July, 2011 Archives
by Jan in Uncategorized
Earlier this month, the Dalai Lama worked with other Buddhist monks to create an intricate sand mandala the size of a queen-size bed in the middle of the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. They worked on the mandala around the clock for nearly a week, literally placing the colored sand one grain at a time to produce an intricately designed piece of art.
If you’ve ever seen monks working on a sand mandala, you can appreciate the image and effort. If you haven’t seen it, imagine a dozen or more grown men working in silence as each places individual grains of colored sand in geometric designs. Usually, the process takes weeks.
When I first saw the monk mandala process years ago, I thought, “Isn’t that beautiful?”
And that’s about where my thinking stopped—until I learned what happens when the monks finish creating the mandala. When they’re finished creating the masterpiece, they ceremonially destroy it. Yes, they take all those different colors of sand and sweep them into jars. Then, they pour the sand into a nearby river.
All that work.
All that time.
All that effort.
The point of creating and destroying a sand mandala is the metaphorical representation of how much time and energy we put into things, and the subsequent impermanence of everything. Plus, there are many other lessons far beyond my capacity to absorb. For me, simply understanding the primary and “easy” lesson has taken (and continues to take) plenty of time.
My grandmother and her only daughter collected things. Mainly, my grandmother collected the things other people didn’t use anymore. She thrived on way she could create or appreciate beauty in something someone else used long ago. Surely, there is some virtue there. But somewhere along the way, my sweet grandmother got caught in that cycle that is so enticing.
Together, my grandmother and aunt spent untold hours spanning decades conversing and conniving about who would get what from whom. During the 80s, the better part of every conversation they had wound its way back around to some dishes owned by a woman we all called “Aunt” (who really wasn’t an aunt at all)—and who would get those dishes upon Aunt’s death.
They also cared about individual pieces of silver.
And serving dishes.
Hearing so many of these conversations for so long made me assume these things mattered to everyone.
Who got what.
My grandmother’s health started declining earlier than any of us expected. When my aunt suddenly and unexpectedly passed away at a very young age, we all recognized the goodness in my grandmother’s mind that had wandered away. She didn’t realize her understand her young daughter’s death and then passed away a few years later.
All those plans and conversations about who gets what were for naught. Neither of them ever got the chance to enjoy those dishes they had dreamed of for so long.
I am uncertain if my grandmother would have ever known who or what the Dalai Lama was, but I wish the two could have spent some time together. I’m certain she could have mended his robes as beautifully as they’ve ever been sewn. He would have liked her fruitcake too. As far as him sharing some of his wisdom with her, I have to speculate if some of that insight would have changed the course of her days. Perhaps she thought material things were so important because she was a product of the Great Depression. Maybe it was because there were times in her life, before and after the Depression, when she needed more.
Here I sit in my home of overstuffed closets and bookshelves filled to the brim, clear signs of my nurtured tendency to hold on to too much. After all, I am my grandmother’s granddaughter, but I’m beginning to see the humor in holding on to stuff.
And the joke’s on me.
by Jan in Uncategorized
Nearly six years ago my family listened to a clear wake-up call that was impossible to miss.
In short, my husband fell and a minor injury to his knee almost ended up killing him. (Unbeknownst to us, a blood clot formed in his leg due to the minor fracture and subsequent rest. Then the clot broke loose and lodged itself straddling his lungs.) Few people survive such circumstances, but seven days in intensive care and twenty-nine days in the hospital later, he did. At that point, the decision to live our lives in a different way came easy.
Since then, we have.
However, this week has been a reminder for me that the hustle and bustle we swore off back then is and has been creeping its way back into our lives. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not proposing hermithood for the family. But I know that running from one event and obligation to the next takes a toll on us on many levels—we stop truly enjoying what we’re doing (possibly even resenting some of it), and we become plain tired (due to not eating right and going too much).
Despite the messages much of society offers, there is no valor in life lived that way. In fact, choosing to live life in a different way requires a lot of steadfastness. Some of which I’ve lost over the last few years.
This week has been an opportunity to re-evaluate.
Daughter no. 2 has spent this week with my parents. Daughter no. 1 has spent the week at a camp in Asheville, N.C., where my husband also had work for the week. I tagged alone and have spent the majority of the glorious week alone in a clean hotel room by day and out at dinner with my husband by night.
My reasons to stay in the hotel room were two-fold. First, I had work to do that kept me close to a computer. Secondly, the results of going, seeing and doing too much caught up with me last weekend and left me sick as a dog and rather weak. Having time to reflect and take care of myself has been a gift and a reminder of the importance of taking the time every now and then to be still and reel life back in to the place that works best.
