Holiday lights and haunted houses

A month ago the light was touched with the colors of the season. We counted pumpkins on doorsteps, noting the special ones, unusual colors or sizes, and brought great quantities of candy into our home. The quietly spectacular transformation of green into stains of orange, red and yellow took place before I could appreciate it properly.

One by one, thousands of fallen leaves evaporated into the earth, leaving us with a memory of when they were lush and unseasoned.

Like so many birds, I flew south for a few days last month. During my absence winter came crawling, beckoning at the door. When I got home I dug out gloves and hats in preparation for stinging weather. A rainbow teased itself across the blue only to leave no trace of its existence when I blinked, and suddenly I was gazing upon a dull grey sky.

I blink sometimes, and she is gone again.

When I talk about her with someone who really knew her, it makes it feel real again.

It makes me miss her more, and yet makes me feel like I’m not the only one, and so I am sad and grateful at the same time.

Most of the time these days I’m hardly thinking of my dead sister, though, and the enormous void that was left in our family when she died, and really, for a long time now, my grief  has remained silent. I am happy, and yet my heart is haunted, you see.

So then.

Then something happens, and I am struck, no, torn, torn into a thousand pieces of misunderstanding and hurt and terror mixed with ambivalence and blame and fear, and I fear for my children, for the world in which they are being raised. How on Earth can we protect them?

Yet when I was a child, we lived without sun protection and seat belts. Secondhand smoke was, well, everywhere. I remember tipping full ashtrays into the trash, with no immediate effects. We were routinely allowed to get hurt (or okay, at least put in harm’s way with limited observation especially in the summer time).

My sisters and I made it to adulthood with a few scratches and scars, but nothing serious. Certainly we arrived as newborn adults prepared to live, and live freely and confidently.

This is part of the reason why it’s been so very, very difficult to accept my sister’s death (nine years ago and counting). She was so very much alive.

That, and also that our national and international news is so terrible of late.

I know my sister would be fighting to arbitrate such news today. In her core she was a stubborn negotiator, a protector of human integrity, and a woman who sought to collaborate, agree with or attempt to understand someone despite of or due to their differences.

She was a person who fought back, typically with words but once with a well-placed and most deserved punch to the face. She listened to stories from men and women who were disabled but not downtrodden – she recognized those who needed a hand from time to time were not unworthy of their humanity.

She would fight with me, with us, help me to understand what I can do better.

There’s a lot on my list to do better.

(At least seat belts, smoking and sun protection don’t make the list).

I’ve been doing some yoga lately. I’m not one with the mat or anything, but it makes me feel better.

Yoga makes my wrists hurt, my sister said with a shake of her head, a long time ago.

Some nights I cannot sleep.

There are haunted houses in my dreams, darkened windows, broken glass. The wind scatters leaves across my path; a cat cries before I wake up.

Haunted hearts, empty, shadowed by sadness. Full of memories that can not always be trusted.

I lose you again and again and again.

You move and breathe and smile in our minds, but just like those moving portraits that hang on the walls of Hogwarts, you aren’t really there.

Those whom we we have lost in recent days are real. As usual, I send a silent appeal to my angel sister so that she may greet them in turn, a reflective reception for Michael Brown among them… always, I think, those whose deaths were unexpected deserve a kind and compassionate welcome.

Lights sparkle in our living room tonight, illuminating a tiny Nativity scene organized on the coffee table by our youngest son. He is very taken with the miniature wooden figures, especially the Three Kings and the Baby Jesus. We have been listening to a lot of holiday pop music lately, and not especially focused on theology, but I thought I’d been pretty clear about the meaning of the holiday until he asked me about Michael Jackson’s role in Bethlehem at Christmas.

Perplexed, I asked a few questions, and it turned out that he had confused the Baby Jesus with the renowned rock star.

My explanation of Christmas was puzzling at best, dubious at worst. I attempted to set him straight, and he marched back into the family room to dance to little Michael’s rendition of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

My sister would have celebrated another turn around the sun tomorrow. Surely she’s dancing, wherever she is, and crying, too, at the loss that we invoke while here on Earth, at the sudden force of grief and mourning that we create when another young life is taken senselessly and forever.

