Writing is hard. UCLA writing workshop.

A curiosity outside of our classroom. No phones though. It could have been a great writing prompt though…

The first day of school for me was always a day that gave me a knot in my stomach, even though I was returning to most of the same kids I had been in school with the year before and the year before that and several I had played with over the summer. This morning, I had my first day at school, a weekend workshop, on the UCLA campus, and the knot returned. I had had the teacher for three other classes, but all of them from home, sitting in front of my computer on Zoom, pajamas on the bottom and looking more put together on the top. Today, I finally got to meet the woman who has become a writing mentor for me, face to face and in person. Just like six months ago when I participated in a writing workshop in Santa Monica, my son, Grant took me to class, or actually to the hotel where I spent the weekend. We enjoyed dinner before at Flavors From Afar located in the Little Ethiopia section of LA. It’s an interesting restaurant that changes its menu monthly to feature dishes from the homeland of a refugee or immigrant chef. This month’s menu was Guatemala, a place my kids and I all traveled to several years ago. The food was excellent and because of the delicious food as well as their commitment to help refugees, it will go on my “must eat there” for future LA visits. I have to admit though, I was more focused on my upcoming classroom time than tamales or tilapia. My nerves of insecurity were making themselves known.

Grant dropped me off at the hotel, conveniently located in the UCLA campus, and told me he’d wait to make sure I got in OK. He told me “good luck” adding words of encouragement, a shift in roles as I used to be the one in the driver’s seat offering up words of encouragement. However, he forgot to tell me to make sure I had everything, which in my excitement, I didn’t. He texted me later and told me I had forgotten my jacket and my water bottle. Fortunately, it was a warm and sunny in LA. He suggested buying a UCLA water bottle to show school spirit, in jest, of course, but at this point, I’ve taken enough classes at UCLA — close to 100 hours of contact hours, but until today all on Zoom, to justify a water bottle and maybe even a sweatshirt. My son, who forgot homework most days, texting me to tell me I left my jacket and water behind — great fodder for writing if I needed a prompt over the weekend.

When you’ve only known each other from a small square in a page of squares of faces on Zoom that can’t help me think of Hollywood Squares, seeing each other in person took my teacher, Amy and I a minute before we embraced in a hug that felt long overdue. The classroom was nothing special — four walls with a chalk board on two of them, no windows and a horseshoe of desks that are on wheels, which at first I thought was strange, but by the end of the day, we had all scooted ourselves around while trying to find our best spot. I could see and hear what wasn’t possible on Zoom — the emotions in the eyes, the body language, the audible sighs on a well-crafted or heart wrenching sentence. I was in a classroom of 15 talented, authentic and very brave souls who at the end of day one, felt like I knew with a level of intimacy that doesn’t usually come with initial meetings. And we’ve only begun.

After class, I walked into Westwood Village, a few miles from my hotel room, and cobbled together some food to take back and enjoy on the small patio outside of my room. I bought a sandwich bigger than my head, a bag of chips and a single sized serving of rose. I don’t normally eat huge sandwiches, but I worked up an appetite by writing from 9 to 5 so made the indulgent splurge. On my walk home, a man stopped and asked me if I’d like a ride. Flattered by the offer while knowing I’d say no, I turned around to get a closer look of who was either hitting on me, being a creep or simply a nice guy. I said no, but thanks, to the man behind the wheel who not only looked suspiciously too old to drive, but a bit like my Dad. I have silver hair. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

Amy, our teacher, told us at the end of day one to take the evening off, relax and get a good night’s sleep because it would be far more exhausting mentally than we’d realize. Pouring your heart out onto the page, as soulfully fulfilling as it is for me, is also exhausting in a way that catches up to you later and always as such a surprise when I find myself tucking into my bed at 8:30 or 9:00. Regardless of what we were told, I’m sure most people in my class are doing the exact same thing I was doing…writing, rewriting and contemplating what we want to share. There is no rest for the weary. At least not for this weekend.

On the last day, our second day, we each had 10 minutes of sharing time with the class and because I’ve taken Amy’s memoir classes before, I knew what that 10 minutes would probably look like — 20 minutes or even 30 and our class wouldn’t end at 5:00, but closer to 5:30 and even that would be a stretch. We could use the time for anything we wanted, whether that was reading a piece or talking about book plans or writing plans or anything else we wanted to share. I chose an essay I wrote about a woman I knew for a matter of months during my year of living in Phoenix. I wrote it many years ago, decades actually, but have gone in and made edits and changes over the years. I’m hoping it will become a part of something else I’m working on but as per the methodology that Amy adheres to, I’m not going to share much about those plans.

Amy gave us prompts, where we have 5 to 10 minutes to write about and a few we could go back into to tweak during free time, which was not much. On the first day, we chose a piece we had written in the prompts for the class to workshop. The class would ask questions in areas where they wanted more information written, such as “how old were you when this happened?” Or “Where were you?” Usually the questions were pretty basic. The hard part was we weren’t allowed to answer the questions because Amy didn’t want the writer to be influenced. Rather, the questions were written down and we could decide later if we wanted to address them in our piece. It was a strategy that had been used in all of the classes I’ve taken with Amy, so I was familiar with the drill.

We spent all afternoon on the last day with our “10 minutes of sharing,” which predictably was more like 30 minutes. I was so moved by the bravery of some of the stories I heard and stunned by the tragedies many in our class had suffered as children and young adults. Amy had told us on our first day that we’d connect with one or more of the students and would form life long bonds and we’d be surprised by how close we would become with only 16 hours of being with one another. She was right. It happened twice with her classes on Zoom and it happened even more so in person. We’ve already been emailing and there will be a few who I will try and connect with on future trips to LA. Most, by the way, were from the area but one girl was from Dallas, another from Seattle and one from San Francisco. The remainder lived in the LA area.

It’s such an opportunity for me, with regards to both my writing as a whole and my soul to be able to spend a few weekends a year with other like-minded adults who on a gorgeous day in LA would choose to be in a window-less classroom writing about memories, many of them painful. It will take a few days or even weeks for me to totally absorb the time I spent with this incredible, and once again I have to say brave, group of writers. I couldn’t have been in better company.

On Sunday, early evening, Grant picked me up and asked me how my class had gone and although it had only been a few days since he dropped me off, it felt like it had been at least a week. Time spent in that drab classroom went fast but also at times painfully slow. I can’t articulate specifically what I learned to do or undo because those elements will come in drips and drabs while I write but I know from past experience that there will be a time while I’m writing when something that Amy or one of the other classmates said will be exactly what I need to hear and I’ll add that word or sentence or chapter that I was too afraid to include before and I’ll see the face of the person who shared the wisdom, clear as day, as if they are standing over my desk with raised eyebrows saying, “what are you REALLY trying to say?” And I’ll give their invisible self a nod and continue to type, or write in spiral notebooks that sit in stacks in a basket by my desk.

I know every one of us in that weekend workshop came away with something different from our time in that classroom, but there was one thing we could all agree with without exception. Writing is hard. No explanation, and no need to go deeper with those words — hard and as necessary as oxygen for each and everyone of us who sat in the windowless room in desks on wheels. I need to be remind of that while I sit in front of the ever familiar blank page, while I try to find my words or the meaning or even the purpose behind those words.

Writing is hard and laborious and emotional and frustrating but it’s also one of the purest forms of creativity and making sense of my world that I’ve found, beginning with discoveries through awful poetry in my teens. While back at my desk, where I have a tiny clothesline attached to the wall with 3×5 cards pinned to it with saved words on them, there are two cards I’m drawn to today.

“Authenticity only comes when you take risks.”

“But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight. Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight” (*Lover’s in a Dangerous Time,” by Bruce Cockburn).

Tomorrow, it will be a different card with different words, but for today, on the heels of inspiration and some deep soul searching, those are my words.

Learning to Breathe

It was a year ago today when I came back from my volunteer work in south Texas. I wouldn’t have remembered except it was the day before Easter and it was a sunny day, nearing 60 degrees, with the beginnings of Spring starting to poke through the mud and small bits of remains snow. Just like today. That’s what I thought I’d be writing about until I went to the breathing workshop with Max Strom, at a yoga studio here in Boulder. I’m going to set Texas and my volunteer work aside for now because the two hours I spent with Max this morning feels like the bigger story today and the one that wants to be told and if I looked at the date on the calendar and not Easter as the date, I still have a few weeks on my return from Texas anniversary.

Five years ago, to the date, I completed my first of three blocks (7 days each, as I recall) of my yoga teacher training with Max Strom, something a signed up for with no more than a whim directing me and serious doubts that I’d actually complete all the sessions, which is neither here nor there, except today also happened to be the day that I signed up for a breath workshop with Max at a yoga studio here in Boulder. I didn’t put the synchronicity of dates together until seated on my mat, front row and to the left, as always, and looking up to the front of the room where a comfortable chair sat on a mat with a small table next to it with a bottle of water and a sound bowl sitting on it. Although the studio wasn’t at all like the one I had spend 200 hours in during the training, seeing the chair on the mat, in the front of the studio, brought a flood of memories back. I was always one of the first ones to class, just like this morning, because I like a gentle entry into things that are new. I like to have the time to settle into the space before the class or the workshop begins. I also want the best seat in the house and my early by nature personality usually confirms that I will have just that. There were six other mats in the room when I got there, making my 25 minutes early look a little less anxious. By the time the workshop began, the studio was as full as it could get, with our mats just inches apart. Max is popular and loved by anyone who has taken any of his workshops or yoga classes over the years. I heard about it through my daughter, who took some classes at the studio and happened to be on their email list. Otherwise, he would have come and gone and I never would have known.

Sitting on my mat with my journal, a pen, a bottle of water and a bolster to make the two hours of mostly sitting, more comfortable, I was taken back to the very first day of the yoga teacher training, with the same lineup of accoutrements on my mat, but a much different feeling. I was preparing for an 8 hour day with 6 days to follow that 8 hour day and not a 2 hour workshop. I thought back to how nervous I was — filled with apprehension and wondering if I’d really be able to complete what I had signed on for. I was also very proud of myself for having made it that far —from the signing up part to the showing up part and was thankful for the monetary investment that would made my chances of quitting before completion slim. Thoughts that morning ran the gamut of “Seriously? You really think you can do 200 hours of this and for what? You don’t even want to be a yoga teacher, do you?” To “This is the next step in your yoga journey, whether you teach or not and I’m proud of you for showing up,” were in competition in my mind. The loudest one of confidence and pride usually winning until its counterpart of doubt and insecurity would push its way to the front to be heard. Inhale, exhale, I can do this. I want to do this, I thought. I didn’t feel that kind of doubt this morning that had been present the first day of my training, but I did feel anxious. I had never been in the studio before, didn’t know a one of the 60 or 70 people whose mats were pushed together almost touching, but I did feel grounded, literally, with the view out the window of the mountains I spend so much time hiking in. That made me feel home. The shades, by the way, were drawn before the workshop began, so no one would have to deal with the sun in their eyes or maybe it was so we would concentrate on what Max was saying and not the view behind him.