As far as I can tell, every major religion except Hinduism sets aside a day of rest—and these traditions go back thousands of years. We’re supposed to rest. We face consequences if we don’t. And yet, what do we use our supposed day of rest for? Well, that’s the day to catch up on chores that the rest of life doesn’t leave time for.
Something’s wrong with that equation.
Resting happens rarely among most of the people I know. And admitting to resting happens even less. In a society that seems to thrive on hustle and bustle, many of us associate resting with shame. Got to stay busy. Got to be working. We scowl and sneer at someone “sitting around and doing nothing.”
The penalties vary, but the costs for lack of rest are real and take a toll in ways difficult to recognize without a little time and perspective. Some of may get sick. Some of us may get irritable. Some of may simply lose sight of what’s important in the limited time we have to share with family and friends.
The best way for time and perspective?
A little rest.
Take today. It’s officially a day of rest. On your own or with your family, see how much time you can sit around and do nothing. No clothes washing. No dish washing. No lawn mowing. No weed picking. No floor mopping. Just sit and talk. Or sit and read. Or look at old photo albums. Or take a nap.
Watch what happens.
by Jan in Uncategorized
By the end of the week, I was all tuckered out and felt a lot like an ex-superhero.
Or maybe the superhero who never was.
The cold, hard truth is that I am not the mother I thought I would be.
Though I am confident the mother I thought I would be is surely as real as the superheroine Wonder Woman—either the Lynda Carter or the DC Comics version.
Starting this column, I was a sorry, bedraggled sight. The towel around my wet head impersonating a cape was as close to superhero as I could get. The prospect of writing, much less what followed was enough to do me in. Instead, it was time to go to bed and absorb some pabulum-for-the-brain television before dozing off to sleep. Yet, my day was not done.
The colder and harder truth I had to face was on Thursday evening the closer the clock got to midnight, the closer I was to leaving the house again.
For me, the task I faced required near superhero strength.
Generally speaking, the mother I thought I would be would not have found herself with wet hair, a make-up-less face and clothes that could use an iron. That woman would have been as dressed up and excited about the night’s events as my 13-year-old daughter.
But the best the mother I am could do is manage a trip to Goodwill earlier in the afternoon. For about $14, the 13 year old and I created a rather good Hermione Granger outfit, complete with an appropriately colored tie, for her to wear to the final midnight Harry Potter premier.
The mother I thought I would be would have sewn capes for the pair of us. But as I mentioned, I have come to terms with the fact that I am not that woman. The best I could do, at the end of a busy day of work and a long week getting back into the swing of reality after our family vacation, required a lot less than energy than a hand-sewn cloak of invisibility.
You see, the mother I thought I would be lived long before I had any idea of what being a parent required. She had no comprehension of the enormous sum of energy required to make family life work on the most basic level, much less on a level that resembled anything that resembles picture perfect.
For my 13 year old, the last of the Harry Potter movies has been an epic event. When I was growing up, my friends and I rarely re-read books, but my daughter has read the Harry Potter books repeatedly. There are large swaths of dialogue that she happily quotes.
Perhaps her generation re-reads books because technology has allowed them the blessing (and curse) of re-watching movies, sometimes too often. Whatever the reason, she seems to find the repetition a comfort regardless of what anyone else thinks.
For her, the final Harry Potter movie represented the end of an era. She has grown up with Harry Potter. He has been her friend and shown her a way to find just enough magic to get by in a world full of muggles.
Even though I have found a certain peace with non-superhero momhood, I found myself spending the wee hours of Friday morning sitting in a movie theater watching my daughter’s generation’s good versus evil epic tale.
Even in this day and age, despite unfathomable obstacles, good wins.
No super hero required.
by Jan in Uncategorized
Having topped 3,000 miles added to the odometer and another 1,400 to go until we reach Lafayette Parish, my family and I have covered some territory on our family vacation. We spent today at the Grand Canyon. I had been once before in 1988. Back then, I made the trip in July also. And back then, it was hot, hot, hot.
While the rest of our group went hiking in the heat, my college roommate, Cathy, and I found shelter in El Tovar, a fancy restaurant we couldn’t afford. It was lovely, and we recognized it as a place we wished we could spend time. So we searched the menu high and low and both decided the only thing we could afford that would suit us was a bowl of French Onion Soup.
