Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Playing Pretend

"Farther along we'll know all about it
Farther along we'll understand why
Cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine
We'll understand this, all by and by"
 - Farther Along, by Josh Garrels

My siblings and I loved to play pretend. We would pick characters from favorite books and movies. often finding a role we liked best and sticking to it. Favorites of ours were Peter Pan and Robin Hood. My sister Teal and I would take turns playing Peter Pan and Wendy, then Robin Hood and Maid Marian. We would fight pirates and swordsmen, and also spend time locked in a turret or tied to a ship, about to walk the plank. We would take turns being the one working to save the other, swooping in at the last moment, heroically. Robin and Peter were bold and dashing. Marian and Wendy were more nurturing, singing lullabies to the imaginary lost boys, and encouraging Robin in his fight against tyranny.

Something I loved about our games is that it never mattered that Peter and Robin were male characters. They were interesting, and we played them without gender bias, as I think children should always have the freedom to do. For us, what mattered about the characters was their defining qualities: for Robin and Peter, that meant bravery, selfless sacrifice, being quick-minded so as to outsmart the bad guys, and of course impressive skills with a bow and sword. For Marian and Wendy, it meant a willingness for adventure matched with a gentle kindness. Wendy leaves her windowsill to fly into the night, looking after her younger brothers the whole time. Marian gives her heart to a rebel who is fighting for justice, risking both her regal birthright and her life in order to support him and his cause. This is why these characters are so timeless. Even in their mistakes, there is nobility, honor, and always the good of others at the heart of their adventures.

We loved to pretend in those moments that we could truly be the heroes of anything. Correction: not pretend, we believed it, the thorough faith of those who haven't experienced enough of life to know any differently. The buoyant optimists who chose to say they're flying instead of falling, every time, no matter what anyone else is shouting warningly at them.

We played these characters for years. We fashioned bows out of pliable juniper branches, and arrows out of straight yucca rods. We made swords and daggers and climbed trees as high as we dared, designating them as castles and ships and secret hideaways.

We had plenty of more traditionally girl games as well. Tea parties and families and cafes. Yet it was the adventures of good fighting against evil which I recall most fondly. We were also knights in shining armor, off to fight dragons, and explorers like Christopher Columbus, searching for new lands.We set out to do what we were convicted in our hearts must be done. Pretend or otherwise, that is all which really matters.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Paddle and Float

"River run
And brother row
And the ease between us
The calm below"
 - Riverswim, by The Decemberists

I went stand-up paddle boarding with my brothers Haven and Shepherd. They had done it with me once before and said yes immediately when I asked if they would like to go during my brief visit to the States.

We had trouble finding the place due to poor directions and it having been a while since we'd last been, so when we finally parked we had a brisk one-mile walk across a bridge and along the river to the dock.

 It had been raining off and on recently, however that Friday afternoon was perfectly clear. The sky was impossibly blue, stretching away past the tree line, past the high rises and sky scrapers of Austin, flecked with wispy white clouds which somehow looked more like a painting than real life.

 - They call it Lake Austin, but let's be honest; it's a river you paddle down one direction or the other, the dam sending power to the city and the scenic nature inviting people to walk along it's banks and dip into it's current. -

We rented our boards and glided out into the river, first on our knees and then standing, balancing carefully before planting our feet firmly apart, paddles in the water, back and forth and back and forth. We each found a rhythm, moving determinedly across the river towards the right side bank, then paddling onwards, stroke after purposeful stroke.

We passed kayakers and canoes. We paused to admire groups of turtles sunning themselves on logs, some of them craning their wrinkled necks at us before diving for safety. When we had paddled to an overpass, cars rushing overhead, we sat on our boards in the shade. Haven lay flat on his back, arms under his head. Shepherd and I followed suite. I closed my eyes: the river rocked me gently, and when I floated from under the bridge the sun warmed me to my core. I felt grounded, whole. I believed in that moment that I could float that way for hours, sleeping and waking and dreaming, the river below me, the sky above me, and my brothers nearby, ready to rise and paddle back when the time was right.