Max and I made a visual connection but it wasn’t until the workshop was over that we were able to reconnect and I was able to give him a hug. Max is a big man and I remember thinking “gentle giant” the first time I heard him spoke. His voice quiets a room and his stories are ones that you could sit all day listening to, even on a thin, not very comfortable, yoga mat. He is one of the best teachers and speakers I’ve ever heard and I felt blessed to once again be in his company, absorbing the wisdom he imparts every time he speaks. He was only going to be in a few US cities before going back to his home in the Netherlands, making his time in Boulder even more synchronistic and special. He told me his next stop was Kansas City.

What a gift of reflection today has brought me. I was a much different person when I started that first module of the 200 hour training five years ago (thank you Facebook for all of your historical, “to the date” reminders… they often matter, like today). For starters, the bottom three inches of my hair were still brown. I lived in Leawood, Kansas, had not become a grandmother yet, didn’t know that a year and three weeks later, my role of grandmother would give me the new name of “Laudie,” a throwback to what some of my friends who I worked with at Kulik in Alaska used to call me. The name stuck and now three grandchildren have adopted it, soon to be four when the littlest one starts talking.

I had a condo in Frisco, Colorado at that time, but if someone would have told me that three years after that training was completed, I’d buy a home in Boulder and would begin the process of selling my home in Leawood, Kansas, I would not have believed them. I had no idea the physical and emotional pain that would come from moving from the place I had lived most of my life nor did I know the joy that returning to the state where life began for me would bring. All of this came together this morning during Max’s “Learn to Breathe to Heal Yourself and Your Relationships,” to which I’d add, “while finding the gift of such synchronistic timing that no doubt will take you back to a pivotal journey in your life that you’ll most likely want to write about.”

While we were going through the breathing exercises, both standing and seated, I couldn’t help but return to both the physical space and the emotional space of that time. I had two different women stay with me, Laurie (ironically) during the first session and Megan during the last, which was new for me — sharing the upstairs of my home along with coffee at my kitchen table with women I had never met but after a few days, the sharing would also include our histories, our stories and pieces of our hearts.

As the days of the last session of the teacher training progressed, and I knew I would have to get up in front of all the students (maybe 30? 35?) and do a short teaching section, I became nervous. Very nervous. To calm myself, I would come home at the end of class and walk until I felt confident that I could stand up in front of the group, all who I now called friends, and teach. I honestly don’t know why I felt such anxiety about it but I did, and it was real. I remember writing a blog post about it and made the comparison to my irrational fear of mice after having seen one on the sidewalk when I was out walking. It was dead, by the way, which gives even more emphasis to the “irrational” part of my rodent fears.

Today, there was no anxiety about having to teach, something that immediately came to mind when Max walked in, but rather, a deep sense of comfort and knowing. Max looked the exact same as he did five years ago which gave me great comfort, but not being in the studio that felt so much like home to me in KC felt strange. Afterwards, when we had the chance to talk, he asked me if I lived in Boulder or was just visiting, adding that when he saw me he was confused because he wasn’t going to be in KC until the following week. I told him I lived in Boulder and felt a surge of pride with those words as they come out with ease now and I no longer feel the need to annotate with my date of arrival.

The teacher training and what followed for me, most importantly a move, have made for an incredible journey of growth and one that felt good to have the memory nudge today seeing Max, but with very different eyes this time. It feels both important and necessary for me to be able go back in time to see how far I’ve come, but what a rare gift that the opportunity is so real it can be breathed in (literally) and finished off with a big hug when completed. This morning I relearned the breath techniques Max taught our class five years ago but with a grasp that felt easier and more comfortable to hold on to.

Max and I after 200 hours of learning about yoga, breathing, but most of all, life.
One of my favorite gifts that came out of the 200 hours of training – Sara
Middle row, third from the left, or the one with gray hair with brown ends. 2016

My Long Heart of Longing

In the late summer of 2020, during the throes of covid and quarantine and trying to adapt to the reality that it wasn’t going to be over in a few weeks or months, I turned 65. The best part of turning 65 is Medicare and Social Security. My 50 year-old self would do a big eye roll in response to the importance I now give to those words —Medicare and Social Security. Seriously? Medicare and Social Security? But I stand by those words now. With the enrollment of Medicare came a physical, much more thorough than the ones I’ve had in the past, including baseline tests for physical and mental agility. The best part was it cost me nothing. As with every physical, there was blood work and with that came the bad news about my cholesterol, which is higher than my doctor wants it to be. I’m used to this and have gotten a pass over the years because my lifestyle and my other numbers are good. Still, I always feel let down when all the dietary changes I’ve incorporated along with considerable daily exercise, barely sway the needle in the right direction. This is the part of the physical when I say,
“Can we return to talking about my blood pressure?”

My blood pressure is what I like to lead with — numbers that almost always elicit a compliment by whoever is taking it. It gives me a cushion of confidence before the comments on the cholesterol numbers begin, which are always disappointing. My doctor decided she wanted me to have an aortic scan and if it came out without plaque, she would be willing to overlook the cholesterol numbers (at least my good cholesterol is high making for a good ratio, but the bad is still bad).

A few weeks later, I made a trip into Denver for the scan. I had not had an aortic scan before so everything was new and out of both nervousness and curiosity, I asked the technician a lot of questions. He was more than willing to answer. It was a slow day.

After the scan, I asked him if some people ever struggle with the 30 second breath hold. It felt long to me, although do-able.
“Yes, they sometimes do, he answered, but the fact that you have a long heart helps you. It allows for deeper breathing capacity.”

“My heart is long, I asked, as in not short??”
“Yes, long. People have long hearts and short hearts. One is not necessarily better than the other. Yours just happens to be a long one.”

What? I have a long heart? I’ve never heard of such a thing. How was it I had lived 65 years and someone is just now telling me the shape of my heart? Fortunately, the scan of my long heart turned out fine and plaque-free but thoughts of what the technician told me lingered.

The very nonchalant manner in which the news of my long heart was delivered kept me from worrying about it, but I was curious and did what most people would have done once I got home. I put Google to the test.
“What does it mean to have a long heart?”
Nothing. Enlarged hearts, symptoms of heart attacks, scary medical stuff and broken hearts, but nothing about a long heart. I was intrigued, curious and beginning to wonder exactly how much training, education and experience the technician who shared the information with me had.

I love thinking about the physical attributes of my heart, barely a side note when compared to the amount of time I spend thinking about its emotional qualities. Did it become long because of all it holds? Of course not, but I like thinking about my newly discovered attribute in this manner. The muscle in my chest that gives me life with its constant beats needs more consideration than I had been giving it. Clearly, I gravitate more to thinking about my emotional heart rather than the physical, but now that someone was actually able to give me a brief description of my heart, I can’t help but envision a long, pumping vessel, that looks stretched while trying to hold far more emotions than what it was designed for, like a knit bag that has grown long with the weight of its contents. Whether or not the technician, who started this whole ordeal, was giving me an observation based on trained eyes or just a quick and possibly not accurate conclusion, I carried those words home with me and now, 2 1/2 years later, I’m contemplating them again.

Does my long heart still hold the shape of a valentine? (I know hearts don’t actually look like the valentine shape we associate them with, but it is how they’ve been represented historically). Has the record of my emotional life actually changed the shape of my heart? Clearly, I’m not done with this subject. I googled it again, this time resulting in cardiologist, Sandeep Juahar’s Ted Talk, where he addresses “the mysterious ways our emotions impact the health of our hearts—causing them to change shape in response to grief or fear.”
He spoke of examples where hearts actually did change their shape after being subjected to periods of stress and or grief. Ah ha! Now I’m getting somewhere. Maybe, just maybe, the stress, the fear of the unknown, the loneliness of a solitary quarantine that happened just months before my scan in the unforgettable year of 2020, really did change the shape of my heart. Or maybe I was born with a long heart instead of a short one or one that simple resides in the middle measurement.

My long heart and all it carries — the love, so much love, the hopes, the desires, the fears, the dreams, the memories, both the good ones and the bad ones, the very essence of my being and the creative and curious element that has made writing such a necessary part of my life. It is the most precious of packages. It needs more attention.

The very same long heart that ached for months after I saw my dog get hit by a car when I was in the 3rd grade is the same heart that only recently felt the pain of learning that a former classmate of mine had died. Metaphorically, there’s a lot of expansion going on in my already long heart. It makes me think of the umbilical cord that I’ve written about that emotionally still connects me to my three children, all living in different parts of the country. The physical feels easier for my mind to grasp with visions of three cords that originates with me, and stretch out to the other side of Boulder, to Portland and to LA. That I can visualize. That I can understand. But it’s the emotional aspect that is out of my grasp. All that enters the heart — first loves, bad break ups, the birth of my children, moments of ecstasy and joy, heartbreaking sadness that is so deep it is felt physically, are all mingling around together in the space of my heart. Maybe they are organized into groups, I am a virgo after all.

All of this, including the shape of my heart, I had forgotten about until I was going through a stack of my many notebooks looking for inspiration. On that day in August of 2020, after googling “long heart” with no success, I wrote brief notes in one of my notebooks and underlined “long heart.” I always think I’ll remember, but always right things down, just in case. I didn’t remember being told that I have a long heart. Thank goodness I write things down. Thank goodness I never throw notebooks away. Today I feel more curious and more intrigued than I did in 2020. I had other concerns then, such as how to maneuver through this new masked-life doing my day to day chores, while trying to remain healthy and covid-free.

Sandeep Jauhar ended his Ted Talk by saying,

“The emotional heart intersects with its biological counterpart in mysterious ways.”

I give that intersection a lot of attention, heeding both the advice of the medical community I surround myself with, and an acute awareness to the emotional life I hold in my heart. My heart may be long in its physical appearance, according to the young man in the light blue surgical scrubs, but it’s what it holds that has me returning to this subject again, 2 1/2 years later, with continued interest. Maybe it’s the longing inside my heart and not the length of my heart that holds the power — the longing to make sense of my world by organizing it into words tucked away in notebooks — notebooks that have held what I thought my mind would, but didn’t. But my heart, that long heart of mine, has never forgotten.

They Don’t Live Here Anymore

Looking into the memories of an empty room.

