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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oenomel


Today I awoke to a symphony of birds outside my window. I’d fallen asleep with the door to my balcony open as it had been uncomfortably warm when I finally got home from the sloping streets of Santa Fe, and though I’d hoped to sleep in, I highly recommend this over the blaring siren call of an alarm clock. Yesterday felt like spring, a day for wearing shorts and strolling to nowhere particular. If you are anything like me, you’re saying, “I can’t believe it’s May already!” My good friends with green thumbs were bemoaning the hail, sleet, snow and rain we got on May 1: “But it’s May Day!” which led me to think of the real meaning of the phrase Mayday. A derivation of the French “Aidez-moi!” which means “help me!”, this international sign of distress was born in 1927, based on an Italian guy’s take on M’aider. This is improper French (take it from someone with entirely too little French retained in my head for the number of French classes in high school and college I’ve taken). To distinguish it from a casual mention in radio chatter of May Day (for which there are any number of celebrations, pagan and Christian) it must be repeated 3 times to be considered a valid distress call. This brings to mind scenes from all kinds of stories in which an incantation or phrase must be said 3 times in order for magic to occur.

Because I love words so much, I have daily deliverings of words of the day and daily prompts regarding words, most of which I read and tuck away in some obscure fold in my brain, but sometimes the confluence of the words makes it feel like there is some greater theme or scheme not obvious to the oblivious like me that demands to be written about. Today’s word of the day is oenomel, which means “something combining strength and sweetness.” The daily prompt when I began writing this post was the word Hope. In my strangely wired brain, a cry of mayday is a signal of hope.  It means we believe that our cry for deliverance from that which threatens us will be answered.  To ask for help is to believe in some small way that someone or something will save us.  Said 3 times, it is an incantation of hope, a belief in a stronger power to come to our aid in times of distress.  And, today, of all days, a day to celebrate mothers and motherhood seemed an appropriate day to celebrate hope.  If you have been blessed as I have been with a mother who has always been able to offer hope and strength in equal measure during times most dire and full of confusion, or with other strong women who stood in a mother’s stead to be present for you, count yourself among those who have always known hope, always known that any maydays would not need to be said 3 times, as the magic of the cry for mother needs only be said once.

Today I wish for you a day filled with birdsong and brightness, a day made for strolling with those you love, and a life in which you can be for others, an oenomel. I am thankful for my mother and all the strong women I’ve been surrounded by. I pray to honor their example.  Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers by every definition of the word, everywhere, from your local dragon mama!

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

Ode to Bánh mì


I had a very serious post planned for today, opening sentences poised, and paragraphs half-written, then someone told me it was National Sandwich Day, and my mouth started salivating.  Like one of Pavlov’s subjects, the word sandwich in my mind is irrevocably tied to Bánh mì which is a Vietnamese sandwich.  Now I know that a lot of these National Day of Whatever have been started for purely commercial reasons, but for a person who loves food and eating as much as I do, any excuse to eat one of these is good enough for me.  

Bánh mì thịt heo nướng with cilantro, peanuts, large cucumber slices, juillienned pickles carrots and daikon radish, and jalapenos.

Bánh mì thịt heo nướng with cilantro, peanuts, large cucumber slices, julienned pickled carrots and daikon radish, and jalapenos.

It wasn’t always like this.  In the small town outside of Detroit where I grew up, Vietnamese food was made only by people related to me. At home. And we were not a family who went out to eat at restaurants except for very special occasions, and then to a Szechuan place about 20 minutes away in Garden City.  The owner spoke Korean. My dad would start conversing with him, and ask for the special menu, meaning the dishes that weren’t found anywhere on the plastic printed menus with tiny red pepper symbols next to them.  Pretty soon all manner of delicious foods were paraded out and placed on the table, from fried mandu (dumplings deep-fried to a perfect crispy texture, with a slightly chewy inside layer, with seasoned meat inside, just hot enough to make you inhale sharply through pursed lips, but not hot enough to burn your tongue) to seafood dishes brimming with crab, sea cucumber, shrimp, and artistically cut, slightly crisp vegetables swimming in an oyster sauce. Delicately seasoned broths with crackling bits of rice, browned just to the point of crispiness were an entree and not part of the first course. And, at the end of the meal, my dad would not even raise an eyebrow at the bill, always leaving the owner a generous tip, which would then make my mother’s eyebrows shoot up alarmingly.

I don’t mean to say that we were deprived, as my mother has a knack for tasting a dish, and being able to replicate it, and most of us would prefer to have a home-cooked meal by her over any restaurant meal. But because of this, I grew up fairly unexposed to restaurant Vietnamese food, which is a little different from your home-cooked meals.  The only way to get these was in Windsor, Ontario, which in the pre-9/11 days, was a 20 minute drive across the Ambassador Bridge to University Street.  It felt like a foreign country, the sights and smells just like the Asian grocery store, but multiplied a hundred-fold.

This was where I first saw the classic dangling barbecued red ducks, held up ignominiously by their clawed feet.  We’d go into a number of different shops, through some algorithm in my mother’s head on who had the best prices for whatever she had in her mental list.  I never saw my mother write out a to-do list or shopping list, and constantly wish I had her memory. She mourns the fact that she has trouble remembering things now as she used to know by heart all the phone numbers for all the telephone exchanges for the military base where she met my father. I tell her her memory has subsided to normal human level now.

One of the visits was always to the herbalist, and the acrid, stinging scent brings back instant memories of the concoction she must have spent precious money on to try to fatten me up. The dark brown, murky liquid with various roots and leaves in it was brewed on the kitchen stove, then ladled into what looked to me like an impossibly large cup. A small piece of hard candy was laid next to it, as incentive to finish the entire thing, preferably without gagging or retching. The house would be permeated with the smell, and my brothers would watch me as I sat at the kitchen table, face resting on fisted hands, sympathetic but staying far enough away that they wouldn’t be noticed and possibly made to drink it, too. That was in the days when I was in such a hurry to get back to my books that food wasn’t such a priority to me, and I was, as my mother called it, “a toothpick”.

It didn't work, unless there is a delayed effect 25 years later.

It didn’t work, unless there is a delayed effect occurring 25 years later.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, I’ve learned since then how delicious food can be.  Part of that appreciation started with the Bánh mì sandwich.  The kind my mother always bought was what is known as either bánh mì thịt nguội, or bánh mì đặc biệt.  Bánh mì is a general term for all bread in Vietnamese, however, it is also synonymous with the sandwich, which is made from a French baguette made usually with wheat and rice flour (though I’m not able to taste much difference between those with rice flour and without). It is one good by-product of the French colonial times in Vietnam.  Thịt means meat and nguội means cooled or cold.  This is also sometimes known as bánh mì đặc biệt meaning a special sandwich, which seems more than appropriate to me.  It’s filled with Vietnamese cold cuts which may include what we called Vietnamese bologna growing up or chả lụa (pork sausage), head cheese (more delicious than the name sounds, trust me), and sliced pork roasted with the classic red seasoning, and sometimes liver pâté. Though delicious, the meat wasn’t the best part of the sandwich, as it could not be complete without pickled carrots and daikon radish, julienned fresh cucumbers and cilantro. A buttery mayonnaise added some moisture and helped to bind all the ingredients together.

Fixings for

Fixings for bánh mì thịt nguội

Thrown in like little red hand grenades of spiciness were the deadly red Thai chilies, sliced to such minuscule portions that they were nearly impossible to ferret out completely, inevitably leading to abandoning the sandwich briefly for several glasses of water, followed by careful eyeing of the sandwich yet again, before taking the next tentative bites.  Because it is so delicious, and you think you’ve been meticulous about catching all the peppers, a few more bites will lead to thinking you are safe, and then another ninja chili will cause your tongue or lips to blossom in pain, and the whole process will begin again. These were a special treat, and each of us would get one small baguette for our own.  

These may look like ordinary Thai chili peppers to you, but be forewarned, they are stealthy and wicked.

These may look like ordinary Thai chili peppers to you, but be forewarned, they are stealthy and wicked.

I thought perhaps at first that it was the novelty and scarcity of the sandwich which has also been called a Vietnamese po’boy or hoagie, which was the attraction.  As I got older and got a chance to try many other kinds of sandwiches including reubens, Cubanos, Philly steak hoagies, and calzones among others (can you tell I have no issues with gluten sensitivity?), the novelty of bánh mì wore off. Or so I thought.

Then when I was in the process of moving to this high desert place we now call home, I made a phone call to the physician assistant program here, in the hopes that they might have an opening so that I could continue to be involved in educating PA students as I had in Detroit.  The PA program director told me that she did not, but would be happy to take my name, and C.V. in the event that an opening came available. As I spelled out my name for her, the tone of her voice changed from polite interest to animated questioning.

“Are you Vietnamese?” she asked.

“Yes, well, half anyway,” I replied.

“Can you speak Vietnamese?”, she asked, her voice becoming more excited.

“Um, yes?” But what does that have to do with teaching PA students I wondered to myself.

“Did you know there is a very large Vietnamese population here? And some of our students are Vietnamese.”

“No, I assumed it was mostly Spanish and Native American,” I responded, wonder dawning in my voice.

In the end, I got to teach here, and not only that I discovered the proximity of not one, but several Vietnamese sandwich shops, Vietnamese restaurants, and even a Vietnamese church. I had gone from being related to the only Vietnamese people I knew (other than those I met in college), to a city filled with them, completely on accident.

And so I did the only thing I could do.  I went to every Vietnamese place I could find to try the bánh mì (and the phở, but that’s another blog post). Purely for research purposes, of course. I discovered bánh mì thịt heo nướng, what I now call the gateway bánh mì, filled with seasoned roast pork, a sandwich no one I’ve ever introduced to has ever disliked. And, like so many other things, I’ve discovered that there are many right ways to make a bánh mìall of them informed by personal choice, with variations in bread which is normally baked on site, fillings, types of vegetables included, consistency of mayonnaise (which is definitely not Hellman’s) and chilis used. Here in the Southwest, those red ninja-stealth chilis have been replaced by jalapenos, which when seeded and sliced, often look just like the much more innocuous green pepper.

Fresh, they could be green peppers in your sandwich. Except green peppers don't make your lips feel like they want to fall off.

Fresh, they could be green peppers in your sandwich. Except green peppers don’t make your lips feel like they want to fall off.

Same effect, different chili, but still delicious.  It turns out I was wrong. I’m pretty partial to bánh mì, even if I can have one every day.

Not that I do.

Or have done.

Not yet, anyway.

Though I'm not a tshirt collecting person, I would wear this.

Though I’m not a tshirt collecting person, I would wear this.

Hello darkness, my old friend


Steve Inskeep woke me up way too early this morning.  No, I haven’t thrown over my husband for someone new.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, he sounds way too chipper to have been up for hours as the host of Morning Edition on NPR. With Daylight Savings Time this weekend, theoretically, we all got 1 more hour of sleep last night, but in reality, I spent 1 more hour awake, and started yawning as soon as darkness fell.  Now it really feels like autumn has arrived, and winter is coming ;-).

Hello darkness, my old friend

Hello darkness, my old friend.

The news is filled at this time of year with the same stories from last year about whether or not we should continue with Daylight Savings Time. As we are among those who have eschewed cable TV for streaming services and the local evening news is filled with hype-filled emptiness, I like to get my news as I get ready for the work day and on my drive in to the hospital. This morning, the words “in Detroit” made my head snap towards the radio.  Having trained in Detroit, and grown up driving “Downtown” to the RenCen and Hart Plaza, I miss my old city. I never knew it in its glory day.  The Detroit I knew was already worn around the edges.  The grand architecture which makes it an attraction for photographers, film makers, and crazy tiger owners, is crumbling and the infrastructure which has been neglected for so long is struggling to take care of the residents of my former city.

A live tiger got loose in the old Packard plant during a photo shoot. (Photo: Andy Didorosi)

A live tiger got loose in the old Packard plant during a photo shoot. (Photo: Andy Didorosi)

What I heard today though wasn’t yet another mock-sad exploitation of the dark days of Detroit.  Instead it celebrated the success of a program implemented to bring suicide levels to 0%.  No, that is not a typo.  The goal of the program was actually to prevent suicides and thus bring the suicide rate down to 0.  Now anyone who’s every been at a meeting, no matter where it is, whether for work or the PTO or your local library guild, can imagine the silence that most likely followed that proposal. The thinking among a lot of health care workers and psychologists is that it is impossible to prevent every suicide.  This is a growing problem among veterans all over the country, and one that has been highlighted in the media as an example of how the VA is failing our wounded warriors.  As one of those left behind to question why, any reduction in the suicide rate is a miracle.

This is the first I’ve heard of any success stories, and this is truly a success, and has been for many years.  After embracing the idea, which must have taken a complete paradigm shift, the Henry Ford Health System, the same one that took care of my family for years, was able to achieve their goal for at least 2 years.  In 2009, the suicide rate among the high-risk mental health population was zero. Even now, it is 80% lower than before the start of the program.  And this was during the heart of the recession, when there were plenty of factors to make anyone depressed, plenty of reasons that someone might look into the heart of darkness, and decide the pain and shadows are too much to bear any longer.

Today on All Souls' Day, residents of New Orleans must show iID to be allowed to come to the historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 to pay their respects to those who have died, following a new directive by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, prior to my visit there.

Today on All Souls’ Day residents of New Orleans (another city that has seen it’s share of darkness) must show ID to be allowed to come to the historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 to pay their respects to those who have died, following a new directive by the Archdiocese of New Orleans (prior to my visit there).

How did this happen?  Henry Ford Health system is not situated in a rich community filled with deep pocket books.  When I trained there, most patients were on Medicaid or some type of assistance. Though the people I worked with were all hard-working, dedicated professionals, they are no different from health care providers here, or anywhere I believe. The answer, I think, lies in turning upside down the presumption that nothing can be done, and aiming for complete eradication of the problem of suicide.  And though a complete analysis of this phenomenon hasn’t occurred yet, all signs point to the possibility that the extensive work put into achieving these results has actually saved this medical system money.  While we have politicians spouting sound bites about how broken our health care system is, in Detroit, a symbol of decay and decline, some big dreamers actually are making a difference in patients’ lives, and managing not to make the bottom line worse.

Why isn’t this story all over the news at night instead of Donald Trump’s unnatural hair do?  I think it is because we have a tendency to focus on the negative and the darkness. In optical illusions, we have to train our eyes to see beyond the negative spaces.  To see what is right there in front of us waiting to be revealed, we need to let go of our preconceived notions, and be open to a new perspective.

What do you see first? The beautiful curves of the chalice, or two faces about to kiss?

What do you see first? The beautiful curves of the chalice, or two faces about to kiss?

What can we do on this Feast of All Souls, to turn away from our old familiar friend darkness and negativity? For me, I’ll start with welcoming the light of morning, instead of mourning the darkness that comes too soon.  I’m thankful today for all those in Detroit working hard to make the impossible possible, for news that manages to highlight positive stories, and for the blessing of warm covers on chilly mornings.

Novemberish


I really don’t like the month of November, and so when I learned that November’s adjectival form, Novemberish, means “dreary,” I wasn’t at all surprised.  I love autumn which symbolizes so many good things to me–the start of the school year, cooler days, and Halloween.  I didn’t get to join in the fun of Halloween much growing up, with parents who thought such American traditions odd  (“You want to dress up in strange clothes and beg for candy from our neighbors?  No.”) and so I thoroughly enjoy Halloween as an adult, with an annual Halloween costume party, dry ice in my apple cider for that spooky effect, and lots of candy.

