Sunday, September 10, 2023

Making an auspicious Icelandic cake for my daughter's wedding

                                                    "Let them eat cake"--Marie Antoninette

Since my daughter and her fiance are not overly fond of cake, they asked if I could make an Icelandic Vinarterta dessert for them. Vinnaterta is a popular dessert originating in 19th-century Iceland. It is a traditional multi-layer dessert made by alternating thin layers of buttery shortbread with a cardamon and dried prune filling. But our family mostly gave up the prune filling long ago. We like to substitute the prune filling for raspberry jam, Nutella, and, most recently, lemon curd and tart cherry jam. We Vinarterta bakers believe in alternations and substitutions for every occasion.  😀

When I was about ten years old, I did a report on Iceland at school since our ancestors are from the Land of Fire and Ice. At the time, I wanted to make an Icelandic dessert to take to my fifth-grade class, so I asked my grandma what Icelandic people ate for special celebrations. After listening to my probing questions, she made us the first vinarterta that I remember, and our family has not stopped making them since that time--especially at Christmas time. Grandma would always bring them around to the different families for the holiday, and then we started making them ourselves.

Every Christmas, our family has made this special cake--reminding us of our heritage. It brings back memories, especially of my grandmother, Emily Vatnsdal Myres. Since we lived abroad for many years, I have made a vinarterta dessert and taken it to many Christmas destinations--wherever it was for that year. These hearty cakes are very notable when they are wrapped up, and they stay fresh for weeks. You can even freeze them for a few months and then bring them out for a special event or holiday. I have hand-carried them to Oman, Vietnam, Spain--all over the world or around the United States. Christmas would not be Christmas without Vinarterta. It reminds us of home, our ancestors, and being together. 

In the weeks I have spent making the vinarterta for my daughter's wedding, I have been reflecting on my grandmother's love as I mix the dough and roll it out. But there is another person I have been thinking about, too--someone that seems very unrelated to the story. Yet, she fits perfectly into the wedding tale: my dear Muslim neighbor, Abeer (with whom we shared a wall for five years in Doha, Qatar), and whose pans I made the cake in.

 I kept wondering about how to make an ascending cake and where to get the pans from, and then I remembered Abeer's red circle pans that fit snugly together--ranging from large to small. It seems appropriate she was part of the day since she prayed many times a day at Mecca for my children to find the right partner for them. 

Icelandic people love vinarterta for various celebrations, like weddings, so it was fun to make it happen at our special wedding. Grandma Emily would have been smugly pleased. And I can hear Abeer saying, "See, I told you it would happen."

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Mental Health Awareness Month: Winston Churchill's art and fighting the black dog of depression

If it were not for painting, I could not live; I could not bear the strain of things--Winston Churchill, 1921

When I get to heaven, I intend to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject. --Winston Churchill in an interview with Life Magazine in 1946

Painting is like taking a paintbox off on a joyride to lift the blood and tears of the morning. --Winston Churchill

In Churchill's art studio at Chartwell, his home of 50 years. 

                                           In front of Churchill's art studio on a beautiful spring afternoon

Since it is Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to highlight Winston Churchill. Why Churchill? When one has a son with autism who loves Winston Churchill and art, one learns a lot about the private, more silent man behind his nearly 500 paintings. It was our shared dream for a long time to go to his beloved home and refuge, Chartwell, about one hour from London. We wanted to roam the grounds and house, but mostly to view his art studio--a brick, light-filled building about 75 yards from the house. 

Churchill captured many chapters of his life in almost 50 years of painting. Although he was one of the great statesmen and communicators of the 20th century, he also left a prodigious collection of images that confronted his fears, conflicts, and fascinations. He was endlessly intrigued with composition, texture, and color. It allowed him to enter a creative world of refreshment that absorbed him when he felt melancholy and overwhelmed. In his suitcase, he often toted his paints and easel as he traveled. One can see the pyramids of Giza, sunrises in Marackesh, Morocco, and dappled rivers in the Cote of Azure in Southern France, among many others. His art studio is filled with paintings that allow us now to get a lens into Churchill's world--a world that was often in tumultuous upheaval. 

Everyone knows Winston Churchill was a gifted statesman, but he was also unquestionably, an accomplished artist. With his susceptibility to depression, he learned what could bring his unloosed moorings to anchors again: it was painting. His heroic stature during World War 2 is well-known when Britain withstood Hitler--giving hope to a nation under siege. But many do not know the private turmoil he suffered for about 25 years before bombs started falling on his beloved England. It sounds familiar. None of us really knows the private pain and anguish of another, isn't that right?

