Year of a Hundred Things – “Thing” #77 – Abuela

  I have no memory of how I perceived loss before the year my Abuela died, but I clearly, concretely remember how I felt, sitting at the end of the kitchen counter in her kitchen, lonely in a room filled with people. The yellow formica stretched out before my gaze as though it were infinite.  I was transfixed by the mottled 70s pattern. It was consistent and predictable, the antithesis of the disconnected spectrum of emotions that wracked my small body. I was ten years old and my everyday was gone.

My Abuela “Annie,” as she was known, was the constant in my life. Before my father was hurt in a car accident, I spent every morning before school in my Abuela’s kitchen, drinking café con leche and eating the best Cuban bread in the universe, from the bakery at which my Abuelo worked. (That’s not hyperbole. It has actually been voted the best many times over the years.) I watched her struggle from place to place because four strokes had taken her entire left side from her. She was determined, and strong, and had adapted. I wish I had understood at ten what an extraordinary achievement that was. You see, I didn’t know it at the time, but she had been left-handed.

Since that day, forty years ago, I have learned a great deal more about her than I could possibly have perceived at ten. But I knew one very important thing, even then, clinging to that counter and sobbing. My life was about to change drastically, and not having her as an anchor was going to make that much harder.

I found myself standing in my kitchen this afternoon, making yuca and mojo, and for a moment, my Abuela returned to my consciousness. I saw her there, standing at the stove, left arm contracted severely, right arm stirring the spanish bean soup I wish I’d learned to make.

“Abuela,” I had said one afternoon, “why did mommy and daddy go to your ami?”

She chuckled, and flashed her perfect smile at me. “Niña, it’s not ‘your ami,’ it’s Miiii ami.”

“Okay, but why did they go to yoooouuuurrrr ami?” I remember clearly that I’d stretched it out, thinking that she hadn’t understood me.

“Aye, niña, it’s a city, named ‘Miami.’ It’s not ‘my’ ami. And they’re visiting friends.”

“Ohhhhhhhhh,” I finally said, as she scooped two ladles full of soup into the blender. Whiiiiirrrrrrrrrrrr, the blender screamed, having only soft foods to pulverize. I watched as she carefully poured the resulting mush into a melamine bowl, and then slowly hobbled over to the table with it.

“Come, sit,” she said. She hobbled back to the counter, pulled a spoon from the drawer and with the same slow drag of her left foot, brought the spoon to the table.

I had no idea at the time what tremendous effort it was for her to do simple things like that, but now, at this moment, standing in my kitchen cooking, I understand that she loved me enough to know that I hated (still hate) the texture of garbanzo beans and she turned that soup into mush because that’s the way I liked it.

I have many memories of my Abuela, but not nearly enough. I relish those moments when she comes back to me because I find myself doing something she did, without realizing that it was from her that I learned it. Her memory, and the memory of my father, made me realize that our people never really leave us. They are in our DNA. They are the warp and weft of our memories. To visit them, we need only do what they taught us, without our even knowing what we’d really learned.

 

2000 Years

2015 to be exact.

That’s right. We’ve had 2015 to fix the way we think about other humans. Even if you are not a follower of Christ, the ultimate hippie, you cannot deny that his “do unto others as you would have done to you” message seems rather reasonable. So, why do we keep screwing it up?

You’ve heard the answer over and over and over, ad nauseam. I picture psychologists buried under the reams of reports stating clearly why the human animal cannot eradicate prejudice. Why, indeed.

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Space Crying?

Finally, after fifty years living in the state of Florida, I visited Kennedy Space Center. I had a very good reason. He’s eight, brilliant and amazing, mercurial and funny as hell. He also has the attention span of a fruit fly.

I wandered the halls, and slowly digested the glorious accomplishment that is space flight. He parkoured every surface possible, staying occasionally at one or another simulator long enough to get frustrated and move onto the next. Slowly, as my heart swelled in pride at what man can accomplish collaboratively, it broke simultaneously as I realized if I don’t intervene, my little man will grow up feeling as though he is capable of nothing.

