White Sails, the Thoughts

As I watch the white snow quietly coat the landscape outside the kitchen window on one of the last days of 2017, I’m reminded of a quote from an artist I met on the streets of Athens during my trip to Greece this past summer.  Because he picked to pop-up his portable studio outside of the Theatre of Dionysus, and because he looked like a sun-kissed Santa Claus, I automatically trusted him.  Impressed by the stories he painted to life and the life etched on his face, I purchased three of his works for others, and one for myself.  Grateful for the business or attention or both, he insisted I take another for free.  It was unfinished, he said, which felt right.  White sails atop colorful boats, floating on a sea of varying shades of blue. “I have a message for you,” he said as he inscribed something in Greek on the back of the painting.  “White sails, the thoughts. Colorful trip will be,” he interpreted for me. “It’s about life,” he went on.  Easier said than done, I thought.  After hugs and kisses, we sailed on.

Ironic this challenge seemed, to simplify thought in the place that promoted it’s depth.  What would Socrates think?  On we traversed the land of the origins of so much, where the Golden Age glittered, the thinkers riddled, democracy took form, the skeletons of ruins still commanded.  We paid homage to the Agora, Acropolis, and Parthenon, flexed at the Temple of Zeus, and got lost every third street and 2nd glass of ouzo.   We saw a car take out a motorcycle, but thankfully, not the motorcyclist, witnessed a troubled economy and struggling people wake up and do it all anyway, and danced in the streets because why not … and wine.  After a full, fulfilling day, we sat backward on the train to the airport because it was pleasantly dizzying and belly flopping, watching the past recede into the distance and the day recede into my memory’s “favorites” file.

Athens, Santorini, Rome, Orvietto, Tuscany, Cinque Terre, and Venice make a shortlist of 2017’s gifts to me, beneath newfound friends, oldfound love, sweet reunions, family, healing, a promotion, and a home, and above a car break in and some unexpected veterinary bills.  Blessed has never been a comfortable term to me.  Along with miracles, it seems to infer a selection, election, a Calvinistic chosen-ness, manifest destiny, a me over the other guy type of deal either because I prayed more or swore less or turn signaled usually.  Blessed, I’m not, but lucky, especially within the context of a year like this, I’m very.  Thankful, I’m pouring.  Gratefully obligated, I stand.

Thanks to a dear family friend and former college advisor, I’m currently enjoying Art and Resistance Amid Turmoil, the Winter 2017 edition of ZYZZYVA, a San Francisco Journal of Arts and Letters, where I read poet, philosopher, and literary critic Troy Jollimore’s essay, “Shawn’s Late Night.” While reflecting on my gratitude and luck, I remembered a passage that caught me:

And what of the unlucky?  Human beings can get used to almost anything, and one of the many things we have gotten used to is the existence of a great many people who have not been nearly as lucky as we have; people who are, in fact, in many cases, doing very poorly indeed.  There are surprisingly many such people, given how much stuff there is to go around, given the extraordinary technological advances we have made in the past century or so, and given that our basic ethical and political systems claim to be grounded in ideas about human equality, about the inherent dignity of all persons, and about the value of empathy and compassion.

It struck me so simply and poignantly, regardless of my opinions.  It felt so child-like and obvious beneath it’s maturity and decadence.  Equality, dignity, empathy and compassion aren’t red or blue, black or white, Christian or Muslim, oil or water, Tom or Jerry; they’re concepts and efforts that most of us agree on.  If we could live by our claims we would win by our claims and some of us, myself included, are luckier, better equipped and thus more responsible than others to lead that effort, to pursue these concepts, financially or otherwise.  Yes, I’ve worked hard to “create my luck,” but I’m informed enough to know that I’ve been armed with the tools and the workshop and the love and the “you can do it’s” to do so.

While contemplating all of this, a little voice next to me says, “Dad, I’ve been wondering lately.  Why were we created, and when and how?”  My boyfriend’s very bright, curious ten year old daughter inquires over morning coffee and hot chocolate.  After an unbiased explanation of the varying creation theories, purposes of life, how differing religions and philosophies perceive it all, how there’s evidence to support every view and how people tend to settle on one, she resolved, “Well, I was thinking I’d like to get all of the evidence,” and my heart and faith in humanity swelled a little.  Amen, Āmīn, तथास्तु, אָמֵן, little one.  A good question and a white sail.  That’s what it takes.  The voyage toward clarity and truth, encouraged by the great philosophers of past and the great youth of present, is the ship I’ll sail this year.

Cheers to 2018, to people over politics, pulses over parties, to the artists in the streets and at our kitchen tables, to the colors of our convictions and the purity of our sails.  Good luck.

My daily obligation … was, first and foremost, to learn how to make correct and careful study of the world … [I]f I didn’t know what the world was like, how could I know what action to take? – Wallace Shawn, Playwright and Actor, afterword from Aunt Dan and Lemon

Curious J’s go to Santorini

Because my recent travels were as rich and layered as their generous servings of tiramisu, I’m going to slice them into pieces, beginning with the first taste-bud bursting bite.

Last November, I was fortunate enough to make a dear new friend named Jacquie. With so much in common, our careers in technology sales, and love for philosophy, travel, people, adventure and the outdoors, we became fast friends, kindred spirits, consummated by patio hangs, summer brunches turned into dinners turned into midnight snacks, and Friday night Ann of Green Gables and Avonlea marathons.

Last January, having heard of an organization called Trip Tribe which allows strangers to travel the world together according to their interests, Jacquie proposed we indulge in their Santorini, Greece yoga retreat. Immediately the feelers on my travel bug and tail on my down dog perked, but I’d seen this before, the we should all’s, and suspected this too might fade into the deep abyss of dreamt dreams lost. What I didn’t know and quickly learned is that Jacquie is a doer, a happen maker, a human dynamo.  Once she has your commitment, you can expect your registration confirmation within 24 hours.  So half a year later, as the sun set on Friday, July 14th, we were propelling toward it, tails in full wag.


After sixteen hours of wide-eyed travel, excitement overriding sleeping pills, we landed on the island of the snow white buildings that wear blue beanies, and sunsets that make your mouth water.  Bright eyed and bushy tailed, we all but somersaulted off the plane and cartwheeled into the shuttle-bus, tripping over our acorns, annoying any and all bystanders.

Up and down the mountain we wove, faces frozen in obnoxious smiles of glee, the clear blue Aegean Sea indifferent yet faithful beside us.  Thirty minutes later, we arrived at Pelagos, a villa resort off the beaten path kind enough to be a home, where we met strangers kind enough to become friends.  Twenty five yogi heartbeats, temporarily diverging from our independent paths to beat down one together.

That night, the handful of us who made it in on time acquainted poolside over dinner and drinks, under sun and stars, and I felt so proud of everyone without even knowing them.  To come across the world is no small feat.  To come across alone is no more comfortable.  Here we all were. And for six days we would be.  Practicing together, eating together, drinking together, wandering together, wondering together, and occasionally hanging over together.

Day one was a therapist and a comic. After our first of many satisfying practices, with a belly full of fresh Greek yogurt, I walked past the curious donkey with inquisitive eyes to the wild beach behind him.  Traversing and appreciating it’s dichotomy of silks and sharps, I passed only an old man, his back to the sea, throwing rock after rock at a cliff side.  With my dad’s words in the back of my head, I resisted the urge to squeeze him, finding my own cliff instead, to ponder who and how he was, and who and how I was, for “the unexamined life is not worth living,” after all.

