me will tell you, I have a terrible sense of direction. I frequently turn left, meaning to turn right.  I get lost, or as I call it “go adventuring” on a regular basis–in places I’ve lived for years.  I’ve learned that when in doubt, whichever way my instinct tells me to go, I should go the opposite, which is then usually the correct way home. Before we moved to a place where my mountain is always in the East, determining where North lies without GPS was a multi-step process that involved:

1. Looking to first determine where the sun was in relation to where I was (not as easy as you think in a state like Michigan where it’s frequently overcast).

2. Humming the lines to an old Girl Scout song: “The golden sun sinks in the West, Great Spirit calls Girl Scouts to rest… ”

3. Recalling which way I-75 runs, and where I was in relation to this freeway

4.Imagining a compass rose and mentally walking around this to determine in which direction lay North.

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So, perhaps being able to navigate by the stars is asking a bit much.  I would be willing to settle for being able to find the constellations, I thought.

So when my middle daughter asked me to come as a chaperone on the school trip to the planetarium, I was stoked. Here was an opportunity to add to my repository of Renaissance woman skills. Our astronomer guide was a woman who had clearly given the talk to elementary school children numerous times throughout the years. One thing I had not counted on was how dark the giant room became once she shut off the lights so we could look up at the ceiling and pretend we were looking up at the night sky.  It was breathtaking, and enlightening, but unfortunately, my super-hero power of being able to sleep anywhere at any time kicked in.  Life skill NOT achieved, though a refreshing nap was had, luckily without any embarrassing snores.

The next opportunity for redemption presented itself at our trip to Chaco Canyon with the Boy Scouts.  The ranger gathered us for a hike after dark (which in my mind seemed like a great opportunity to sprain ankles or have small children fall into gullies) then began speaking about the ancient people who had built the mysterious dwelling places at Chaco Canyon. He told a legend of how the stars were placed in the sky, the constellations a way of explaining how the world began, when crops should be planted, how men and women interacted, and as we sat under the brightening stars waiting for the moon to rise and show us the way, he recounted how these stories told with the constellations as illustrations and backdrop would be told over and over again.  The people knew those stars and the moon like we know street signs, he said.  Their world revolved around lightness and dark, without artificial light to lead them astray.

I realized then, we all have that longing in us to know and understand the heavens, from ancient people to all of us with our Kindles and smartphones.  We all struggle to make meaning of those bright lights in the distance, beckoning us to wonder what lies in the abyss and the unknown.  What I longed for at 12 is the same thing we all have wanted across millenia– to be able to find our way home in the darkness, and no amount of “Shoulds” can dim the stars.  They are there, as they have been for millions of years, waiting for us to tell our stories.

As National Blog Post Month begins again, I’m trying yet again to find my way back. Unlike the mariners of old, keeping journals, star charts and compasses that helped them differentiate the days on dark seas, navigating their way home by the constellations, I lost my internal compass, stopped writing, and got a little lost as I tend to do.  I am grateful today for the observatories that allow us to grasp for brighter lights on the horizon, for the stars in our world that stay constant, and for those wise people in our life like Socrates, who remind us to keep searching for truth. I hope you enjoy this month’s journey to find it with me.

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We visited the Griffith Park Observatory in February,  which is located atop Mount Hollywood, and was featured in the James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best-Laid Plans


Those dark brown eyes ringed with lady-killer eyelashes looked huge in his pale, greenish face.

“Was I brave, mama?”

Oh, little man, you know how to break your mama’s heart into tiny little pieces. And just like that, I knew we wouldn’t be going to Colorado for Thanksgiving.

“You sure were, buddy. Let’s hope you don’t need to be brave tonight.” But, unfortunately, he was up vomiting twice again through the night, after the phone call that had me hurrying back to his dojo, where he managed to vomit 4 times in the 15 minutes it took me to get there.  He made it through the rest of the night, humor intact, “I am kinda greenish, like the Hulk!” with only a bit of drama.  “You don’t know what I’m going through here, Mama,” he sighed, as he rested his flushed cheeks on my chest.