Before we left for KSC, we had the teacher’s conference I dreaded, the one I hoped would never happen. As I listened to descriptions of his behavior in class, the pain in my chest grew as I relived all those moments I experienced as a child. So now, I look at him with entirely different eyes. Now, I see him as having the same debilitating symptoms that clotheslined me and I worry that I am not equipped to help him. I also see what his future will be like if I stand frozen and helpless, as I am at this moment.

You see, normal brain function allows one to get from point a to be point b with relatively little intervention. But in his case, as in mine, it’s constant, exhausting course correction. Eventually, the course corrections sound like nagging, and then “failure syndrome” develops. “Yes,” you think, “I see that mountain over there. Yes, intellectually, I know I COULD climb it. Yes, I KNOW I will fail.” Why? Simply, because it’s too big.

I will never be the kind of person who sits behind a desk all day, every day. Neither will my boy. Repetitive activities actually make us anxious. In fact, recently, while on a brief IT contract, I watched the workers on a production line for a few minutes as I waited for a computer to reboot. I felt myself becoming very depressed. I realize, though, that if I can’t figure out a way to effectively help my child, then he will be relegated to a job he hates because he won’t be able to get through the education he wants.

I remind him that some of the most amazing minds in history had ADD: Edison, Einstein, Tesla, Ford and many more. I remind myself. I get frustrated and I yell and then I hear him regurgitate to me the distilled version of whatever I found annoying. “Mommy, I can’t do it. It takes too long.” “Mommy, this is the way IIIIII write.” And to an extent, he’s right. I want him to be himself and at this point, his grades are stellar. But part of becoming a productive adult is finding a way to maneuver in a world that was designed for people who can get from point a to point b without constant course correction.

So, I watched the video depicting how an idea for a reusable spacecraft became the Space Shuttle and I began to cry. I watched how humans come together and creatively solve problems. I watched how great minds achieve great things, and I secretly mourned my failures and feared for his. As a parent, I have a choice to dig in my heels and fight for him or to let him sort it out the way I did. At this point, it is a simple choice for me. It was too hard to learn what few coping skills I have and I lost many, many years doing it. I don’t want that for him. I want all of the things that he’s interested in to remain the smorgasbord of possibilities that they are, today. I want him to believe that he can climb that terrifyingly large mountain in front of him and I want to watch him scamper off into the distance to try. Someday, maybe, he’ll cure cancer or he’ll figure out how to grow food safely in space, but I know that if I don’t help him now, in 40 years, he’ll be me, mourning all of the opportunities that were lost to fear. I don’t want that for him, so nose to the grind stone, I’m going to figure this out.

If you are a parent that doesn’t have to guide your child through every activity, thank your stars. Yes, he is healthy, and happy most of the time, but I see the shine wearing off as he begins to struggle more and more with focus. I’ll find my answers, which are going to be different from the next person’s. In the meantime, my new eyes will just have to adjust.

“63”

I have 63 unfinished blog entries, representing 63 unfinished thoughts. 63 times that I thought something might be relevant or interesting. 63 flames that I’ve been unable to fan. I wonder if I’m the only writer for whom this is a problem. Am I? How many drafts do you have? How many times has something irritating and irrelevant killed one of your darlings before they had a chance to really live?

Year of a Hundred Things – “Thing” #78 – Falling in Love

There is no one way to fall in love. It happens frequently, and more than once in every life time. In fact, it could easily happen more than once a day. It is a wish for joy, for connection, for growth. It is NOT a need to possess. 

Since my first “love,” I’ve realized that falling in love and falling in need are two very different things. I am “in love” with many people, for many reasons. I do not covet a single one of them. They don’t validate who I am, or “make” me happy. They are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends and occasionally, people I’ve never actually met. Sometimes “they” can even be a place or an experience. There is something so unique about them, something so precious to me that having them in my life is immeasurable joy. 

It is often something simple, like the way they laugh, or the way they see the world differently than I do. They contribute to the tapestry that is my life, sometimes in ways I never imagined possible. 

And falling in love means that I want to enjoy them, and watch as they thrive. I want to talk to them, kiss them, touch them, laugh with them, comfort them when the feel need, but NEVER does it mean that they must give anything in return. In fact, they give simply because they are. 

