Village

My hands approach the keyboard with a caution unfamiliar to them. I often write about personal things involving only me. To write about something that involves the lives of others adds a layer of responsibility that I’ve not had before. I find myself reticent. Careful. But writing is how I express myself. It is how I make sense of the world, and sometimes the horrible things that happen.

Village is a theme that has occupied my thoughts over the past few years. Prior to children, I flitted between countries, crowds, and jobs staying long enough to become disinterested. But things changed when I gave birth. While I still enjoy a good adventure, I put a higher value on friendship. Relationships. Other women. Mothers.

My village is like most: We look after one another. We celebrate birthdays, milestones, and anniversaries together. Kids of similar ages develop friendships. Motherhood is the essence that unites us. We laugh about our kids’ fussy eating habits. We cry together when they don’t fit in. We are a network of unique shared experiences. Someone knows someone who’s going through something similar.  You are never alone. Even if you feel it. That’s the beauty of a village.

And so when death strikes, the pain is shared. It burrows into the hearts of all those who call that village home. Especially when it’s a child. We are left trying to make sense of misery. We cling to one another as we are forced to accept the harshest of truths: we cannot always protect our children, and not everything is in our control.

I was at a friend’s house for a playdate. Our youngest ones were playing separately, but together in the same room. Our eldest children were putting on a concert. My friend’s daughter had a red guitar with rockstar sunglasses that had an attached microphone, and she was pumping up the crowd (me) for a once-in-a-lifetime performance. My daughter was handling stage props.

Then my phone rang.

Watching a child slip away is excruciating for the mind to process. It tears at the primal part of you, a place where logic cannot abide. And it must be cataclysmic when that child is yours.

Thank god for our villages. It is the strength and support of those around us that get us through these times. I never felt more connected to humanity than at the moment I watched a woman perform CPR for over ten minutes. Or how a neighbor shored up her resolve and assigned us useful tasks while we waited for the ambulance.

I never felt more grief than when I looked at the mom. It is not her son’s body that I remember as if staring at a photograph. Instead it is her eyes that refuse to release me. They went from pleading to emptiness, and then back again. In that moment I wanted to say something that would return the smile to her face that I saw not thirty minutes prior.

I never felt more inadequate.

Another mom organized a memorial the following day. We held hands. There was a box of tissues. The mom who found him made his favorite bowl of porridge.

My village has been irreparably changed. The memorial provided the first step to recovery for some of us, but for a select few the memorial marked the beginning of a dark road. We know it will not be easy. We can never forget.

The following day the sky was cloudless. There was even a breeze. I wondered on the unfairness of it all. It felt unseemly that the heavens were not raging.

I thought of her. If she had noticed the sky.

Words still fail me.

Hard Choices

I’m halfway through Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices, a book about her four years as Secretary of State. It is an interesting read. It’s not often I hear about the good the US does for other countries. Living abroad I’ve met a lot of people (mostly Europeans) who are eager to point out my country’s faults, and so reading about how we’ve helped different nations is a nice change.

As a writer, I also find it interesting because I’m fairly certain I can distinguish the parts she’s written from those of her ghostwriter’s. This is not to say that it is poorly written–I think the way the authors are able to take sometimes boring and mundane circumstances and turn them into intriguing international incidents is a testament to their writing skills.

But I guess the main reason I find this book so interesting is because of a few hard choices I’ve had to make recently.

I’ve been writing creatively since high school. It all started one year after reading the books on my English curriculum. I was thoroughly disgusted with the lack of control and the quality of decisions made by the female protagonists in these books. Where were all the modern women? The generation of women before me were breaking glass ceilings everywhere and Blacks and minorities had shattered some of their own as well. Why was I still reading about slavery and segregation when a Black was the protagonist or about arranged marriages and suffrage when a woman was the literary subject? Where were the stories about women like my mom? About the woman I had visions of becoming?

So I set out to write a story with a female protagonist like the women of my time: educated, working, and mistresses of their own fates. I began by writing scenes in my composition notebook. Those scenes grew longer with each attempt, and before I knew it I had over two-hundred pages. At some point I let a few friends read some of my work. They asked for more, and I’ve been writing ever since.

There’ve been times when I took a hiatus, like when I graduated from college, again when I moved to Japan, and obviously for the birth of each of my children. But with each change a new routine was established and I would carve out some time for me, and that meant writing.

Recently, I’ve decided to put my youngest in school come January. It was a decision I didn’t want to make. She’s my baby, my last child, and so I want to hold onto her for as long as I can. She never got the one-on-one time with me that her older sister had, and so I guess that’s made me reluctant to let go.