There I perched for hours, writing so hard I thought my hand might fall off and crying so hard I thought my brow might stick.  Waves gave and took, so steadfast and predictable, and roaring, drew me in. After battling beyond the rage, the water calmed and held me, salt licking salt licking salt, before delivering me back to land and life.

Returning from my treaty with the sea, I spent the afternoon by the pool with many of the others, massaging the furrows from my brow with laughter and wine.  We did flips and cannon balls and said silly things that would only ever be funny to us, 8th grade inside jokes. In the evening we indulged in a delicious, restorative yoga practice followed by a deliciously restorative dinner, proudly picked, prepared, and served by the generous Greek family who runs Pelagos.  After a few more nightcaps and conversations, Jacquie and I retired to our villa for our first of many starlit patio hangs, where our conversations commenced with, “I wonder…” and concluded with more laughter than profound revelations, before we retreated to our villa bunkbeds, settling into the crunchy embrace of hotel sheets on sunburns.

Day two was the high school boyfriend with no helmet and a lead foot.  A new, very sweet, very intuitive friend named Michelle, Jacquie, and I taxi’d it to Amoudi Bay for some diva danger.  There, we negotiated our way around a mountain, swam against a current, climbed up a cliff, and jumped.  Three times.  Because losing your belly just once into that bay of child-like exuberance isn’t enough.  After realizing our high-fives were intimidating the adolescents, and with adrenaline fueling our appetites, we negotiated back and found a lunch spot so close to the water that if you tipped our chairs, to the water we’d return.

The sea continued to give, as fresh, sun-dried octopus and calamari (drying right above us) melted down our throats, encouraged by a sangria as flamboyant in fruit and flavor as an apple tree by dusk on a Savannah, summer day.  After our sustenance, we ascended the 300 stairs to Oia, barely resisting the urge to free the donkeys and imprison their master. At the top, we loved our friends and families in necklaces, crystals, artwork, postcards and books, and shared a bottle of wine and a 1/2 liter of secrets while overlooking the blue of the bay, before descending back to it.  Hot from the trek, we jumped in where we soon learned we weren’t supposed to, courtesy of the not so courteous ship captain trying to dock in our pool.

Sealing in the day with lobster pasta, a sunset, and some eye-lash batting exchanges with waiters who don’t blink, we left the high school sweetheart(s) at the bay, graduating to the philosophers and artists…

…who we met on day three. While it’s uncharacteristic to fly into and out of Athens for only one day, it felt blasphemous to not. However, this is one of those bites more decadent than a mouthful, so to it, I’ll return in my next post.

Day four was a faithful yoga instructor and teacher.  While Sara laid the foundation for and infused intention into every Santorini day, it was the day she orchestrated a field trip to trump those of elementary school.  The day of the catamaran where we bobbed up and down within clumsy waves, swam in crystal clear lagoons and not so hot springs, snorkeled by apathetic mountain goats, delighted in the fact that we could see our toenail polish as clearly underwater as above water, french braided each others’ and strangers’ hair, broke bread on a boat, broke ouzo limits on a boat, and basked in sunlight and companionship. It was the day I learned more about a husband and wife who I’d grown to admire, the unfair hardships they were overcoming, and was so encouraged by their unconditional love, courage, and perseverance, and touched by their healing process through yoga and Sara. It was the day we anchored far enough out on the water to watch the sun, as Katy would say, melt into the sea like butter.


Day five was a Greek god or three. While my other yogis ran off for more exploring, in prep for our next-day flight to Rome and ensuing week of Italy, Jacquie and I opted to restore poolside, and I opted to spend most of my poolside barside. Day five began with an hour massage from a tall, light-eyed, dark-haired man named Marios who had strong hands and a gentle spirit, trained only by his own experiences with pain; as formal as it gets. Following my massage, the bartender Marcos, who could be Marios’s brother but isn’t, fashioned me a mojito, mint still breathing. Marios joined, the manager Antonis began his shift, and for the next few hours, they patiently answered my myriad questions, seemingly grateful for them.

While I’m not a historian, I’ve learned that I appreciate travel and new experience best when I understand it’s context; when I understand the history, origins, culture, current state, etc., so I had done my due diligence.  But what I learned on this trip is that there is little a book can give you that an experienced person can’t, and much a person can give you that a book can’t.

Through our conversation I learned more about their economic adversities, how so many have suffered, their political positions on the refugee situation, how they make ends meet, how many can’t anymore, their seasonal setups between Athens and Santorini, that most carry off-season jobs, that family matters more than anything, that they’ll even live together forever, that religion is less important than spirituality, that every question, in Socratic compliance, demands a series of more questions, that they’d like to travel but don’t have the means to, but how despite feeling poor monetarily, they feel rich in beauty and in heritage, proud, and how to them, those are the more important metrics of wealth.

Upon asking how they felt about Americans, braced for their replies, I was pleasantly surprised.  They explained that twenty five years ago, they despised us.  We were obnoxious, impolite and entitled.  But that’s changed and they believe it’s because the younger generations became aware and now overcompensate as a corrective measure – which shocked me, because I’ve grown accustomed to the belief that we, the younger generation, have dismissed all conducts in comparison with our elders.

Yet they described us, among all nationalities, to be the most warm, honest, appreciative, and inclusive, sharing that during other yoga retreats held at their villas, individuals are excluded, but when the Americans come, we immediately congregate as if we’re lifelong friends. In fact, they thought we were. Their only complaint was our obnoxious laughs and terrible accents, which they demonstrated through a poor NY accent, “Aaaaye man! get me a beeeaa!”

For six days, we were. Practicing together, eating together, drinking together, wandering together, wondering together, and occasionally hanging over together.  We shared what we could and protected what we couldn’t.  Fell in love with each other’s laughs, and in silent recognition and reverence of each other’s tears. Squeezed each other’s hearts with the stories that we shared, and squeezed each other’s hands when we couldn’t find the words.

If you want to travel but don’t have a companion, converge.  Find courage in that convergence.  Let your days take on personas.  Tell a couple secrets. Pray for the man on the beach.




Belly Buttons

They’re kind of funny, right?  Some go in, some go out, and like the rest of our body composition, we had no say in how it would all turn out.  They’re just this retired little hole in the middle of our torso, once at the mercy of the doctor’s bunny ears.

When I was a little girl, I wondered if I untied my belly button knot, would I immediately float away, tumbling over the waves of the wind like a birthday party in escape?  It made me giggle.  A fun visual in the racing imagination of a child; deflating, somersaulting, high up into the freedom of the open sky.

Before she passed, I often still gazed at my belly button, fascinated that not only did she grow me, but literally connected to me, gardening me from her very body.  After she passed, I started looking at it daily, aware of a phantom pain, desperately longing to reconnect.

Around the age of 5, new neighbors moved in to a dazzling, earthy, red/brown home that our Uncle Dave had built behind ours.  Parents to a darling, blue eyed baby girl named Alexandria, Gene was a handsome Hungarian pilot, and Pam was what I interpreted to be a beautiful Hawaiian princess, but in truth was a beautiful German/Native American artist, and a very talented one at that.  I quickly grew fond of them both, learned when Gene got home from work, and daily, met him in his driveway to give him the daisy I had just plucked from his yard, as he grinned from ear to ear; one of my earliest, sweetest memories.

This was short lived.  Just as their lives were unfolding, Gene’s was tragically lost, and young Pam and baby Ali’s were unfairly altered.  A plane crash, a life crash, and no choice but to wade through the debris. Later in life, Pam went on to lose a sister, nephew, and best friends, all within the pitiless strangulation of unexpected tragedy, all while singularly raising a sweet baby girl into a refined young woman, and keeping her advertising business afloat through the waters of loss.