In his quiet times, he could become sullen and sad--remembering the colossal failure of his military quest at Gallillipoli in northeast Turkey during World War I. Because of his failed military tactics as Head of the Navy, about 45,000 British men lost their life. This dark tragedy deeply scarred him. It was through a relative encouraging him to paint that he brought out the colors, canvas, and brush. He learned that painting coaxed the cheerless spirit out of him--again and again. He referred to his depression as "his black dog." And when that "black dog" came around the corner, he consciously, deliberately, I think, got out his paints. Observing nature, deciphering shapes and lines, and putting brush to canvas made him feel alive again--ready to conquer his own inner world and ultimately, the battle-torn world during WW2. He was ready and prepared to take on much of the world's struggles. But I believe art got him there. 

Andrew Marr, the British BBC commentator and hobbyist artist said about happiness in the documentary  Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Oil Paint, about Churchill's artwork "I think there is a 'flow' in all of us--an essence of happiness. It is finding and being engaged in something as intensely as you can, doing it as much as you can, as hard as you can, but something that is difficult and not easy, but that you can do it. It is a release valve. Doing it can keep us alive in a flickering, iridescent reality that gives us awe and amazement. Art saved Churchill's life and I think it can rescue all of us."

 It does not have to be art, but I believe everyone needs something that relieves mounting pressure. It is discovering what works for you. No one really teaches you, unfortunatley, you have to discvoer where you derive your joy. That means putting head, heart, soul, eyes, and hands together, and then standing in amazement at your creation. Finding that "flow" of happiness is the answer. Churchill is a great example to me of persistently trying to overcome his inner struggles--and finding unbounded joy and beauty in the journey. 

                 Churchill in his garden fish pond on the Chartwell grounds--a pond he made himself. 

                                          On the walk between Chartwell, the house, and Churchill's art studio

                        Churchill in his beloved art studio where he recharged his spirits again and again.

                                                              What it looks like today...

                         This is one of his last paintings--a more loose Impressionist style of his goldfish pond. At this point in his early 90s, he had had several strokes and could not see very well anymore. 

                                       His painting, brushes, and paints as he left them

         It is definitely worth a visit to see someone who relentlessly pursued painting in his private world--a pastime he knew kept the "black dog" at bay. And with that insistance to not cower, he brought so many beautiful worlds for us to now see. As he said, "If it were not painting, I could not live. I could not bear the strain of things."

Monday, May 1, 2023

American Samoa: The Endless Possibilities of Discovering and Excavating Our Own Oceans

     Celebrating my birthday on a perfect day in American Samoa at Sadie's Beach

    I have always liked this painting Elias painted when we lived in Doha--conveying all the diverse unseen, undiscovered layers under the ocean. And it is the same with us--so many endless possibilities that are often hidden until we decide to uncover them.

Until I got here two months ago, I had not snorkeled for a long time. Up to this point in my life, the Red Sea had always been my favorite memory to snorkel, but now it would definitely be American Samoa. You don't have to worry about big waves, or riptides (as long as you choose the right beach and watch the tides), and the reef is very close. The fish and coral are different each time you go under the ocean's surface here. The experience of discovery is different every time: a new fish, coral, or seeing thousands of fish at a time feed on fish eggs. On a few occasions, the ocean has been churning and the visibility is murky, but most of the time it is invitingly clear. But isn't life like that too? Cloudy, shadowy, but then wala, a ray of sun suddenly shines through to lighten up the dark crevices all around us. 
Last week, I was snorkeling in the late afternoon with my son. After I had only been in the water for about ten minutes, a sea turtle swam past me. I gleefully followed it for a minute or two. It was almost like he was turning his head around, and inviting me to follow him. I thought, "I wish Elias could see one too." No kidding, but about five minutes later, another turtle came drifting by, and I motioned to Elias to come and see my discovery. We accompanied him for about two minutes, as he escorted us to underwater reefs that brought more awe. 

Swimming with a turtle is the most magical experience. But to share the memory, of course, gives you this magnificent connection with another person. We came up, elated, that we had been able to follow this turtle and have an adventure with him. This fun-loving turtle swam like a bird, but playfully glided, back and forth, zig-zag, like he was enjoying himself too as he welcomed us into his underwater territory. 

