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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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