Amidst it all, their family of two and our family of five became seven. Luke mowed her lawn, plowed her driveway and fixed the broken stuff.  Dad read consumer reports to help her make the purchases you need to make as a single woman in the country, and tried to fix the broken stuff.  Mom and Pam, both survivors, developed the deep country, neighbor lady friendship.  Katy and I babysat Ali. Pam listened to me rattle on.  We found reasons to laugh and be thankful.  A grace softly settled.

Summer breaks were especially memorable during which I came to watch Ali while Pam, suited up and striking, went to the office.  I would wake up in the mornings around 7, ride my bike back to their house, let their manic border collie Ginger out, lay in bed with Ali, watch an episode of Rugrats, and breathe in the sweetness of Pam’s lingering perfume. Then I’d roll myself and Ali out of bed, get her dressed, pour us Lucky Charms, and help her (make her) do her chores, before we dashed off into the adventure of the country summer. At night sometimes, when a man was lucky enough to secure a date with Pam, Ali and I would eat popcorn and watch movies until she got home, the scent of boredom on her breath.

Life felt as easy and warm as the country breeze.  The summers were filled with cookouts, camp fires, pool parties, tree climbing, four-wheeling, trampolining, swinging from sets, ropes, and tires, fireworks, bike rides to New Baltimore for it’s ice cream and Hartville for it’s chocolate, barn tag, flashlight tag, acres of summer time’s perfume freshly cut, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and pink lemonade.

The winters were full of sled riding, snowmobiling, ice skating, three months of Christmas, movies, Stromboli, grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, and hot chocolate.  We attended each other’s holiday events, and swung on porch swings together after long days.  Pam has recollected to me so much about my childhood that I don’t recall, like how I’d show up uninvited, walk into the house without announcement, dig into her cupboards without permission, and chat her ear off.  It was as much home to me as my own was.

While in the hospital last year, realization setting in that we would soon need to make a decision that children shouldn’t have to, I called Pam. She arrived in what felt like the click of Dorothy’s heels, and I somehow caught my breath.  She looked into my eyes, panic in her own, aware that this was my first great loss and no stranger to it herself. She kissed my cheeks and forehead all over as if she was trying to suck the pain out of my tears, and then drew me into her embrace holding me so tight I thought my belly button might pop, but it didn’t, as much as I wanted to float away from that hospital room to wherever my Mom probably already was, but thankful to be in the arms of the next best thing.

Recently, Pam suffered another loss, as she said goodbye to her own very dear mother. And while I can’t suck or drain the pain away, I can stand with her in the waters, daughter by hurting daughter, belly button by aching belly button.  To the toughest woman I know today, a modern day Job, Happy Mother’s Day, Pam.  Cheers to you, for all that you’ve given both voluntarily and not.  For giving so much life, and forgiving so much loss. See you soon for tears, beers and belly laughs.

Attention Please

Lately, my span has been pretty short; maybe the product of an overflowing plate, perhaps the consumption of too many interests.  Regardless of the cause, this piano piece has stared at me with those sneaky sharps and flats for weeks now, begging my attention while I turn the other cheek, resentful of the guilt its existence keys up.  As I wonder why this song, after a few years of piano lessons, is causing me such dissonance, I realize this: because it’s not coming easy to me so I’m not paying it attention.

After always following my piano instructor’s recommendations on the sequence of progressions I should learn to methodically advance my skill-set, I requested a hike off the beat and measure, as I had fallen in love with an album from an independent film called “The Piano.” Moved by British composer Michael Nyman’s haunting minors and expressionism, I wanted to give it a try myself.  Deceived by his minimalist style and propulsive repetition, I might have underestimated its difficulty.

Enter “La canduer,” a 19th century composition by Johann Friedrich Franz Burgmüller, whose name pronunciation came to me as easily as his music did. “Artless mind” – my piano teacher felt this would be step one of a logical bridge from where I’m currently at to where I’ll need to be for Nyman, yet the title disagreed and told the truth, all at once.

While walking past it this evening without any intention for attention, I made myself anyway.  I sat down, read my teacher’s instructions on how to systematically digest it, and measure by measure I referred the repetition to retention.  Within a focused hour, I could hang with the rest of her seven year old students, and the addictive and satisfying sensation of accomplishment sank in.

Even without my piano lesson this week, I learned a few others.  If you ask for it, be willing to invest in it. If you’re not, reassess whether it really matters to you.  If it does, remind yourself why and build it in.  And remember that before you were good, you weren’t.  Before you were great, you were good.  And before the end of the day, it might be worth your attention.

I did Iowaska

Kidding, but I did do Iowa.  Thanks to my job, I get to travel often.  My company holds and attends meetings and conventions in New York City, Denver, Lake Tahoe, Vegas, Boston, Orlando, Phoenix, Pebble Beach, Dallas, etc., most of which I get to join.  My actual territories however, where my clients and prospects reside, fall within the binds of the “don’t judge a book by the cover” rule with the “fly-over state” chapters of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.

My team mates, mostly on the West Coast, post pictures of beach sunsets and mountain views, while I capture pictures from boat and truck museums.  When talking about my upcoming travel, I hear things like, “remember to talk slow…how many teeth will be at your meeting?” and I chuckle, because fun making can be funny, they can’t hear us, and hillbilly jokes always work for me, because I am one.  And then I tell them what I’ve learned.

At 99%, Iowa has the highest literacy rate in the country, at 90%, they have the highest graduation rate, and they consistently rank top in the nation for SAT and ACT test scores.

They carry a 3.8% unemployment rate against the U.S. average of 5.4%.

With the second lowest murder rate and a low overall crime rate, it’s the 6th safest place to live in the country.

Des Moines was named the “Wealthiest City” by the Today Show in 2014, and is regarded as a fast growing hub infused with a unique culture.

When it comes to Women’s Rights, Iowa has always been way ahead of the curve.  In 1851, married women received property rights, and in 1869, we were allowed to practice law, with Iowan Arabella Mansfield serving as the first U.S. female lawyer.

Besides miles and miles of cornfields, Iowa also substances rolling hills, woods, lakes, rivers, the famous Loess Hills (dunes created by windblown soil during the ice age), and in Burlington slithers the windiest road in the entire world, “Snake Alley.”

With more pigs than people, it’s no surprise (and no disappointment, unless you’re a pig) that they host a bacon festival.  Le Mars is recognized as the ice cream capital of the world.  And Iowa is also known for it’s fresh fruit food markets.

It’s full of art, theater, and poetry, hosting the best writers program in the country in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has graduated revered writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Louise Gluck, and Robert Lowell.

It’s the home of John Wayne, the field of dreams, and the place the music died.  They’re pretty smart, mostly employed, relatively safe, economically healthy, culturally intuitive, progressive thinking, and sweet tooth (teeth!) sensitive. Beyond all of that, this hillbilly has enjoyed few experiences more than turning on cruise control, Johnny Cash, and driving forward down Iowa’s honest, quiet, ruler straight roads into the setting sun.  It’s a chapter well worth the read.


Grab it by the Lapels

Because it’s International Women’s Day, and just because it’s Wednesday, I’d like to toast some of my favorite creations.  Cheers to:

My Peruvian gals nestled in the Andean Village of Chinchero sharing Chicha and each other during a very happy hour.

Betty White, for her ageless wit, tongue-in-cheek orneriness, compassion for animals, and refusal to die. “Why do people say “grow some balls”? Balls are weak and sensitive! If you really wanna get tough, grow a vagina! Those things take a pounding!”