Every time I snorkel and peer into the layers underneath the ocean, I am reminded how each of us has so many untapped, unrevealed layers to find. And just as we have many possibilities of potential to discover, every person around us, for that matter in the world, has that same promise. Often, we don't see beyond the surface; the layers are often invisible to ourselves and others. But as we are willing, humble, and determined, we can unravel our own potential and even see others' latent capacities. 

One of the things, I think that holds us back is fear. We are afraid of the initial plunge to truly see; sometimes that fear paralyzes us. I remember a young man who was in my semester abroad long ago. One day, he told me he could not swim and was extremely afraid of the water. He was overweight, but desperately wanted to see the world under the surface since he loved drawing landscapes. As an artist, he was captivated by the beauty of the earth and wanted to see the wonder underneath the ocean. 

Several of us encouraged him to learn to swim so he could view the world under the ocean. In those months we were there, he lost weight and learned to swim because he was so compelled to see the colorful fish and coral we all raved about. I will never forget snorkeling with him in the Red Sea and coming up to see his smiles of exhilaration and joy. He was not the same after breaking the surface of his accustomed vision. Immobilizing fear was pushed away so he could excavate new layers of discovery in himself.  
If we take the time, there is so much beauty to be seen in ourselves and others. Just like my turtles who occasionally glide by, we also can have beauty and wonder be revealed to us too. It's all about being willing to go under the surface to really, really see. Otherwise, we just keep seeing the same known things.

I believe God wants us to unlock the divine mysteries and awe in ourselves and try to behold others in new ways. The joy we find in unveiling potential in ourselves and others is our birthright if we choose. It is the happy way to live. 

                                  Snorkeling with friends and family. It was a bit murky that day. 

 As beautiful as the seashore is in American Samoa, even boasting a National Park, it is a must to go and see the layers under the ocean--a whole new world to discover. 

                                                               A favorite snorkel beach

                                     Joseph, a kayak surfer, takes it to the limit with the waves.                                       

                 This New Zealand man and his wife own an eco-lodge in a secluded cove that is a marine sanctuary for fish and coral. As I spoke with him, I was fascinated by his life. He trained as a swimmer for the Olympics in the 1980s but then came to this cove and found work and decided to stay. In the past over 30 years, he has rescued 150 people in the small bay near the restaurant and eco-lodge. A few did not make it, he sadly said. His knowledge and respect for the ocean inspire me. He has learned to see when someone is in trouble: he runs down the beach, out to rock, waiting for the right moment to jump in and catch the current under the riptide. And then he holds his breath all the way, to rescue the person who is no match for the sea. Now, he insists if you want to go out to the cove to see the fish, you must go with some floating devices while he accompanies you.  I told him saving 150 people from that inlet was better than saying you swam in the Olympics. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Down Syndrome: Nothing Down About It!

For me this child is a grace; she is my joy. She helps me to look beyond all the failures and honors, and always to look higher. God has given her to us and we must take responsibility for her, wherever she is and whatever she will become. Without Anne, I could have never perhaps done what I did. She gave me the heart and the inspiration. --Charles De Gaulle, the WW2 French general and president whose youngest child had Down syndrome)

Sara teaching me how to braid a napkin first before I could braid the bread. She has her own bread business--the best bread you could ever imagine.

 As a child, I lived across the street from Joey, a young man with Down syndrome. Since I was quite young, I noticed he went on a different school bus than I did, but he was thoughtful and laughed a lot. He always tried to help everyone in the neighborhood, like bringing in groceries or moving furniture. Often, he would seem to appear when we needed help in the yard or someone just needed a smile. I could not always understand his words, but I remember I wanted to. My child brain was saying, "Who is this person who is so kind and free of the concerns of everyone else around him?" More than anything, he was happy and constantly smiling.  He was everyone's friend. We all loved Joey.

Later, when I was in high school, I volunteered at a school for children with special needs because I wanted to know others like Joey. The headteacher told me I was too lenient and not rigid enough with the students--that I let them get away with too much. She said, "They have you wrapped around their finger." But I did not give up on my childhood intrigue with people with Down syndrome. They have magically kept appearing in my life. Perhaps, it is because I was the one who needed to learn about what love means, as Charles De Gaulle did. I know having a child with autism has made my family's life better. We always say, "There is a special window for us that we can see through when we meet people." 