You see, “falling in love” is an outpouring of the most generous emotion we humans experience. It impels us to be kind. Look around you every day, and fall in love with something bigger than yourself, something more compelling. It doesn’t mean that you have to stop feeling “in love” with anything or anyone else. If that were true, no parents would ever have more than one child.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I see my loves deeply, that I “know” them and that I encourage their deepest desires. It is who I am, and if I am “in love” with you, you are sure to know it.

Year of a Hundred Things – “Thing” #79 – “Spirituality and Fairy Dust”

[Featured Image by “miss_minn_deviant” of DeviantArt]

I’ve started #79 five times. I couldn’t really get my hooks into anything meaty, and then I spent four weeks on an IT contract, away from home, focused hard on a single problem. Perhaps, the effort to focus at that level exercised my mind. I’m not sure. But as I puttered around the kitchen this morning, making breakfast for my family, I had a single, but repeated theme coursing through my head: religion is destroying spirituality.

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Mental Mush: The Cecil Conundrum

Humans are essentially the most successful virus in our planet’s long history. We infiltrate every part of her rich crust, leaving behind a wake of destruction that in some cases takes centuries to repair. Every.single.day. Why? Convenience, purely and simply. We have become so inured to convenience that we disregard its effect on the rest of world.

“Yes, let’s just get ‘paper’ plates. Who wants to do dishes?”

“What do you mean you’re not open on Sundays?”

“That hurts my feelings. You need to make that stop.”

We are a virus. We have forgotten that we are not the only inhabitants of the planet, and we are so focused on our ‘i’gendas that we no longer look around at the world and SEE it. Until…

…Cecil.

Why did a lion garner more vitriol, more concentrated ire than almost all other issues percolating this week?

Convenience. That’s why. It is convenient to be angry about a single man’s deplorable hobby than it is an entire geographic region of unimaginable cruelty.

There have been several events, most notably the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, from which I have shielded my young son. It’s not because I don’t want him to know the world. He will, when it’s time. But I want him to flourish and find strength and confidence in himself so that he is capable of facing the world’s tragedies and perhaps even contribute to solutions so great that they benefit all of humanity. To learn compassion, he must know that it is an individual mandate. But it is a behavior that begins with something small, something manageable. I give him the space to flourish by ensuring that what he fears is appropriate for his age.

At five, like any normal child, he feared the monsters he imagined lived in his room.
“There are no monsters living in your room,” I said, thinking to myself, no, the monsters live outside these walls.
“Why, mommy?” He said, relieved.
“Because son, before you were born, I had a chat with them. I explained that you were coming and they were no longer welcome in my house, that I would not tolerate them. I told them to leave.”
“And they left?” He asked, smiling.
“Yes, baby, they left. Do you understand why?”
“No.”
“Because mommies protecting their babies are far more terrifying than any monster you can possibly imagine. They knew they had no chance. They left in fear.”
He never feared monsters, again. “Mommy power” was something he could assimilate. Something his little five-year-old brain could identify because it had healed all his boo boos and made him magic grilled cheese sandwiches when he was hungry. It wasn’t until later, when his mind was developed enough to understand, that he knew that monsters in his room wasn’t reality. It was at that point that we started to discuss the real monsters in the world.

You see, “Cecil” represents something that people saw the same way we see children. He needed our protection and a monster killed him. Cecil is an easily assimilated idea. We can all understand the tragedy of losing his majesty because it was lofty and a world away. We cared, so we were good humans. Now, it is convenient rage. I was not shocked at the concentrated ire toward the man that shot the big cat. I wasn’t shocked that people were calling for his death. Convenient rage.

The one thing that the opposition forgot, while they were admonishing people for vociferously attacking the hunter, is that it is almost impossible for the human mind to process the volume of negativity that is produced by all of the big issues we are currently facing.  

    Righteous indignation appears to be inversely commensurate with the size of the problem. In our defense, humans – hell, all of biology, actually – don’t function well when we are immersed in negativity. If you don’t believe me, compare children who are neglected as babies to children who have considerable, positive interaction with adults.  We need to escape from the enormous, insurmountable problems we currently face. We are immersed because we are quite actually flooded with negative information all day, every day via social media. Cecil and his pride represented human success because the world watched his pride flourish through conservation. “We did that,” we thought, because we protected him.