We didn't have hours, only two. So we paddled further, to a different bridge, then across the other side of the river and back, fighting the current towards the dock.

We walked back to the car, sun-kissed and thirsty. So much water, yet none to drink. My body felt taut from balancing and paddling, a kind of raw energy which both tires and awakens and ensures a deep sleep when one's head hits the pillow.

Maybe one day I'll save up and buy my own board and paddle. I'll take it out on the water as long as I like. Even now, if I lay flat on my back and close my eyes, I can conjure up the feeling of floating gently down the river, on and on to wherever the current leads.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Mother's Day For The Motherless

"One of these mornings you're gonna rise up singin'
Then you'll spread your wings and you'll fly to the sky"
 - Summer, from the musical Porgy and Bess

"Now," the pastor said, opening his arms wide, "Every mother and child, stand up."
All around the sanctuary, people stood, embracing and holding hands. Mothers with young children and with grown children who had little ones of their own, generations standing together, connected.

On my left, one of the Casa Gabriel boys, "L", leaned his shoulder briefly against mine. I leaned back and he put his arm around my shoulder. To my right, Debbie reached an arm across us to grip the shoulder of "D". We stayed that way, connected yet not standing, Debbie and I desperately wanting these boys to know that though we weren't their mothers, couldn't be, still we love them so much.

L. was physically and verbally abused by his mom. An aunt is the closest thing to a mother for D. As the pastor at the front of the church praised mothers, on and on, I knew the boys beside me must have been thinking, "If mothers are such an important role in everyone's life, a role specially created by God, what happened with mine? Why don't I have what most of the people in this church have so naturally?"

After church, Phil sat down with the boys present that morning and told them plainly and kindly how difficult this holiday is for them. They talked for quite some time, Phil validating their feelings of loss and assuring the there is nothing wrong with them.

For weeks before Mother's Day, we're all bombarded with well-meaning reminders.
"Buy a card! Chocolate! Flowers!" proclaim signs in most windows. So then, what do you do for the motherless? For those who either have no living mother, or for those who ran away from home again, and again, and again, because sleeping on the streets was better than being beaten or rejected?

Two of the boys have mothers whom they were able to go visit that day. For one, his mother is stable now that she's out of jail and living for Christ, though the situation with her husband can be tenuous, making it best for the son to live at Casa Gabriel away from his stepdad.
The other boy's mom is mentally unstable. He ran away at a young age to avoid having things thrown at him while she screamed. All these years later, he is eager to study social work in hopes of helping his mom and others.

I take for granted so often the little luxuries I grew up with. A comfortable home, a good education, basic needs met, parents who loved me. I see these boys and am amazed at how far they've come on so little. Like any group of teenagers, there is the common thread of complaining and bad attitudes about chores and house rules. Typical, yes, though on a holiday like Mother's Day I wonder; what part of them is truly annoyed over having to do the dishes, and what part of them is hurting over having been neglected? While stomping around in a mood, is it while wondering why God dealt them such a poor hand for so long? God is father, but this can be a difficult concept, when most of their own fathers abandoned them before they were born. Why? Why so unfair? Shouldn't it be a little thing to ask, that the people who conceived you and brought you into the world love you?