Since I have lived in eight countries now (and China twice), I have met and been friends with many Down syndrome people from other cultures, but the one I have known the best is a young 29-year-old woman named Sara who has a bakery business and serves food at a school cafeteria. She is resolutely independent and wickedly funny. Last summer, I asked her to be a leader at a Girls' Ranch I direct when we had our first Down syndrome camper. She elevated the camp to a higher level of fun, humor, and love. I can honestly say that all of the other typical campers embraced and loved her.  Several said, "I have always been separated from the special needs kids. They always were in another classroom. Now I will reach out more when I see them because I know I can be friends with them."

I met Sara when she was about three months old when I met her dear mom so I have known her all her life. My kids grew up with Sara. For many years, my husband who is a perinatologist has had a photo of Sara in his office when he counsels patients who will have a child with Down syndrome.  She is the poster child of how wonderful life can be to have a child with Down syndrome--how a family can be enriched and learn to love in new and unimaginable ways. Sara is the eighth of ten children in a family that knows how to give with many layers of love. 

In the last eight years, I have taught art to special needs students in both the Middle East and China.  The students, ranging from about age three to 33 have shown me what giving with all your heart means--whether it is their smile or bequeathing an art volume of all their drawings to me.  The act of giving of one's self is purely intuitive; they just know how to give joy without asking for anything in return. It is preposterous to think that they are all the same if you know one Down syndrome person. Some are quieter, others more outgoing. but they all know how to give and love--without any strings attached. 

One of the reasons Charles De Gaulle's story inspires me is that at the time Anne was born in 1928 in France, there were few people who kept these children at home. Until the early 19th century, many of them only lived until they were about ten years old.  Later, however, many people still did not bring them on family outings or outside the home with them.  De Gaulle challenged the norm of the time and refused to give up his daughter to a care facility or hospital. Instead, he even took her to Lebanon and other countries to live before he was a WW2 general. Somehow he realized that the bond they shared was enabling him to be a better person than he would have otherwise been. When she died at age 20 after the war, he put her framed photo in the back of the car. In 1970, it was this photo that saved his life when someone tried to assassinate him. The frame blocked the bullet! He always said she was his angel. 

De Gaulle on the beach with little Anne in the early 1930's 

I am heartened the world is (but we have a long way to go) bringing these children and adults to the forefront--to not only understand what we can give them, but what they can teach us. Of course, our pace of life will slow down when we interact, teach, and work together. We will need to speak slowly, be patient, and repeat a direction or two. But it is oh, so worth it. I wish everyone could have Joey live on their street or grow up with Sara or Mary. Living in this world is more joyous and fulfilling when we have all kinds of friends who are different than us. 

These two grew up together--Sara and one of my sons. He took her to two proms. When his younger brother brought her, she asked him, "I wish Jonathan were here. He is more handsome than you." 😆


We had a painting class together and this is her picture. She loves to create.

Sara being a leader at camp

I really liked the theme of camp, We Are One.

        Mary, our Down syndrome camper, and her sister, Elizabeth, singing Baby of Mine from Dumbo

Mary coloring with one of the campers
When I left China, this student gave me all his drawings. And he would not let me refuse his generous gift. 

Always hugging...

Thursday, November 24, 2022

The healing power of gratitude and Thanksgiving.... #GiveThanks

We get to be with three of the six kids today for Thanksgiving...

Looking for the light in the shadows of our blessings...
Balboa Island... Once upon a time, a young Wyoming boy asked a San Diego girl to a family reunion here. I said yes, even though he was a friend. He was majoring in chemistry and loved to climb mountains. I was a tennis-playing English major who loved to swim on the beach and eat Mexican food. I saw his family, who like my own family, loved one another and decided to become part of the clan. I feel blessed that almost 40 years ago on a Thanksgiving weekend I said yes to marrying him. 

We can all give thanks for the beauties of the earth and the majesty of the heavens that give us an inkling of the vastness of eternity.

We can give thanks for the gift of life, for our amazing bodies and minds, that allow us to grow and learn.

We can give thanks for art, literature, and music that nurture our souls.

We can give thanks for the opportunity to repent, start over, make amends and build character.

We can give thanks to our families, friends, and loved ones.

We can give thanks for the opportunity to help, cherish and serve one another, which makes life so much more meaningful.

We can even give thanks for our trials; from which we learn things we would not know otherwise.