There’s a saying about not being able to go back or return home or something along those lines — my own interpretation being when you go back, you can’t expect it to be the same experience. I confirmed that a few days ago when I walked over to my son and daughter-in-law’s house. It’s
still their house, but they no longer live there. They live in Portland now, not Boulder. My son, Thomas, told me there was going to be an open house for their home that is now on the market and he thought I might want to go have a look. Might? Does he know me at all? Open houses are the non-creepy, socially acceptable way to snoop and given that I know the owners, I didn’t hesitate. In fact, I was the first on there upon opening, promptly at 11:00 am.

As I approached their driveway, noting the unfamiliar car in the drive, I stopped for a moment to take it all in. My main reason for going had been curiosity about the staging. It’s always fun to see what is brought into a home when selling, not living, is the objective. But standing there in the driveway, I realized that this peek into their newly staged house was going to be more about the memories shared inside of these four walls and less about decor. I took a deep breath, walked over to the front door, hesitated, then opened it and stepped into the entry way. Once in, I wondered, are you supposed to ring the doorbell for an open house? Two realtors, a man and a woman who I later learned were twins, greeted me, asked if I was looking to buy then began to talk about what a wonderful house it was. I quickly redirected their enthusiasm and told them who I was and why I had come, adding that what I had seen so far looked great and I’d report back to my son.

The man, was sitting in Lilah’s spot. He looked too big to be seated where she was supposed to be. We talked about real estate trends, house prices and what a find it was to have a lot as big as theirs in that neighborhood. I’m good at small talk but don’t enjoy it so diverted the conversation to the night they saw a bear walk across their deck which prompted Thomas to start writing down all the animals he had seen in their back yard. Had it been a bingo game, he would have almost had a black out. He was missing the moose. They thought it best not to share that with prospective buyers. I agreed. I had established enough of a relationship with the twins that I felt comfortable taking as much time as I needed to make my way room by room, through the house. First impressions were that the house looked amazing, but odd. It wasn’t the house I was familiar with, yet it was.

A rectangular table replaced the round table that Brooke and Thomas had. We shared a lot around that round table and I know the memories will continue at that same table in Portland. So many dinners and celebrations came to mind —the birthday parties for Lilah, the first one postponed because she got sick and coincidently, it was the day after we were told that quarantines would be starting and we should prepare by buying enough food to last at least two weeks. Little did we know. On her 2nd birthday, we got over a foot of snow and Thomas had to give me a ride to their house because even for this snow-loving girl, it was too much for me to maneuver. And her 3rd bday, the butterfly-themed birthday, was shortly after Thomas and Brooke told me they had decided to move back to Portland. With the news still feeling like an open wound, I gave Lilah a tee-shirt with a picture of the Flatirons on it and BOULDER COLORADO in bold letters.. I didn’t want her to forget. I thought about the two Thanksgiving dinners I had at that table — the first when Brooke was newly pregnant with her second and was so tired but she made a beautiful dinner in spite of that early pregnancy exhaustion and the 2nd this past year, which was the best Thanksgiving dinner I’ve ever eaten. I marveled at how she did it given she had a 3 year-old and a 4 month-old. Even the butter was freshly “churned.” I thought about our New Year Eve celebration in 2020, held late afternoon in their kitchen. My daughter Emery, son-in-law, Miles and two grandkids, Arlo and Muna, were also a part of the celebration. We tried hard to make it festive at a time when nothing felt very festive. We raised glasses of champagne and toasted to a covid-free year ahead. Our celebration was wrapped up by 7:00.

I walked around to the slider door in the kitchen, the one that Thomas was constantly repairing with reminders to his toddler not to slide the screen door and not PUSH it to open. looked out on the same deck where a short time ago looked warm and homey with an outdoor couch, a rug, a coffee table and a hanging rattan chair along with multiple baskets filled with toys and stuffed animals. It was empty and barren now — no furniture, no toys, no baby or one year old or talkative 2 or 3 year-old Lilah. It would be a blank slate for the next family to fashion as their own. If the weather was nice, and it usually was, we always ate outside on the long wooden table with benches that sat under a large tree that the deck had been built around. On the other side of the deck, the first spring they lived there, Brooke planted a sunflower house for Lilah. By mid-summer, the heads of the flowers bent towards the middle, their stems not strong enough to hold them upright. It formed the perfect little house for Lilah. This was the same yard where Thomas started finding 4 leaf clovers almost daily and even a few 5 and 6 leaf clovers. I found two. The only two I’ve ever found in my life.

I walked back into the kitchen and around to the front room where I had entered and am sure in real estate terms, it is referred to as a “formal living room” and not a front room, but I prefer “front room.” Two white upholstered chairs that I would be proud to own, sat where their couch had been. That missing couch was where I stayed for 3 days after having a minor procedure on my knee of stem cell injections. It wasn’t as minor as I had anticipated and the pain, that I was told wouldn’t really be much of an issue, was. I planned on being driven home and spending the first night on my own couch, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to navigate the 18 steps up to my room, but given the amount of pain I was in, and my inability to walk, Thomas and Brooke insisted I stay with them, which I did, without argument. I remember Thomas and Emery helping me out of the car and into that front room, one under each arm, and depositing me onto the couch that Brooke had made up as a bed for me. It was where I lived for the next 3 days. The next day, I got out the crutches out that Thomas had bought for me and with great determination and focus, hobbled over to the bathroom, which wasn’t far, but when you’ve never used crutches and were told to not put any weight on the leg they had injected, it might as well have been down the street and around the corner. Lilah, not quite three, saw me carefully making my way across the front room, while awkwardly maneuvering the crutches. Realizing I had an audience, I tried hard not to wince in pain and keep my swearing to in my mind only. She watched me with the pride of a mom watching her toddler take their first step.
“Well look at you!!” She said to me proudly, with hands on hips and a big smile on her face.
It’s still one of my favorite lines I’ve ever heard from her and there have been many! Thomas would later tell me that when she came home from preschool on the day I went home, she told him that the couch was a bed with Laudie in it in the morning but now it was just an old couch again. That couch that once served as my bed, now resides in Portland. I hope taking it out of context won’t take those few days out of her memory.

As I slowly made my way through the house, room by room, mentally pushing aside the new furnishings and letting my memories guide me, I was surprised by the memories that stopped me in my tracks. Of course there were the birthdays and holidays and getting to see Thomas and Brooke’s second child come into their house for the first time, but it was the small things, the very small things that grabbed me. I remember sitting in a tiny chair at the child-sized table in Lilah’s play area, brushing the hair of one of her dolls, her name escapes me, but it was probably Sophia, because most of her her dolls were named Sophia at that time. Her hair looked like yarn that had been brushed – dull and fuzzy. Lilah gave her to me along with a brush and asked it I could “make her hair pretty.” I gave it my best shot, but even after brushing poor Sophia’s hair, it still looked like a matted dog. She took the doll, shook her head with the understanding that the hair wasn’t going to get better no matter how much it was brushed, then added,
“I think it will work best for Sophia to always wear a hat.”
Out of the mouths of babes. And Sophia is never without her hat.

We watched football games, basketball games, world cup soccer, old home videos and Biden’s acceptance speech in the same room I was standing in but there was no big, comfy couch or scatterings of stuffed animals and books or two cats — both the shy one that only came out to play at night and the playful one, or even a TV for that matter. It was just a family room with a lovely fireplace and beautiful natural light. We had big plans to have a regular movie night and watched “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for the kick off to our great idea. We still haven’t had our second movie watch. Maybe we just haven’t decided what to watch. Maybe in Portland.

After passing the twin realtors, still perched on the island stools with untouched plates of bakery cookies and bottled waters patiently behind them on the island, I went upstairs, and paused at the empty wall in front of me in the landing. A short three weeks ago, this wall had been a gallery of family photos. I remember the thrill I felt the first time I saw a photo of me in that gallery. It was a photo Thomas had taken years several years earlier at a restaurant in Kansas City while waiting for our order. When he gave me a copy of the photo a few weeks later, I told him I thought it was the best photo any one had taken of me in recent years. I liked it because I thought it looked like the the way I think I look, not to others, but to myself.

The guest room and Lilah’s room’s were empty — easier for me when I didn’t have to push back the unfamiliar furnishings to get to the memories. I thought about the two consecutive nights that I was called in the middle of the night when Brooke had gone into labor. The first night was a false alarm and I left before Lilah work up in the morning. I later told her I had spent the night at her house and had driven over in my pj’s. She loved that — her Laudie getting in her car and driving in her pj’s.
“Did you wear your slippers too, Laudie?” She wanted to know.
“Of course I did! Shoes would have looked strange with my pj’s.”
The second night was not a false alarm and in the wee hours of the morning, I received Thomas’s text that Ozma Rose had arrived. The thrill! — seeing those words pop up on my phone through the blue halo of light in the dark room. I quickly texted back then went back to sleep, or at least tried. I couldn’t wait for Lilah to wake up so I could tell her she had a sister. Impatient with the wait, I tiptoed into her room around 7:00 and made enough noice to “accidentally” wake her up. She was so excited and went straight to her closet to find a dress to wear (not her normal choice in clothing) because she wanted to look “extra nice” when she met her baby sister. We ate breakfast then took a walk around the neighborhood and when we saw a white car turning into the cul-de-sac from a distance, we thought it was Thomas and Brooke and baby Ozma so we picked up our pace only to find out as we got closer that it was the wrong car. Lilah looked at me and shook her head and said,
“Oh Laudie, we were just a couple of kiddos chasing the wrong car, weren’t we?”
It would become our inside joke and something we’d randomly say to each other periodically to share a laugh. It had been a while since I’d been called a kiddo. A few hours later, I’d be laying next to her while she laid next to her mom and her baby sister, watching her marvel at how tiny her baby sister was and how excited she was. The staged bed was nice — a linen duvet with colorful, bohemian pillows lined up neatly across the head of the bed, not too many either, which seems to be a popular trend. I thought about warehouses of home furnishing and how fun it would be wandering up and down the aisles selecting items to tie in with an overall theme. Surely the decorator doesn’t have to go from shop to shop to obtain the goods. On second thought, it wouldn’t be fun. The impermanence of it all would make me sad. Still, nice duvet. Nice pillows.

Before I went downstairs, I returned to the empty room that used to be Lilah’s. I lingered in the doorway, long enough that I decided to get comfortable. I sat down on the floor, stretched my legs out and leaned against the wall. I looked at the empty space to the left of the window — where there used to be a bed with pastel bedding and a line up of very loved stuffed animals on the pillow. I felt the lump in my throat then the tears on my cheeks. Out of all the rooms, this one felt the most difficult for me to leave. I stayed until it felt like it was time to leave then quietly said, “Just a couple of kiddos, chasing the wrong car.” In the quiet of the empty room and from the bed that didn’t exist, I heard her respond with a soft laugh.

