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!