Most of all, we can give thanks unto God, the Father of our spirits, which makes us all brothers and sisters — one great global family. --Russell M. Nelson

Some statues of David and Libby Maidenburg on a bench overlooking the harbor at Balboa Island. This is what it says on the bench to everyone who walks by, "Married for 63 years, never went to bed angry. We love and miss you, from 3 your children, 8 grandchildren, and 6 great-grandchildren."

One of my good friends, Minika, replies each time someone asks how she is doing, "I am grateful." Afterward, she might reveal a challenge she is going through, but her first emotional response is gratitude. She has lived through the dangers of a civil war in Nigeria. Later, she raised three successful boys as a single mom. As a highly educated African engineer, she has experienced prejudice and betrayal as she has lived in several countries. A few years ago she beat her dismal cancer diagnosis. Indeed, there have been tough times, but she always says, "I am grateful." She reminds me, not even on Thanksgiving, to be grateful.

This is the first Thanksgiving I have been in my own country since we were ex-pats for nine years. My heart is a little more tender and mellow as I reflect upon my blessings this season. For the past almost four months I have had the unique time to travel in America to see those family members and friends who we could not see for a long time--due to not being able to leave China. We have missed the weddings of children, and the birth of our first grandchild. There have been delays, deaths, illness, and overcoming some despair--just like everyone else in this world. Yet, underlying it all, I have been eased and comforted by remembering layers of a life of blessings. Seeing recently familiar landscapes and houses or being with loved ones has humbly reminded me that I have been a very blessed passenger on this journey of life. I never was really alone, after all. 

The gentle strokes of light of a sunset on a painting, each one, have made a beautiful landscape if I choose to appreciate it. Sometimes, I admit, I do not always see the light or full panoramic perspective. After all, to see the gleaming brightness, we must view the contrast between dark and light, and experience the tension to understand the light when it comes. Yet, in six decades of living, remembering, and acknowledging blessings, I have learned: gratitude fills our souls with light-filled healing. New hope is born when we see the good and are grateful. Peace and comfort grow, as we grant ourselves and others gratitude. Being grateful elevates our joy--even when we accept the shadows. 

 In a 2015 NYT article before his death of cancer, author and neurologist Oliver Sacks powerfully wrote about the gift of gratitude at the end of his life, "I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and I have given something in return." To me, that is a beautiful life--one that has known and acknowledged blessings.

In our world of FOMO or (Fear of Missing Out), I don't want to not be aware of a lifetime of blessings, the people who cheered and loved me, and a God who accepts and gives me gifts I am sometimes blind to. I have learned the happiest people are grateful--not a chirpy, superficial optimism, but a person who knows how to obtain wisdom and peace almost anytime they desire. How? They remember to count their blessings, write a thank you card, call or tell a person thank you, and take the time to ponder stacked blessings in the closet. Whatever faith we espouse, we know more peace when we express our thanks to a God who is always giving blessings--even when we are oblivious. 

Happy Thanksgiving one and all wherever you live in this world. 


Friday, November 4, 2022

Our long road trip: traversing across America The Beautiful...

"There are those we come across, whom we barely know, who offer you a word, a sentence, give you a minute, a half hour, and change the course of your life."  --Victor Hugo

"Your travels should take you through the great heartland of Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. And you must get off the interstates. You must ride the side roads where the small towns are..." --David McCullough


About a month ago we dropped in to see our favorite Cardinal fan in St. Louis--89-year-old Dorothy, a widow whose husband had passed away long ago. When she opened the door to see us, she said, "I didn't think I would live long enough to see you again, but here you are back from China." We visited our old friend of almost 30 years and heard about her love of her faith, family, and baseball. So grateful we stopped by to see the woman who was everyone's grandma because we learned she passed away yesterday. 

 One of the best things about raising our kids in Mid-West America is that we could travel in any direction to discover the amazing cultures, traditions, and history of this country. Often, as parents, we would gather them for a long road trip to see family--stopping along the way-- to visit towns and places I only dreamed of seeing as a sometimes restless San Diego kid. Growing up, I longed to see Gettysburg, the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, Yellowstone, the Freedom Trail, Emily Dickinson's house, the Sequoias, or the small Icelandic immigrant hamlet my father was born in North Dakota--pretty much anywhere I could roam. My parents had taught me to love history and I wanted to connect and share with my kids through places I/we had always wanted to see. Many summers we/I crisscrossed the country with them--driving up to 8,000 miles. It sounds wild and crazy, but most of the time we loved it. 😁

Fast forward a few years, (I have been an ex-pat for about ten years--living in six countries--one of them twice) in my life, and it was time to come home after an eight-year span. The sojourning of the world was (most of the time) spectacular and eased my nomadic urge, but I did not feel I understood my own country anymore. I wanted to come home, but it was a little like Rip Van Winkle waking up to a new world. Political upheaval, inflation, and global tensions to just name a few. 