Since Saturday, I’ve been building up to the realization that we likely won’t be spending Thanksgiving with my aunt, uncle and cousins in Colorado Springs.  One of the delights of moving out this way was getting to know better my father’s youngest sister, my uncle and the cousins who had come once for a visit many, many years ago when we were kids. Now we’re all grown with kids and careers of our own, and getting to know and love them anew as adults has been such a gift.

My aunt is an amazing athlete (skills which obviously skipped me), golfing like a professional, and regaling us with stories of running the Pikes Peak marathon when she was older than I am now.  She used to traverse Pikes Peak regularly, and my favorite story to tell about her is the time she met some college kids just knackered out on the ride down from the top of the peak on the Cog Railway, defeated by the mountain.  “The trick is not to stop,” she advised them. “Ask me how old I am. I used to climb Pikes Peak once a week.”  She is a tiny little fashionista, always perfectly coiffed and dressed, and has more style in her little finger than my whole body.

My uncle has a deep, rumbling chuckle that makes me smile every time I hear it. He’s a night owl like me, and I love to hear his stories from when he was in the military, which is how he met my aunt. I think my husband looks forward to hanging out with him as much as I do, so when he woke up on Saturday feeling like he’d been hit by a bus, hacking and congested, and said that he wasn’t sure about driving up to Colorado Springs especially with a storm brewing, I knew he wasn’t joking, and that our plans for Thanksgiving were in jeopardy.

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I know that Christmas is usually everyone’s favorite holiday, but for me, it’s Thanksgiving.  My sister laughs because she knows how much I love to eat–“So, of course, it’s your favorite!” I love that the focus is on being grateful, the food and family.  Every Thanksgiving I look forward to being with everyone around a huge table groaning under the weight of a giant turkey, a ham studded with cloves and pineapples, lumpy mashed potatoes, squash with no weird marshmallow topping, kim chi, sausage stuffing, salad with interesting bits like corn and mango thrown in a la little sister, and corn bread. Every Thanksgiving, my mother would try a new dish, and if it went over well might get added to the rotation. I’d wake up every Thanksgiving, and the house would already be filled with the smell of roasting turkey and red seasoned pork loin (because we’re Asian, duh).  The bread prepared for days prior to Thanksgiving would be ready to be tossed with shitake mushrooms, sausage, shredded carrots, celery and sage to make the stuffing, my favorite Thanksgiving dish. Given my mother’s aversion to baking pies, desserts would be brought by family, and we couldn’t wait for my aunt’s famous homemade pistachio pudding pie to arrive.

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As we got older and could participate more in the decision-making, we’ve tried various forms of turkeys–in the roasting pan, in the oven, in a deep fryer, injected with mango infusions, covered in butter, in a bag, thoroughly covered in various rubs, stuffed with apples, celery, cranberries, carrots, onions and garlic. Regardless of how the turkey tasted that year, the outcome was always the same: family gathered, thanks given for another year together, and delicious leftovers for days.

My little guy’s stomach bug was the topper to the decision not to leave today as planned.  He is better today, keeping food down, but the big guy is still contagious, and I would not bring sickness to my aunt’s house.  To top it all off, a huge winter storm is making its way toward Colorado, making it impossible to make it there and back in time for my sick firefighter to make it in to work on Black Friday. This isn’t my first Thanksgiving away from home and the rest of the family, but it doesn’t make it any easier. To distract myself from missing everyone, I follow my mother’s example and challenge myself to make a new dish. The first Thanksgiving it was a roast duck. Tomorrow I’ll be trying my hand at a pecan pie cobbler, and I’ll be preparing the bread, turkey legs and pork loin, inviting all the friends who are part of my family here, and doing the best we can to make it Thanksgiving wherever we are, though my heart is in Colorado Springs and a small town outside of Detroit.

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The first Thanksgiving meal cooked on my own after we moved–not quite the groaning table of my childhood, but tasty or so I was told. 🙂

 

 

International Day for Tolerance


Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the International Day for Tolerance established by the United Nations. The concept of tolerance is a curious one. If you say you tolerate something, it implies you are not enthusiastic in your support of it. So why would the United Nations pick the word “tolerance”? Why not acceptance or love or some other equally touchy-feely word? Could it be because they are realists, and don’t really believe in a goal in which all people in all nations could someday love or even accept one another? History, and even more specifically recent history, would support this more cynical viewpoint, especially as the backlash from the events in Paris, Beiruit, Iraq, and Syria have led to calls from governors in the United States to close their doors to Syrian refugees.