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My little monkey

After Halloween though, I’ve always felt the sadness of having nothing to look forward to anymore. Though it is considered part of autumn, November feels bleaker, as the wind blows away the brilliance that dazzles us after the warmth of summer, stripping us down to bare branches.

Growing up in Michigan, I dreaded dreary November, knowing it would bring the Northern chill and gray skies with it.  Here in this desert place in which we’ve settled, the chill comes mainly at night.  We’ve put most of our plants to bed, and rain has been more frequent, a blessing in this arid place.  We’ve harvested the last of the first successful tomato planting for this brown-thumbed woman.

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This is All Saints’ Day which marks every first day of November, a holy day, and so I’m trying to think of November as a time of gestation, a sacred rebirth and time of building.  Though we tend to focus on the famous, better known saints such as Joan of Arc (my middle daughter’s personal favorite) or St. Francis (the pope’s namesake), saints are actually thought of as those who’ve attained heaven.   My grandma died in November, and so I think of her frequently at this time of year, missing her wisdom and the never-ending prayers she spent countless hours in, seeking peace and protection for her loved ones.

St. Joan of Arc, image from www.catholictradition.org

St. Joan of Arc, image from http://www.catholictradition.org

It is thought that originally All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints’ Day was tied together as a way to co-opt Samhain in the Scottish Highlands (as many Church holy days were all over the world)  As my fellow Outlander readers know, it is considered “a thin time” in which the links between the world and other places are more open.

“The dark came down on All Hallows’ Eve. We went to sleep to the sound of howling wind and pelting rain, and woke on the Feast of All Saints to whiteness and large soft flakes falling down and down in absolute silence…This is the thin time, when the beloved dead draw near. The world turns inward, and the chilling air grows thick with dreams and mystery. The sky goes from a sharp clear cold where a million stars burn bright and close, to the gray-pink cloud that enfolds the earth with the promise of snow.” –Diana Gabaldon, A Breath of Snow and Ashes

In the Southwestern tradition, we celebrate Dia de los Muertos, which recognizes that death is a part of life, and honors it, instead of fearing it or indulging in sadness, with parades and make-up featuring calacas and calaveras (skeletons and skulls). Though this is a fact I deal with in my work as a physician assistant, this November I’m going to try to celebrate the lives of those who have died instead of mourning their loss in my life, thinking instead of what I’ve learned from having been blessed to have them in my life. In Mexico, it coincides with the Dia de los Innocentes, a day dedicated to deceased children, making it even more fitting that we think of November as a month pregnant with possibilities.

Some paint only half the face with calaveras, to demonstrate the continual duality of life and death.

I’m challenging myself to write a little every day, or a lot if the Spirit moves me, and to remember all the brilliance that precedes this month and using it to light my way through to the hope of heaven and rebirth.  I invite you to rethink November as well, to try to redefine Novemberish in your own way.  What will you do to push back the grayness that threatens overhead? What can you build in this month that rewrites Novemberish into the 9th month again?

Today I am thankful for a sunshine-filled All Saints’ Day, for a faith that does not shy away from honoring our dead, and for writers that inspire me to keep reaching for heaven.

Liberation


Forty years ago today, Saigon fell.  It is a date engraved upon the hearts of many Vietnamese people, as well as many veterans. If you were old enough to remember, the images of helicopters, crying people with outreached hands, and flames are forever linked to this date. It is thought of as a symbol of leaving, of endings, and for some, of failure.  It has been called Black April and rebranded by those in power in Vietnam as National Liberation Day or Reunification Day. My veterans express regret and sorrow about leaving Vietnam like this, mixed with the relief of being able to go home. Some remain haunted by the images of those left behind, bound by the ghosts of the past, while the diaspora are reconciling the Vietnam they left in 1975 with the changes time, politics and money has wrought.