Since we could not see loved ones because of living in China for several years, we decided to venture across America and be with our children, family, and other loved ones along the way.  We are racking up the miles as we wander west to east, north to south, and then circle back. The result? Again and again, I am wonderstruck with my own country, the shores that gave me my first roots. This journey has catapulted me into not only different states but different worlds. I am constantly asking myself as I hear stories who were strangers a few moments before, "Could they be my friend?" Each time it is an unequivocal yes. 

I have met people of different races, faiths, and who have changed their gender. While some have little education, others are professors at elite universities. More than I would want to say are down on their luck. I know now because I am older and a little wiser: all of us have bruises and wounds that are invisible. Also, I more emphatically know that a little encouragement or a smile can begin to ease some suffering because someone has done that for me. Repeatedly, continuously, I have been amazed at the beauty of people--all kinds of people.

Also, on this trip, I have been teary-eyed with the wide open skies against the cornfields as a luminous amber sunset spreads across the sky in the Midwest. I forgot how beautiful they are. Some tears trickled as we gazed in wonderment at Acadia National Park's craggy shorelines with glowing, golden autumn maples in the background. Conversely, I am also worried about the great water veins of our country, the Mississippi and Colorado Rivers that are experiencing never before seen droughts--all the climate warming that is playing havoc with our world. Just like we need to be aware of others, we need to take care of our landscape, our holy spaces.

Lush and breathtaking landscapes nourish our souls. We return from beholding the splendor of places and astonishingly realize, those scenes can magically, sometimes automatically, transfer to discerning more magnificence in people. Since we have glimpsed the stunning marvel of nature, our hearts are widened. Our pulses slow down and we make more space for beauty--to not only be transfixed by terrain but be astonished at the splendor of people in unexpected places. 

In these election times, I can't help but think our politicians would benefit from not only crossing physical borders but boundaries that block new understandings of people. The truth is we don't have to travel far. We just have to trek to another part of the town we live in to expand our sometimes static perceptions. Mostly, I have decided it starts with conversing with people who don't share the same borders--to stop and understand their topography or map of the world. 

Here are a few of the people who make America better. I found myself wanting to be a little more like each of them. Some I have known for many years, and others who I only passed through their life for a few moments:

       Here is the house of Harriet Tubman where she lived at the end of her life. It is located at 180 South Street in Auburn, NY, and is an independent non-profit established by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. For about 35 years this pastor has helped to renovate the adjoining buildings and acreage, manage, coordinate, and give tours at this sight. He has a flair for drama, and his tour was like a dramatical one-man reading show--complete with voice inflections and quoting Harriet's favorite sayings. To me, he conveyed a complete commitment to unveiling and teaching about who Harriet Tubman was as a person. Her life became alive to me as we celebrate her 200th birthday this year. I am grateful for someone who saw a void that needed to be filled and poised himself to do it. 

When you meet a perfect stranger at a Kansas City farm produce auction, and then get invited to go fishing with him a few days later--having the most heavenly day. 

We were neighbors with this amazing bunch in Doha. They showed me how to be an ex-pat, and now live in NH on a six-acre farm out of town. L. runs the town, as she always does, with being on the school board and a PTO president of the middle school, plus lots of volunteering for those who need help with food, heating, and clothes. And they both teach a church religion class, all the time feeding their old wood stove to keep warm. 

Pictured is the director of the Louisa May Alcott house in Concord, MA--one of my favorite places. We were lucky that day to have her as a tour guide. For almost 50 years she has been associated with the LMA house and now directs it. We all wished we could have camped out in our sleeping bags for a week as she energetically told the stories of the Transcendental time in Concord with the Hawthornes, Emersons, Alcotts, and Thoreaus. History is life. What a repository of stories she had packed in. 

One of our favorite old places to go when we lived in the east long ago was Waterford, VT. This is Eddie's Bakery--a most congenial, happy place where the best apple cider doughnuts are made. 

Boston, MA  I am always inspired by people who raise others' children. This is what this woman did. She changed the entire trajectory of a family. 

Syracuse, NY.  I met this Cambodian woman at church who delivered a baby in a refugee camp I worked at in Thailand 41 years ago. So wonderful to see her come to a new country and flourish. I loved hearing her story. 

Port Huron, MI. As we walked along the shore of Lake Heron, this woman struck up a conversation with us about how wonderful it is to walk beside the water and collect rocks and fossils. She even gave one to Elias. Her vivaciousness and enthusiasm for the world were infectious. We were better because she talked to us.  

                                          A family hike in Ithaca, NY. Love these people...

                            Bangor, Maine   This family was with us in Tianjin, China during Covid. They lived in China for 25 years. We used to pass dumplings and bread to one another in Covid times when we were in quarantine through the fence. As a trained school counselor, she sat down and counseled me on how to adjust back to the US again since they came back a year earlier than us. 


                    Cooperstown, NY haunted tour at The Farm Museum. We did not have tickets for this highly anticipated event, and they still let us come in. 


                         Boston, MA  Long ago in NYC Deb was our neighbor. She helped me deliver three of my children and helped us when Joseph was mugged. 

                  When in St. Louis during baseball season, always go to a Cardinals game with CB. Long ago Joseph delivered her eighteen-year-old triplets. Her tanacity as a single parent of triplets always inspires me. 

         Elias's counselar who has saved some of his paintings since he was 12 years old. When she met this young boy with autism almost ten years ago, she said he changed her life and has been his fan all these years. I was tremendously touched by how long she has loved him. 

          Growing up in San Diego, CA, I had never seen or even imagined surfers in Lake Michigan. But here they are going against the waves in a storm. 

               An older woman stopped to talk to me about her love of watching water foul out on the ocean from far away. I liked her reflections when she said, "There is so much more happening out on those waves than anyone would ever realize." What appealed to her was to see what the rest of us did not or could not see. She inspired me to try and look deeper, longer, and to see the distance in what most of us do not even attempt to observe in the world and in people. 

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Happy Mother's Day and a love letter to mothering...

"I know I must have been loved like that, even if I can't remember it. I know my mother must have loved to comb my shiny hair and rub that Johnson's baby lotion up and down my arms and wrap me up and hold me all night I'd have enough love in me to know what love was when I saw it or felt it again."   --Cynthia Rylant in Missing May

      The day our son, Elias, was born... Little did we know, he would change our lives for the better when he would be diagnosed with autism three years later...

Happy Mother's Day to all! On this Mother's Day, I am spending it in London with my first grandchild--a  new season of wonder and awe in the journey of life. Observing my own child become a parent, I am filled with memories of who I was when I became a mother long ago. Of course, there were anticipation, fears, and apprehensions. But perhaps more than anything, there was a willingness to plunge deeply into unknown territory--to give this unchartered work everything I had. Deeply, I knew it was a new sphere of understanding how to love outside of myself--in a way I had never known. 

Suddenly, with unexpected abruptness, I was content to be enclosed in a new world with my little daughter. Outside of our cloistered circle, the world outside continued to beckon. But I remember being content to stay wrapped in this newly formed cocoon with her and my husband. There was nothing I would not do for this new little babe. As I looked out of my New York City 24th-story view and heard the noise and rustling of the city, I wanted to crowd out the world for a while. Of course, I knew this exquisitely beautiful cocoon of time would not last long. There was so much newly-mint joy in that space of time. I suppose that is why we had six more children. 😀

Every child is a journey. They come with their own passport of where they will eventually go. Each of them has an unmistakable and individual divine nature that comes to imprint on your soul. Sooner or later you learn they were never yours to tightly hold on to and sequester. In fact, they cannot be endlessly protected; we are not our children's shield of safety. They were meant to fly away from the sheltered haven we tried to lovingly build for them. Yet, I have learned they will migrate back for you to hold and love again-- teaching us new things of their own journeys.