If you look at the word tolerance in its broader form, however, nuances emerge that perhaps could shed light on the choice of the the word.  In mechanical terms, it could be described in regards to the strength/ability of an object to carry a certain weight, or an object made to fit within certain proscribed standards and specifications. Increased accuracy of measurement and quality of instruments leads to improved tolerance.  A carpenter would choose a finely tuned saw with a razor-sharp edge to saw a piece of lumber into 2 pieces that would have the finest tolerance, meaning barely any difference between the two edges when placed next to one another.  The ability to “meet up” these two pieces which would allow for the best match would be one in which the raw edges have been honed to the point that the pieces can mesh into 1 stronger object.

Words have power, as we all know from playground taunts to criticisms from loved ones.  That power comes from the ability to evoke strong emotions.  Take the two words “refugee” and “migrant”.  Refugee has connotations of seeking sanctuary from harm, while migrants evokes movement for gain.  When we look at others, meaning those we consider different from ourselves, the words we use to describe them allows us to either shorten the distance between us and them, or bring them closer.  My family and I were refugees from Vietnam and stayed in refugee camps in the Philippines and Guam awaiting acceptance into this country, then became citizens through the naturalization process. Looking back at media reports regarding Vietnamese refugees who fled the war in Vietnam, the word migrant is not used.  So why the difference?  What is the difference between one group of people fleeing violence, bloodshed, terror and persecution and another?  Even the word refugee, however, implies that they are in need, and in fact, they are. But the fact also exists that some of the greatest contributors to this country have been at one time or another refugees.

This video highlights a few of these individuals including Albert Einstein:

http://www.attn.com/stories/3122/famous-refugees?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=viralvideoposttext&utm_campaign=videos

Yes, but, what about all the refugees who have performed acts of terrorism, the governors would argue?  How do we protect our citizens from carrying out their hidden agendas? Let’s take a look at some of these terrifying refugees, and postulate how much damage they can do to our country. Perhaps by studying them closely, we can figure out what their hidden agenda is. (all images attributed to Swedish photographer and twice-winner of the World Press Photo awards Magnus Wennman, from his photo project Where the Children Sleep).

http://www.buzzfeed.com/lynzybilling/where-syrian-children-sleep#.rhJ3ZV3jG

What happened to this that adorns a symbol of our nation’s compassion?

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

If we look at the situation in regards to the Syrian refugees, using this broader concept of tolerance, it begins to make more sense.  We need the ability to carry the weight of knowledge in order to have an increased tolerance. The increased accuracy of measurement comes with our ability to look closely at the facts as they stand without the clouding that comes from fear, suspicion or anger, measuring them against the standards of truth.  The quality of our instruments, the minds and hearts by which make these measured decisions, should also be held to the highest standards and ideals upon which this country was founded.  We must polish our rough edges, to the point we can see that there is barely any difference between our two sides. We are human beings on both sides, and if we can increase our tolerance, we can again become the nation that our forefathers envisioned, one in which “the hungry, the poor, and the oppressed” can find sanctuary.

There is no easy solution to this.  We are a nation that already has hungry, poor and oppressed within our own borders. I want to feel safe in my own country from terrorist attacks. I’m not advocating for throwing open the doors to potential security threats. I don’t pretend to have answers for the multitude of problems that our world faces.  I don’t consider myself a political person, and certainly not one seeking controversy or conflict.  But when we as a people can look at small children in need, paint them with the broad brush of fear, and turn away from them, we are not living the ideals of tolerance.  Perhaps I am wrong to seek these ideals, but I know no other way of achieving tolerance than to view one another as human beings, remembering that we were all children once. As a mother, I cannot see pictures of suffering children without thinking of my own, and my heart breaks for these helpless innocents.