In my heart I remember you as you were, Liz, 28 years old, a smile upon your lips to greet a loved one or a stranger, a frown as you observed injustice around you. I am grateful for you, and saddened by your absence. Always, I remain your sister and your friend.





I am behind in posting to this personal blog. I owe two reviews, various musings, and a special response to a nomination by The Imperfect Kitchen – a post that I am excited about writing and sharing with my readers.

But lately I’ve felt more like thinking about writing, rather than actually writing, thinking-past-bedtime-style, and thinking about the the usual suspects.

Loss, healing and love, in no particular order, because in my mind they are all one and the same.

A neighbor of mine cared for her mom during her last days this month. She gently, sadly left her family far too soon, and it made my heart ache, though I’d never met her.

It made me think, god, I’m so grateful, truly grateful that my mom and dad and sister are still here with me. 

Most nights my family sits around the dinner table and haphazardly share our daily gratitudes. It’s our “Our Father, Full of Grace”, a reflection on the day’s gifts and rainbows.

The deal is that everyone is supposed to share at least one thing for which they are grateful that happened that day, even if, and this is quite plausible, that day truly sucked and was horrible till the end.

Despite that we have shared gratitudes before the evening meal for over a year now, it’s not sinking in. Our boys dig into their food, starving, until I ask them to pause. Then they’re suddenly squabbling, hands reaching, each determined to share his gratitudes before anyone else.

Our youngest says he is grateful for the “water park” that we visited last November. He says this every night.

It’s not a religious practice, I guess it’s optional, but it irritates me that I constantly have to remind them to show appreciation for what they have. They are good at saying ‘thank you’ for an ice cream cone or a birthday gift, but less so at acknowledging a subtler act of kindness or uncommon experience.

The truth is that we live in a community that enjoys so much privilege. I want our boys to recognize this, and so I make them identify something, anything, for which they are grateful every night. Once they get started, however, they have a hard time stopping. This suggests that one day I won’t have to prompt them.


Recent gratitudes from the older brother include “watching the World Cup, especially Brazil and USA and the Netherlands, and sorry, Mom, but I’ve got to root against Mexico when they play the Netherlands, and for this dinner, and for getting ready to go to Bubba and Nana’s house…” and from the younger, “I’m grateful for this beautiful dinner and I love Mom and Dad and Miles and Coppi and our new kitchen and going to the water park and coming back from school and the dumpster wasn’t here and we didn’t need to do any more work”. 

It’s really good stuff, these gratitudes that I insist they share.

In late 2000, my two sisters visited my partner and me in southern Mexico. We were working 12-16 hour days, volunteer-style, at a guest ranch located not far from the Guatemalan border. Mostly European and a few intrepid American travelers arrived shouldering backpacks, ate great quantities of excellent home-cooked food, hiked and photographed nearby ruins before heading on their way.

We served traveling Germans a lot of Mexican beer and washed piles and piles of dishes. We also developed a healthy respect for the indigenous Zapatista community’s presence down the road as well as for the Mexican army base located less than one mile from the ranch.

I’ve written about this experience in Birds of Paradise, Part One, Two and Three. Fresh out of the Peace Corps, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to live and work in a piece of the world not well known by anyone other than its residents and the local American missionaries (I should write about them sometime – they weren’t your stereotypical missionary family).

Toward the close of our tenure at the ranch, my partner and I spent time in close dialog, not only with each other, but with members of the staff. We agreed that the way in which the operation was run (by American expats greedy for pesos and a permanent vacation) was crude and unethical. The ranch employed a hard-working staff of young men and women who completed their tasks with a serious yet pleasant attitude. For most of them, Spanish was their second or third language after their indigenous dialect. We earned their trust by working alongside them, washing dishes by hand, serving plates and drinks, and weeding the garden. It helped that we spoke the language, sharing jokes and lightening the atmosphere a bit.