Harriet Beecher Stow for penning Uncle Tom’s Cabin, exposing the reality and ugliness of slavery, fueling the abolition cause across the nation, and even worldwide. “Any mind that is capable of real sorrow is capable of real good.” And then Lincoln, upon meeting her, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

Mother Teresa, for her boundless love, bottomless sacrifice, commitment to everyone but herself, and reminder that we belong to each other. “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

Ayn Rand, for her indifference toward acceptance, thought-provoking books, commitment to individualism, love for tidly wink music, enormous, inquisitive eyes, and for making me reread her insights three times before understanding them. “If you tell a woman that she is beautiful, you offer her the great homage of corrupting the concept of beauty.” “Freedom (n.): to ask nothing.  To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.”

Margaret Fuller for publishing the manifesto that may have inspired the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first conference in America devoted to the issue of women’s rights, during which a “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments” based on the “Declaration of Independence” was agreed to. “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.”

Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir for graduating as one of the first women from the Sorbonne, inspiring people toward personal freedom, and encouraging women to fight for equality and purpose. “Be loved, be admired, be necessary; be somebody.”

Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the rest of the “Suzy B’s” for organizing the convention, which has continued annually through today.

The “beasts of burden” who cooked, cleaned, sewed, mended uniforms, tended to the ill and injured, herded animals, milked cows and foraged for food for their men at the war camps during the American Revolution.

Meryl Streep for her talent as an actress and for setting her recognition of it aside for more important matters. “That instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in a public platform, it filters down into everyone’s life because it gives permission for others to do the same. … Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.”

Emily Dickinson, for challenging the conventionality around the expression of poetry and for sharing with us her light through her days of dark.  “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”

Mary Oliver for her simple and eloquent love letters to the world.  “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 

Anne LaMott for her strong faith, and ability to share rather than impose it. “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Belle, for recognizing the beauty in the beast, and the beast within adventure. “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere! I want it more than I can tell!”

Helen Keller for breathing real life and hope into the sentiment that anything is possible, and deepening the hue of the meaning of adversity. “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” “Life is either a great adventure or nothing.” “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”

Mama Maria of Peru, for feeding and housing all of us volunteer babies, and being patient with our “Spanish.” “Buenas dias Seniorita Joanna.”

Rosa Parks for conjuring the fear-diminishing conviction necessary to fight for her place in the world. “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

Cheryl Strayed for wearing her raw and bloody heart on her raw and bloody sleeve and arming others with the courage to do the same.  “What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?”

Julie Andrews, for enlivening the hills with the sound of music and making black chimneys and umbrellas on blue night skies feel like a Vincent Van Gough painting infused with romance.  “I would be a fool to deny my own abilities.”

Bea Arthur for not smiling much, but making others do so. “No fruit. No veggie.”

Harriet Tubman for taking a much appreciated, life saving risk. “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” “I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”

Megan Follows for bringing us the innocence of Anne of Green Gables and Avonlea, the oyster of imagination, and the beauty of kindred spirits. “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

Amy Schumer for building my abs and laughing box, then fishing this random out of the deep end. “I want to quit. Not performing, but being a woman altogether. I want to throw my hands in the air, after reading a mean Twitter comment, and say, ‘All right! You got it. You figured me out. I’m not pretty. I’m not thin. I do not deserve to use my voice. I’ll start wearing a burqa and start waiting tables at a pancake house. All my self-worth is based on what you can see.’ But then I think, F*** that … I am a woman with thoughts and questions and s*** to say. I say if I’m beautiful. I say if I’m strong. You will not determine my story – I will.” Then this. “I made out with a homeless guy by accident. I had no idea — he was really tan, he had no shoes on. I just thought it was, like, his thang, you know? I was like, ‘He’s probably in a band.”

Irene Ryan for giving us the feisty Granny Clampett of the Beverly Hillbillies. “Elly May done popped the buttons off her shirt again…It ain’t her shoulders that have been poppin’ these buttons.” 

Michelle Obama for her quiet strength and dignity, place alone and place beside. “I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them. I was surrounded by extraordinary women in my life who taught me about quiet strength and dignity.” 

Elena Brower for making me feel like a human when I don’t feel like a human, within 30 minutes and a yoga mat. “Use your beauty to serve others to find their beauty.”

Marie Curie for being the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in physics and for making me crave Indian food. “Have no fear of perfection; you’ll never reach it.”

Nora Ephron for her brilliant mind, castle of talent, and priceless contributions. “Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.”

Whoopy Goldberg for putting the f in nun. “I don’t have pet peeves, I have whole kennels of irritation.”

Malala Yousafzai for responding to hate with courage beyond her years. “My mother always told me, ‘hide your face-people are looking at you.’ I would reply, ‘It does not matter; I am also looking at them.’”

Joan of Arc for being a total badass warrior before she even had her temps. “I am not afraid… I was born to do this.”

Anne Frank for transcending bravery, empathy, wisdom, and undeserving forgiveness. “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Tinkerbell for being so small in stature, yet big in heart. “All you need is faith, trust and a little bit of pixie dust.”

Ellen DeGeneras because she’s true to the base of her name, evoking as many tears from the heart as tears from the laugh. “You have to stay in shape. My grandmother, she started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She’s 97 today and we don’t know where the hell she is.” Okay, maybe more tears from the laugh.

Annie Dillard for writing an earthy, caloric book full of attention and examination and worms. “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay for her pioneering and poetry and for making me feel like I should always be smoking a cigarette out of an opera length cigarette holder, even though I have no reason to believe she did.  “I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.”

Mae West for her denial of censorship and ability to make being arrested sound fun. “When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before.” She also makes me feel like smoking.

Agatha Christie for the excitement of Miss Marple and because she talks about dogs. “Dogs are wise. They crawl away into a quiet corner and lick their wounds and do not rejoin the world until they are whole once more.”

Annie Oakley for her urgency and aim. “I ain’t afraid to love a man. I ain’t afraid to shoot him either.”

Virginia Woolf for being progressive and right. “My belief is that if we live another century or so – I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals – and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think…” “Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

Ariel for sacrificing being able to breath under water for love. “Who says that my dreams have to just stay dreams?”

Elizabeth Gilbert for leveraging the aesthetic of Javier Bardem and challenging us to replace fear with creativity. “So this, I believe, is the central question upon which all creative living hinges: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?”

Sojourner Truth for speaking it, and being the first black woman to win a court case against a white man, courageously getting her son back and challenging, “And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part?’ 

Maya Angelou for writing so simply that we can start understanding poetry young, and so profoundly that we want to know more. And, for introducing and concluding this post. “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”  

On The Pulse of Morning

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning. 

— Maya Angelou

10 Tips for All My Single Ladies…

…and not so single ladies.  I interrupt this blog forum to bring you your fussy, protective, Italian Grandma, sans taste-bud shattering spaghetti sauce.  There have unfortunately been a recent series of violent assaults on women in my neighborhood, and one in a very safe and popular neighboring hood, during which a young, beautiful, vibrant 21 year old girl with a whole lot of loved ones and a whole lot of life ahead of her, was so sadly and senselessly robbed of it.

I know we know to be careful and that even if we are, it possibly doesn’t matter.  We’ve taken classes on it in school, received lectures from Mama’s and Grandmama’s, learned awkward and questionably ineffective take down moves from fathers, brothers and uncles, and fought with friends over whether we were the yellow power ranger or the pink one.  But I also know we now have Facebook demands, tweet responsibilities, Instagrams to heart, time sensitive emails alerting us of Express’s midnight madness sale, and texts that will self-destruct should we not respond within 30 seconds.  These things can often feel but never are more important than our surroundings, and this advent has fashioned a whole new pool of potential victims for predators.  So today I’m writing about some simple, basic measures we can take to potentially save our lives, and here is why.  The research says:

  1. Physically, women tend to be weaker and smaller. You can be Joan of Arc or Annie Oakley but on average, we have 40% less upper body strength than men, and none of us have moves like Tombraider, not even Angelina.
  2. 18.3% of women in the United States have survived a completed or attempted rape.
  3. The police force does their best, but they can’t arrive at the speed of light. Studies show the average response time for an emergency call is 10 minutes, and the average interaction time between a criminal and his victim is 90 seconds.
  4. Most violent crimes happen between 8 and 9 PM, which is when many of us are returning from work, class, kids’ activities, running errands, shopping, happy hour, or in the summers, possibly a cool jog.

At the risk of sounding patronizing, here are some reminders on what we can do about it.

  1. Look around. Before you leave your house, before you leave your car, essentially any time you open and close a door, and every moment in between.  Be perpetually aware of your surroundings and wear it on your sleeve – make eye contact as firmly and confidently as you’d shake the hand of your dream job interviewer.
  2. Play “what if?” What if I get out of my car and someone is behind it?  What if someone walks into the school with a gun?  What if Taco Bell starts delivering?  Identify where you can take cover should you need to, and classify escape routes.
  3. Return a phone call later. Or never depending on the caller, I suppose.
  4. Give them everything they want (purse, wallet, phone), except you…or your dog.
  5. Don’t leave a safe haven until you’re prepared to make it to the next safe haven. For example, before I park my car, all contents accompanying me into the house are ready for transport.  I try not to fidget around collecting my belongings.  My housekey is between my thumb and pointer finger arranged for immediate entry, and my mace in my other hand, finger on the trigger, should someone interrupt.
  6. Avoid parking or walking next to vans, unless they have the stick figure bumper sticker family holding hands and baseball mitts.   Avoid those one’s especially. 😉
  7. “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” I love Emerson and this quote so much I tattooed it on my wall, but I treat it as metaphorically as it was written. Avoid walking alone post-dusk or pre-dawn.  But if you can’t, even if longer, take the well-lit path over the dimly-lit path.
  8. If it becomes clear that their motives go beyond robbing you, fight back. You may be at a disadvantage to overpower, but you can use simple, primal moves, like striking the eyes, throat or the groin.
  9. If budget and time permit, take a self-defense class. The Best Martial Arts for Women’s Self Defense compares Tae Kwon Do, Krav Maga, Jiu Jitsu, and Jeet Kune Do.  For my Northeast, Ohio gals, Akron-Canton’s Martial Arts – Best of 2016 Hot List provides some options.  For my Columbus ladies, Yelp’s  The Best 10 Martial Arts in Columbus, OH  If it’s a reasonable option, and you have children, consider starting them young.  I’m not a huge fan of forcing a child into any kind of activity they don’t enjoy, but if I was a mother, this would be the exception to that rule.
  10. Arm yourself with as toxic a weapon as you’re comfortable with.

If that’s mace and you don’t already have it, just buy it already. It takes less than a minute, can arrive in 2 days,  and you don’t even have to put underwear on.  After asking some friends repeatedly if they’d bought theirs yet and not appreciating their answers, I bought it for them. $7.73 Police Strength SABRE Red Pepper Spray on amazon.com  Buy it for yourself, your friends, your daughters, and your Napoleons.

Another easy to carry and effective option is a stun gun: $19.58 Tactical Stun Gun with LED Flashlight – Extremely Strong Pain-Inducing Stun Gun for Self-Defense

And last, if your policy position on the 2nd amendment will allow it, bear arms. My lifestyle/policy position demands/allows it, so I do.  Because I know we’re more hesitant to act on what we don’t know how to do, if you have been interested in this form of protection but didn’t know where to start, here are the steps I took.

  1. Sit down with your brother, do some research on the Best Handguns for Women (this is only one of many articles), pick out a few that you like and call around to the local gun stores to see if they carry them (you can also skip this step, walk in a gun store and find a well-versed associate to guide you).
  2. Buy a gun: Northeast Ohio Gun Stores, Columbus, Ohio Gun Stores – I went to Fin, Feather, Fur in Ashland, as it was on my way between home and home and highly recommended, and was very satisfied with my experience. The associate had me “try on” 10 guns, and thoroughly explained the pros/cons/differences before we settled on the best fit for me.  There may even be finance options if that’s a concern.
  3. Sign up for a concealed handgun license course. Many of the stores offer these, and there are other venues, as well.  My experience with Vance’s Outdoors in Columbus was great; the trainers were extremely credible and quite literally disarming, before the shooting range at least.  The total course is $150 and 10 hours and can be broken up over a few evenings or taken in a day on the weekend.   After passing the course, you’ll receive your Concealed Handgun License (CHL) Certificate.
  4. Secure an application appointment with the sheriff’s office of the county within which you reside or an adjoining county. I did this online through Franklin County Ohio Sheriff website, but it’ll be different per respective county (and I did this before completing CHL class, to expedite the process).
  5. Complete and bring with you the Concealed Carry License Application from the Attorney General’s website, your CHL certificate, and call ahead to see what else you might need to bring. For me it was a 2×2 passport sized photo that has to be taken within the past 30 days, driver’s license, and $67 in cash, no more, no less.  You’ll submit the application, go through background check, fingerprinting, etc. and once cleared (usually within a day, unless you are a villain) pick up your license.
  6. Practice a lot.

It’s a bummer that we have to think about it all, but important that we do, because you’re precious.  Your children need you, your parents would never be the same, and your great grandparents aren’t ready to see you again just yet.

To Donna Jean, from Joanna Bean

Happy Birthday, Mom.  Today you would have been 60.  Well, to be honest, today as I write this, you would’ve been 59 and 363 days, but I wasn’t sure how I’d feel on your actual birthday, so I’m writing in advance. There are things I didn’t get to say to you and things about you the world should know.

There are moments in your life I wish I could’ve witnessed…

…the first time your Father held you in the strong, safe paws that he passed along to you.  Counted your toes and heartbeats and blinks.  Filled the palm of your hand with the pad of his thumb, your fingers curling around it in security. Your reaction to each  other; warm, brown eyes reflecting and consuming each other, prisms of milk chocolate.

…the first time you smiled, announcing those striking dimples.

…the first time you smelled a puppy and felt its scratchy tongue.

…the first time you stood up.  And when you stood again after your father, your hero, passed away when you were only 12, the blow of your life.  You had to regain the strength and courage to stand a lot in your life, donning more shields than swords.  You were a muscle and a warrior, a grizzly beast of burden.

…taking care of and teasing Uncle Dave thereafter, how you two adored each other.

…the first time you mounted a horse and broke into a cantor, your favorite freeing gate.

…running barefoot across the fields of the horse barn you volunteered at, toes sparkling in diamond dew and moonlight.  This was one of your favorite stories to tell, and my favorite to hear.  This is how I picture you now.

…at the Billy Graham crusade when you fell in love with Jesus.  When later, you and Dad drove cross country with your Alaskan Malamute Cody and you wrote it in the sand.  During every free falling, free wheeling moment of that trip.

…when you were appointed captain of the basketball team and cheerleading squad.  Watching you lead.

…when you composed and delivered your valedictorian speech; your nerves and excitement and pride, and the admiration of your peers.

…the first time you looked in the mirror and saw that you were beautiful.  And when you realized in your heart that a mirror didn’t reveal it.

…rocking in the rocking chair for hours before giving birth to me at home.

…the first time you held Katy, Luke and me.

…the moments during which you wrote journals about us, capturing our childhoods so that we could know who we were.  These are now my most cherished readings.

…picking out patterns at Yankee Barn to make our clothes, despite my demand for “fashion clothes.”

…lovingly quilting our baby blankets and albums, and preserving them for our keeping.

…when Dad tried to make us join a commune and you retaliated.  Thanks again for that.

…planning our home school lessons and teaching us. (Or Katy and Luke, at least.  Pretty sure I was finger painting stick figure dogs with my boogers at this point).

…gardening so you could nourish us organically, a natural in so many ways.

…the first time you nailed your Apple Crisp.

…setting up the train around the tree on Christmas Eve, the year you and Dad surprised us with it, when we could barely cover the mortgage.

…courageously driving to visit me in Columbus, arriving face half covered in your big old floppy hat and a grin of pride from ear to ear.

…bathing your Mom when she no longer remembered how to.  The evenings you spent together in silence and in love.

…exploring Italy with you, what would’ve been your first trip overseas.

…watching over us as we let you go.

…reuniting with your fathers.

 I wish I could see one or two or a thousand more times…

…your rascally smile as you “picked our thumbs.”

…bundling up and walking the dogs in the snow, no matter how cold it was.

…doing the Stromboli dance. “Stromboli, Stromboli – makes the bottom get big!”

…when I got in my car accident and you refused to leave my side in the ambulance as they rushed me to the hospital.  Fighting like a lioness with the nurses and doctors until you felt I was adequately cared for.

…praying and writing quietly in the mornings in your pink llama robe.  Such an eloquent, talented writer and you never even supposed it.

…the ornery twinkle in your eyes when you licked the mixers and spoons after baking, smiling slyly as if you knew a secret.

…choreographing and performing graceful dances for the church.

…performing not so graceful hip hop dances for us.  That rhythm, though.

…ogling Michael Jordan and Nicolas Cage.  Wide ranging taste, you had.

…preparing the kitchen for our friends and their children to decorate Christmas cookies.

…laughing at me falling, countless times, and laughing at me in general. It was one of my favorite things, pleasing you.

…laughing at everything that came out of Josh’s mouth. He was like a second son to you.

…laughing in general.  That dazzling, generous laugh.

…welcoming any and everyone with your captivating smile.

…making me grilled cheese and tomato soup, even when you could hardly stand.

…proudly watching Katy perform.

…holding Bella.  The gazes and giggles of adoration and admiration the two of you exchanged.

…fighting with and then laughing with and then fighting with and then laughing with Aunt Jenny.

…your awe of Alexandra and Anthony, as you watched them each grow up.

…the deep and simple love between you and Uncle Dave.

…swinging peacefully on your porch swing under the colors of the country sunsets.

…your glory days at Coalton Days. How much you loved your aunts, uncles and cousins, and how fond they were of you.

…our easy, breezy summer cookouts at the ranch.

…scurrying around the house determined to deliver fairy tale Thanksgivings and Christmases, and more than accomplishing it; my favorite memories.

…eating giant eagle cake today on your birthday, and for 40 more.

There are things I want to thank you for…

…tucking me in, praying with me and tickling my back before bed.

…journaling about me throughout my childhood, and then hiding the journals in my treasure chest/coffee table so that one day, while digging in it for a book, I’d find them.  For understanding who I was before I did.

…planting the apple crisp recipe in a low traffic drawer in my kitchen that I didn’t open until some months back, with the words, “Joanna, my dear, keep this and make it for your family!  It’s a tradition.  Love you!” and in some of the final directions, “Mix butter into dry ingredients with your hand.  Lick fingers when done. :)” 

…your quirky sense of humor which informed my quirky sense of humor.

…for holding me until I stopped crying when we hit and killed the black kitten by Rufener’s farm. I was so helplessly angry with you, so struck by the reality of death and suffering in life, shaking on the farmhouse kitchen floor in sobs, and you laid down next to me and wrapped your arms around me until I finally stopped crying and we just laid together, my back comfortably, safely cradled against you, your back surely uncomfortably against the oven, exhausted, silent spoons.

…for the dates to the Hartville library, consignment shops, chocolate factory, New Baltimore Ice Cream and Quail Hollow, and the occasional bike rides there, too.

…for letting me spit like a boy on the softball field, even though it bothered some of the other parents.

…for allowing me to be as boyish or girlish as I wanted to be, whenever I wanted to be it. To fully express myself.

…for giving me Katy and Luke.

…for giving yourself entirely to us.

…for giving me the trust and freedom to become, and the encouragement to continue becoming.

…for the love, security, support and pride that birthed the confidence and self-assuredness you always admired in me.

…for doing your very loving best and for it being miles beyond enough.

For teaching me…


…to care for animals and people and the vulnerable.

…what it feels like to be loved without condition and how to love in that way myself.

…to seek the truth and stand up for what is right and just.

…to make wise financial decisions.

…that college is important, but it’s okay to waste some credit hours on dinosaurs and caves, just for fun.

…how to make a home a home.

…the character, promise and mystique of a quality antique.

…the meaning of selflessness and sacrifice.

…the importance of a strong work ethic and integrity.

…the power in the humility of a servant’s heart.

…that I’m no better than anyone, but that I’m great.

…to dry up a heavy cry with a heavier laugh.

…to live in balance and moderation, peas and grilled cheese.

…when and when not to take myself seriously.

…to seek beauty.

…to go into the woods.

…that I can’t always have my way.

…that life is just unfair.

…that I’m stronger than I ever knew…

…that I’m a beast of burden, too.

…to nurture my artist’s heart. You loved my drawings, paintings and writings, especially this poem I wrote for you a few years ago about hope and Quail Hollow, and I now cling to myself.

Hollow Tears

Today my peace felt hollow
More hollow than before
The quail’s song was solemn
Dead eyes on forest floor

Past scratching at the wind
Little girl with haunting smile
Scrapes through and grabs my hand
Says “walk with me awhile”

Remember bridge and creek,
Warmth slicing through the trees
Your skin on forest skin
Lungs full of crisping leaves

You ran and danced with blood
Kin breathing the same air
You bathed in river love
Drowned away your fear

I wish I brought epiphany
Could remedy your pain
Quail’s song was always solemn
Fog also shares this lane

But  I promise you one thing
I defend your honor here
Past joy and future hope
Bring peace to hollow’s tears.

And this one I wrote to you, in the days following your death.

My self is hard to be, without you. 
My flesh and bones are of you, cross-stitches and puzzles.
From your inside out, I am. 
My hand now holds the other, wishing it was yours.
I’d give up both, you know, for just another tickle. 
Three heartbeats cry together but the Phoenix is in flight.
The horse begins its cantor.

I’ve since realized that I’m not actually without you, and have begun to put the puzzle pieces back together, reacquainting with my self.  Mama, this life of mine was a gift from you tied up in a fiery red bow, and now more than ever I’m impassioned to unwrap it.  So I promise you, I will live for 2, then find my way to you.

Happy 60th Birthday, Donna Jean.  I hope the cake and the cantor are as sweet and free as you.

I love you more than you can imagine.