But each morning when we drop off my eldest at school, the joy that spreads across my little one’s face becomes harder to ignore. I have to drag her out of the classroom, away from the toys and other children who seem to be having the kind of fun she wants. It’s time, I tell myself. She’s ready, even if you’re not.

I’ve managed to carve out an hour or two from my morning routine so I can write, but with her starting school in January, things feel as if they’re changing. Our time together seems rushed all of a sudden, which has left me with an interesting choice to make: continue to write in the mornings or… not.

It is one of those easy-hard decisions. I want to gobble up each of her crooked runs and celebrate every trip she makes down the slide. I love those little arms when they wrap around my neck after she’s found me hiding around the corner. I guess I love those moments more than the strong protagonist who’s kept me up at night just begging for me to tell her story.

I know mothers everywhere battle with their own hard choices: do I take that business trip or let another colleague position himself for the promotion? Do I accept that new job with more money even though I know I’ll miss bedtime a few nights a week? Do I continue with the novel or do I teach my kid how to go up the slide the wrong way–because all kids need to know how to do this before they begin school.

The notion that we can have it all or do it all without having to make some hard choices is a naïve one. The good news is that there are no right answers, only ones that are right for us.

Family

I’m told you should never forget where you come from. That sounds like good advice, but I’ve always struggled with this because it seems nonsensical to me. I’m not sure I could forget my beginnings. It’s woven into my memories and helps to define who I am. My fears, motivations, and perspectives are rooted in where I come from.

But then life changes you. Experiences shape those initial perspectives allowing them to expand and mature. It can be hard going back to where you’re from if your point of view has shifted. Blood is thicker than water only to those who’ve never built a family outside of their relations.

I recently went home for the first time in years. It was a long trip. Two twenty-hour flights with a three-year- and an 18-month-old had its share of challenges. But it felt good to reconnect with my roots and revisit my history. My kids met their cousins. Bonds were established. Alliances formed and favorites developed. I met my nephew for the first time, and leaving him was more emotional than I thought it would be.

Aunts who were part of my mom’s village and who had changed my diaper now changed my daughter’s. I ate some soul food. Typically the term applies to southern-style Black food—you know, greens, yams, mac & cheese (baked, none of that boxed stuff), black-eyed peas, corn bread—but to me, the term has grown to mean food that excites memories or brings people together. Three generations of us sat around the table. It felt good.

While we ate, we teased one another for the silly stuff we did as kids, then for some of the silly stuff we do now. I got my share for still nursing a toddler and the seemingly unlimited amount of choices I give my oldest. We laughed at how my youngest sister would fall asleep on the sofa while three screaming children ran around her. (She’s nine months pregnant.) Then it was my Dad’s turn for his knack of climbing up on a “high horse” about any polarizing political topic. But it was all good-natured.

And it was comfortable being at home because so much was familiar, but for all the things that were the same, there were a couple that took me by surprise, like my younger sister who wasn’t so young anymore. I was humbled by how she had grown into a woman of her own. She was just as intelligent and beautiful as always, but wiser now. (She remains the only one who can successfully reason my Dad down from his high horse.) She was finished with schooling, achieving her doctorate three years ago. I wanted more time with her. I wanted to hear about her journey. I told her how proud I am of her. How she was a role model for my kids, and I wanted her in their lives more.

Likewise, my younger cousins who were in grade school when I first left the States were now adults with careers. Some were moving away from home to start their lives in different cities. We gathered around to console the moms who were now facing the empty nest. I had a glimpse of what the future would look like: my girls off to start their own adventures, without me.

I had a sleepover with three of my closest friends from university. Our children were with us, and it was very cool to have a slumber party with all of our families together. My friends knew me before I left the States, before my days of backpacking up the Mekong or my failed attempt at Machu Picchu because of altitude sickness. They knew me before I had children, back when possibilities were endless.

It was refreshing being with them again. We reminisced about our uni days, but mostly we talked about our hopes for our children and our goals for ourselves. We spoke about serious stuff like helping our children develop positive self images and learning how to raise personalities that are different from our owns. We realized that all grandparents think we should do it like they did, and no we shouldn’t, but yes we are going to be the same when our children have children.

Then we spoke about the silly similarities that all kids share, like their love of french fries or how they never want to go to bed–even when they’re tired, and that regardless of their ages, siblings will always fight over who gets to push the shopping trolley in the grocery store. (Solution: get a trolley for each.)

There was something empowering about knowing that we struggled with some of the same issues regardless of our locations or personal beliefs, and that they fret over their children just as much as I fret over mine.

It will be years before cousins and aunts and friends reunite like this again. But for now, I got just what I needed. Family.