Today I am grateful to live in a country that I still believe is the greatest country in the world, with all its flaws and complexities inherent to a nation that was based on free will and independent thought.  I am thankful I have the freedom to debate, and to question our leadership, and that I was allowed to become a citizen of this great nation. I owe all that I have and am to becoming an American citizen, and hope that I am doing my part every day to be worthy of these blessings.

More history on the Internationl Day for Tolerance: http://www.un.org/en/events/toleranceday/

In Which Several Unusual Events Occur


The day began innocuously enough, pushed to a small sliver of the bed by an exceptionally warm little boy who had shown up at my bedside late last night or early morning depending on if you see the glass half-empty or half-full. He has not crept into my bed in months, but his tear-streaked little round face in the moonlight tugged at my heartstrings, and I could not send him back to his room. Little did I know the surprises the day would bring.

In which a patient faints and technology intervenes:

My patients were not unusual, kind and full of stories of living overseas, but one of my colleagues had the opportunity to use a new device we were just briefed on recently when his patient felt dizzy then lost his balance. The premise of this device is stunning in its simplicity.  As no one in our facility is allowed to lift anything or anyone greater than 30 lbs, it uses a small portable battery-operated generator that allows what looks like several stacked air mattresses to fill sequentially, until the patient is raised to a height that makes it easier to transfer to a gurney or hospital bed.

In which a snowstorm appears suddenly in the desert:

Leaving work, though as always I am grateful for rain in a state that has been drought-stricken for so long, the chill and ongoing downpour had me planning for a quiet day of snuggling in front of the fire watching movies with my husband.  The rain quickly turned into snow as I drove home, which in this high desert place is not usually seen until November 30th, making roads slick and visibility poor, but turning the landscape into a winter wonderland in minutes.

In which a sleeping man surprises me:

Walking into the house, it was unusually quiet, and I found him sleeping on the couch. He is not one who usually naps, preferring to stay on a normal sleeping schedule when home, however, I knew he’d had 8 calls after midnight, the last a structure fire at 6:30 am, so I was glad to see him getting some rest.

In which a tree decides it has taken all it can take:

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As we prepared dinner, we noticed that one of our trees in the backyard had cracked beneath the weight of the heavy wet snow. It fell over as quietly as if it had just suddenly decided to lay down and rest without a noise.

In which the children try exotic tropical fruit:

My littlest ones have a habit of asking to try all manner of fruits and vegetables in the grocery store, and though I love that they love fruits and vegetables, the practical side of me is unwilling to pay $5 for 1 piece of fruit, especially when we have no idea if it will taste terrible. In the produce section of our grocery store, there is a section in which they sell very ripe fruit that needs to be eaten quickly for 99 cents/bag. Today, one of the bags contained both 2 dragon fruits and several star fruit.  While I cooked dinner, they looked up how to cut them up, and everyone got to try dragonfruit and starfruit appetizers.  Verdict?  Dragonfruit have a beautiful magenta color on the outside, but the interior is black and white, with a refreshing sweet taste and seeds similar to a kiwi.  Definitely delicious!  Starfruit when exceedingly ripe is NOT delicious with a consistency and texture like a cucumber without the seeds.

In which we have turkey cutlets, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce, although it is not Thanksgiving yet:

While at the grocery store, I also saw turkey cutlets on sale, so decided to try a new recipe, or more accurately, I decided to take a few different recipes and then combine them together, add my own combination of spices, and throw them on a bed of kale and spinach.  wpid-20151116_184720-1.jpg

In which we all enjoy a moonlight romp in the snow, especially the dog:

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Today’s accumulation was between 3-5 inches depending on which side of town you lived on.  Numerous snowballs were thrown, a snowman was resurrected, then lost his head, and much rolling around across the front lawn occurred.

In which we all made wishes, and watched them sail into the night sky: 

My husband had been given 2 paper lanterns at the lantern festival where he and his crew were staged to make sure no fire-bearing paper bombs started any forest fires.  He brought them home for us to experience the magic. We watched them drift upward until they were indistinguishable from the stars, as we made silent wishes.