On the rim of the Grand Canyon, when it opened in 1905, a man named Fred Harvey ran El Tovar. Beginning in 1876, Harvey began creating the first chain of hotels in America. He hired so-called Harvey Girls to work in his restaurants and hotels that dotted the Southwest. When I was in the ninth grade, I read a book about the Harvey Girls and have been fascinated by them since. When I realized Cathy and I were in a former Harvey Hotel and restaurant, I was thrilled. When our French Onion soup arrived, my happiness level went up another notch or two. The soup was divine.
Even before we went to the Grand Canyon, Cathy and I had long tried to master the art of French Onion soup. And on that day, we found what we considered to be the perfect bowl of soup. While our friends were out hiking and sweating in the heat, we were savoring what we considered to be a culinary masterpiece.
In the 23 years since that day, Cathy and I have had hundreds of conversations about the soup. Could it have possibly been as good as we remembered it to be? How could they have gotten the cheese to melt just so? How could they have made a beef broth that rich?
As happens with relationships that stand the test of time, a certain lore builds around particular moments. Cathy and I have been blessed to share many such moments that stay. But for us, that long-ago bowl of soup ranked right up there. It was akin to something magic that the two of us shared.
The truth is, I wasn’t really looking as forward to the Grand Canyon as I should have been. While I appreciated it to a certain level when I went before, perhaps I was too young and too focused on other things.
Before we went, I did a little research and made reservations for the restaurant that served the fabled French Onion soup. I knew there would be no way the soup could live up to my memory, but I wanted to give it a try for old time’s sake.
When we arrived at the canyon, I realized how wrong I had been not to have fully appreciated the natural wonder so many years ago. The day we spent there was near perfect. It wasn’t hot even though it was July. As we walked up to the rim, young Navajo dancers were performing. I was mesmerized. My youngest daughter and I went on a hike down into the canyon. Afterwards, our whole family sat in rockers and a wooden swing near the canyon rim and chatted with a delightful couple from Oregon.
I wasn’t sure the day could get much better.
Then it came time for our dinner reservations.
We were seated, and I promptly ordered the French Onion soup. My expectations were low.
When the bowl arrived, it looked exactly like the bowl I ordered 23 years ago. I took a picture and sent it to Cathy. Then I took my first bite.
Though I was wrong about my long-ago lack of appreciation for the canyon, I was not wrong about the soup. It almost made me cry it was so delicious. So much flavor in every bite. I could just picture Cathy and me sitting there, so young and naïve, marveling over what was one of the best things we had ever tasted.
A lot of life has happened between those two bowls of soup. I was happy to share it with my husband and daughters. With each bite, I was filled with gratitude for the blessings of family, good friends and good food.
by Jan in Uncategorized
Faithful readers will recall our March effort to fold 1,000 origami cranes to send to Japan. In Japan, 1,000 cranes strung in 25 strands of 40 creates a senbazuru, which represents hope and recovery.
Our family’s effort quickly gained momentum. For the five days before we mailed the cranes, someone was knocking on our door every hour or so throughout the day and evening dropping off bags of cranes.
If you’ve ever tried to fold a crane, you know those were little bags of love.
Many people came in and sat at our table and folded more cranes. It was beautiful. When we reached our goal of 1,000, the cranes kept coming. All in all, we mailed 1,873 cranes from Acadiana. The Bezos Family Foundation, through Students Rebuild, donated $2 to the Japanese recovery for each of those cranes. Within a few weeks of our cranes arriving at the Students Rebuild office in Seattle, people from around the world kept sending them.
All in all, the organization received one million origami cranes—900,000 more than their target goal. Organizers are partnering with Architecture for Humanity and shipping the cranes to become an art installation in Japan. They’re using the money to build an orphanage and a school in the Sendai area.
Skip a few weeks forward.
In April, my 13-year-old daughter, Greer, and I visited England. We made a trip to the English city of Bath, a city first settled by the Romans. The city, so named, because it was loved then and now for its warm healing waters. In fact, Greer and I toured the bathhouse the Romans used 2,000 years ago.
The entire structure has been excavated down to the very stone floor the Romans used. We entered on the street level and toured the upper portion of the building before going down steps to the stone floor surrounding the warm green pool, still fed by the same spring. When we stepped out onto the smooth and polished stones, I was in awe.
Upon entering the area, we practically bumped into two Asian girls. One tall and one short. I asked them if they would take our photograph by the bath. As I handed my camera to the shorter girl, I realized their English was marginal. That always makes me happy. I love speaking with people learning our language.
After the girl took our photograph, she motioned to ask if I would take a picture of her and her friend. I did. When I finished I counting to three and taking the photograph, I asked the girls where they were from.
“Japan,” one answered.
I asked, “Where in Japan?”
The tall girl said, “Tokyo.”