Bringing this memory back today seems timely. Although we did not have children back then, and in fact did not have much for which we were responsible – no mortgage, no “real” jobs, no bills waiting to be paid – we felt accountable, to one another and to the staff and neighbors of the property.

At the end of the day we felt responsible and grateful. We coordinated humble yet delicious dinners and assisted in buying, cleaning and preparing the food alongside two talented Mexican cooks. Eventually the work took place in a rhythm that worked beautifully so long as the ranch owners were not present. It was a good, yet unsustainable situation since we knew the owners were due back any day. After six months, we chose not to take part any longer in an operation that was unkind and unjust to the very people who made it work.

Maybe gratitude can’t really be forced. Through observation and experience of humbler conditions than my own, I grew in immeasurable ways that season, and I was a whole lot older than our kids are today.

I want to live my life with eyes wide open to the blessings around me. Our boys have big hearts, even if they less aware of how good they have it.

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.

– A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

 P.S. By the time I got around to posting this, both of my boys had driven me mad, because they were tired and melting down, causing me to feel very ungrateful indeed. But we’ll try again tomorrow. 





the usual suspects

Spray paint the walls

In my fantasy house I have a room all to myself that that has whitewashed walls all around.

Beyond the room intentionally free of color, the rooms will be painted a deep cobalt blue. Mexican tiles will line stairs, counter tops and sinks. The tile will be splashed golden with color, sea blue and dark red and sunflower yellow. Large, open windowsills will invite cats to sleep in the sun. Huge terracotta pots will be alive with green and white calla lilies. A tumbling water feature and a rocky fire place will warm our home on a chilly night, and we will gather, together, to listen and learn and grow, in goodness and in disturbance. Our lab will sleep lovingly by the warmth of the fire.

When I need to, I will enter my whitewashed room alone. Armed with cans of red, gold, purple and black spray paint, I will declare my intention (s) for the day. In no particular order, I shake the cans and write:
















Potty training.










Words that welcome, energize, or soothe the mind, body or spirit will be translated on the wall.

I’ll move quickly, dispersing the color from the bottle into the air and across the wall. I will tell my paint-spattered story day by day. Unlike graffiti, my words will not be accessible to the public. My pieces will not be elaborate. I do not pretend to be able to draw anything that is not a stick figured cat.

But I can write words. Lots of them.

Today a young family member is suffering, his body trying to heal. He is surrounded by prayerful, powerful thoughts and energy from hundreds of loved ones around the country, perhaps the world. An older relative, my own 94-year-old grandfather, is also ailing. I miss his eyes, the way they sparkle and know you. I want to see him again.

Once during a visit to my grandparents my sister Liz and I went for an early morning run in the neighborhood. We walked just at the very end, approaching our grandparents’ house. On the patio my grandfather stood watching us. We were in our 20s, I think, and pretty fit.

You call that a run?! he shouted.

We started jogging toward him, laughing and protesting. He shook his head, laughed.

Good girls, he said, smiling.

As always, I talk to the only person I know who has left her physical self behind. What can we do? Why does this kind of thing happen? How can I help? Can you pull some strings to make it better? 

A blessing I learned in a meditation course a few years ago came to my mind.

May you be filled with loving kindness.
May you be well.
May you be peaceful and at ease.
May you be happy.

ancient – tibetan buddhist – blessing

I haven’t practiced loving kindness work (and it is work) in some time. My muscles are weak. I must work harder in this area shared across time, generations and family.

Every night the words on my wall are erased, freshly painted, ready for another day’s intention.

Tomorrow’s intention will be healing. 

white wall

We look at life from both sides now

By mid-day the Nyquil fog had lifted. Finally. I can’t tolerate the medicine anymore. Every morning this week I felt like I’d fallen asleep in a bathtub of gin.

Today is day six of Me vs a Sinus Infection. When I woke, I could breathe! This immediately put me in a good mood. Unfortunately, rousing the boys was my first mistake. But they had to get to school, so wake them I did.

Disclaimer: Now that I’m working less and staying at home with the boys more, these posts may get awfully boring. For some of you, however, they may become a bit more compelling as I transition to a different way of being, living, and loving this season. Stay tuned.