I thanked the realtors, took the blue cloth booties off my shoes and returned them to the basket by the door. I opened the door and hesitated. It was quiet. There was usually a tinkle of a bell that would sound when the door was moved, a good idea, I thought when there’s a toddler living in your house. I had become so used to it that I didn’t hear it any more, but in its absence, I heard the quiet.

As I walked away, I looked back at the large picture window in the front of the house with the sheer drapes that framed it on either side, and saw Lilah in my memories peeking out from the sheers, watching as my car would pull into the driveway. I would always wonder how long she had been waiting for me. There is no better entrance than one made with such a captive audience inside.

There was no white car in the drive and no tiny bike with training wheels parked next to the garage door. The house had been stripped of those who had lived there before, yet the memories were so strong that I had to wonder — how long will the energy of my family remain in this house even though their physical things have been removed?

I walked home, realizing I would never be in that house again, but it was OK and I was OK. I’ve done this before, with all of my children — helping with moves that have involved 6 different states, 8 different cities, with multiple locations in each. Several years ago, in a Mother’s Day blog, I talked about umbilical cords and although it was cut after birth, its essence lives on in the souls of the mothers. I mentally went through the list of the many cities and states where I’ve moved boxes into trucks, out of trucks and into houses and apartments. I stopped at 14, but not because I was done. The essence of the umbilical cords of my 3 children are strong and stretchy. They have been well exercised over the years.

Although practice may help with efficiency, it does not make the process easier emotionally. Add a very sweet 3 year-old to the mix who calls me “Laudie,” and it becomes even more difficult.

They don’t live here any more.

It’s still raw and my emotions feel wobbly and too close to the surface. It will take me a while before I remember that they really don’t live here any more. The day will come though and instead of grabbing my phone to call Thomas with pleas for his help with something that needs moved or fixed or constructed, or Brooke to set up a play date, I’ll get out my calendar and will look at airline schedules. In time.

Two Pink Lines – You’re Staying Home.

Covid. Round two. It’s surprisingly similar to round one that I had almost exactly a year ago. Last year two days after my return from Key West in late Jan., I tested positive. This year, two days before I was supposed to go to Key West, I tested positive. Key West in January may be off the table for me – at least until next winter when I’ve forgotten about my Key West/covid connection. I had a hunch I’d see the two pink lines, but remained hopeful. I had just come from Portland where I helped with my son, Thomas, daughter-in-law, Brooke, and two granddaughters, under the age of three, make their move from Boulder. Two days into the trip, sickness started spreading through the group, starting with Brooke, then the girls, and finally Thomas. I felt fine throughout, cautiously nervous, but fine. As was predicted by the medical community, this winter has become a rough one for families with kids because of weakened immune systems – a result of two years of social distancing and masking. Kids need germs to strengthen their immune systems, their parents too for that matter, which they are now getting with every cough, sneeze and fever their kids are gifting. I was surprised when Brooke brought the covid tests out, I’m not sure why, but it felt like it had been so long since we were getting the boxes of two tests out and reading yet another set of instructions because none of them are the same. But she was smart to do so and neither she nor my son were surprised with the two pink lines showed up immediately on their tests. Thomas told me to “save myself” and suggested that I might want to quarantine in my room at our Airbnb for the remainder of my stay. It was good advice because I had a trip to Key West booked five days after my return to Boulder. Knowing that there was a three year-old and a six month-old in the room, who both stretched the limits of cuteness, made quarantining in my room, even if only for a few hours before bed and another few in the morning before my exit, very difficult. At that point, while trying to do my best to not catch the covid germs that were permeating the rooms of our airbnb, I hadn’t thought ahead to the next morning when long hugs with tears because my kids and their kids would now be living in Portland and not down the street from me in Boulder, would not be an option. Waves at a distance would be the stand-in goodbye. I also wouldn’t be giving hugs to the person who would be driving me to the airport because it wasn’t my son, but rather an anonymous Uber driver and having the masked woman in the back seat reach forward for a goodbye hug, would have just been awkward. Instead, I would catch the middle-aged Uber driver glance back at the me as I sobbed all the way to the airport. I think he wanted to ask me if I was OK, but also didn’t want to intrude on my privacy. I’m sure he’s seen it before. Airport runs usually follow tearful goodbyes. It was painful. So painful. Thankfully my mask muffled the sobs.

Once checked in and settled in at my gate with lots of time to spare, because unless I’m at least an hour early, I’m late, I realized that maybe, just maybe, not being able to hug goodbye had been a blessing. How do I hug a three year-old who knows I’m leaving but can’t fully understand what that leaving and moving to another state really means? The same three year-old who now refers to her dad when she’s around me as “your son” as in “do you want to sit by your son at dinner?” also told me that she loved being my “neighbor” and we will still have lots of play dates even though she wouldn’t be living in Boulder. I agreed, then added I would need a little more time to plan those play dates. How would I have kept that hug, like all the rest of the rest of our hugs, happy and affectionate, while trying desperately to not show my sadness? Hugs don’t come with tears after all, or at least not when you’re three. At that point, my mind was still swirling around departures and my sadness of leaving. Meanwhile, covid was sitting by patiently, waiting on the bench to be called into play.

I got home in the evening and did as I always do when I get home from traveling late in the day. I left my suitcase in my front room, where I’d unpack it the next day, taking the dirty clothes downstairs and the remainder upstairs, where I’d finish unpacking and begin my repack for my upcoming trip to Key West. I’m never in a rush on the unpacking. It’s my way of extending my trip just a tiny bit more. Besides, I’m usually tired and my waiting suitcase always looks like a lot less work in the morning.

The next morning, for safety’s sake, I did a covid test. Holding onto the comments Thomas and Brooke had made about my strong immune system, I was proud to see a negative. And so I unpacked, and began to repack my bags for Key West, feeling relieved that I had emerged covid-free after being surrounded by it for a day, or at least that I knew of. The next day, I tested again, because I wanted to be safe. As soon as the two pink lines showed up on the test, which was pretty fast, I did the math. Then I did it again trying every which way to make it work. No matter how I counted the days, there were not enough of them for me to get to the other side of covid and still be able to make it to Key West. Even if I felt OK, I wouldn’t be safe. My head began to hurt, my body ached and I felt feverish. It was almost as if the two pink lines were the signal for the symptoms to begin. I unbooked my flight, called my sister and went back to bed. Two days of feeling like I had the flu with the addition of a headache, made for a pretty good 48 hour pity party for me. Every time I’d walk into my room, I had to walk around the already re-packed suitcase, filled with clothes I had so carefully chosen for 5 days of fun in Key West with my sister and brother-in-law. I’m still walking around that packed suitcase, on day eight and have decided to leave it packed until the day after I would have been coming home. At that point I’d be emptying it anyway.

The thing with covid that’s hard, or one of the many things I should say, is that once you start feeling better, you still have a few days left quarantining, or at least you do if you’re going to be a good person. On day seven, my daughter, Emery, and grandson, Arlo, brought me flowers and arnica oil for my wrist and just like in 2020, I stood just inside the doorway and they stood several feet away in my yard. Deja vu. I realized they were the first people I had seen in seven days. Quarantining alone is strange. How quickly I had forgotten that I had done it before. Almost three years ago and for seven weeks, not seven days. But back to the visit from my daughter and grandson…Arnica oil you may be wondering? What’s that and what’s it for and what happened to your wrist? Arnica is used to speed up healing, especially with bruises. It was an appropriate gift. The day I got back from Portland, when I was still thinking I was covid-free, I went out for a walk in my neighborhood. We had had a lot of snow that was only partially melted, leaving icy patches on the sections of the sidewalks that hadn’t originally been shoveled. I put my micro spikes on my boots in anticipation of those icy spots, but after about a mile of walking, all on dry sidewalks, I became very self-conscious by the sound my boots were making – like tap shoes on the side walk. The sound reminded me of my sisters and my leather-soled school shoes that we would attach thumb tacks to in a sad attempt at making our own tap shoes. It was a nostalgic sound that soon became annoying so I removed the micro spikes and carried them for the rest of my walk. When I was close to my house, so close I could read the numbers on my car’s license tag, I slipped on the ice and fell. Here’s the sad thing – I saw the small patch of ice and was carefully maneuvering around it when I fell. I can’t even say that I wasn’t paying attention, because I was. The fall felt like it was in slow motion and I had enough time to make a plan, which was to break it with my dominant and stronger hand – my right one. I’ve used the phrase “I don’t want to break a hip” too often in passing as an exaggerated expression for being cautious but that’s exactly what I was trying to not do – not break my hip. As soon as I was upright, which was immediately because of the humiliation of someone seeing I had fallen and would rush over to make sure I hadn’t broken a hip, I thought ahead four days and how it would be to maneuver through the airport with a hand, unfortunately my right hand, that couldn’t grip or lift. I’d manage. Then I thought about going to a quick care clinic near my house to see if my injured hand needed more than ice, like maybe a cast? Nah, I’d manage. When I got home, I applied ice, added a British crime drama to the situation, and a few hours later, went to bed. The next morning, after the two pink lines jump started my symptoms, and still with a hand that still couldn’t grip the handle of my coffee cup, I had my answer on if I should go get it X-rayed. I felt too sick to take on that task alone and now knowing I had covid, I couldn’t ask anyone to take it on with me and so I kept applying ice and crossing my fingers it wasn’t broken. My sadness had now extended into its second act with no intermission.

After a few days, I started feeling normal again, and my hand, although still sore, was getting its grip back. I was starting to feel back to normal, tired, but normal, but not done with my quarantine and still showing a positive on the test. This is the tricky part of covid – feeling ready to be back out in the world again, but if I wanted to be a decent human being, I needed to stay put. This was when the kitchen cleaning began. Actually, a deep organization is a better word because I like organizing far more than cleaning. Then the label maker came out. Now, for most, that doesn’t seem like a scary event, but when you’re a virgo, with a lot of free time on your hands and have to stay home, it can lead to a slippery slope of perfection inching its way towards obsession. By the end of the day, I had labeled each and every one of my mason jars filled with staples that line my pantry shelves and had further grouped my spices from savory and sweet into their prospective regions – Italian, Indian, Mexican and all dishes with cumin. I can do no more. My kitchen is organized to within an inch of its life. My wrist, although black and blue on one side with a slightly yellow cast on the other, is sore, but can grab a coffee mug so I’m no longer worried. My two act pity party is done. I’m bored and I’m waiting for a negative test. I’m also tired of being alone in my house, but there’s a big irony to that statement. While alone in my house and sitting in my very organized kitchen, I started researching places to rent a cabin for a week or two for a solo writing retreat. Yes, this person who is tired of being alone in her house, waiting out the clock on a covid quarantine, was researching solo getaways in a cabin in a remote place. Even though I’ve kind of just done that, and my home is my personal retreat, it’s not the same. My home beckons me to label jars and alphabetize spices and reread boxes of letters I’ve saved, instead of diving into the project at hand – writing. I still want to find that retreat, but the timing doesn’t seem quite as urgent.

This latest covid journey has been a test for me and I can’t say I’m good or confident with taking tests, but they continue to show up, regardless. It was so easy to put on the cloak of pity and wallow in the sadness of not being able to hug my kids and grandkids goodbye and having to cancel my trip to Key West, yet while in the throes of that wallowing, I heard from two different friends who were going through far more than delayed hugs and a trip to Florida. One was dealing with her mother’s final days in hospice and the other was trying to navigate her husband’s recent diagnosis of terminal cancer. Prospective. It always shows up on time and is usually bearing gifts. I still missed hugging my now Portland family goodbye and I still missed my trip to Key West, but both of these events can be done again. It’s not permanent and it’s not cancer or hospice. It’s a covid inconvenience. Does that mean I’m not sad, angry and disappointed? Of course not. I’m human. But I’ve been given the timely gift of perspective in the form of different lenses to view my situation.

It’s time to stop walking around the suitcase in my bedroom and unpack it. I’ve been reminded enough.

It’s either optimism or difficulty in accepting reality, but I needed to take two tests… just in case.

Writing Prompts in Santa Monica

Last weekend, I took part in a one day, memoir writing workshop in Santa Monica, California. I was walking the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland with my sister, Susan, when I saw the email about the workshop. I read it, thought about it, mentally set it aside, then thought about it some more. I later mentioned it to Susan with the caveat that I most likely wouldn’t sign up because…well..you know… this and that and all the other things that I mentally began to stack up excuse by excuse, forming a wall.  Susan’s response was, “Why wouldn’t you?  You could stay with Grant and Katie (my son and daughter-in- law who live in LA) while you’re there.  Again, why not?”  
Her words echoed in my mind for the rest of the day while I quietly paced off the kilometers to our next stay. Later that evening, while seated at a pub in O’Connor’s Guesthouse in Cloghane, Ireland, I venmo’d the money to the facilitator and thanked my sister because she was right.  Why wouldn’t I?  

On the morning of the workshop, Grant drove me to the house in Santa Monica where the workshop was held. We arrived early, something Blackman’s are known for, so drove around the block a few times, something we are also known for, then sat out in front of the house until my watch said straight up 9:00, knowing that I’d likely still be the first one there, which of course I was.

On the way over, Grant had mentioned how cool it would be if there was someone from one of the Zoom UCLA writing classes I had taken. I agreed. It would be very cool and although I had taken four Zoom weekend intensive classes with two different teachers, it was highly unlikely. The UCLA Writer’s Extension Program is big and so is Los Angeles, but I liked that he was thinking about it.
“If that happened, and it won’t, I can guarantee you that I’d remember the writing but not the writer’s name,” I told him.

I turned around to wave goodbye and Grant gave me a “thumbs up, you can do it” gesture. It was wonderfully familiar, only I had been the one to say goodbye in my memories and he was the one leaving with the backpack slung over one shoulder.

We met in a small guest house in the back of one of the participant’s house. As we were finding our places, a woman seated across from me got my attention and said,
“I know you! I was in a writing class with you last February on Zoom.”
I instantly knew who she was. I didn’t remember her name, but remembered what she wrote.
“You wrote about your dad dying, but I’m sorry, I can’t remember your name,” I said.
She told me her name and remembered some of the work I had shared, but also not my name.

Once the facilitator began, giving us an overview on the day’s events, the woman seated next to me said something and I was so struck by the familiarity of her voice that I looked at her and mentally cropped her from the shoulders up — the size of the Zoom screen I looked at for eight hours a day, for four consecutive days, and realized I knew her. And just like the other woman who I had made a connection with, I also didn’t remember her name, but I remembered what she had written because it was so memorable. I was dying to say something to her but the workshop had began and I realized I’d have to wait until our first break. I thought about sending her a note, but thankfully set that idea aside. To be called out in a memoir workshop for note writing would not be something I’d want share with my son when he picked me up and asked how my day went.

When we had a break, I blurted out to her that I remembered her from a class on Zoom over a year ago (a different class and a different teacher from the other woman I had connected with). It felt like a secret I had been holding and couldn’t wait to share. I told her I remembered her writing, but not her name. Her eyes widened and she started laughing and grabbed my arm in a gesture of friendship and connection then told me she never thought what she wrote would surface again and here we were. I reassured her that what happened in the Zoom room stayed in the Zoom room, but she had left the whole class in suspense as we never got to hear how her story ended. Her story was unique and explicit in the way she wrote it and due to privacy, even though I’ve not given her name, I’ll have to leave it at that. We’re close in age (or kind of, I think) and connected as easily in person as we had in the Zoom classroom almost two years ago. I felt like I had formed a true friendship with her by the time the workshop was over. Out of the eleven people in the workshop, including the teacher, I knew two people and was the only one who had traveled outside of the LA area. Maybe LA wasn’t as big as I thought? Grant was right about the Zoom connections and I was right about remembering their writing but not their names.

There was also a Ukrainian woman in the workshop whose family had been on vacation when the war broke out and flew to Mexico instead of going home. She and her husband and their two children ages 4 and 6, walked across Mexico and crossed into the United States at the border in Tijuana. A family in Santa Monica sponsored them and she learned about the workshop because the facilitator’s children went to the same school as her’s. She wrote her prompts in Ukrainian and when we read our writing aloud to the group, she read her pieces in Ukrainian. I was awed by the fact that none of us could understand a word of what she was saying, yet still leaned in and wanted to hear more. The content of her writing was revealed in her emotions as she read her words, none of them familiar, but the tone of her voice and her pauses were. She translated a few of her pieces that she had written, but I found I got just as much out of them hearing them in her native tongue. When asked if she would return to Ukraine, she said she didn’t know and wasn’t sure there would even be the Ukraine she knew to return to.

The first five minute prompt we were given was to write about something that we had brought with us to the workshop, metaphorically or literally. I thought for a minute then chose my backpack that carried my supplies for the day. I wrote about how the backpack that had held water, snacks and rain jacket while I walked the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland a few weeks ago, now held my lap top, a notebook, pens and a jacket. I also wrote about getting out of my son’s car, with the same backpack slung around one shoulder and seeing his thumbs up gesture as I crossed the street to the house where the workshop was being held. The reversal of roles did not go unnoticed for the both of us. I had experienced it before, many times, but I was the one driving the car and he was the one with the backpack. Remembering my writing prompt, one woman asked when the workshop was over if my son would be picking me up and told me she loved thinking about him asking his mom how her day went and if I learned anything. I told her yes, he would and I’d have the benefit of his wife, my daughter-in-law, joining him. As predicted, he asked me how my day went and if I learned anything and rather than get the answer of “it was ok…” that I got so often from him and his two siblings, I had a much better answer for him.
“You were right, Grant. I not only knew one person from my Zoom classes, I knew TWO! And I was also right. I didn’t remember their names, but I remembered what they wrote.”

I’m a participant who takes notes and follows prompts then closes my notebook or shuts down my lap top and moves back into my life as a person who writes daily and signs up for workshops, but who doesn’t call herself a writer. I call myself a gardener and amateur landscaper who gives up every August, a baker (who has logged far more failures than successes), a painter, who has worked out countless emotions with paints on a canvas and has painted over just as many, and knitter whose stacks of unfinished projects continues to grow, but never a writer. I just can’t seem to add the r and turn the verb into a noun. I’m not sure why that is. One of my Zoom connections that day came into the room empty handed — no notebook, no iPad or laptop, but only had her phone. When the writing prompts began, I noticed she wrote everything on her phone and with only her right thumb. Thinking she may have forgotten to bring a notebook, I offered her paper and a pen. She explained to me that she always writes on her phone and had written 250 pages of a memoir, all on her phone, that she transfers daily to a word document.
“But wouldn’t it be faster to write in a notebook or on a computer and a lot easier on your thumb?” I asked her.
Her response was that she didn’t consider herself a “real writer” and opening a notebook to write felt like a “real writer” to her. Opening her phone on the other hand, and sending an email to herself, rather than going the more traditional route, got her off the hook of calling herself a “real writer.” Something she wasn’t ready to claim.

“I’m just sending emails to myself. It’s not real writing in a “writerly sense,” so there are no expectations,” was her explanation to me.

Her writing, by the way, is beautiful and memorable and deserved every page in a notebook. After all, I had remembered the writing of this writer who didn’t really “write” in a traditional sense, but not her name. At the same time, I understood her logic as I never have called myself a writer, even though it is something I do daily and with the tools of a writer — pen, paper, laptop and not my phone.

When I closed my notebook at the end of the workshop, for the first time, I felt like a writer — a writer who is beginning to form a community and ready to claim the title. Also a writer whose son was waiting for me in the car and was anxious to hear about my day.

Hands – close up and personal

My sister recently asked me if I would be able to recognize my children’s hands in a group of several. Would I be able to recognize hers? She had come from a yoga class where the teacher had centered the class around hands, and said she was intrigued by the questions. My first reaction was, “of course I would!”, but then I had to wonder…. this coming from the mom who proudly showed off her firstborn in the hospital nursery to a visitor, only to be corrected by the nursery nurse. I had the wrong baby.

Could I look at my hands so deeply that they almost seemed separate from my body and think about what they had done in my lifetime? Having never thought about this before, I became obsessed with my hands — the hands that have created, destroyed, cradled, protected and applauded their way through my life. My hands are my outward representation of my spirit and in their lined palms, they have held all that I’ve loved, lost, hated, feared, created and comforted.

My sister telling me she’d recognize my hands gave me a deep sense of
comfort. She said they were hardworking hands. She’s right. My hands have always felt more at home digging in the dirt than sitting in the manicurist’s chair.
I thought back to a few years ago and the volunteer work I did in Peru at a center for the elderly in one of the poorest districts of Lima. I wanted to find an activity that would single out the women in the group, because I wanted to get to know them on a more intimate level. The following week I set up a small manicure station, with hopes that a couple of the women would want to take part. Much to my surprise, almost all of them did, creating a bit of a frenzy at the small “station” I had set up. I had danced with these women, chatted with them in their homes, played games with them, done simple crafts with them, but my favorite, hands down (pun intended), were the manicures. There was intimacy in holding their hand, while painting their nails and like little girls, they were in awe of the process, as they watched intently, boldly pointing out when my little brush painted outside of the nail line.

