Life as a Jenga Tower

Carefully the foundation was laid,
Criss-crossing planks reaching toward a sky
That tantalized with low-strung clouds of hope
And a vast expanse of possibility.

Life took a plank here and there,
That’s how the game is played,
Opening holes into the recesses of mind and heart,
But a Jenga tower is not easily toppled.

Illness came like the petulant child and
Swiped at the blocks, scattering a few to far reaches,
Never to be seen again,
Knocking the tower a little off kilter.
But the tower remained standing,
Shored up by many hands.

Blocks were extracted as
Building materials for towers which were
Themselves under construction
In a reach for that wide expanse of sky
In a never-ending shuffle of finite resources.
Still, the tower held firm.

Then a block was drawn from the bottom,
And the tower groaned.

Then another.

And another.

Players played on,
Wondering why the tower swayed.
Unaware of the laws of physics,
Of gravity
And of equal and opposite reactions,
They poked and prodded at the structural integrity
Of the Jenga tower.

The game is still in progress,
Though the base has become riddled with openings
Where the winds of disillusionment and melancholy
Eddy and swirl.


Photo credit: Nicola since 1972 via Foter.com / CC BY

Happy Holidays

I have to keep reminding myself that it’s the Christmas season. It could be the insanity of the past few weeks of planning, preparing, and packing, the 1,250 mile road trip, a graduation, a wedding, and/or anxiety over what I view as a disastrous election result that have stripped me of my usual Christmas cheer. Whatever the reason, I am caught off guard when someone wishes me best wishes of the season.

I’m oblivious to the lights lining the street, winding up trees and framing unfamiliar shop windows. I don’t see the happy shoppers bustling through stores on their mission to find the perfect gifts. I look back at the pictures of my son’s wedding and suddenly realize there’s a Christmas tree there.

Christmas. The season of cheer. Of generosity.

On my Facebook feed amid the sweet personal stories of grandchildren and funny memes reminding us of the bigger things in life, there was a comment related to Governor Kate Brown calling for a French revolution and bringing back the guillotine. This was yesterday. Happy Holidays. Twitter is full of vicious reminders that their guy won, that I should just get over it. Merry Christmas. Exit polls tell us that 80% of Evangelicals voted for a man thrice married, a man who has demeaned women, who has defrauded people of their hard-earned money, who lies constantly, a man who is stirring the pot of world instability before he even takes office. Have a blessed holiday season.

Don’t get me wrong. I am happy. Thrilled. Proud. My eldest graduated with honors… in science! He now holds a degree in physics and astronomy. I also have a new lovely and intelligent daughter-in-law who loves that son. At this moment my close little family surrounds me, and I am grateful for their warmth.

ian-jamie-wedding1149

But outside my little bubble the world has ominous clouds building on the horizon.

And I have to keep reminding myself that it is Christmas.

 

 

Table Talk

A table dressed
In Autumn red and gold,
Flickering tapers beckon –
Come,
Eat,
Share.

The feast awaits –
An amber bird, trussed and tied,
Overflowing with succulent stuffing,
Rests in a fragrant cloud of scent,
Next to humble mashed potatoes
And glistening candied yams,
Sensible salad and unassuming rolls.
A hush of appreciation falls
As the finely dressed are seated
Before the best china and crystal,
Spreading linen cloths across their laps.

Hand in hand,
A mumbled prayer of thanks
For goodness given,
Is all too soon
Drowned out by pungent words
As battle lines are drawn.

Relativity

Reminiscent of so many other times, we parked the car down the road and started walking toward my brother-in-law’s house at the end of a cul de sac in a quiet residential neighborhood. Only this time as we walked toward the crowded driveway we heard a loud oomph-a-oomph-a.

“Is that a tuba?” I asked my husband. “Did they get a band, or is somebody just practicing?”

He shrugged and seemed to indicate the latter was of greater possibility.

As we walked in the front door we realized it was a band, a family of four, with the father as lead singer, his daughter somberly plucking a bass, an older son holding rhythm on a sousaphone, and the youngest, a boy of around 12, stretching and compressing an accordion while wailing along with his dad. They were joyful and loud. We later found out that the police had already been called by a number of close-set neighbors, and my brother-in-law had been warned to wrap it up by ten.

We congratulated the pair on their anniversary and made our rounds shaking hands and saying hello before sitting down at one of the many tables set up under undulating blue plastic tarps. I looked around. The San Antonio riverwalk had nothing on this festive backyard arrangement. Fluttering under the tarps were paper picado banners, not the plastic kind, but actual tissue paper, cut and strung crisscross across the yard. They spoke of love and attention to detail. The tables were festooned with colorful plastic tablecloths, and each table held a Corona bottle vase graced with a single bright flower.