In which we all go for a moonlit snow hike despite it being very close to bedtime:

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Hiking down to the store to return movies was more fun secondary to the slip and slide factor, and the children enjoyed the opportunity to be outside so close to bedtime.

In which we end the day in front of the fire finally: 

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No hot cocoa as requested by the chocolate lover, but we did all warm our frozen feet by the fireplace, then upstairs for bedtime prayers and getting tucked into bed, cozy after the snowy adventure.

Tonight I’m grateful for days filled with the ordinary and the unusual.  I’m thankful to live in a place full of surprises. I pray for days like this for all of you, spent with loved ones in simple pleasures.

 

 

 

Imagine


I grew up in a town where being an artist was not valued in the same way as other more practical jobs. No one in that small town in which I grew up in ever introduced him or herself as an artist.  But in the days following terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Syria, Russian jets being shot down over the Sinai peninsula, and countless other senseless killings, artists are the ones who are showing others the way through the tragedy and heartbreak.

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Through artwork, poetry, photography, and music, artists are showing the world how to mourn, drawing all of us together in community, and demonstrating solidarity in support of peace without the boundaries of language or religion or politics.  Art can cut through all the rhetoric of spin, fanaticism, and shouting, to show us the humanity that links us, and by doing so, reminds us again of what makes us more than the base creatures who perpetrated all of these crimes, which are crimes against not one people, not one country, but against all of humanity.

This musician is a perfect example of an artist who felt so moved to share in a perfect setting a song that draws us all together to mourn and to imagine a better world. If we can imagine it, we can make it a reality, and for this reason, I am proud to call myself an artist, too.

ImagineTellitSlantMama

World Kindness Day vs. Friday the 13th


Today is World Kindness Day. The irony of this in conjunction with the attacks in Paris is heartbreaking. My heart is with all those suffering in France today.  All over the world, monuments and buildings are lit in the colors of the French flag, a symbol of solidarity.  We are all French today.

Amidst the chaos and the tragedy of these horrific acts of terrorism, it is easy to fall into despair at the state of the world.  It is easy to fall back on superstition, to say that nothing good can come on Friday the 13th. To do so though absolves some of the responsibility from the shoulders of those who planned and carried out these attacks. Perhaps they chose today to carry out their nefarious plans because of the negativity associated with Friday the 13th, but the blame is on these evil men, and has nothing to do with the date.

In the midst of the shooting and bombings, there are reports of those going above and beyond the call of duty. Again, saying that the Parisian men and women who are opening their doors for those evacuated from the attack sites using #portesouvertes, or “open doors,” or the medical personnel coming in without being called, and working late into the night beyond their shift, are doing so secondary to World Kindness Day is to take away from the actions of these good people, whose kindness is intrinsic to their nature, and not the result of any specific international event.

Every day, we can choose to do good in a world where negativity and tragedy are highlighted and featured.  Let us continue to be the beacon of light for others, to stand for those who cannot, and to open doors that others would have barricaded forever.

MLKquoteET

In Memoriam


We hold memorials, not only to remember those we love, but also to share with others the stories of our loved ones –the tiny, idiosyncratic details which made them a unique part of our lives, the timeline of events which in their entirety sets a life apart, and the multiplicity of ways in which their lives touched ours. In this telling, we can shed light on this one beloved of our own, whose dying has left us bereft, but whose living cast our souls that much closer to heaven. I shared this memoriam when my grandmother passed away on 11/12/2006.

I’ve told the story of her passing, the privilege of being the last to hear her heart beat. This, then, is the story of her life, as told through the eyes of those who loved her.  She was born to well-to-do parents in North Vietnam in the Year of the Snake.  As was the custom of that time, she finished school at an early age. She married my grandfather at 15. She bore her first child at age 17. She had 11 children in total, though only 7 lived to adulthood.  She and my grandfather were very religious, and were respected elders of the church in her village. She fled from the Communists to South Vietnam in 1954. She became a widow in January 1970. She fled the Communists again in 1975 to come to America. She lived in Woodhaven, Michigan for the next 31 years, raising children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