In church, L. grinned and poked me, knowing he can get away with it. He likes to try and press people's buttons to see how far he can push them. I hope, and believe, he realizes that even when I block him from tickling me, or tell him not to playfully punch me quite so hard in the ribs, he knows he is in a safe place full of people who love him. All these boys, motherless or abandoned, are so very loved every single day. Some days, we just have to work a little harder to remind them of it.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Small Span Of Time

I am caught
between heaven and earth
My body slowly pulled
in gravity's grip
My soul
falling upwards
Each day
I am a little heavier
and a bit lighter

wrestling within me
to claim the greater grasp

I examine myself
Shouldn't they show?
The patchwork seams
from when I have been broken
and been sewn together once more
by loved ones
or by my own clumsy hand
Uneven stitches only I can trace
for where a seed of hope was planted in my heart
Tree of eternal life

I can feel the roots
pressing gently against my ribs

I am an earthly being
Bound up in the beauty
of soil, sea, and sun
Yet it it when I think nothing
can be finer than this
I hear a whisper
of better things ahead
And it is when I feel nothing
can be more terrible
than this life of loss and pain and grief
I sense the assurance
that I am rooted in the sky

I am caught between
for but a little more

is the promise
planted safely in this patchwork soul.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Coffee Shop Musings

"I walk the floor and watch the door
And in between I drink
Black coffee
Love's a hand me down brew
I'll never know a Sunday
In this weekday room"
 - Black Coffee, Ella Fitzgerald 

I'm sitting at a table for two in cafe Galletti in the Centro Historico of Quito. I'm sitting beside a huge window, looking out at the passerbys and the colorful buildings. There's a guard standing in a shaded courtyard across from me, and he keeps looking my way. Is he curious, wondering what I am writing? Is he suspicious of something? Does he think I am pretty, the woman with the short hair and the summer scarf thrown around her neck? Is he attracted, or merely bored?

Now another guard has walked up as I've been writing, and they are conversing. Soon I'll finish here and be up and off to coffee shop number two for the day, for nearly ever Monday morning (a half day off in leu of Sunday), I spend two-to-four hours in one-to-two coffee shops, writing and reading before going to buy groceries for the week. Sometimes I write poems or story-type essays, and sometimes I scribble down drifting trains of thought such as this. Always, there is coffee. Sometimes, there are encounters with strangers, with or without actually speaking.

Half an hour later ...

I arrive at coffee shop number two, also in the Centro Historico. Like the first one, this is a place I've never visited before. Sometimes I go to places which have become loved in their familiarity, sometimes I venture out to seek new places which could be added to my mental Rolodex. This shop is on the second floor, above a chocolate shop. I order a coratado, for I've developed a love of espresso. I sit at a wooden table with a glass top, coffee beans arranged beneath the glass. To my left is a mini balcony overlooking the street. There's a table with two small stools situated against the railing. It's exactly where I'd want to sit if I came here with someone, but for today at least it seems selfish to take what I feel is the prime spot all to myself.

My cortado arrives in a small glass. I sip it slowly: it is the perfect blend of rich and bitter, strong and smooth. The barista offers sugar; I smile at him and shake my head.

Someday I will greatly miss this. Even though it took about forty-five minutes for me to get downtown, partly walking in the sun and mostly standing on a crowded bus, I will miss being downtown like this. Quito has become my city. Maybe, even after I move away, I will visit and find that is is still mine, the way I believe Austin and Georgetown TX will always be mine. When a city becomes your very own, with special haunts and lovable quirks, it is a lovely thing. Quito is my own, for now at least, or perhaps forever.

I have decided: next time I visit this coffee shop, I hope to claim the balcony seat. My city, my view to enjoy and cherish.

Monday, May 1, 2017

13 Thoughts

There's been a lot of discussion about the hit Netflix show "13 Reasons Why". A quick summary of the book-turned-show if you're not familiar: a teenage boy named Clay receives a box full of tapes, all recorded by a girl named Hannah who committed suicide. As he listens to the tapes Clay realizes that it is the story of thirteen events which deeply hurt an already silently hurting Hannah. Each tape side focuses on a specific hurt: Hannah intones, "Welcome to your tape," - a phrase which has become a meme - when addressing each person. The listeners are all intent on keeping things a secret and would have destroyed the tapes except that Hannah made a back-up copy and entrusted it to a boy named Tony. Clay, however, who had a crush on Hannah, is both fearful to know how he hurt her, and determined to bring justice down on everyone else. In the end, is the story more of a lesson to be kind? To be mindful of how each action has consequences and to look out for people who are hurting? Or is it a tragic fantasy-revenge tale; a girl reaching from beyond the grave to mark those who've hurt her? 