As some of my readers may know, the little guy is just killing me. Tearful in his crib, he wanted his father to pick him up, and sadly we went to the window to see that Dada had already left for work. Breakfast is a challenge and “Max no like that” is a common refrain. He immediately offered his buttered English muffin to our dog who snapped it up, wagging his tail. He ate some applesauce and a few frozen blueberries. He cried when he accidentally knocked over his water glass. He cried when some applesauce got on his shirt. He cried when I told him it was time to change his diaper. He cried and he yelled and he ran away when I tried to get him to wear a jacket on this chilly fall morning. Sigh.

We piled in the car while the eldest chattered happily about a time when his brother Max will be five years old (like him) and we can all go to Disneyland. Arriving at daycare, Max did the quickest 180 I’ve ever seen. His buddy C. was there waiting for him. Both boys broke out in huge smiles and began to chase eachother around the room. He kissed and hugged his brother and me and said “Mama go bye bye now. Miles go bye bye now”.


On to kindergarten.

Yesterday I volunteered in Miles’ classroom for two hours. He was thrilled. When I left, however, he cried and cried. He thought I was a teacher now. Oh dear. This morning we approached his classroom and the tears began. Oh no. I hugged him tight. Told him all the love in my heart was in his heart, all day, just like I used to when I dropped him at the Maple Room.

He misses his old school. He misses his old friends. He doesn’t want to go to kindergarten anymore. Well, except P.E. He likes that.

Bravely he watched me walk away. My heart broke a little, and I’m wondering what he’s doing right now. I guess I’ll keep wondering till pick up time. He has a soccer game tonight and I know he’ll rally with his soccer pals. But as for kindergarten, can someone please tell me when he’ll make friends and like school again?

P.S. After writing this post I received a call from a dear friend. She reminded me that it is hard work to make new friends. We’ve known eachother for over twenty years, and I wouldn’t replace her friendship with a new friendship for all the world. So I think I’d better proceed gently with my new kindergartener as he navigates his new and strange world. If you’re reading, amiga, then thank you thank you thank you. You are a forever friend!

The things we do for our children

I slipped a 14-year-old CD into the disk drive (is that what they’re still called?) in the car. The CD was homemade by five gals who once belonged to a groovy chick group called the SixPack. My sister Liz was one of the Six. When she turned 21, her sisterhood presented her with a CD called “Liz’s Last Night Out”.  I don’t understand why they called it that because she had just turned 21 and isn’t that really supposed to be one’s First Night Out?

Among the several groovy tunes one immediately caught my boys’ attention.

Ice Ice Baby

by Vanilla Ice

I know you remember it.

So picture this. We’re blasting Ice Ice Baby because the boys are loving it, literally bouncing in their seats, and we roll up in our hybrid car into the enormous parking lot at Costco.

I glance over at my husband is who is cringing openly and smiling broadly. He tolerates a bit of children’s music, and he deeply appreciates quality music of many genres… jazz, blues, bluegrass, industrial, classical. I lean over to whisper:

Think back to when you met me. Did you ever in a million years dream that one day we’d be rolling up into Costco (a huge warehouse store that he also hates) with two kids in a Prius rocking out to Vanilla Ice?

Maybe you had to be there, but it was really really funny at the time.

He shook his head. The things we do for our children – indeed.

Were it not for the fact that I opted to sit by him in a lecture on Dominican food, everything may have turned out so differently.

Next weekend we’re going camping in a remote part of Oregon. Our music will include the soft breeze shuffling through the trees and a coyote crying in the woods. Birdsong will be our alarm clock.  I hope we meet a gentle deer foraging for food as the sun slips beneath the horizon. I hope my kids will sleep for twelve hours, tucked into bright orange sleeping bags, each wearing a headlamp. By day’s end, we will be marshmallow sticky with windtossed hair and suncolored cheeks.

I expect the experience to be far superior than a morning spent pushing a gigantic cart at Costco.

For everything there is a season

The first summer without my sister I ran and cried and sweated in our nation’s capital. I quit my job, packed my bags, and moved three thousand miles away. I grew no sunflowers.