Your “baby girl”, Joanna Bean
















My Brother, the Snowman


Today, we’re celebrating the Valentine’s Day birth of my favorite little person, my niece Isabella.  Eight years ago today, in anticipation of her upcoming arrival, I wrote the following piece on my brother/her father, Luke.  Those of you who know him might enjoy a few laughs.  Those of you who don’t know him, might want to.

My Brother, the Snowman

He is carpenter, snow remover, electrician, plumber, landscaper, painter, handy man, grill-master, a real “Mr. Fix-It” driving Walker Texas Ranger’s truck.  He always smells of a hard day’s work – sweat, grease, dirt, gas, oil, beer; evidence of whatever his trade was on that particular day.

He sports very necessary steel-toed boots, a pit-stained, once white t-shirt, and care-free torn up jeans.  He ran out of shampoo a week or so ago, and he coulda sworn he had one more bar of soap left.  His paws are as massive as the grizzly’s, but as intricate as the man’s.  They’re as rough as the laborers, yet as gentle as the brain surgeon’s.  He could go rounds with a mother mountain lion, and then cradle a baby kitten, and would do both if given the chance.  The ever-present calluses give away his labors.  The beds of his fingernails provide ten promising trundles for grime to rest, and he almost always has a blood blister, which baffles me, as I can’t picture him screwing up.

If the day is just a teeny bit dry and arguably warm, he jumps onto his motorcycle, conveniently forgets his helmet, and lets loose his tricks, ignoring the speedometer.  He worries his family sick, but wastes no concerns on himself, or on the flashing blue and red lights that he just left in the dirt again.

His muscles swell from beneath the cotton of his off-white t-shirt, but he doesn’t have a gym membership, nor any weights in his home.  His strength of mind matches his strength of body.  The only thing Luke can’t do is be wrong.  On the numerous accounts I’ve told him he’s no longer my brother, he has unhesitatingly refused to comply.  His temper mirrors his reliability.  I know when and which buttons not to press, and have learned the virtue of patience, at his mercy.

His eyes are a mystery to most, but not to me.  I’ve swam in them for twenty three years, but not just anyone can dive into these pools.  These very same eyes have pierced the daylight out of many a questionable prospect pursuing my affection, with their suspicious and knowing gaze.  “I know guys, Joanna.  He’s a fucking loser,” he states as he farts unabashedly, and then compliments the interaction with an “I dare you to say something about it” challenging grin.   For his little sister, when it comes to men, the bar is high and uncompromising.  When it comes to her nasal cavity, not so much.

When our conversations become questionable, we swear on our “brothership and sistership,” and he probably believes that those are words.   He says funner a lot, and if others are involved in the dialogue, I don’t correct him.  What a shame it would be for the other parties to miss out on the company and conversation of such a character.  He can laugh at himself, too, but those days are in the presence of those lucky enough to earn his trust.  Those days, he doesn’t stop laughing.

He knows more than one might assume, if only considering his vernacular; from politics to sports to mechanics to current events, he is fit for all conversations, and will enter them, invited or not, whenever the right nerve is struck.  He has quite a few sensitive nerves, but it’s hard to tell when you bump into one, as the tone and decibels of his voice make it hard to tell if he’s angry, excited, or hard of hearing.  He’s not hard of hearing.

At the dinner table, as Dad prays, I sneak a peek at his bowed head just in time to see the hidden dimples submerge into his cheeks, as the corners of his mouth head north in response to my toes tickling his shin under the table.  Don’t laugh, Luke.  He snickers under his breath and squints his eyes open a bit, head still bowed, just in time to briefly catch mine before they close.  This momentary eye contact broadens his smile, as I steal one more peak before Amen.

He’s always loved basketball with a passion, and was the rock of his team up until the 9th grade.  He didn’t like the coach, so he quit.  Some say he has a problem with authority.  He argues that he has a problem with people who know less than him and try to teach him what they never knew in the first place, the idiots.

Never will you find his refrigerator void of Budweiser, except for when he’s struggling and financially forced to resort to Busch.  When he’s really financially struggling.  His craving is for the taste, not the intoxication, although I’ve seen him lose his balance once or twice, and heard two or three words magically morph into one, a few times; new words he would later argue a Webster admission case for.

He loves to please and takes great pride in barely singeing the outsides of a well-seasoned steak, before serving it to his guest in a pool of its own blood.  Everybody loves it.  If he does it right, his guest won’t need A1 Sauce.  He doesn’t own A1 Sauce.  “Do you like it?  Is it good?  Whadya think?  How is it?  That’s a fuckin’ steak man, huh?  Have a Bud.  You need a Bud.”  We all need a Bud.

We have a special relationship, in due part to our shared senses of humor.  He stops over to my house on a dangerously snowy night in the early winter of 2009, his snow plow leading Walker’s truck, and I tell him of a very important revelation I just had.  “Since people who work on the police force are called policemen, and people who work for the fire department are called firemen, technically, you are a snow man.”  I watch the dimples emerge again as he lowers his head and his giggles turn into heavy laughter.  He mutters, “Joanna, you’re so gay!”  while scratching his crotch, which I only barely notice anymore.  We both laugh, never ashamed to laugh at our own jokes.  We wouldn’t tell them if we didn’t think they were funny ourselves.  Then he heads out into the bitter night to plow the glacial snow for the next thirty hours, having had no sleep for twelve hours prior.  He doesn’t get to my driveway until the end.  I’m already snowed in.

Luke and his girlfriend, Bri will become the parents of a lucky little baby girl named Isabella this Saturday, Valentines Day, 2009.  This unexpected blessing only shook him for a moment.  He will figure it out, as he has figured everything else out, from building tree houses to building mansions, fixing toy trains to fixing cars.  He could play the hero in any fantasy action movie.  He is already a hero in reality.  He does not, will not mess up, excepting the blood blister rooming with the grime under his left thumbnail.

Peruvian Treasures

Why Peru? I’ve received this question a lot, and since the answers led to some of my most treasured moments, I’m excited to unlock compartment one of the chest (there will be another post, post-this post). Since my first acquaintance with suffering, I’ve felt inclined to protect against it as much as possible, and when impossible, hold its hand.  I did some research and settled on a childcare program in S. Africa, but after continuing to postpone it on the grounds of a pricey flight, I revisited my motive.  Why did I want to volunteer?  To help alleviate the suffering of the vulnerable.  When did I want to do it?  Now.  Where could I afford to?  In South America.  So why Peru?  For the history and mystery, and treasures young and old.

On Saturday, August 28th, 2016 I flew out of Columbus, Ohio at 12:15 pm and arrived in Cusco, Peru Sunday at 6:00 am, 18 hours, two connections and zero zzz’s later.  It was winter there and cold, so the bikini I’d ignorantly packed was going to be as effective as the down jacket on my coat rack.  I was told there’d be a representative from the volunteer organization to greet me with a yellow smiley face flag, but I saw no smiles, and started to lose my own.  Fending panic, I tried calling the volunteer organization, thankful for the international data plan my Dad had subscribed me to, but Verizon had a different plan in mind, called failure.  After 20 minutes of faltering around in a sleep-deprived, anxious fog, I saw a flagless man with the name of my volunteer organization embroidered on his coat, and succeeding a broken Spanglish exchange, followed him warily to a fun-sized car.

The young Peruvian driver provided me with an informational packet donning my name on the front, and my stomach climbed out of the dungeon it’d dropped into.  He said a few things I wished I understood, and began to drive.  Peering out, I was instantly humbled, my aforementioned problems retreating, tails between their legs.  The streets collected piles of trash and the trash collected piles of people and dogs and pigeons. Somehow no creature minded the other, as they all dug for sustenance – maybe a shared empathy, careless of social order.  The buildings and roads, anything once envisioned and constructed, were in states of decay.  A gang of stray dogs moved begrudgingly from the street as my driver beeped.  An elderly lady stood outside of a decomposing cathedral, staring solemnly at what seemed to be nothing for what seemed to be a long time.

After a brief, everlasting drive, we arrived at my host family’s adobe hut, headed by Senora Maria Vila de Parejo and Senor Adolfo Pareja Herrera, a retired teacher and her economist husband.  Maria greeted me with a warm smile and warmer hug, in her llama patterned fleece pajama set, a scarf that looked like Christmas stretching from her chest to her eyes.  Their casa, unheated, was cold but cozy, the walls bejeweled in captured smiles amidst Peruvian culture. It smelled exactly how a grandmother’s house smells, like there’s a perpetual cook in the kitchen stirring freshly picked herbs and spices into hot soup.

Realizing I spoke very little Spanish, she gave up trying and motioned me to follow her.  A beautiful, candle-lit shrine of the Virgin Mary and two flights of hobbit stairs later, the last case spiraling back out and up into the cold, and I arrived on my floor.  She showed me the bathroom and held my hand under the frigid shower water repeating, “caliente” and I thought, I must’ve mixed my Spanish hot and Spanish cold and I am nothing compared to Helen Keller.  Maria gave me my room key and left me alone to settle in.  The quiet felt so quiet, and the barks of the wild dogs and angry drivers, so loud.  As I unpacked, I thought about Cheryl Strayed alone in her hotel room the night before she embarked on her Pacific Crest Trail hike, and I remembered how she missed people.

Every move I made carried a commanding sound, and every command carried memories long gone.  Opening the drawer of my nightstand.  The sound of my wrist cracking.  The soles of my shoes as they moved across the floor. Untying my shoelaces.  Picking nervously at my finger nails. My heartbeat in my ears, like the tick tock of a Grandfather clock. My hand as it moves across this notebook, letter by exhausted letter.  I popped a sleeping pill and faded into an ambien haze for a few hours.  When I woke, I ventured out to the Plaza De Armas, map in hand, gut-punched again at the reality around me.  The lady on the street selling melons for un Nuevo sol, who laid her crying baby girl in an empty, cardboard fruit box to collect my payment.  The disabled homeless people and dogs with wagless tails.  I felt small and helpless, but very much alive within compassion.

In the plaza, I was enchanted by the illustrious Cusco Cathedral, the majestic architecture, crumbling shops, local street art, and ancient cobble stoned alleys dripping in Peruvian culture.  Before dark, I bought a hat, a coat, a picture with a llama and its lady, water and 3 cans of cerveza, and headed back.  I got just a hair lost, and a thankfully nice lady in a white car who spoke little English recognized it.  After Spanglishing back and forth until we could finally still not understand each other, she called Maria who’s number I had with me, and Maria sent Adolfo quite literally around the corner to fetch me.  He guided me on the 30 second journey back, giggling and patting my hand all the way.

That night I experienced my first of many Peruvian “family dinners” with Maria, her sweet 5 year old granddaughter Sami, and the other volunteers.  Between belly laughs, Maria shared my rescue story, which a bilingual veteran volunteer Robert struggled to translate through his own laughs.  The evenings thereafter, Maria prepared a family meal for all of us, Peruvians, Americans, Europeans, Asians, some of us working in childcare programs, others in medical programs, some in jungle preservation, and others on the animal shelter project; perfect strangers breaking bread, meat, cultural barriers, and varieties on varieties of potatoes.

The next day I walked through the ghetto to my assignment, Juan Pablo II, an orphanage founded in 1985 as part of the “Foundation of the Children of Peru” who’s objective is to support the Peruvian youth by offering them basic needs and a family.  There are 53 children, about 5 in each apartment ranging from the ages of 3-17.  From the outside, the orphanage resembles a prison, but I was pleased to find that the interior of the apartments themselves were adequately furnished, colorfully decorated and warm enough.  I met Marta, the house mom and my five boys, who ranged in age from 11-16.  I was surprised that we didn’t know their stories, but my project leader explained to me that in a third world country with limited resources, record-keeping and case investigation sit low on the priority pole.

It took a day for most of them to warm up to me, but Rene, an eleven year old with suspected special needs took to me very quickly, following me everywhere. David # 1 and I played basketball together, until I bored him into a siesta by the court.  Another boy who had no interest in me at all and wouldn’t tell me his name played marbles with David # 2.  At first, I sat silently and watched, rooting for them when they got excited and after about an hour, they started answering my questions and trusted in my interest.

Rene eventually led me back inside to a few sheets of torn, used notebook paper smeared in eraser marks, and some broken eraser-less pencils, motioning me to draw.  As I did, his eyes traveled back and forth from the paper to my hands to my face and he would occasionally burst out in happiness and hug himself and then me.  Then, I asked him to draw.  At first, he traced what I drew.  Then, he copied it without tracing.  And finally, created his own real masterpieces!  His focus was inspiring and his talent, impressive.  Eventually, we drew together.  One of us would start a drawing and then we’d take turns adding to it. We drew Scrat, the Ice Age character and then a Christmas tree to which we each added ornaments representing our likes, including the first initials of the names of everyone in the house.

The next day I brought them each their own drawing pads, notebooks, sets of colored pencils, and erasers and when the rest of the boys realized they had something of their own, they joined us.  That’s how we spent our days.  Drawing, coloring, writing, teaching each other Spanish and English, doing crossword puzzles, playing Uno, marbles, basketball, and futbol, finding ways to understand each other, and listening to salsa and Norah Jones.

We got excited over things like crackers covered in spaghetti sauce, and lemons, and didn’t turn on the electricity until we absolutely had to.  Soap and toilet paper were scarce, so I brought my own of each.  When they could use the electricity, they opted for R rated horror movies and were thoroughly disappointed when I ejected their preferences, inserting Pirates of the Caribbean instead.  At times, we disagreed and once, I had a knife pulled on me.  It was real life with adolescent orphan boys.  In some moments, it was scary, but in most, it was rewarding.  In reverence of real suffering, fear loses its power.

While watching Rene and wondering who he was and who he’d be, I remembered the loving, tender, invaluable observations my Mom wrote about me from the day of my birth through late childhood, and in a tugging moment, choked back tears, feeling so thankful I had had her, and so sorry that Rene hadn’t.  I hugged him close to avoid a wet eye contact and after gathering my bearings, I drew his portrait as he had asked me to, my observation of him that proved to be invaluable to him, for after I’d completed it, he wouldn’t put it down (even though it turned out to be more of a caricature.  When an orphan asks you to draw them, pride goes out the window).  One of 7.5 billion profiles, but one in 7.5 billion.

On our last day, we exchanged friendship bracelets and hugs that could’ve never lasted long enough.  In one of the harder moments of my life, aware I likely wouldn’t see them again and that I have no control over their futures, more brokenhearted than I’d expected, I walked away.  Since the trip, in my guilt for leaving and the pain of missing them, I’ve wondered whether it’s better to show up and leave so quickly, or not to show at all, and I’ve resolved that something is better than nothing, and we should do what we can.  “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean, but if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something,” Mother Teresa.

My job wasn’t to change their worlds and secure their futures.  It was to show them kindness and love for as long as I could afford to.  To pay attention.  To help them see their worth.  To help equip them with the skills, trust, confidence, security and hope to one day change their own worlds and secure their own futures.

Why Peru?  For the lost Inca gold,  of course!