That story though, leaves out the details which reveal who she really was.  The well-to-do family into which she was born was a farm with no running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing.  She walked to mass daily, carrying her shoes and washing her feet before entering the church.  She married my grandfather, not because he was a wealthy man, but because he was known in her village to be a good man.  Though he had been orphaned, he knew his letters, and was well-respected as an honorable man who had made his own way in the world.  Two years after she married him, at age 17, she gave birth to a son, then buried him shortly thereafter.  She called each of the children who did not survive to adulthood her angels.  Though she had borne 11 children of her own, she took in two sons of a widowed cousin.  She bore all of her children but one daughter at home, often getting up the next day to work. She survived for months at a time, alone, while my grandfather sought work in South Vietnam. When she and her family fled North Vietnam, they left only with the clothing they wore, but my grandfather was able to rescue all of the holy articles from the church, to bring to the South.

Just before Saigon fell in 1975, at age 60, she made her way from her village with her two youngest daughters, first to Vung Tau to get to international waters, where she was turned away because she was a woman, and then through road barricades to Saigon, where her second daughter refused to leave Vietnam without her mother and sisters. She survived refugee camps in Guam and the Philippines before arriving in the city in which her eldest daughter had made her home. She never went back to Vietnam.  She never saw her oldest living son again, as he preceded her in death.

Though she never learned to speak more than a few words of English, she was much more Americanized than some other Vietnamese Americans who arrived at the same time who wouldn’t touch hamburgers or French fries, some of her favorite foods, and one of the few English words she could say. She loved to sing, and taught me all of my prayers.  She loved to fly on airplanes, and preferred the window seat.  She traveled to Vietnamese Catholic pilgrimages in Missouri, vacationed in Tennessee, Mackinac Island, Colorado and California.  She couldn’t wait to go to church every Sunday, and never missed mass until she became ill. She prayed constantly, rosary beads always at hand.  She loved babies, massaging their chubby legs, and kissing them in the Vietnamese tradition by inhaling that unique baby scent.  She loved her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren fiercely, and expected them all to abide by the Christian principles with which she had raised them. She died peacefully in the company of loved ones, having just received Communion.

Who is to say what one person’s passing through this world can mean?  For my grandmother, testament to her life is borne out in those of her own blood standing among you and far away in Vietnam. It is up to us, the living, to bear witness through our actions, to her courage, her love, her wisdom and her faithfulness.

Today I am grateful for the opportunity to have lived with my grandmother until I got married and moved out of the house. I am thankful that she lived long enough to have squeezed and kissed each of my children, and that I’ll always have the example of her loving kindness to guide me.

Taken outside our apartment building in Michigan

                 Taken outside our apartment building in Michigan

A Lovely Day Trip


The soul needs time in open spaces, time to breathe in wide vistas, time on open roads. When I’m able to get away from the neverending bustle bound by the constricts of the hands on a clock, I can feel an almost physical expansion of my soul with every breath. It is a feeling for me like that you get when lying down in bed for the first time as each vertebrae unfurls and stretches.  I am blessed in this adopted place of mine in many places to expand the soul.

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A short drive from my home, and the topography opens up. This beautiful rock formation is intriguing in its shape, as if an enormous chisel fashioned it into these proscribed shapes.

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Autumn is showing its gorgeous colors in the golden leaves of these trees outside a small pueblo. We get much fewer reds and oranges in the foliage here as opposed to Michigan, but the colors of the Earth make up for it.

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The massive striations in these mountains always make me feel like I’m looking back into prehistoric times, looking at layers of history.

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As we drove closer to the caldera, the changes in climate are evident in the colors of the mountains and the types of greenery we saw.

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You can almost sense the presence of ancient rivers and glaciers in the cutouts revealing the hearts of these mountains.

Jemez River

We stopped at a fishing spot after we passed through Jemez Pueblo as the winding roads were making my little guy feel a little green, and found a rushing, gurgling tributary of the Jemez River bounded by large boulders and protected by 2 more bark-than-bite dogs belonging to a man who told us he’d caught a cutthroat trout about a foot long (as measured by his large hands) a bit further up.

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This formation is known as Battleship Rock. It rises majestically from the evergreens around it, surprising in its triangular shape.