I am too young to remember leaving my birth country. I was a baby in my mother’s arms when we hurriedly boarded the C-130 that would take us to the refugee camps in the Philippines and Guam.  As with all immigrant stories,  ours is both the same and different from the thousands of other Vietnamese families that came to the US.  The date our family left Vietnam was actually April 26, 1975. My parents, grandmother, aunts and I were blessed to leave on an airplane, compared to so many others at the mercy of the seas who fled on boats, though this airplane had been stripped of all of its seats in order to fit as many people on board as possible.

My baby boy descending the ramp of a C-130.

My baby boy descending the ramp of a C-130.

When we finally arrived in the US, my parents set about making a life for all of us, though they had little resources.  My father’s first jobs were working for RCA as a repairman, and for a steel mill where he worked until he retired in his late 70s.  Because they had only 1 vehicle, my father would drop her off before the bakery opened before the sun rose, recalling today how hard it was to leave her there in the cold darkness alone so that he could make it to his 2 jobs.  She made so many pies, that to this day she refuses to make pies from scratch.

A pie made by me, and not my mother.

A pie made by me, and not my mother.

She then did back-breaking work in a nursing home, enormously pregnant with my little brother, lifting and bathing patients.  Under the watchful eyes of my grandmother and my mother’s two younger sisters, I learned English from watching Shirley Temple movies and Underdog cartoons, and reading Little Golden Books about Cinderella.

Eventually, our family saved enough money to bring my mother’s two brothers and their families here to the US, but not until almost 20 years later, after reeducation camps and deprivation at the hands of the Communists.  I had the advantage of growing up in America, with the constant reminder that I had cousins in Vietnam who were not as lucky, and so I, like so many other Generation 1.5 children, was pushed to succeed though hard work and education by my parents, who had left all they knew and loved behind with the hope for a better future for their children. Exactly 22 years later, surrounded by the entire reunited family, I was married on April 26, the date my wedding was changed to through a series of unplanned and unexpected events.  Now 40 years later, as a physician assistant, I am serving some of those same veterans without whom I would not have existed.  If not for the war in Vietnam, there would have been no need for a Korean firefighter to come to Vietnam.  If not for the American army base where my parents worked and met, there would not have been any seats for us on a C-130 to fly us all away from Vietnam.

Today, as we look back on this date, I was struck by the photos of this baby miraculously unearthed from the rubble of the earthquake in Nepal.  Pictures of helicopters, outreached hands, and flames are featured on news stories across the internet. Thousands of families have been separated, lost loved ones and their homes, and the date of the earthquake will forever separate their lives into before and after. And in the midst of all of this tragedy, we focus on the life of one small baby, liberated from the dust and ashes, surviving despite the tremendous odds against it.

Nepalbabyrescue1

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http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/25/world/gallery/nepal-earthquake/?sr=fb042915nepalbaby1030aGalPhotos

We rejoice in this story of life arising from the rubble and ruins because we all share stories of liberation, some more dramatic than others, but no less important in the way that they link us all–from the ashes of a fallen city, to a road not taken, a life left behind, and still we learn to build again.  True healing begins with that first turning towards the light of home, which is wherever we make it. This then is the true meaning of liberation, not that spun by those who would have us forget the struggles and the sacrifices of those who reached down and pulled us from darkness to true freedom.

Today I am grateful for my parents’ bravery and courage in the face of overwhelming chaos and tremendous odds.  I would not be who I am or where I am if not for all of their sacrifices. I am thankful for all of my family and for the astonishing grace of not having lost a single family member to the war.  And I pray for all those in Nepal, that someday, they will look back on these days, and be able to say they are stronger for having survived.

Please pray for the many medical and relief workers as they work tirelessly for all those affected by the earthquake, as well as the family members of Marisa Eve Girawong, a physician assistant who was killed there.  If you would like to donate, check out the Better Business Bureau’s website which has a list of charities providing aid to Nepal that meet the BBB’s standards of accountability, as well as InterAction Nepal’s website which can allow you to direct your donations to specific needs, such as medicine, food, or shelter.