Grace

Grace is one of those words I struggle to define. It’s grown to mean more than just elegance or poise in my opinion. It’s a word that I’d use to describe a woman, never a man, and this distinction intrigues me. A man can have finesse, but that’s not the same thing as grace. 

To my mother, it means a complete acceptance of God’s will. To me, it means being able to keep my cool when having to tell my eldest to put on her shoes for the fifth time while my youngest is crying because she’s been sitting in the stroller for five minutes–waiting for my eldest to put on her shoes!

There’s a direct causal correlation between my ability to handle my children calmly–dare I say gracefully–and the amount of sleep I had the night before. The phase of life I’m in at the moment requires that I live life like a trench soldier. I sleep in shifts more nights than I’d like to admit. There are some nights when I get five hours sleep, broken into two parts with a stint of me warring with one and then the other child. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of mother who can sleep when her child is crying. I will lie there and wait patiently, perhaps to the outside observer gracefully, until one or both fall back asleep. But the truth is I’m seething on the inside. I’m cursing up a storm! I’m tossing and plotting for their teenage years when I get to wake them up for no other reason than I think they’re sleeping too late.

This is not grace. This is fatigue.

Having children has been a mirroring experience. I now see myself through their eyes. When my eldest was just eighteen months, we were walking in the mall once. I was pushing her empty stroller and she was walking beside me pushing her new toy stroller. I had one hand on my hip for some reason I can’t recall, and when I looked down she had placed her hand on her hip as well. To this day she mimics me. The good and the bad. Knowing this makes me want to be a better person, someone worthy of emulating. Someone graceful.

But it’s not easy. I struggle to find grace on those mornings when I’ve been up for two hours the night before because my youngest just had to tell me about her day at 2am. My eldest senses my fatigue and low tolerance threshold, and she mirrors it. It is those mornings that she doesn’t want to go to school, can’t put on her uniform, insists on non-matching socks after I’ve already put on a matching pair, and despite being hungry, there’s nothing in the house to her liking for breakfast.

I see my frustration approaching like a tidal wave. I tell myself to keep calm. I stop and search for grace, but it feels like on those mornings I fail to find it. Intellectually, I tell myself that I’m human. Who wouldn’t lose it in this circumstance?

When my children reflect on their childhood I want them to smile involuntarily. Fun and safe are two of the first words I want them to think of when asked to describe these years. But equally important they need boundaries and they need to learn appropriate family and social behaviors, which means there will be time spent in the corner and sad faces will decorate the calendar on some days. They will see me frustrated, and that’s okay because grace isn’t the absence of frustration, but the acknowledgement of it. Gaining control of it. Showing them how to manage those conflicting emotions without lashing out.

Right now I am a trench soldier. Some nights I will be pulled from a deep sleep by the sounds of my eldest falling out of bed or my youngest wailing because her teeth are breaking through the gums. Sometimes there won’t be a discernible reason for their insomnia, and yes, I will be frustrated by it. But they will be loved and they will be safe, and for now, that’s grace enough.

 

Kampong

You make friends fast when you’re an expat. You’re a little more receptive to differences and your boundaries for “normal” are forcibly expanded. Everyone becomes a potential friend. The people you’d form an opinion about back home are the ones who come through for you when you’re in a pinch.

I’ve lived abroad since 2001 (minus a two-year stint in Seattle). I was childless then, so my days were spent working and my nights drinking and dancing. My friends were my colleagues. We went to brunch on Christmas and out partying for New Year. Easter Friday was just another workday, and Thanksgiving was celebrated one year, but not necessarily the next.

Kids changed all that.

I’ve slowed down. “Drinking” is a glass of wine before bed. A night out means my husband and I try to be home for ten.

Friendships are harder to maintain–and make. You look for people who you can connect with quickly. No need for pretenses or apologies, they just get you. And if you find someone so rare as to understand you without needing to know your backstory, they become part of your kampong, your village.

In the twelve years I’ve lived abroad I’ve had friends, but this is the first time I’ve had a village–a group of women who care about you and your children, who will visit you when your youngest is in the hospital, cook for your family when someone back home passes away, or stop another kid from bullying yours at the playground.

When you find this, you know you are blessed. When you find this and you’re an expat, you know it won’t last. Someone will inevitably move away. But for that moment in time, you cherish that your children have an extended family. They have “cousins” who speak different languages, eat with different utensils, and have faith in different gods.

It’s hard to describe what brings together this mosaic collection of people. You learn not to think about next year–tomorrow is far enough. They help you see the beauty in differences and the necessity of faith even if you don’t share it. You explore together, you learn together, you cry and laugh together. You do things you’d never do back home. Your point-of-view shifts to the left (very seldom to the right) because you learn that perspective is in everything.