We weren’t allowed to sit long before being ushered to the lean-to shed, where a man was expertly assembling street tacos. The smells of carne asada and pork al pastor made me remember why I could never become a vegetarian. I demurely ordered one of each of these, and my husband eagerly grabbed a plateful of strange looking tripe tacos. We piled the tacos with fixings of fragrant cilantro, homemade salsa, onions, lime, and then topped the whole plate off with a pile of cactus salad and went back to our seats. I would later go back with gusto for more. I’m a sucker for street tacos.

I set about taking Snapchat pictures to send to my eldest two who now live far from home as if to say, remember this? Remember your heritage? I snapped a picture of my mother-in-law, now in her mid-eighties. We lost my father-in-law a couple of years ago; we try not to take this time for granted. There was a slew of back and forth salutations with lots of love and hugs and well-wishes, but all over the distance that technology provides, a sanitized version of connection, life through a lens. I sent snaps of food and videos of dancing, a framework that made up much of their extended family experiences.

A few people asked where our other kids were. They got our standard answer, “Oh, they don’t want to hang out with us anymore.” In reality, one was off at a wedding at his girlfriend’s house. He had promised her mom he would help set up. The other had run off with his friends for the day. My husband hadn’t given me much of a heads-up about this party, otherwise I would have made sure they were there. Still, our answer stands. The older teens don’t want to have much to do with us anymore. Maybe it’s normal. Maybe.

My husband went off to talk to someone. I watched him gesticulating animatedly from across the yard. I saw that the man he was talking to was leaning in, so it must not have been about work this time. I sat with my mother-in-law in the silence that loud music brings. Conversation in my native language would have been hard; lip-reading in Spanish was nearly impossible. So I observed.

My youngest brother-in-law was twirling his girlfriend around the patio. They would come back sweaty only to hop up again immediately as the band started up with another favorite dance tune. I had picked the only brother out of nine who didn’t like to dance.

An older brother-in-law was holding his grandchildren as his wife talked animatedly across the table with her son’s young girlfriend. The son was busy. His seven-year-old niece was looking up at him with starry-eyed devotion as he led her around the dance floor.

I sat and watched the new generation repeating what we once did, tios dancing with their nieces, people laughing and holding babies, the older generation dancing, dancing, dancing. I thought back to a Christmas party long ago, of my brother-in-law twirling my daughter, then five, around and around the small kitchen. I felt time telescoping in with a crushing sensation and all of a sudden I was squinting back tears as I felt the all-encompassing lonliness of endings, of time past, of the things I held so dear slipping through my fingers. I bit my cheek. Hard. And again. It wouldn’t do to cry right now.

All of a sudden I felt my husband at my side again. He was cracking a lame joke, looking into my face, drawing me out of the abyss. I smiled and went willingly.

We chatted with his mom and brothers and ate cake during the band’s break. My mother-in-law tried to separate her youngest from his beloved beer. My teetotaler husband once again proclaimed his status as the perfect child, while his brother looked at me and said, “He has his vices.”

I nodded.

“Work. Work is his vice.”

I know.

The band started up again. It was 9:45.

“Are you ready to go?” my husband asked. “I don’t want to be here if and when the police show up again.”

I laughed. “I’m ready,” I said.

We rode home in silence, my ears ringing with the residual oomph-a of sousaphone and my heart pinging with the loneliness of solitude.

Who Will Carry the Milk?

I’ll admit it. I was a bit of a lazy child. I was a work-averse, energy-conserving creature when it came to helping out. I would be overcome with a shift of molecular weight changing the gravitational pull of every cell of my body. Suddenly overcoming inertia required extrinsic prodding and much internal groaning.

I remember distinctly hating to carry the milk.

Did I have some strange muscular problem that prohibited me from lifting a cold gallon jug? Not unless all of the hours lounging on my yellow quilt listening to John Denver had turned my biceps to jiggly mush. Oh, how I hated that job!

Mom would pull up in the old Ford station wagon and call us to help. I can feel the urge to roll my eyes at the though of it, at the sheer lead-weight feeling of prying myself from whatever pleasurable experience I was immersed in at the time – drawing, listening to music, reading, dancing. I had to stop and help with the groceries.