    Even more interesting is HitchBot. An experiment in human kindness, having had success in several other countries, comes to an abrupt halt in the City of Brotherly Love. Someone actually tore apart a symbol of goodwill. What does that say about us? People enjoyed the positivity, the camaraderie it represented. Most could assimilate the idea of HitchBot, but obviously, some could not. Someone with a stunted ego destroyed him. And now, we feel convenient sadness.

    For all you people that want to criticize the world for feeling rage over Cecil (and HitchBot), remember that no one of us can solve the world’s current ills. But together, we can create, transform, innovate. That requires that we understand, which we cannot do whole-hog. If one really wants to understand what creates a [insert extremist group du jour here] then one has to examine its roots. The same process that creates a destructive movement, will also create a constructive one. You strengthen a tree first by treating its roots. Cecil began as an idea, and an egomaniac hunter killed it. He didn’t just kill the cat. He killed a convenience.

    Year of a Hundred Things – “Thing” #80 – Cooking

    Before my son was born, my husband and I were avid SVU, CSI and NCIS watchers. We’d binge watch several episodes on the couch after dinner. Just us. It was a routine.

    But a funny thing happened after my son was born. Suddenly, I personalized everything I watched on television. Every episode of SVU turned me inside out thinking, God, what if that was my child? The persistent negativity of destruction made me very depressed. Maybe it was the mommy hormones, but it was visceral. So, I stopped watching anything even remotely associated with mayhem and turned to, dare I say it, The Food Network.

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    Year of a Hundred Things – “Thing” #81 – “Surviving”

    “Here’s your t-shirt,” my friend said, as she handed me the bright pink “Relay for Life” shirt, sporting the word “Survivor” on the back.

    “You gave me the wrong shirt,” I said, my face contorted with confusion.

    “No, I didn’t. You had cancer, right?” She stood facing me, now, holding the shirt in her outstretched hand.

    “Yes, but it was only a basal cell. It wasn’t life threatening.”

    “They’re all life threatening. You had cancer. Just because it wasn’t terminal doesn’t mean it hasn’t affected you.”

    And there it was. The word that changed the way I looked at my experience: “affected.” She was right, it had. Every year, I go see my dermatologist, who examines me from head to toe to ensure that there is no recurrence. I had a very unusual, very aggressive basal cell. It wasn’t the type many develop from sun damage. It resulted from some kind of viral or bacterial infiltration. My cat had nicked my face while he and I were playing with a ball and because he didn’t break the skin, I didn’t rush to clean the site. He reached for it and I got too close. But according to the pathologist, it could have been caused by anything that broke the delicate skin under my eye.

    The t-shirt experience resonated with me because I didn’t suffer the way I’d seen friends and family suffer: the way I’m watching many suffer, right now. Yes, I’d had three hours of surgery to excise three inches of unseen, underlying infiltration in my right cheek. Yes, I’d nearly lost my right eye. But I hadn’t had to have chemo or radiation. I walked away with clear margins and no subsequent treatment. Imagine my confusion at the word “survivor.” But I’m lucky because that IS what I am. I have the scar to prove it.

    My friend Mary recently experienced a much more compelling confusion as she sat in her oncologist’s office for her post-surgical exam. And as I read her account here, I was reminded that I too am changed and I felt myself psychologically pushing her up the survival ladder. Don’t be mistaken; I am not recounting my story because I want to move the spotlight. No. It’s because experiencing cancer in any form takes you through a range of emotions that are unexpected, even if that cancer isn’t the kind that kills you. As she sat amid others whose cancer was much more proliferative and possibly terminal, my friend felt the guilt that comes with early detection and quick treatment. It’s a good guilt, which makes it all the more strange.

    I have, in the last month, watched friends suffer disfiguring surgeries, chemo, radiation, shock, unbearable nausea, hospitalization from dehydration, weight loss, hair loss and more. Thankfully, all of those friends are surviving, too. As I watch them, I applaud their grace. They are mothers, fathers, grandmothers, homemakers, entrepreneurs, business owners and to a one, they are strong. They don’t feel it all of the time, but it’s there. I look at them through the eyes of one who scratched the surface of cancer and think about how much more they are surviving and that twinge of guilt makes me pray harder that they’ll get the chance to feel every bit of survivor’s guilt, too.