Since the beginning of civilization, we women have been the seams that unite a family and the ones responsible for the next generation of leaders and followers. We have dried each other’s tears, cheered one another forward, and held one another up until we were once again strong enough to stand on our own.

It feels intensely beautiful to be a part of a village that shrinks and expands with diversity and acceptance and love.

Mosaic

Aside

Headlines are overly sensational. I suppose they have to be, but I wonder what the headlines read like in the days of the herald.

We are living in Orwellian times. Governments spy on us. The truth has leaked, and it’s up to us if we want to do anything about it. Yet, I wonder if we’ll do much of anything at all because most of us have nothing to hide. Sure, we don’t want anyone knowing exactly what we search for on the internet, but since we aren’t being embarrassed by a few indiscretions, we look the other way. If it doesn’t negatively affect our day-to-day lives, will we change? Will we stand up? Will we care beyond the casual conversations with our friends? But, then again, history has shown from time-to-time we will march for an ideal. We will demand equality, the truth, and fairness. I wonder if now is one of those times.

I read an article the other day, the tag was something like Active Mums Have Active Children. I sighed. It was a physical sigh where my entire body slumped. Some corner of me laughed. Moms are expected to be everything. All the time. To everyone. Because children are our treasures, our lives, our futures, and we are expected to get it right, despite all the contradictory information we’re bombarded with, the time limitations of a 24-hour day, the physical needs of day-to-day life like food and shelter, and then the emotional needs like love and support. For a brief moment I felt like I was running in circles trying to be this perfect mom, wife, friend, and human being. Then I said, fuck-it. My kids are active enough.

Having girls changed me. I became more pragmatic. It is something that I hope to pass to them. Now when my daughter catches herself from falling over, she says, “I saved myself!” It all started one day when she asked me to save her–I cannot recall if I did or not–but I know I told her that she must learn to save herself. It would appear that she understood me. I feel like that’s a small win.

Observe. Accept. Release.

As a parent you need a village of support. I now understand why families remain in the same town all their lives and why the prodigal son is such a powerful tale.

Parenting is a transition period, and sometimes the person you grow into is not someone you’d ever thought you’d become.

I have a few friends who’ve known me since my single days, my carefree days. Some are quite surprised at the changes I’ve undergone. One was so surprised she actually shared with me that she wasn’t comfortable with this new me, the “mommy me”.

I wasn’t exactly sure how to react, and so I nodded. I made light of the comment, but deep inside I needed to think. I needed the space and time to see for myself the changes to which she was referring.

I must say that having children has changed me for the better. I speak my mind a little more. I don’t always “go along” like I used to. I’m more of a home body. I’ve learned to enjoy my own company. I drink a lot less. I plan a lot more. I want to be a role model to my children so when they are old and I am gone they laugh about the times they were punished, but cherish the joy we shared. I want the memories we create to give them comfort. Peace. I want them to want to be like me not because I’m great, but because they could see I did my very best, and they too want to go the extra mile.

Not everyone’s going to understand that. Not everyone wants to parent like that. And that’s okay.

A friend recommended that I read Buddhism for Mothers a while back. At first I declined because I’m not a fan of self-help books, mostly because I’m cocky enough to think that I’m doing okay on my own, but also because so often they sound so contrived. They lay out cookie-cutter examples where everything falls in place as if it were fiction. Real life is messier and a lot more spontaneous.

I often find that your ability to relate to a book is where you find yourself at the time of the reading. I read Buddhism for Mothers when I accepted that I didn’t have all the answers and that I needed a little help. I wanted to find my peace and center again, but I wasn’t exactly sure where I had misplaced it.

I started a gratitude journal. The journal helped me focus on the positive at a time in my life when I wasn’t getting sleep and I was struggling with the adjustment of being a mother to two very different children. I was dismayed that all the techniques which helped me bond with my first were failing with my second. It felt like my life was no longer going according to plan. I was spiraling out of control, and the more I tried to plan and execute, the harder things became.

Buddhism for Mothers showed me that I hadn’t lost my peace and center, I had simply outgrown it. It was time to establish a new me and a new way to relate to the external. Most of all it helped me to accept that my pain and frustration were compounded not because of a lack of sleep (though that surely is its own form of torture), but because of my unwillingness to release the illusion I created of what it meant to be a mother of two.

Reclaiming my center has been an immensely empowering experience. I write more, I smile more, I’m more active, my family and I are happier, and sleep… well, I’ve learned to accept that this is just a phase. Good sleep will return.

I’m winging it just like everyone else, but I’m doing what works for me and mine. It is a game of evolution where the players are never static. We are constantly learning, growing, observing, accepting, and releasing who we were so that we can make room for who we are and want to be.