13 Thoughts ... (full of spoilers)

1. Firstly, the series is certainly compelling. The story is riveting, with the viewer needing to know how Hannah (funny, pretty, sweet, hopeful) decided to take her own life, and what her classmates and others will do with the information on the tapes. The acting is superb, especially for the young adult genre. The characters are vivid, however there are some definite flaws with them.

2. First character flaw: Hannah's story focuses on how all these people hurt her, but doesn't delve into mental illness and the fact that Hannah must have been dealing with depression and possibly anxiety.  As an adult I can guess at what is going on inside Hannah to make the events she faces seem to be without hope, but I don't know that most teenage viewers do, not without having any personal experience. Interesting, Clay is shown to have seen a psychologist in the past and been given medication, but then that bit of information is dropped without any further explanation. Hannah, on the other hand, is given only the tiniest hint of anything in her past: her mother mentions the high school Hannah attended before they moved, and the horrible girls there, but nothing else. Was Hannah depressed then too? Has she had a history of being bullied? As truly terrible as some of the things she faces are (and they definitely are), it should be clear that she did not commit suicide based solely on other people. She made it out of tunnel vision of not seeing a better way out. But overall, I don't know that this message is clear enough.

3. Second character flaw: Tony is the keeper of tapes and secrets. Hannah trusts him to make sure the infamous tapes make their way into each perpetrator's hands without being destroyed. She trusts him because apparently he was the only guy she knew at school who wasn't a jerk to her, however we see the two of them together as friends a total of one time in the show. Not much to convince the viewers why he should be her secret keeper or why he cared enough for her to do it. Tony is also strangely untouchable throughout: he is cool, with his good looks and vintage mustang, casually being the perfect DJ for the school dance. He is gay, yet somehow no one at school knows or cares, which is odd given that Clay was teased and bullied by peers who called him gay though he wasn't. He comforts Hannah's grief-stricken parents and keeps a protective eye on Clay. Every teen at school who was forced to listen to the tapes and hear their cruelty is worried about good-kid Clay's reaction and goes after him, yet somehow Tony is never directly in the line of fire. He is untouchable, and it's a mystery. 
(Also mysterious is why Hannah did not ask him for any help besides handling the tapes. Further evidence of her mental state: Tony and other were there to help if she'd have let them.)

4. For a young adult show, there is sure a lot of swearing. It doesn't bother me, truth be told, except that it's teens saying these words to a vastly teen audience (or younger). It could have been toned down. Though there is definitely more disturbing content (more on that further on). 

5. I know that the producers purposefully made the decision to show Hannah commit suicide because they wanted to show what a terrible thing that kind of choice is, but I personally feel they were wrong. They could have shown her get into the bathtub with the razor and then go to the next scene. I feel that seeing her parents reaction upon finding her would have been painful enough (a scene which made me sob). Because as ugly and skin-crawlingly uncomfortable and downright heartbreaking as seeing Hannah cut her wrists was, the terrible truth is, it was still fairly quick. If a viewer is considering suicide, if they are depressed and getting to that point, I honestly don't think that scene would detract them. I fear the opposite. I fear some people who are drowning in enough pain might think, "If she could do it, I could." I've read articles from people struggling with mental illness say the scene, and other parts of the show, was a trigger they had to fight against. Though the show was meant to combat against suicide, I don't know that they were ultimately successful by choosing to film that scene. 

6. Hannah took her life because she was hurting too much to see that there were still people around her who would have been her life-line. Yet she also chose to record and distribute the blameful tapes, turning her death into a revenge. Because of you, says her recorded words, I am dead. Because of what you did and did not do, I couldn't go on. Spoiler: one of the awful things which happens to Hannah is rape. Not only to her directly: she drunkenly witnesses the rape of a friend and is unable to do anything about it. When she tries to go to an adult she feels shut down, and is so overwhelmed with shame she doesn't try a second time. Even so, revenge is never the answer, and most certainly death is never the answer. Another fear with this show: if someone watching is already in a place of wanting to die, what if this show inspires them to leave a legacy of revenge? Hannah's web is intricate and clever with how many people she can get back at. If someone feels hurt by other people, this story is like a fantasy for revenge. 

7. Tony reminds Clay that no matter what happened to Hannah, death was still her choice in the end. She ignored the fact that the two of them and others could have helped her had they known. I'm glad they include this reassurance, however once again the fact that Hannah was never outright shown to be depressed doesn't help the unknowing viewer to understand this. Though Hannah was victimized and caught in some no-win situations (including feeling guilty over a fellow student's death by not reacting in time), in the end she could have continued to seek help, but didn't. It WAS her choice, but her pain is explored through what happened to her from others when it could and/or should have shown what was going on inside her head before she even met them. 

8. One of the overall messages of the show is this: be kind to others. This is important, especially in an era where cyber bullying is far, far too easy. One photo, one comment, can shatter someone. Be kind. Consider others. I'll let this be: I've said plenty about Hannah making her choice despite what others did or didn't do. Be kind. 

9. As preoccupied as they might have been, there were parents, teachers, and other adults who would have helped if the teens would have reached out. I get that the kids were afraid and highly ashamed, but one of them should have had the courage to approach an adult. In the end, Tony gives Hannah's parents the tapes, but is even this the right move? Yes, they will get answers, but maybe more than they want - or even need - to know. The tapes should have been given to the police and done above board. Throughout the show was the looming trial: Hannah's parents suing the school in a devastated attempt to find answers. Since the trial never actually came it's an indicator that Netflix plans to produce a second season. It won't be surprising if all hell breaks loose once Hannah's parents have heard the tapes and know exactly who to blame. Meanwhile, one teen finally opened up to her father about the pain she's been drowning in: will anyone else learn, or will they continue to stumble around trying to handle everything themselves? Certain events in the show foreshadowed even more tragedies ... 

10. The show ends with the attempted death of a fellow student, Alex. (it's possible that another student, Tyler, who was shown with guns and also clearly upset tried to kill him, but I'm sticking with the belief that Alex tried to take his own life and that Tyler's anger and guns predict future dark events). Alex was one who hurt Hannah because he himself was hurting. Yet as close-knit as some of the students became throughout the ordeal of Hannah's death and tapes, still they didn't see how Alex was teetering on the edge. The news of his hospitalization is further reason to expect a season two (unless the concerned backlash against the show builds enough for the producers to walk away). But what is the message? That through everything, the kids and parents and teachers still hadn't learned to see the warning signs? Once again quoting studies on suicide, when one person in a community is successful, it very often leads others to do or attempt to do the same. Because to a desperately hurting person, it's not a loss as much as it is suddenly a very viable way out. Is the show wanting to explore that? Or again, are they unashamedly hoping to get viewers to push for a second season? 

11. Clay, at least, has a positive ending. In the last episode, he reaches out to a girl he realizes is hurting and lonely. His simple act of friendship, of noticing her, could save her down the line. This scene encourages viewers to reach out instead of bullying or ignoring. Hopefully, it will encourage people who are in pain to seek out the Clays and Tonys, the kind people who care about them and will help if given a chance. It may take more than one try (Hannah and Clay had a big communication fail which could have been remedied if she had explained), but keep trying. Hannah glimpsed happiness with Clay yet ultimately took that away from both of them. At the very least, it shows what type of human being Clay's character is for him to reach out to someone else instead of dwelling bitterly on what could have been. In the end, it is Clay's resolution to help others which should be the most inspiring. 