As I’ve raised my own brood, I’ve often thought of this. My kids have their moments, but overall they are much more helpful than I was. If I honk when I pull in the driveway, the boys stop what they’re doing and run to help disgorge the Costco bounty from the back of the Subaru. They show their physical prowess by loading up with as many bags and boxes as they can carry. It’s not just the boys. My daughter was the same. I would head back for another load only to find the car empty, and when I headed back to the house, I would find the kids had returned to whatever pleasurable experience I had pulled them away from.

And to my surprise, they’ve never minded carrying the milk.

 

A Todo Lujo

My husband is from the highlands of Central Mexico. He grew up in a large family with busy, loving, subsistence farmer parents who tilled the dusty fields between agave and prickly pear cactus, planting corn and forage with a horse and plow, and hand tending the fields of bounty that they would save through the winter. His home growing up started as a dirt floor, one room home cinder block dwelling that was gradually built up to its current modest two-story, three bedroom block home with a new kitchen and appliances. The three roads in his tiny town were only recently paved. Yet he had freedom to roam, and friendly waves from the people of the town. He went to church and school, went to parties that hosted the entire town, and ate meals lovingly prepared by a mom who knew how to make something out of nothing. He helped his father and developed a strong sense of responsibility.

All that to say, my husband grew up poor in wealth, but rich in the things that matter.

Fast forward to the 80s. He immigrated to the U.S., where he worked hard, developed a stellar reputation, and earned a good position in a local company as a warehouse manager, showing skills and ambition that would dismiss anyone who thinks social status is static and that growing up poor relegates you to a dismal existence. We married and had a family. It became harder and harder to make trips to visit his parents between kids and school and work schedules, so we began the process to get them into the U.S. for a visit.

My in-laws got their visas in the 90s and were finally able to come visit us. As we took them on trips and showed them the sights, my father-in-law would repeat the phrase, “a todo lujo.” Well, my Spanish isn’t the greatest, and I misinterpreted that as ‘todo al ojo,’ and assumed it meant there was so much to see. I finally looked it up. It means posh, deluxe, luxurious. Towns with overflowing hanging baskets adorning lamp posts – a todo lujo. Entering a restaurant with a fountain – a todo lujo. Everywhere we went, there was something that piqued his interest, and he always noticed the details. Things I just took for granted were newly seen through the eyes of a weathered farmer, and I understood just how lucky I was to live in a place where we could focus on making small areas of our lives a todo lujo.

It makes me realize that a large part of the world doesn’t need gilded chairs or their names in great gold letters on the front of skyscrapers to feel the touch of luxury. Some flowers, conspicuously placed, a fountain, fresh paint, clean things, new things, all add to the feeling of luxury.

It’s all about perspective.


My father-in-law recently passed away, but he was always thrilled to explore and see the world, and he never forgot anything. My mother-in-law continues to make the trip back and forth on her own. She is in her 80s.

Greener Grass

Ah, the old greener grass dilemma, the one that has you looking over the fence and drooling at your neighbor’s yard, dog, family, life. And by neighbor I mean anyone. It’s cliche, but the grass really may be greener on the other side of the fence. I mean, when’s the last time you fertilized your own lawn.

It’s easy to look outward, especially in the age of Facebook and Instagram, and see who you want to be. It’s hypnotizing, the desire to remake oneself into a thinner, richer, happier, or more successful person than may be the present case. A person may appear to be fulfilled, surrounded by beautiful, happy faces cheering him or her on. Yet a snapshot does not describe a life any more than a book cover does a book. Because we can’t know the fertilizer our neighbor is wading through, we may idealize his or her existence through whatever he or she chooses to share. Through social media we market ourselves as our perfect vision of what we hope to be as much as we buy in to others’ marketing efforts.  This disconnect has led to to the widespread Facebook envy phenomenon.

I’m here to tell you, that green grass has been fertilized by the same bullshit that’s heaped onto your yard and watered with the same tears, and the sooner you manage it and rip out those pesky weeds, the greener your own lawn will be. Tend your own lawn, and you will be so busy lying in the lush, green grass and looking up at the stars that you won’t even notice those poor souls peering over your own fence.

Sometimes people throw away something good for something better, only to find out later that good was actually good enough and better never even came close. ~Susan Gale

 

How Do You Vote?

I’m not stirring the pot of the heated election of 2016. I mean in your life, in your relationships, how do you vote?