The second summer without my sister I logged many miles on the roads, slept very little, trembled with anxiety, and took our new puppy to the dog parks where we could both burn off energy and smile at strangers. He entered my life at a time when I was at a loss for knowing what to do next. He looked like this.

We lived in an apartment across the street from friendly gangsters who paid us no attention. I started to admire other people’s backyard gardens, but I still grew no sunflowers.

The third summer without my sister I lived in a home where we built a deck and my husband cleared a space for a garden. All I planted that season were sunflower seeds. I sat on the deck every night with a glass of wine watching the empty garden space and rocking our new baby.

Before my eyes the seeds took root and the magic that is found in a garden began.

In a large patch of dirt, shoots of green began to grow up, up, up, and much like Jack’s beanstalk, they appeared to reach the clouds.

By summer’s end this was our garden.

The fourth and fifth summers I grew fewer sunflowers but they were no less spectacular. And I still cried almost every night, but sometimes just for a moment when the tears threatened and sparkled and I’d blink them back and inhale sharply to make them disappear.

The sixth summer our sons were three years and one year old, respectively, and I planted dozens of seeds, but only a single sunflower grew that season.

Just one.

Had birds stolen the seeds?

Did my garden get flooded by Portland rains just one too many times?

I sent loving thoughts to the one brave bloom in the earth, but it didn’t last the season. One day I went out to find it crumpled on the ground, its seeds scattered by a squirrel or a crow. It was attacked. I tried to keep the entire incident in perspective (it was just a flower, for goodness sake), but I confess feeling really miserable about the loss of this particular flower.

The seventh summer after my sister died I managed to grow about half a dozen sunflowers in a patchy sort of amateur arrangement.

This year marks the eighth season of light since she left us.

My husband tenderly prepared the space. Together our boys and I planted the seeds, and most took root within a few days. Tiny, vulnerable shots of green began to appear.

The stems broke through the earth.

The fragile stalks grew tougher as they reached for the sun.

Today the light signals the plants to flower and the garden offers transformative healing and gentle hope in the presence of the sun.

This is what our garden looks like today – mid-season. We are on our way to a burst of color from at least thirty sunflowers, miniature, tall and giant.

P.S. We’re also growing a bit more in our humble garden. Cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and a jalapeño. We’ve already eaten all the lettuce.

Found the Marbles

28 years of light

Her name was Liz, I said.

How many times have I told people the name of my sister since she died? The people who never had the opportunity to meet her, I mean.

A handful. A few dozen. I don’t know.

Though ever present in my heart and often on my mind, my sister’s story is one that I have not revealed – except through this blog – to many of the people whom I’ve come to know since her death.

Those who do know her story are those few whom I consider to be close friends.

I am grateful that her story remains alive and well, even if she is gone.

Once upon a time, my sister was born on December 1, 1976 in Washington, D.C. I was not quite three years old.

She died on a Thursday, this day, seven years ago. But the story doesn’t end there.

I’m beginning to see that our deathdays are so much less critical than our birthdays.

What happens between them is what matters.

Let me say it again.

What we choose to do and learn and see and say and how we move and speak and listen between our Birthday and our Last Day is what counts.

My sister Elizabeth lived every single day of her life in a spirit of commitment, compassion, and justice. As a child and a young adult, her days were filled with learning, laughter and love. She was practical, funny, sassy and smart. And she had strong opinions.

Shortly before I married, she spent the night at my apartment and we slept together in my queen size bed.

She tossed and turned, until finally she spoke up in the darkness,

I hate your pillows!

These pillows are the worst!

I hadn’t thought about my pillows before. I punched one of them. It was flat. The other one was lumpy.

She was right! Those were horrible pillows!

We dissolved into silly giggles before falling asleep, Liz muttering, “stupid pillows”, which made us laugh until we cried.

In the morning I’d forgotten all about the pillows.

A few months later, Liz appeared at my parents’ door step. In her arms she carried an enormous box.

A wedding present.

Inside the box were four beautiful, brand new pillows.

Gracias hermana mia.

I miss you.

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