A few years ago, I met the mayor of a small village in Normandy, France. He was an older gentleman who was painting on a hillside overlooking his village. As we spoke to him, he told us a story I have always remembered: During WWII, his parents who were part of the French Resistance Movement, were caught and imprisoned in a camp. His mother, who was pregnant with him, was later delivered there by a very kind, compassionate doctor. On that night, she begged the doctor to save her baby's life and bring him clandestinely outside the camp to freedom. The doctor, knowing full well the parents could never see the child again, agreed. He knew of their impending death sentences. That night, in the dark, under a long trench coat, he swaddled the child under his cloak. He risked his life for a baby whose parents would never know their child.

A few minutes later, our French friend took us to see a picture of the mayor's parents. As I looked into their faces--so young, hopeful, and beautiful, I was and continue to be moved by their story. A young mother, knowing her fate and wanting to keep this child safe from the world gave him up to an unknown stranger--a doctor who happened to be on call that day in a prison camp. Perhaps I am further moved by the story because my own husband has delivered about 25,000 children and I know he would have gladly done the same deed on that night long ago in the early 1940s in France. But as I said, mothering takes you to places, both literal and figurative, you never thought you would or could go.

Here are a few thoughts on mothering I have had over the years:

--Give yourself a break. Mothering, especially in the first years, can be almost all-encompassing. When you daily try to fill the needs of little ones, carve moments to reset. And that means giving yourself permission to take a nap. That was always my own mother's healing balm of advice. Recalibrate. Rest. Relax. Every. Day.

--Reach out. Recently I heard of a young mother I know who has been having a difficult time because of the pandemic. Lift, encourage, and say a kind word. People so desperately need affirmations. We don't know the wounds or the current state of mental health of others, but we can connect and help out. Today when I was walking into Herrod's Department store in London, not one, but two security men opened the door for me as I pushed my grandson's stroller through the door. They smiled, nodded, and just made me feel better. We might think it is a small and inconsequential act, but kind gestures have a long shelf life. 

--Build on your interests, both former ones before children, but also be brave and bold to learn new things. Everything you know and love can be shared with your children. Hold onto those passions you have always cherished so you can inspire your loved ones. Those are some of the tender gifts they will always remember and connect to. Books, nature, swimming, tennis, music, art, and cooking are some of my interests. For example, I love art museums. When we lived in Baltimore, we would sometimes trek down to the National Gallery. By the time one of my daughters was seven, she could give family and friends an amazing tour. Blog on My Cello Love Story

--Gather. Become a part of a community of mothers who help one another. Many parents do not live by their families. It does not matter if women are much older or younger than one another. In my younger years, I had sage counsel from women who I looked to for advice. Now I am older, I try to do the same for others. We can always learn from one another--even if we initially think people are not in the same "stage of life" we are in. Learn from unlikely sources who can teach you how to think in different ways and give you new perspectives. I will always remember what my Muslim neighbor told me when I first moved to Qatar, "Don't make boundaries with me, Maryan." She said it lovingly, and I knew she meant it. I learned so much from a mother who wore a burka. My life would be so different if I had not been her friend. Learn from others who are different than you. Blog on Spilling Love and Celebrating International Women's Day

--Have fun! Be creative. Give lots of hugs. Have a fun game, art, and/or music nights. Laugh a lot and go out and see the stars or a sunset or a firefly.  Carve holy moments of time. I remember celebrating St. Patrick's Day with a friend. We all went on a picnic with our kids and dyed our hair that day. As we tromped through a park in Los Angeles, we sang and told stories with our green hair. We came home exhilarated, breathless with happiness to be outside laughing and frolicking with our children.

--You can do harder things than you realize because you have learned to love with no bounds. Being a mother of a child with autism has stretched and blessed me. Blog on My Autism Mountain Having a young baby die taught me to be outside of my skin. Blog on Traveling Through Time in a Day

Some of my South African friends are in China. The little girl told me, "You have taught me how to be brave and kind" on the last night before I left China. I teared up and told her I would try to live up to her estimation of me. Children's words, so pure and unfiltered, spark me to be better.

                                                                  A mother in India who I met

             A Cambodian mother who I often visited in the refugee camps when I worked there in Thailand and the Philippines in the 1980s. She was so grateful to be in a refugee camp and to have boxes for furniture and a hammock for several of her children to sleep in. At least now she knew they were safe from Pol Pot's genocide.

                                      A very special single mom with her triplets who my husband delivered 18 years ago. They have been like family to us. 

One of my best friends, Yoyo, is in Tianjin, China with her son. She told me, "I think my children choose me to be their mom before they came down to be on earth with me."

                                       A grandmother with her grandson at Ikea in Tianjin, China