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As we neared the caldera, my husband looked for the open state land where he had camped last winter for his first elk hunt. As we neared the place he had pitched his tent, a whole herd of elk appeared suddenly.  Another term for a herd of elk is a gang of elk.  This makes me giggle, thinking of West Side Story’s gangs transformed into elk.

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The gang of elk seemed unusual in that we saw many bulls as well as cows.  As soon as we approached, the whole herd began moving away, though not in a panicked stampede, just a bit offended, as if we had brought stinky cheese to the party, and they had suddenly thought of someplace else they had to be.

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It was much colder here than near home, and we weren’t dressed for the weather as warmly as we should have been. I felt bad for this motorcyclist with whom we were sharing the road, as he was so exposed to the biting winds, and the twisting roads were slippery enough that he was driving at about 25 mph.

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The effects of the Las Conchas fire are still evident over 4 years later. This fire was all over the news when we first moved here, threatening the homes of people we knew, causing respiratory symptoms, and spurring panic. It burned over 156,000 acres. I couldn’t capture the horizontal shadows thrown by the sunlight through the trees as well as I wanted to.

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Within minutes after this, we entered the Valles Caldera with the trees and evergreens suddenly opening into this wide open grassland with copses of trees and springs of the Jemez River suddenly appearing out of the ground.

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This is one of the newest Junior Ranger badges, as the Valles Caldera was placed under the auspices of the National Park Service about 5 weeks ago according to the park ranger at the office.  Our family made a total of 56 people whom he had seen that day, most of whom were hiking or bicycling into the caldera.  No motorized vehicles were allowed beyond the office at that point.  My little guy earned this badge by accomplishing 5 activities at the visitor center, including lassoing a (hobby) horse “like a boss”. I thought he did pretty well for a greenhorn who’d never tried it before, but the wind whipping around the corner of the building outside made us beat a hasty retreat inside.  One of the other tasks was to try to “band” the park ranger without him knowing, which consisted of trying to clip a “tag” onto his clothing, but as we were the only people in the visitor center at the time, pretty difficult to accomplish. He was very tolerant of my little guy’s attempts to sneak up on him, but gave him points for trying.  He gave credit to his partner for developing all the fun activities for the kids to do, as he was a newcomer to the park, having just recently transferred there from Yellowstone.

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As we headed out of the caldera, we could see the mountains of Santa Fe in the distance. It is amazing to me and to others that we have been skiing more here than we ever did in Michigan, partly because of my unathletic nature, but also because as my brother is always saying, “But you moved to the desert!”  My little ones are learning to snowboard, which to me looks like a lot of falling down, but they love it.

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Heading into the city to find lunch, I had a geek girl moment and had to snap a picture of this road sign.  I didn’t get a chance to get a picture of Trinity Road or Boomer Road, but think that whomever named the roads here definitely had a sense of humor.  We were so hungry that I didn’t take any pictures of our lunch, which included a crawfish po’boy, the Sidewinder reuben, cheeseburgers and truffle fries which my middle daughter practically inhaled right off my plate.  I tried a sample of a hard root beer which my husband thought was tasty, and I did not like at all as it had a chemically aftertaste. I’ll take my root beer untainted by alcohol next time.  This is not an actual picture of the dessert bowl after she got done with the crème brûlée, as it would just look like an empty bowl.  She has been growing like crazy and now is within a few inches of being taller than me (not that that’s very tall) and now can wear my shoes.

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As we drove home, sated and tired, the last rays of sunlight touched this outcropping of stone, looking to me like the perfect perch for angels to rest.

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My two little ones, now much happier now that they’d been fed more than the apples and juice boxes I’d packed for the trip, giggled and told stories to each other on the way home. I leaned my head back against the head rest, content to have been able to spend the day with loved ones in no hurry whatsoever.  I wish a day like this for all of you sometime soon.

Today I am thankful for the natural beauty of my adopted state, for a husband who loves the outdoors and suggested this trip, and for a phone camera that takes pictures that make me happy.  I have not altered any of these pictures except for cropping so you could see the true colors of this gorgeous landscape.

Go!