12. The show opens up conversations for sure. Because scores of people are talking about this fictional story, it means they are also talking about the very real issues of suicide, bullying, and mental health. This is positive. 

13. The negative: the show is a trigger for many people, and likely has been seen by far too many young kids who won't seek an adult to process it with them in a healthy way. If a kid watches and is able to have an open, healthy conversation about suicide and the rest, good! If they are left to think Hannah's death was the fault of others, and that if they are hurt that revenge of some kind - in the vein of showing people what they've done - is okay, then that is not good. Overall, I can't recommend watching it. I remember when the book first came out years ago and thinking how interesting the premise sounded yet choosing not to read it because I worried it would glorify suicide (read: make it in any way okay). "13 Reasons Why" is certainly all of the above: riveting, well-acted, and full of fascinating characters, yet in the end, it's a story about a girl who tragically took her own life and used her death as part of a planned out, complicated revenge. Although many viewers will see and be grieved by just how much Hannah had to live for, sadly many others will see and agree with what she had to die for, and that is the danger. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Storied Life

"Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life - well, valuable, but small - and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven't been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn't it be the other way around?" 
 - from the movie "You've Got Mail", spoken by the character Kathleen Kelly 

I've been thinking about how books and stories - read or told or seen - can have such a lasting impact on each of our lives. There's a quote I heard recently which goes, "Live a storied life." I love this. I often think about the line from the movie "You've Got Mail", quoted above, where the protagonist is musing about her life. I feel similarly often, I must confess. I have this great, rising desire to be brave, and this fear that when faced with a situation in which I need to be, I won't. I have daydreams about various situations and what I'll say and do, how I'll stand strong yet I wonder if instead of fight I'll flee or freeze.

With life in general, I know - in the midst of daily concerns and distresses - my life is greatly blessed, and am I thankful. It is a good life, even if I'm not famous or published or creative on a grand scale. I have work which gives purpose, and I have a slew of loving friends and family members. If I die I would be missed, yet to be a parent or to have work or art which is out in the world is to have an immediate legacy. Maybe this is why I write more and more, both out of joy and urgency, because I know in my heart that even if I'm living a small life, it is a deeply storied one, and if not to show that to anyone else then it is simply to show myself.

I heard the "storied life" quote on The Moth Podcast. The Moth has live shows all over the world. They have Main Stage events with a lineup of storytellers - authors, actors, or people they've met over time and know to have good stories - who share prepared stories to a rapt audience. The other Moth event is their Story Slam, where audience members put their names in a drawing to be randomly selected; when chosen, the participant has ten minutes to tell a story on stage (and it must go along with the predetermined Theme Of The Night). I attended my first Moth event in Austin last year with three of my siblings. Mistakenly, I thought it was an audience participation Story Slam, so I prepared a story and planned to put my name in the drawing. Even though I was wrong, and initially felt disappointed, the work of writing the story and practicing telling it under ten minutes felt meaningful. It's inspired me to write out more tales in story/essay/chapter form. Part of an eventual book, perhaps. For now, my own personal storied-life series.

Another quote I love: "We're all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?" (from Doctor Who, the 11th Doctor). You know, everything which has ever happened to us lives only in our memories. One day that's all we will each be: lives still existing on this earth merely through the memories of others, no matter what we accomplish. Who we are will become who we were to other people.

In the comic and movie "V For Vendetta", the character Evey explains how many people will remember the man known as V for what he did, but she will remember the man. The man who freed her, personally, aside from the scores of people he freed by starting a revolution and giving them the courage to stand up and fight. The man she loved. Although many people would remember him for many years to come, she would know him, the heart of his story: not just what he did but why he did it and who he was behind the iconic mask.

Those are some of the stories which have stayed with me, influencing and effecting me, making me want to be brave and free and alive. We're all stories, whether small or grand. We were meant to live storied lives, and to share those stories with a passion. Tell them, write them, seek them out and embrace them. May we live them out, and may they live in memory ever after.