Do you vote with your presence… or your absence? In a world filled with distractions, it can be tempting to eschew the company of a loved one for another trip down the Reddit feed or a Snapchat conversation with a friend. I have had many car trips with teenagers glued to their phones, and the longstanding rule of no technology at the table is continuously broken. Each look down instead of up is a choice for and against, and each vote is counted as a tally mark on the heart.

What role does work play in your life? A job is a necessity, but it can become a mission, another separate world complete with its own gravity, populated with its own citizens that speak a completely different language. Family becomes a distant blip on the horizon, a destination that becomes harder and harder to reach.

Do you take the time to visit loved ones, or do distances that are short on the map become insurmountable, as hard to reach as if they were on the other side of the world? It is said, where there’s a will, there’s a way, so the converse must be true as well.

Do you vote with your presence or your absence?


Photo credit: craftivist collective via Foter.com / CC BY

 

Do you vote with words of kindness or of criticism? Do your words uplift or devastate? Negative words are like acid, drop by drop tearing down even the strongest foundation. Kindness is a glue that binds and builds not walls, but webs, scaffolds of strength that hold us all up and unite us. After a long day at work or school, are your words measured and thoughtful or impatient and rude?

Your words are your vote toward what you value. Do you vote with kindness or criticism?


Photo credit: symphony of love via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Do you vote with your dependability or do you frequently betray trust? Can your partner, your parent, your friend, or your child depend on you to catch them when they fall or do you constantly rock the boat just as soon as they stand? Where do your loyalties lie? Is impressing the masses more important than holding tight to those in the inner circle? In life it’s good to know who’s got your back. Trust is the foundation of love, and without it, love falls apart.


Photo credit: birgerking via Small Kitchen / CC BY

So, in the relationships of life, how do you vote?

 

Echo Chamber

This empty nest thing is for the birds. (Pun intended.) I feel like I should enjoy this silence after years of rambunctious kids and their singing and shouting, TV blaring cartoons through the house, dancing, laughter and fighting. Now  the house is just so quiet.

On a good note, I’m getting more proficient at self-talk. I can almost carry on a whole conversation with myself while walking through the grocery store. I’m not the only one afflicted. I saw a friend in the chip aisle the other day. We were both stocking up for graduation parties. I saw her before she saw me, and didn’t recognize anyone around us she might have been talking to. I approached her and laughingly asked if she was talking to herself. She nodded semi-sheepishly. I think we’ve both come to terms with a certain amount of crazy.

They say you should live long enough to embarrass your kids. I have, but they’re not around enough to be embarrassed.

I get it. Kids need their space. My head knows this. I’ve been an independent young person aching to stretch my wings. I lived through the days of no cell phones and probably didn’t call my mom as much as I should have. (Mom, I’m sorry I put you through this.) My head is on board. My heart, however, feels like it’s being ripped out of my chest and trampled on the ground in front of me. (Okay, only slightly dramatic.)

The thing is, I saw my mom starting to teeter with empty nest syndrome, but I was the eldest and didn’t take much time to look back over my shoulder. She coped by adopting a whole new family’s worth of kids, thereby extending her motherhood years by another eighteen. I was not willing to go that route. I looked forward to the day Mr. A and I could spend some quality time together sans kids. The appeal of a $30 dinner bill loomed in the near future. We could go out to eat 3 or 4 times for what it cost to take the family, all of whom are lovers of strawberry lemonade (at $4.00 a pop). We could go to the beach on a whim and not hear anyone complain about the cold or try to figure out an activity that everyone wanted to do. We could watch documentaries without eye rolls. Yet here I am, longing for those days, for the structure of the family web and the love and support we provide each other.

Determined not to be that parent frantically trying to hold onto my kids as they perched precariously at the edge of adulthood, I went back to school and finished up my teaching degree. I wanted a life, something to fall back on after motherhood, an airbag to fill the space left by my fledglings. The thing is, motherhood doesn’t end. Those babies whose first steps you worry about become preschoolers who learn to ride bikes and teenagers who start to drive and develop relationships and head off to college, and you never stop worrying about them. It’s a mentally exhausting job. My life is inextricably intertwined with those of my kids, bonds I’m sure they’re only too eager to hack at with the machete of youth.

I know they’re busy. I was too, at their age. The days go by and my phone doesn’t ring. Texts go unanswered, and then all of a sudden they are there, cheery and wanting to talk, and for a moment, life goes back to the way it used to be. Too soon the conversation ends, and I’m surrounded by silence once more. I’ll be glad to one day reach a state of equilibrium.

In the meantime, won’t you join me in crying over this clip from Toy Story? I’m certain the song was written by an empty-nester.