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Before I knew how to spell my own name, I had left the place that will always be called Saigon in my heart, staying in the Philippines, Guam, and then landing all the way across the world in the United States. Sometimes, I wonder if it is this that has given me such “itchy feet” or if the penchant for travel came from my parents. Luckily for me, my father’s “itchy feet” brought him to Vietnam when the call went out for an assistant fire chief, or I might never have been born.

As the situation in Vietnam worsened, my parents even considered moving to Saudi Arabia with some of my dad’s Korean colleagues. Once we got to the US, my parents put down roots, and have never moved from the same house they bought in 1977. Partly, this was because my grandfather moved all over Korea to find work, and thus my father had to move from school to school growing up, and so he vowed that his children would all get the chance to grow up in one school district. The other reason is that we settled in Michigan to be close to my mother’s sister, and the rest of our family eventually all did the same.

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For someone who had always lived in the same town, surrounded by family, this had the opposite effect on me than on my father. I longed to see the rest of the world, always wondering what it would be like to live somewhere else, where no one knew me. I got a little experience with this in 7th grade, when my parents decided to switch my little brother and I to a Catholic school close to my parents’ business. For the first time, I didn’t know anyone, and had to figure out a whole new school system, as the newcomer into a school where most kids had already known one another for eight years. That kind of experience in middle school, when you are still trying to figure out who you are and your place in the world was invaluable for the introspection it gave me. Then, I had my first true taste of travel in my sophomore year of high school. My social studies teacher was very interested in exposing students to other cultures, and nearly every year, took a group of students to a foreign country. We raised money selling all manner of things no one would likely buy on their own, and went to Russia by way of Kharkov, and Berlin. It was the trip of a lifetime for a kid who couldn’t remember being any farther from home than Grand Rapids, Michigan 3 hours away. And I got to go with my best friend, who had luckily been smart enough to pack all manner of goodies in her suitcase, including toilet paper and Lysol spray.

Lysol to the rescue!

Lysol to the rescue!

The amazing part to me was that my parents were completely supportive of the trip.  At the time, I didn’t have the perspective I have now. All I knew then, was that I wasn’t even allowed to spend the night at my best friend’s house 3 minutes from my own or walk to the store on the other side of the busy street down the road from my house without a week-long preparation of begging, cajoling, and promises to do all my chores first, and even then, knew they might change their minds at the last minute.  And now, they were letting me leave the country?!

I know now that it was about allowing me to go on a school-sanctioned trip in an opportunity that they would never get to give me, and they wanted me to experience what they lived every day which was being in a culture that was not your own 24 hours a day for 10 days.  I’m so thankful that they let me go. There were so many firsts on that trip for me, which to others, now including my own children, might not seem like that big of a deal, but to me were. My first (remembered) airplane ride and the view of the world from an airplane with my best friend by my side made me realize that traveling the world was not only possible, but also could be a whole lot of fun.  We had friends who went with us who were homesick or wouldn’t eat the food or complained about the toilet paper, which did get worse and worse as we got farther away from the US (think the consistency of the light brown paper with pink and blue lines used in kindergarten to practice handwriting). I was never homesick and ate everything they gave us and didn’t complain about anything because I couldn’t believe I was allowed to be away from home. So I learned another valuable lesson, about being positive and open-minded with new experiences, lessons which have served me well ever since.  Since then, I’ve been blessed to travel to many more places for work and for pleasure than I ever dreamed I could, but not much tops that first trip in which we saw Red Square and the Berlin Wall.

The fall of the Berlin Wall. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

The fall of the Berlin Wall. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

The Berlin Wall has long since been torn down, but my oldest daughter has spoken of wanting some day to move to Germany. When she was little, we tried to take her everywhere we went, and she traveled often with my parents including twice to Disney World. I hope I have instilled in her the same lessons I learned with my travel adventures. What I found most true though is that it is easy to travel when you know you have a home to return to, where the people you love can’t wait to welcome you back with open arms.  I hope I’ve raised my children to have the confidence to leave home and the courage to know that no matter how vast the oceans they explore, we will always be waiting for them on the shore.

“No man is brave that has never walked a hundred miles. If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet.”
Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear