Ireland: An Excerpt

Today I will tell you of my Irish summer. Of hills as green as forever and old men who smile with their songs and sing with their eyes. I’ve always dreamt of roaming the Irish countryside and reading James Joyce over pints of Guinness. Or dancing a reel with a freckled boy in a tweed hat. And even though I only made it to page 100 in Portrait of an Artist, and my neck muscles twitch when I sip Guinness, and even though Phil is blond and palefaced and refuses to dance in public, even though all those things, it was still just like my dreams.
We landed in Dublin (me, Phil and our friend Tiffani), hopped in our shiny rental car and drove north, feeling very grown up and amazed at the smooth roads. Our first stop was the Hill of Tara, where people have been coming for a million years to be spiritual and communal, but where we were mostly wet (it was raining) and intimidated by the bullying sheep (they were everywhere). It really did feel like we were in some Irish infomercial, what with all that soupy green rolling for miles and woolly sheep loping casually past the bathrooms. It’s amazing, really, how much Ireland lives up to its stereotypes.
And then that night, our first evening in Ireland, we stumbled into one of those moments that make you re-adjust your vision of heaven just to make room for it. We sat in the corner of a little local pub and watched with wonder as one by one, old men with mysterious black cases under their arms came through the door. They called out greetings to the bartender, who was pouring their Guinness before the door had even swung shut, and they gathered at the table right beside us, the lucky voyeurs of a secret gathering.
Finally, eyes twinkling, grinning conspiratorially, they opened all those black cases, pulled out fiddles and accordions and Irish drums, and started playing. There were six or seven of them by now and a large wobbly woman who sat in their circle and encouraged them with her smiles. They sang and they laughed and they drank gallons of Guinness, just like they’d been doing every night for fifty years and probably their fathers before them. They flirted with us from behind their guitars and white whiskers, and the old drunk man in the red sweater kept trying to buy Tiffani drinks. I’ve never felt so lucky…

poet

she wrote the wind
in shaky orange wax crayon
invisible rivers
tickling gold green leaves
became backwards letters
jumbled syntax
a swirling circuitous
poetry of wind

Space

The men in the corner drink espresso
and speak Hindi. Lilting, melodic, it
is the sound of Delhi and rickshaws.
I close my eyes and am in a
street side dhaba, dingy, thick
with the smell of curry.
But then my cappuccino
arrives and two Kenyan women, big hips,
big purses, walk by, complaining of how
men suck up so much space
and I am back in this FrenchAfricanAsian
café where cultures blur and jazz music
floats above the bougainvillea.

A Gathering of Birds: Memory of Last Rainy Season

This morning Phil made coffee before work. We sat on the porch and watched the rain fall from a grey sky. A termite floated bravely up from the ground, hovered in the middle of the air, tried to resist the press of water on its wispy wings. A weaver bird, yellow and blurry in the rain, darted from the potato tree, plucked the termite from the sky and turned, mid-flight, leaving two lonely wings to spin back towards the ground. A moment later another termite appeared, up, up, rising like a tiny Icarus, and before it could even reach above the hedge line another bird swooped from grey and swallowed it midflight. And then while we were still stunned and curious, a great population of birds, yellow, red, grey, black, appeared from the trees and leaves and raindrops themselves, diving and darting around the yard in a frenzy of feasting. We called the girls to the porch and they stood as near to the veil of rain as they dared, still pajama-clad and rumpled from sleeping. We watched the dizzying show, wondered how the birds missed each other, how they knew so quickly termites were here, how they established order in the rain. Ten, twenty, soon there were more than a hundred flapping, swooping, chattering birds, gathered in our yard for a grand convention. We witnessed it with gratitude, couldn’t help making sound effects every time another termite was snapped in those tiny beaks, felt pity for the little bugs whose gasp at glory was so brief, but cheered for the satisfaction of tiny red birds with long tail feathers, swimming in their rainy breakfast.

Later after Phil left, the girls and I stayed on the porch, wrapped ourselves in Masai blankets and read The Princess and the Goblin. J lay her head on my lap, worried about witches, curled her thin legs under blankets. M leaned against my shoulder and tried to resist the temptation to read ahead, already predicting and sorting all the possibilities of story. P climbed on the table, tipped back empty coffee cups to feel the last cool drips on her tongue, interrupted a hundred times, ‘Excuse me Mommy.’
Princesses, goblins, termites, weaver birds, raindrops on purple flowering trees and the distant call of an eagle that sounds, to J, like Naivasha. Enchantment runs in rivulets down our days.

Staying Inside: A Prairie Mother’s Lament

I’ve always considered myself a prairie girl. One of those strong romantic types shaped by a childhood spent climbing bales on my dad’s chicken farm and tying sleds to snowmobiles. So I assumed that, like my parents before me, I would pass on a love of prairie life to my daughters, if not in my stories of homemade ice rinks and autumn afternoons on the combine, then in my genes. The problem, I’m discovering with some disconcertment this November, is that fondness for the Manitoba prairie and its legendary winters isn’t a genetic predisposition after all.
I suppose I should have seen it coming when my husband and I moved to Kenya seven years ago. Our girls were born in Nairobi, where they spent their preschool years in bare feet, watching monkeys swing above the sandbox. But surely, beneath their tanned skin and Kenyan accents, they were prairie girls, just like me.
When we decided to spend a year in Manitoba, I imagined the girls’ excitement at finally experiencing winter. They eyed me with suspicion as I described hand-knit mittens and the fleeting satisfaction of snowflakes on the tongue. But it wasn’t until mid-October that I realized what I was up against. I found M., my five year old, on the couch in her touque and scarf, whimpering, “It’s just so cold and I can’t get warm.” It was fourteen degrees and sunny.
We needed snow. I knew the magic of an untouched yard of sparkling white would banish all complaints about the cold. This is the stuff of childhood, after all- the fresh air in the lungs and the frost on parka zippers that makes us children of the prairies. The problem with my visions of winter wonder, however, is that my girls are children of the equator, which I finally admitted on that morning of the long-awaited snowfall.
I called the girls to the window as soon as they awoke and watched for their exuberant reaction. It never came. Instead they stared with perplexity and horror at the blanket of white that had disguised the neighbourhood.
Then J., three years old and usually bursting with exuberance, announced in a solemn voice, “I’m not going outside today.”
“Me neither,” M. agreed. “I’m staying inside all day.”
And so it hit me. Inherent enthusiasm for snow fights and skating doesn’t transfer across time zones or through the breast milk. A prairie mother does not a prairie child make. So we spent our first Canadian snow day hunkered down inside, reading Angelina Ballerina. I tried all day to beguile the girls with promises of fun and hilarity waiting in the backyard. But it’s hard to wrestle a five year old into snow pants and even harder to herd stubborn tropical-bred children out into a cold that they’ve determined to be hostile. So snowmen and sledding will have to wait. Maybe this winter we’ll skip straight to the hot chocolate.

Red Dirt Mothering

A dusty girl is carrying a red bucket past my window. She’s going on a journey, by rowboat, I think, to visit her cousins in Canada. It’s across the ocean, but not to worry- she’s an expert sandbox sailor. Her little sister sleeps inside, a dishevelled wisp of a thing, dreaming of baby dolls and puppies, no doubt. These are my ragamuffin angels, growing up under acacia trees and ibises, learning about life in the surreal bubble of a missionary compound on the edge of Nairobi. And I am their mother. Their adoring, exhausted, bumbling, struggling and much of the time, laughing mother. At the moment that’s my main identity. In my other life I was a high school English teacher, but for now and the foreseeable future, I’m just mothering. Well, and wife-ing, and occasionally writing, and drinking lattes whenever possible. But mothering seems to take up the vast majority of my time and thoughts and energy. More energy than I have much of the time, actually. A lot more energy than teaching high school did, as ludicrous as that would’ve sounded to teacher-me.
But there is a beauty to the exhaustion. A significance to the sandbox moments. A holiness to all this red dirt that stains little feet and my white sheets and the cracks in my heart. This is my journey in red dirt mothering.

The inbetween place

My little one of the inbetween places, this is your African home. The jumbled colourful city where you were born and the red dirt where you took your first steps. The ibises you watched as a baby under acacia trees, the termite wings you clenched in tiny fingers. You are a child of the Great Rift Valley, of hikes up volcanoes and snacktime amidst the zebras. These are the colours, the faces, the rains, and the smells of your Kenyan childhood, seeping into your soul, sparkling in your eyes.
But you are also a child of a land far away. Of prairies covered in snow and a sky as blue as forever. You come from a people who are rugged and strong, from farmers clearing frozen land and Grandmas stirring pots of borscht. Your blood runs like the rivers of the north, the crystal lakes of my childhood and the endless yellow fields of childhoods before me.
You are a child of here and of there. Of north and of south. Of today’s Kenyan sun and yesterday’s Canadian moon. The earth and the years have conspired to create for you this moment. This space for you to dance and breathe, to put down roots and to sail in the wind, my little one of this beautiful inbetween place.

Mothering as Me: My Battle With Blog Envy

I love parenting blogs. Blogs about moms who home school and only use wooden toys and spend their evenings working on family knitting projects around the fire. And the ones by artsy moms who give their kids access to every possible art supply and have funky paint-splattered studios where their children make monumental messes while creating four feet sculptures from recycled treasures. I love reading about families who integrate spirituality into their daily rhythms and have gratitude cards wrapped in raffia on their dining room table… beside the Gathering Candle…and the freshly baked multigrain bread. Or the ones who create enchanted outdoor play spaces for their children, lined with baskets of wood chips and pinecones, where their children craft fairy houses and wear gauzy white dresses. Or who are living on a local whole-food-only diet. Or instill a life-long passion for writing in their children by plastering words everywhere on quaint chalkboards and giant whiteboard walls and have writing nooks in every room.
And not only do I enjoy reading about their days, I love the photos. All those artistic close-up shots of jam jars and baby toes and aerial views of a table of three year olds finger painting, taken with a top-of-the-line SLR camera, no doubt, or a really cool vintage film camera. Or sketched by the mom on a piece of handmade paper while holding a baby on her hip and revising her new book being published this summer.
It’s just all so inspiring and lovely that I spend hours perusing the blogs, jumping from one to the other like an addict, jotting down recipes and craft ideas and new life philosophies. You would think that after all that inspiration I’d be, well, inspired. And a little more of an artsy/peaceful/healthy/ active/organized/spiritual mom, at the very least. But the truth is that one evening of idealistic family-life voyeurism sends me into a tailspin of self-loathing, and when I finally break away from the computer screen, I head straight into the kitchen to eat frozen cookie dough out of a toxic plastic container and lament my failures as a mother.
I’m not trying to disparage all those amazing blogging moms. I’m sure their lives really are just that wonderful-though hopefully not quite all the time- and that their children are benefiting in countless ways from the magical childhood they’re creating. I’m just not one of them.
God knows I try. Just recently I ordered a pile of beautiful wooden toys from Germany for my four month old daughter, determined that this time around, my baby wouldn’t suck on cheap BPA-infused plastic. She humoured me by glancing at them and even holding them for a while when I dangled them in her face. But it didn’t take long for me to wash off the ratty hand-me-down plastic rattle that her older sisters have been chewing on for years, because it’s just so much more satisfying to suck on than those clunky non-toxic wooden balls.
I have a candle on my dining room table, but I only remember to light it once a month or so, and it usually causes an argument about who gets to blow it out and someone keeps sticking toast crusts through the holes in the candle holder. There’s our enchanted outdoor playspace, which is an old plastic table on the lawn, littered with yoghurt containers and fast food spoons. I haven’t quite managed to whip up those gauzy dresses yet, so my daughters are still wearing their cheap sweatshop-produced t-shirts. Occasionally, I try to take artistic photos of the girls engrossed in their play dough but the lighting is always grainy, and against all my better judgment, I just can’t help but commanding that they turn and smile, ruining the magical moment every time. And newly inspired by a healthy, happy, yuppie family blog, I recently even made a commitment to serve only whole foods to my family. Unfortunately I hadn’t yet gone grocery shopping for the week. My husband called to say he’d be home for lunch but it needed to be quick, and within four measly hours of my noble commitment, I was boiling a pot of macaroni and cheese. (And it wasn’t the organic kind).
On and on it goes. I have so many noble ideals and keep gathering more and more ideas but somehow they never fully translate into my reality. I could use the excuse that I have three girls under the age of five, but half the blogging moms I read have five children, with twins on the way, and home school the oldest two. The truth is even when I had just two- okay, even when I didn’t have any children at all- I wasn’t knitting by the fire or baking my own bread or tending an organic garden. So why in the world do I think that if I just read a few more blogs and jot down a few more ideas I’ll suddenly be one of those moms? And not just one of them- I want to be all of them, if I’m honest. Which is exactly the problem: I want to be someone- a mom, a woman, a person- that I’m not. And when I admit that to myself I realize just how ridiculous and harmful all my blog envy is. Because even more than being artistic, healthy, earthy, organized, or inspiring, I want to be authentic. I want to be a great mom, but I want to do it as me, with all my strengths and foibles and macaroni and cheese lunches.
Which is why the other night, after a particularly deflating round of blog posts, I turned off the computer and sat down with a good old-fashioned pen and blank piece of paper (store bought, you can be assured). I drew a big lopsided circle in the middle and labelled it Parenting. Then I wrote down my main parenting values- the things I really do care about and want for my children. The list wasn’t overly profound- lots of unstructured play, exposure to music, a culture of empathy. I included creativity and time outdoors, but envisioned it on a realistic scale: a basket of accessible washable markers, lots of masking tape, our outdoor plastic table. I listed prayers and silence, lots of reading, and high, consistent expectations. That’s it. That was my list. And as I wrote, I finally felt inspired. Not by someone else’s version of mothering, but by my own. It’s not that I don’t want to grow as mother or that my list won’t change in a few months. I still sit down at the computer looking for a new breakfast cookie recipe or art idea involving toilet paper rolls. However, I refuse to get sucked into the demoralizing cycle of trying to imitate someone else’s blog life. I’d rather spend that time actually mothering. As me.

There’s a little blond boy crying at the bottom of the slide. Red lip out, chubby cheeks blotchy. Hair shimmering like a screaming cherub, trapped on the vinyl mat when really all he wants to do is fly. And his mother, tired, solid, pregnant belly under a fuchsia dress, breathes deeply and tries to find the inspiration for this moment. The insight that will keep her sane and poised instead of screaming and blotchy like the creature beside her. Because mothers long to be holy, sacred, strong. But the constant tugging on the mind and the skirt hem and the conversation, always with grubby, prying fingers, is enough to crumble the best of intentions. There’s only so much a guru can take. Which is why of course most gurus escape to the ashram and impose strict rules on the fingers around them- no tugging, no hitting, no talking most of the time. And they are proud of their enlightenment. But I say, who wouldn’t be enlightened under those circumstances? Anyone can achieve equanimity when their world is still and lovely and filled with rhythmic chanting and Indian breezes. Show me the spiritual master who is cooking supper and nursing and changing diapers and listening to the screaming of a two year old with a fever. That is the guru I want to follow, the kind of enlightenment I could respect and relate to. I’ll leave the ashram version to the faint of heart.

Phil refuses to play Red Light Green Light but is convinced by What Time is it Mr. Wolf. The girls run barefoot in the grass, squeal with terror when he turns to chase them. He grabs P and throws her over his shoulder, she can’t breathe through the laughter.

Phil, P and I press our noses to the glass sides of the school pond, see a small spotted turtle float near the surface, poke its nose out of the water. Its body is covered with stripes, dots, a splash of orange along its cheek. Two crayfish snap at each other along the tile floor.

M and J work on two ends of their rainbow loom, comparing careful patterns. I read aloud to them while they weave bracelets for friends, sisters.

M and J are invited to a Narnia party. They dress as Susan and Lucy, matching plaid skirts, knee socks, hair in pigtails. M straps a bow and arrow across her chest and rolls a piece of brown construction paper into a horn. J borrows a plastic sword from the neighbours and ties a small brown bottle of anise extract to her belt. Phil makes a label for it, juice of the fire flowers. They hold hands and run down the driveway. P and I wave goodbye, then drive to the ice cream shop. She orders blueberry and pistachio, adds mini marshmallows. We sit in oversized red chairs, take pictures of each other, trade bites of ice cream.

Our family is in charge of the Family Service at our church. We procrastinate our planning, print out papers late the night before, practice songs for the first time that morning. M stands up front to lead the liturgy, a priestess in khaki shorts, bare feet. Phil and I play guitar and piano, the girls stand in front and belt out Jesus Loves Me. J starts giggling when it’s her turn to start Old Turtle, looks at me with panic, but takes a breath and reads with a voice that rings through the chapel. Later Sam and Melody kneel on orange pillows while the children take handfuls of jacaranda and bougainvillea petals that the girls collected in straw baskets, and drop them on their heads, a downpour of colour. Sam sobs. My voice breaks as I speak words of old blessings.

After church we eat Ethiopian food with our fingers. The shiro stains our fingers orange.

We sit outside with friends as the light fades to dark. In the living room I see M hard at work, writing, drawing. Later I read her story about a girl who “lives in Gloom because her parents are more boring than a lump on a log.” The other kids play Playmobil, disagree, come running for hugs and mediation, build small worlds.

I tell the girls to stay in bed and not interrupt us because we’re watching an important lecture. M comes silently, quickly, drops a note in my lap and scurries back down the hall. She has written it on behalf of J. On the outside it says “Subject: Picture Books.” She is requesting I bring some books for J to read. The note is funny, articulate. I gather my favourite books: Big Momma and Lila and the Rain, place them in J’s warm hands, kiss the girls one more time.

P comes out of the bedroom, tugs on my shirt, and whispers in my ear “I don’t want Sam and Melody to leave.” I hug her for a long time, tears dripping down both our cheeks. After I tuck her back into bed, I can still hear her whimpering down the hall.

J tells me that she is writing an adventure story about her and her sisters going to the Arctic. She giggles and catches her breath with the excitement of it all, announces that no grown ups are allowed to come, but she’ll let me read about it.

P and I walk the prayer labyrinth. She presses her palms together at her heart, walks with her eyes half closed. We meet at the centre and make patterns out of flower petals, sticks, curled leaves. We take pictures with my phone and walk back barefoot along the stone path. It is the holiest of spaces.

There are six bronze mannekins in the clay bowl that holds millet seeds. They are small, chattery. Their feathers make perfect designs brown, white, black. They peck at the millet hiding beneath sea shells, fly away at the same moment, return a few seconds later. A bright yellow weaver bird lands on the banana leaf above their heads, then swoops through the valley. I hope that weaving season has begun.