Because of what happened next, I cannot remember where the other girl said.
I smiled and in the way I speak with my hands, arms, legs and toes when I’m trying to communicate with someone who’s trying to learn English, I said, “In March, we folded 1,000 origami cranes for a senbazuru for Japan.”
I knew they would recognize the word sebazuru.
Both girls put their hands together and began bowing to us saying, “Thank you,” over and over and over.
Greer and I recognized their sincerity immediately, but they kept saying, “Thank you.” Then, I saw a single tear roll down the check of the taller girl.
Followed by another.
I know well the reticence of emotions in the Japanese culture. If you were watching, you probably saw on television families who, after four days of searching, reunited in the ruins of the tsunami after, simply stand and bow to each other.
No tears. No embrace.
The taller girl’s tears began to fall in abundance and within a moment, she was sobbing uncontrollably. I opened my arms and she fell into them, silently sobbing. We stood there the four of us.
They didn’t know our names.
We didn’t know theirs.
Still don’t, in fact.
Tears began to roll down Greer’s, the other girl’s and my own cheeks. It was one of those experiences you can’t believe even as it’s happening—powerful and compelling.
Finally, the Japanese girl regained her composure and we began to smile and laugh.
She said one more, “Thank you,” and the four of us posed for a photograph. Arms locked.
I don’t know why our tale of a senbazuru touched her the way it did. I don’t know if she had or lost family in the tsunami. I don’t know if it was just that moment of realizing how connected our lives are and that people in one place genuinely care about people in another.
Whatever it was, the four of us shared a remarkable moment that will stay with me.
I wish I knew her name.
by Jan in Uncategorized
In honor of our nation’s Independence Day and the American tradition of family reunions and summer road trips, my family is on a cross-country jaunt. I believe long car rides build character, memories and relationships—not to mention an appreciation for geography and even geology.
And that is why we’ve zigged and zagged and driven 2,047 miles in the last week seeing sights and visiting friends and relations across the land. I want my children to be well rounded, kind-hearted, informed, gracious and giving humans who do want they can to make the world a better place. Based on personal experience, seeing a variety of places and getting to know the people and ways of those places provides a more solid motivation for wanting to be and do all those things.
That’s what I’ve wanted for my kids from the start.
Which is why I started doing all this madness when they were young.
Stay with me here.
The truth of the matter is that with the exception of the extended family reunion in Los Angeles, where my children will have the chance to meet cousins they’ve never met before and the Grand Canyon, which we plan to hit on the way back, my 13-year-old daughter Greer has been to all the places and done almost all the things we’re doing on this trip.
But she does not have one smidgen of recall about these grand events.
Oh, yeah, this column isn’t going where you thought it was going. Yes, I’m all about purple mountain majesties and sea to shining seas and fruited plains, but that’s not the message today. Consider what I’m writing here to be a public service announcement for parents with children of all ages—but especially new and about-to-be-parents.
If your child is two or younger, save yourself the grief and agony of taking child-centric vacations. This is the important part: YOUR CHILDREN WILL NOT HAVE AN OUNCE OF RECALL ABOUT THOSE TRIPS.
Even when they’re three.
Even when they’re four.
Now, I realize there’s merit in doing fun things with young children—things they’ll never remember. I’d just recommend choosing those things differently than say…I did.
Save yourself some money and energy. We all know there’s one place in particular that sucks you in. It’s that place, that amusement park on steroids, that makes you think it’ll be magic once your there and life will be beautiful. You’ll be beautiful and your children will grow up to be successful, happy people because you took them there when they were young.
Let me be clear, I am not advising foregoing visits to said parks. I am simply advising that you wait until your children are older—you define older (but I’d put seven at the minimum).
Do not succumb to the peer pressure. Trust me, if your child is under age six, he or she will not remember a dad-gum thing, except maybe a pineapple popsicle or some other random tidbit that could be garnered somewhere else at much less expense and all around hassle. The truth is this: Your children would much prefer sitting down with you and rolling a ball back and forth. Or building a castle out of blocks or sand.
They won’t remember that either, but they’ll have more fun. And if you let yourself, so will you. Plus, there’s the added bonus of that kind of vacation costing a whole lot less, and it may even offer the opportunity for you to—brace yourself—relax.
I write all of this, with the following confession: Here I sit in a hotel room in Pasadena, California, with an exhausted husband and two sleeping children, ages 9 and 13. Tomorrow we are scheduled to go to that place of fun and magic that I said I’d never visit again.
We’ve been three times before. Let’s hope this visit makes memories for a lifetime. I’m sure it will be a character building experience for me!