These hands made my hands look pampered and delicate. THESE were working hands and just like Madge on the Palmolive commercial from the 70’s, I had all the waiting hands soaking in soapy water. I told them it was to soften the nail so I could cut them, but in reality it was to clean them. Again, these were working hands.
One of my favorites, Maria Rivera, waited patiently in line and finally took her spot as my last customer. Her hands needed the most work. Her fingers were bent with arthritis and her nails thick, dirty and terribly ignored. She had definite ideas how she wanted them to look — cut short, painted bright pink and made to look pretty.

“Bonita y rosada, por favor.”

I did my best to make them not only bright pink, but well manicured and far cleaner than what she started with. She seemed pleased. As I held her hand in mine and tried to file the nails down to a respectable length because they were far too hard to cut, I couldn’t help but think about what my sister had told me about hands. As I worked my way across the nail of each of her short, thick fingers, I thought about the history I had been told about her, specifically how her own son had tried to strangle her. Were these hands I was holding the same ones that pulled her own son’s hands off of her neck while trying to save her life? What else had these powerful hands done to protect the body that they were attached to? I wanted to sit back and hear all of her stories while holding her fight, her strength and her integrity in my own hands. These hands, that were her protectors, still honored her vanity and drew perfectly arched brows over sad brown eyes, and placed a gold hat that looked like a half-popped jiffy pop container on top of her neatly coiffed hair every morning before coming to the elder center.

I felt honored to share such intimacy with these women while working on their nails and making them pretty and pink. The task at hand was the manicure, but I felt like I gained far more than what I gave. The simple pleasure of being with these beautiful, hard-working women who had experienced so much hardship in their lives, while holding their hands and letting their energy mingle with my own, was truly a gift.
Besides the fact that the polish was old and sticky, the women insisted on sitting right next to me rather than across from me, making for an awkward angle. There was also the frustration of working amidst swarms of flies. I later discovered that on the other side of the wall we were sitting, was a garbage dump. Struggles aside, it became one of my most treasured memories of my time in Peru.

My own hands, the same that so often had been told to put it down, leave it alone and stop picking at it, followed the rest of myself into a nail salon for a manicure the day before my oldest son’s wedding a few years ago. After the nail tech brought out the third wrong shade of pale pink, I had to leave because I started crying. No, that’s not a typo, crying. When I got home, my other son asked me if I got my hands all fixed up (boy speak for manicure). I told him no, that I had to leave because I started crying. He gave me an understanding look, held the gaze for a few seconds, then responded,

“You’re not ready for him to get married, are you?”
I shrugged.
“Not really. I keep forgetting that he’s not 12 years old.”
Clearly this was not about the wedding, but rather was about my having to face, full on, the passage of time, which felt a lot faster than was comfortable.

It’s easier for me to be more accepting of my stubby fingers with rough cuticles and often less than perfectly manicured nails when I think of what these hands have done for me. The small hands they’ve held while crossing the street; the plants they’ve placed with hope into the dirt and the weeds they’ve pulled out in frustration; the family dog that they held while he was being put to sleep and the tears they wiped away for so many days that followed; the babies they’ve held through long sleepless nights; the wedding papers they signed and the divorce papers that followed 20 years later and the countless stories they’ve typed. I love them in all of their flawed imperfection as they represent my history, my life and my spirit in full view. How can that not evoke a crazy sense of pride and ownership? Dirty nails and all?

Technology, age and finding my footing

Today I was humbled by my age. I don’t think about being “old” – what’s old anyway? But I did learn that when it comes to technology, I’m far older than I realized. This was confirmed after 3 trips to the Apple store in less than 24 hours. I bought a new phone (I think the highest number, whatever that is) a few months ago. It’s new, cutting edge, and I’m happy with it, especially with the quality of the photos, although there’s one thing I wish they hadn’t messed with and that’s the security. Rather than give my phone a quick swipe of my thumb, the newest model is facial recognition and even though my phone recognizes me with a mask, if I add sunglass, my phone has no idea who I am. In Colorado, if you’re outside, you likely have on sunglasses as it’s a very sunny place. We’re all in disguise in masks and sunglasses so my phone not recognizing the disguise makes sense. I didn’t like the change and the thumb print was a lot easier, but I’m open to new ideas – keeps me young, right?

When I bought the phone the Apple sales guy convinced me I needed to get Apple care – something I’ve never purchased before because it seemed like a waste of money to me, like trip insurance, which I’ve also never purchased (until Covid). I was hedging on the add on when he told me that they’d give me a lot of money for my trade in (I’m not sure what “a lot” is), but because my screen was so cracked, they couldn’t give me anything. Nothing. Not even $2.00. After hearing that, I caved. He told me because I was buying the Apple care, I could skip on the screen protector. Bad decision.

Last week, and less than a month after my new phone purchase, I dropped my phone, as one does, and it landed on my driveway in precisely the exact spot to cause a whole lot of damage. My Apple care insurance became worth every cent. I have no problem with a cracked screen and have had screens so cracked that I had to be mindful to not cut my finger when opening apps, so this didn’t seem a whole lot different until I realized that the camera – not the camera that takes photos but the one that knows my face for security, was damaged, or more accurately, ruined. So I went to the Apple store, thankful for my Apple care and figured I’d just wait there while they sorted me out with a new screen. Well, when the new screen involves a camera, it’s more of a “come back in 5 hours situation.” So I left the store and returned home for the wait. It felt nice, and at the same time, uncomfortable, to not have my phone. What if there’s an emergency? What if my girlfriends are planning a hike the next day and I’m don’t get the message of when and where? What if my daughter wants to go to coffee or sends me a cute photo of my grandkids You know, dire stuff. Yet at the same time, it was nice to be untethered.

When I returned to the Apple store, exactly 5 hours later, there was a bit of a scramble and some hushed conversations among a handful of employees when they saw me. I was told to go over to one of the tables and wait and someone would be over to help me. Several minutes later, I was told by one of the employees that it would be a little bit longer and the store closed in 20 minutes so they hoped it would be done, but if not, I could come back the next day I’ve been patient and nice and cheerful and gracious up until this point then I got real.
“Tomorrow? No. That won’t work because I need my phone.”
It’s possible I added “for my job,” which was a total lie, but I needed to get their attention. There was a lot of going to the back room and more employees getting involved in the conversation, then the woman who I had been working with told me there was a problem. While they were fixing my screen, it appears they broke my phone and because of that they were going to give me a new phone. Normally, this would be great news. A new phone! But the phone I brought in was new and the thought of reloading passwords and the whole Apple ID situation, gave me a nothing but dread. I suppose they were trying to make the not so good situation better and help the silver-haired lady who needed her phone for her “job,” so I took the new phone, thanked them for their help, and left, the doors being locked behind me because it was closing time.

When I got home, I realized that my phone not only would not make or receive outgoing calls, but wasn’t receiving texts either. It was no longer a phone but rather, a camera and a social media connecting device. It appeared that in their haste, there was no SIM card – E-SIM or otherwise, so phone calls were impossible (just listen to me with all that tech talk… I was educated this morning…)

Four hours was one thing without being able to text or make a phone call, but close to 24 hours was another. All of sudden I had a lot of calls to make – people to talk to, plans to make, texts to send out etc. It’s when it becomes impossible that it also becomes urgent. Spoiler alert: once my phone was fixed and back in my hands, I could have cared less about making a call.

I got to the Apple store 15 minutes before opening the next morning – 9:45 sharp because I didn’t have an appointment and wanted to be seen first. I explained the situation to the front-door greeter/decides who you need to see guy, and instead of getting the expected, “Oh no! That’s awful… we’ll totally take care of it because obviously it was our fault,” I got an, “OK, I need the account number of your wireless carrier. Like I just happen to have that on me… sheesh. Fortunately, AT&T is only a block away from the Apple store so I walked over, was the only customer and was waited on by a very kind, young, outdoorsy looking guy who took care of the whole SIM card situation and also got me going on a better plan that’s going to save me $25 a month. He told me there was a big savings if I had AARP, then stumbled around his words and said, “Well… you know… if you’re old enough and all…”. I appreciated the effort on his part and the $25 a month saving to boot.

Unfortunately, there was one more glitch that sent me back to the Apple store. The old Apple ID/password rabbit hole. I know my Apple ID and I also know my password and even I’m surprised by that, yet my phone was telling me I didn’t know it. When I walked through the door of the Apple store, several employees now familiar with me, one of the nicer guys helped get me sorted out on the Apple ID issue which really wasn’t an Apple ID issue at all, but rather, was an issue with no credit card being on file (I hadn’t gotten that far on loading my phone with credit cards etc. at that point.). But before he realized that, he asked me if I was SURE I had put the password in correctly and maybe I should try it again, you know… just in case? Followed by “are you sure that’s your password?” Do you think he says that to the 24 year-old woman who has a similar problem? I’m proud to say the problem wasn’t me not knowing my password. That gave me a real sense of pride because I know the answer they usually get when they ask anyone over 50 if they know their Apple ID password.

I remember once many years ago going to a concert at an outdoor venue with several of our friends from the neighborhood. We were all in our early 40’s and although we looked every bit of 21, you had to have an ID to get the wrist band that would allow alcohol purchases. One of the women with us didn’t happen to have her driver’s license with her and her husband told her to just show her Jones Store credit card because only old people shopped at the Jones Store. Not only was he funny, but he was right. The Jones Store was always a favorite among the moms and I don’t mean MY group of moms, I mean OUR moms. That thought came up as I was leaving Apple. We were already placing judgement on our ages in our 40’s – we had no idea what going into an Apple store that is so uber hip that there isn’t even a check out counter, would feel like 20 years later in our 60’s! Humbling comes to mind first.

I thought about my parents’ frequent trips to either T-Mobile or the Apple store and my frustrations with them when trying to help them with passwords or the ever tricky Apple ID, which is a whole other story. I feel the frustrations with them that my own kids, and the nice guy at Apple, felt with me. The learning curve on technology is getting steeper and steeper and I don’t feel like I’m in the right footwear most of the time to make the climb. Maybe if they sold Apple computers at the Jones Store (which I don’t think is in business anymore…), I’d feel more at home or more confident.

I know that when that nice guy that helped me goes home to his wife or his husband or his roommate or his little brother and one of them asks how his day was – (just typing that makes it sound unlikely but for the sake of the story, bear with me), he might talk about yet another “grandma lady” who couldn’t figure out her phone… you know, the usual stuff. My go to when I’m feeling inadequate, insecure, behind the curve or in an Apple store needing help, is to want to respond to the tech’s questions that I don’t understand, with something I do understand – like yarn overs and cables in knitting, or what plants are the best for a xeriscape garden or which nearby trails offer the best views, but it doesn’t work like that. It was like when I had to answer an essay question in one of my classes in college that I didn’t know the answer to, but instead, would write paragraphs about what I did know. I didn’t answer the question asked, but would show the professor that I had studied – just the wrong stuff. I never got credit for those efforts, although I always did get comments.

I feel like my generation is the sandwich generation when it comes to technology. My kids, rather than teach me what to do, will just ask me to hand over my phone, my iPad, my computer then will go in and out of screens, type in some stuff and voila it’s fixed. I do the same with my parents, albeit on a much simpler level. My parents, on the other hand, although they use the technology they have and text and email and even wander over to Facebook on occasion, would be just as happy to get the phone call or the printed photos in an envelope in the mail rather than on their computer. I want the technology, but don’t want to have to go in very deep on keeping up with the changes. I guess that makes me sound old – like a sales rack shopper at the Jones Store. So be it. Until my phone breaks again, or there’s a glitch on my computer or anything with buttons and lights, I don’t know what I don’t know, although I can sure type paragraphs about stuff I do know, if the need ever arises.

Mother’s Day, 2022

Due to privacy issues… this was the best I could do. This was the “pharmacy,” where a variety of hygiene products were given out.

I’ve written several Mother’s Day essays and while they are my favorite to write, as they seem to write themselves, every time I sit down to start one, I wonder if there is anything left to say because I’ve said it all. I’ve told the stories about being a mom and a grandma (or a Laudie, as I’m referred to). I’ve written about learning how to mother by the seat of my pants and the deep-seated feeling of love that is so hard to articulate, yet at the same time, the easiest of all because I’m sharing a feeling that’s so familiar. I’ve written about Covid and the restrictions it brought with it and not being able to see my own Mom for a year and a half. This year is different. The piece did not write itself. I struggled to find the right words and stopped several times because I realized there are no right words. I also had to stop to cry. This Mother’s Day piece is for, about and dedicated to a group of women who I really don’t know. I introduced myself to a handful of them, but the rest, I only acknowledged with a smile or a nod of my head because smiles are hard to see behind masks. These are the refugee mothers from the respite center in McAllen, Texas, where I recently volunteered. These are the women who continue to come to mind long after my suitcase was stuffed back into the closet and the final load of laundry was completed. These are the women, who almost 3 weeks weeks later, and often at inconvenient times, still bring tears to my eyes.

After my first morning of volunteering at the respite center, I only wrote one word in the small notebook that went with me everywhere – RESILIENCE.

Merriam-Webster defines “resilience” as:

  1. the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress
  2. an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

Reading that definition, I’m happy with the word I chose to write down. The mothers I saw, having walked with children, some with husbands, some without, from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and as far as Ecuador and Peru, all fit that definition. Their bodies – strained but determined, were able to set aside their worries and fears while putting their roles as mothers first. I never once saw a mom raise her voice or scold or spank her child, even given the very harsh and cruel circumstances they were under with patience that had to be running thin. This was a group of women, most with young children or even babies, who had journeyed unheard of distances to arrive at the border control in Texas where they were then were detained to determine admissibility into the United States. The centers are not equipped for sleeping so there’s a 12 hour limit, although that rule is no longer adhered to. Hours turn into days and families sleep on concrete floors while waiting to be processed without even a mat because it’s only supposed to be a “day center.” Because of the over-crowded conditions, flu, lice, scabies and chicken pox was easily spread through the children. Food, drink and hygiene products were inadequate, forcing babies to drink out of dirty bottles and wear soiled diapers for days at a time. Once processed, the border patrol bussed the migrants to the center where I volunteered where they stayed for a few days while they waited for their sponsors to provide transportation or money for the transportation to take them to their home where they would wait for their arraignment trail. They were checked at the door for Covid, children included, and vaccinated. I saw the evidence of bandaids on upper arms, especially on the kids, who were eager to show me with pride and stories of how much it hurt. The whole process is extremely confusing and after spending a lot of time learning about it, I’m still not sure I understand the process, but know that the people we saw came through official border crossings, were detained, then came to the respite center a few days later, possibly several. After learning about the condition of the detention centers, seeing moms picking their way through their children’s scalps in search of lice, made sense.

I couldn’t help but think back to my days of traveling with 3 young children and how exhausted I’d be when we’d finally arrive at our destination. We didn’t walk, we usually flew, and we weren’t sleeping on mats lined up on the floor in a large, gymnasium-like room with 150 to 200 others, but rather, we slept in comfy beds. My exhaustion was real but it was also short-lived. The women at the respite center’s challenges had no end in site and the challenges they had already endured were only the beginning. They walked in danger and fear, all while putting the protection of their children first. Women who had access to birth control, went on the pill before their journey north, assuming they would be raped along the way, and given that over half are, that’s a fair assumption. Most of the women who came to the supply area where we would give away toiletries, needed either medicine for stomach issues or headaches – lots of headaches – but before they asked for themselves, they asked for their babies or children, who were feverish, dehydrated or had rashes or stomach issues. These mothers didn’t get a break. It didn’t matter how they were feeling, their children came first. (The dads didn’t go unnoticed by me, but given that this is a post for Mother’s Day, my emphasis is on the mothers). How does a mom answer her child when they repeatedly ask when they get to go home? Or sleep in their bed again? Or play with their toys? How do you help your child navigate uncertainty when you have no idea yourself?

The women I spoke with couldn’t hide their sadness at leaving their country but for their safety and that of their children, they had no choice. I kept thinking about the very large sign that greeted me as I entered the Syrian refugee camp in Greece.

“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land

These women were fleeing kidnappers, rapists and murderers. They were protecting their family. They were putting one foot in front of the other and not looking beyond that point. They were doing what they had to do.

I was so happy to see the resiliency of the kids who I played with at the center. Their biggest complaint to me was the pain in their upper arm from the vaccination. It gave them a sense of solidarity with the other kids – whose arm hurt the most. Kids are kids, no matter where they come from or what language they speak. There is no language barrier, especially for the younger ones and play becomes the language. I was grateful for the return of my Spanish, however, and eyes lit up when they realized I could speak their language and at my level, likely sounded like a 3 or 4 year-old, making me even more relatable and/or funny to them. They were adaptable – entertaining themselves with a game of “Go Fish” that grew to 14 kids or building houses with half a dozen blocks from a Jenga game. They were resourceful not only because they had to be at that point, but because they are kids and that’s just what kids do. None of them had laces in their shoes, which were too big to start with, and had to stop periodically to slip their shoe back on while they ran from one place to another because they weren’t allowed to go barefoot in the center. Shoe laces were all removed, adult shoes included, at the detainment center because of the personal harm one could do with them – a rule following an incident, I’m guessing. A few adults asked us for shoelaces, but unfortunately, we didn’t have any to give so they continued to walk around in shoes that flapped with every step unless they were the lucky few who got brand new, still in the wrapper, slippers. We also weren’t able to give everyone clothing that fit because we had a limited supply of donated items to choose from. One mom who keeps coming to mind, had her jeans completely unzipped and was trying hard to pull her shirt down to cover her expanding belly that was protruding above the zipper. I’m guessing she was at least 6 months pregnant. I asked her if she would like me to try and find her some pants that fit better and she responded with an exuberant “YES,” but her kids needed clothes first. I found the kids pants and shirts that were pretty close on size but could only find a men’s medium pair of sweat pants for her. She was petite, as most were, and I apologized for the large size explaining that our stash of pants was getting thin and we were were very limited on choices. She graciously took them and thanked me with appreciation far grander than I expected for a pair of men’s size medium, gray sweat pants .

My gift to a small handful of these women was to be able to occupy their kids, allowing them to close their eyes and put mothering on the back burner, if only for a few moments. The kids were easy to connect with as they were hungry for attention and play. The moms would watch me long enough to know their child was safe then would give me a nod and a smile that was visible even behind their mask. Besides getting Tylenol or baby formula or a toothbrush or clothing for them, playing with their children was really all I could do to help them. It didn’t seem like enough in the grand scheme of things, but it was something and that was better than nothing. It was also a gesture that told them I saw them, I cared for them and I wanted them to feel welcome. I think that mattered more than anything else.

I used to say I’d step in front of a moving train to protect my children and any mom I know has likely said the same at some point, knowing that the scenario would be highly unlikely. Instead, it served more as a metaphor for the distances moms go for their children and the profound love they have for them. These mothers’ acts of bravery and heroism was just about as close to stepping in front of a moving train as I’ve ever witnessed.

Mother’s Day, or Dia de las Madres, in the three Central American triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, is celebrated on May 10th. To these women of strength and resiliency who I’m both awed and haunted by, I’m hoping on Tuesday, May 10th, someone will honor you, compliment you, hug you or watch you kids for a moment. And although you won’t be able to read the words I’ve shared about you as it’s highly unlikely you’d come across them nor are they written in your native tongue, writing them felt important to me. So much of your faces were covered by a mask, but your eyes and your hugs of gratitude said it all. Your strength, your convictions, your resiliency and your patience in the most difficult of situations, will not be forgotten. You were my reset and reminder to stop and recognize what I have, even on the most difficult days and that even after having the curtain pulled back on this reality in our country, it is only the tip of the iceberg and in reality, I still have no idea.

“Hope has two daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
― Augustine of Hippo

The anger feels easier, but anger without the courage to act isn’t enough. Both are necessary. What I saw in these women was courage, but no doubt it was the anger that fueled their journey.

To my own mom, it was through your example that I learned the importance of doing what I can to help others. I was inspired by the volunteer work you did in the schools during your and Dad’s winter months in Texas – so close to where I was.

To the ones in my family who I have the honor of calling you my son-in-law or daughter in-laws, I’m grateful every day that my kids chose you. You belong – like you’ve been in our family forever.

And to my the kids who I birthed and the 3 grandkids you birthed for me – you are my heart, my soul, and the best thing that ever happened to me.

And finally, to all the moms who happen to be reading this, Happy Mother’s Day. I hope you are celebrated well today.

Wrap up – McAllen, TX trip

Wrapping up. Reader alert – this is one of my longer posts as I struggled with editing. It all seemed too important to leave out.

Much of this trip was written about in quick paragraphs on Facebook because I didn’t have my computer with me so was operating off my phone. I hate typing on my phone. Right now I’m in re-entry mode, and even though I didn’t even leave the country, this re-entry seems as significant as when I came back from Ghana or Morocco or Greece, less the jet lag. It was an emotional, educational, frustrating, heart-filled week that I was fortunate to be able to spend with 10 other people who I feel blessed to call my friends now. The shared experiences and emotions made for quick bonds and goodbyes were tearful, sad and stretched out to the airport gates in Dallas, where 5 of us parted for other parts of the country. The five of us with early departures decided that it made more sense to sleep at a hotel near the airport so said our goodbyes the night before. It was nice getting to tuck into comfy beds after showers that had continual hot water and good pressure and being able to flush toilet paper and not dispose of it in the bin by the toilet. That being said, our accommodations in the “dorm” were comfortable and cozy and I think we all adapted quickly as we were familiar with the accommodations from previous volunteer trips. There was an option to stay in a nearby motel, and I had signed up for that option, thinking I’d have more alone time for writing, but when I saw the dorms with the large open living room/kitchen with sleeping rooms on either side of it that housed lines of sturdy bunkbeds, I asked if I could move out of the hotel and into the dorm. It felt familiar – no frills on the lodging, just beds and showers with weak water pressure and iffy hot water. Carolyn, Barbara (our leader) and I were in one bunk room and Sandy and his wife Gail in the other. The remaining 6 were at a the motel, 15 minutes away.

Home sweet home – the “dormitory”
Our transportation

When I think about the past week, it is the faces that come to mind – the worried faces of the parents with the sick baby who Carolyn and I tried to figure out Tylenol dosages for because she was under two and dosing at that age was “ask a doctor.” I think of the woman holding the word search book we had found for her, anxious to get started on her “learning English” or the kids who were so adept at entertaining themselves with a stack of cards or the blocks of a jenga set that became building materials for houses and roads. I think about women in sweat pants rolled down several turns at the waist so they’d fit and over-sized tee shirts because those were the only sizes we could find for them but they didn’t seem to mind. They were just happy to have a new set of clean clothes. I thought about the woman with the zipper of her jeans pulled all the way down to accommodate her expanding pregnant belly and I hoped that someone would find her some of the desperately needed, over-sized sweats. I think about the moms seated in a cluster of folding chairs near other moms, trying to stay awake while watching their kids, in-between brief moments of closing their eyes. Sleep couldn’t have come easily after the mats were rolled out at night in a room the size of a gymnasium (on the days we were there, I’d estimate there were 150 to 300 people, the busiest day being our last). How do you keep your toddler on the mat next to you? How do you keep your baby from crying when they hear the cries of other babies? How do you answer the questions your children continually asked of “when do we get to go home?” How do you try not to look worried, afraid or anxious in front of your children who are counting on you for everything? I think about the beautiful 9 year old girl with long brown pigtails from Guatemala who was going to Atlanta with her mom, younger sister and older brother, to be with their dad who was already there. She told me she wanted to be a police officer because she wanted to help others. She was smart. She helped her mom who couldn’t read and helped translate for her.

Sorting out necessities…
More necessities
The “farmacia” where one could get toothpaste, deodorant, Tylenol, diapers, shave cream and all things in-between
Kids coming up with their own versions of “Ve Pez”… (Go fish)

Although we had several educational sessions during the course of our stay, it’s an extremely complicated issue and I realized how much I don’t know or understand. Ann Cass, the director of Projecto Azteca, helped educated us on the complicated border issues as well as the needs of underserved areas of Hidalgo County, where 33% are living in poverty. What we learned was difficult and eye-opening and I had to continually remind myself that I was in the United States, and not a developing country. Even with explanations in my native tongue, I’m still not sure I totally understand the process that the refugees we met had gone through and the steps that were still ahead of them. How were they able to process and understand the enormity of it all when English wasn’t even their first language? What I do know is that the people we volunteered with all came through legal check points – they did not swim across the Rio Grande that separates parts of the United States from Mexico, nor did they climb over or dig under the large imposing wall. They came legally and all had sponsors who had agreed to house them temporarily as well as provide financial aid to pay for their journey to locations all over the country. They had traveled very long distances, mostly from the Northern Triangle of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. I met one family who had made the journey from Peru, and heard about families from Cuba and different parts of Africa. I only met one family traveling from Mexico.

I was reunited with Dee Dee and Mimi, who I met while volunteering in Morocco. It was a very special reunion for the 3 of us and I have no doubt there will be many more. Dee Dee reminded us that although they had traveled for weeks or even months, the people we were helping had only just begun their journey and still had a very rough road ahead. The factors are complicated and I know the words “immigration” and “refugees” and “border control” are political hot buttons, making the issues even more inflammatory. Immigration reform is necessary and long overdue but my focus this past week was on the humanitarian leg of the situation – the people and their struggles, the children and their fears, the parents and their remarkable resilience – helping with the most basic of needs while trying to restore human dignity to this group of people.

Dee Dee and Mimi – making work fun… always…

Midway into the week, I got a text from my daughter with a photo of her almost 5 year old son, at a restaurant sitting behind a glass of orange juice bigger than his head. Given the many children I had played with earlier that day, many my grandson’s age, the photo gave me pause. My grandson is on spring break with his parents and two year old sister. He’s almost 5. He won’t have to worry about where he’s going to sleep when he gets home or if he’ll have a home to go to. He doesn’t have to worry if kids will understand him at school because he speaks a different language. He doesn’t have to worry if his parents will even be able to find a school for him to attend. I looked at that photo, like so many she texts to me, but the timelines of it held so much weight. “Hug your kids, I responded…then hug them some more and be grateful for the name of the country that’s written on the front of your passport.” She understands because she’s volunteered in Peru with me. The big poster on the wall in the Syrian/Afghan refugee camp where I volunteered, kept coming to mind:

“No one puts their children in an unsafe boat in dangerous waters unless the water is safer than the land.”

And to that I’d add my own words,

“No one walks with their children through dangerous countries, with only the clothes on their back, and not knowing what they will be waling into, unless the place they are leaving has become too dangerous to stay.”

Our group also volunteered with Projecto Azteca – a non-profit self help construction company that serves the underserved populations of Hidalgo County. It was though this organization that Ann Cass was the director of, that gave some of us the job of painting the house of the elderly couple in Mercedes, TX, a half hour away from where we were staying. This is an organization that focuses on the colonias – the unincorporated and rural areas of the county. The families in need put their own sweat equity into the homes built. Because this couple was elderly and the wife somewhat immobile, we were able to provide the “sweat equity” hours for them. It was hard work in hot weather on rickety ladders with a lot of trash and dogs to work around, but I’m proud of the work our team of 5 accomplished. We didn’t completely finish the painting but were about 85% done when we ran out of time. We skipped the 105 degree day due to safety issues. Sore neck and shoulders aside, and still picking random splatters of paint off of my arms and hands, I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. It was such a good, supportive group – holding ladders for each other becoming just as important as the laughter we shared to get us through the job. We all gained just a little more respect for soffits, joints that need caulk and the difficulty of painting a light color over bright blue paint.

The beginning of making a blue house gray…

On our last afternoon, we drove around in search of a section of the wall that we could get close enough to touch. It was an odd request that we gave our director, but one that felt very important to all of us. Although we had all seen photos of the wall, that wasn’t enough. Standing by such an imposing and daunting man-made structure was emotional on so many different levels. We saw where the wall ended in one spot, butting up to a 3 foot chain link fence, obviously the spot to cross if one was making an illegal crossing into the US. We also saw ladders. The ones who chose to cross in that manner would likely be picked up in the towns that were close to the wall. There was a new housing development next to one of the portions of the wall we drove by, their view being of the wall itself. The development was called “Esperanza” or “Hope” in English. The irony was striking. Being able to see the iron structure that separated “us” from “them” felt like a necessary part of all of our journey and was timely to see on our last afternoon after having learned more about policy and procedure. Now we had faces and personal stories to accompany it.

Looking at Mexico on the other side of the Rio Grande
Fence transition to low chain link fence…

While waiting at the airport in McAllen for our flight to Dallas, I saw a mom and her three boys, who looked to be in the age range of 4, 6 and 8. The boys were all holding hands and looked both tired (it was 6:30 am) and nervous. The mom was making her way over to a small coffee stand for snacks with all 3 in tow. I saw her purple plastic envelope with the papers that all the adults at the respite center had. I noticed it because on one side of the stack of papers inside the translucent envelope, was a sign that in big letters said, “ I DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH….” followed by a few other sentences that I was never close enough to read. The boys had bright yellow blankets that I had also seen at the respite center. When they made their way back to their chairs with their snacks, I went over to her and told her I had been volunteering at the respite center the past few days. I asked her the same questions I had asked so many – Where are you from? Where are you going? When did you arrive? And in Spanish she told me she was from Ecuador and was going to Brooklyn, where she had family. She and her boys had been at the respite center for 4 days. I wished her buena suerte and with those words, she reached up and hugged me. This is why I do this work. I get far more out of it than I ever can give.

Out of our group of 11, 5 came down with a bug, one necessitating a trip to the hospital emergency room where I sat with her in the small, curtained off room in the ER while she received fluids through an IV. It was early in the morning, and I had only had a couple of house of sleep because we had spent part of the evening earlier at a quick care clinic. When it was decided that she needed more than what the quick care clinic could provide, we left in the early morning hours to go to the ER. In my haste, I had thrown on a sweater over my pajamas and grabbed my shoes and backpack. Only in the light of day, as we were leaving the hospital, did I realize how ridiculous I looked and taking the extra 2 minutes to change into clothes would have been a good idea. We also had one of our team break her ankle when she fell into a small hole in the parking area where the van was parked. This same person had a tooth extracted on day 2. There was so much concern and support offered to those with stomach issues, sore throats or learning how to maneuver crutches. The genuine love and concern this group of people showed one another tugged at my heart more than any other volunteer trip I’ve been on. I miss them, every one of them, already. This morning I woke up with a slight fever and sore throat, catching whatever it was that was going around (fortunately, not Covid). It was impactful work we were doing and I know that plays as much of a part in our physical well being as the emotional.

Now that I’ve returned to the comforts of home, is when the real work begins. Education about immigration needs to continue and stories that have faces attached to them, need to be told. My hope is that my words will be read with the emphasis on the humanitarian side of this and not the political side. They are difficult problems and we need to be realistic, but the importance of not losing site of the individuals who make up the numbers, is essential. The fact that today is Easter, a day of transformation and promise, whether recognized through a religious platform or not, has not gone un-noticed by me. It was a short week with long days and was nothing short of incredible. It will take time for me to absorb the enormity of it while determining how I can make productive use of the emotions I’m feeling now.

Thank you to Global Volunteers and our incredible leader, Barbara, for bringing all of this into my life.

Early morning airport goodbyes to these incredible women.
Finding the hope.