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Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

This summer, I took the first real vacation I’ve had since I was 17.  No work, no school, no children for three weeks.  More than three weeks.  26 DAYS!  So I had some time for reflection.  I don’t think I actually did any.  I just had fun.  And it’s all because of Zen.

My first night away from home was not so far away.  My airline, ANA, put me up in the Narita EXCEL Tokyu for a 24-hour layover.  I decided to find real sushi.  I took the shuttle from the hotel to downtown Narita, got off and wandered down the streets and alleyways until I found a place that sold sushi.  It wasn’t as easy as I expected it to be, but I was pleasantly surprised with what I found.  First of all, the variety of sushi was amazing.  I had queen crab and anemone and scallops and tuna and eel, and stuff I can’t name.  I also got a lesson in how to eat it.  It’s the original Japanese fast food, my sushi man, Daisuke, told me.  You eat it with your hands.  In the old days, the dock workers would have a roll in their pouch for lunch, and just pluck it out with their hands to eat it.  Shashimi is eaten with “hashi,” or “chopsticks” for those with no real sushi experience.  The queen crab took two hands.  I had to pull the claw shell away from my mouth as I bit into it, to pull the meat off the ligaments.  Yummy!

You don’t know what you’re missing `till you’ve had the real thing!

While I was sitting at the sushi bar two flight attendants from Singapore Airlines came in.  They saw I was taking notes and asked me what I was writing.

“I don’t know,” I told them, and explained why I was there – no kids, first vacation, etc.

“You know what you should do?” the man said to me.  “You should turn off the role of being a mom, and just be a real woman.”

I over-looked the implication that moms aren’t real women, and took the advice for what it was intended to be: encouragement to be myself and have my kind of fun.  At the moment, the alarm on my iTouch went off.  It was 8:30.  Bedtime for my kids.  The cricket alarm lets them know it’s pajama-time.  I pulled it out of my purse, stopped the alarm, and turned it off completely.

“There,” I said to the pair.  “Mom-mode is switched off.”  I took a breath and felt it.  It really was gone.  There was no guilt.  My children were safe and happy, though of course we missed each other.  I felt freer than I have in decades.

When I asked the pair their names, I nearly spit my green tea out through my nose.  “Josephine,” said the woman.  And the man?  Yes.  His name was really Zen.  Incidentally, I spent the next day wandering around the nearby Buddhist Temple.

Next stop was New Mexico, where I hung out mostly with my mom, as my dad went to Puerto Rico for his older brother’s wedding.  We looked at old photo albums of my mothers, and I was amazed by her adventurous road trips to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.  We watched a very cool detective show called Murdoch Mysteries , from Canada. (I know!  How could it be? But it’s true.  It’s very cool. Check it out on Netflix.) And then my mom shocked me and said she wished she could come with me on my camping trip to the Grand Canyon.  “Alright,” I said.  And it was the best idea in the world!  I got to spend time alone on the South Rim, hiking, painting, writing, zoning out and chumming with the Chinese tourists in Mandarin, while she hung out in the easy places to get to.  We slept (well, I slept, and she fretted about bothering me) in a tent in Mather Camp Ground for two nights.  The third night, she sprung for a hotel room, and convinced me, after some arm-twisting, that I should join her.  (The arm-twisting worked when she said the word, “Shower.”)  We ate fantastic camp food like pancakes and bacon, hot dogs and s’mores, and other stuff we avoid all year.  We enjoyed our handsome Dutch pianist neighbor and his family.  His wife didn’t want him hurting his hands, so his teenaged sons split the campfire wood for us.  My mom was great company, and I’m so glad she came along.

A few words about the Canyon.  That’s all I can write, because after four days of being at its edge, and dipping myself into it a few meters, I realize the impossibility of saying anything at all that could capture it.  I could write reams about its geology, the history and diversity of its inhabitants, the variety of its visitors and the funny things they say, (One girl said, “Everybody’s trying to get some place.  We’re already there.”)  I could spend years trying to master the painting technique that would match the colors of the sky,  the layers of rock,  the green that dusts and clumps and clings to its walls, the shadows cast by clouds, or the dizzyingly spectacular sunsets.  But none of it would suffice.  One day, I will be an artist-in-residence there just so I can exercise some of that futility for five weeks.

No words or image will suffice.

After a few more days visiting family, I was off to San Francisco to help my step-daughter with her wedding.  She had planned it from Munich, where she lived, together with her fiance, who lived in Manchester.  They met in San Francisco, and bringing people together from all over the world for a wedding was easiest there.  We had four days to pull everything together for two weddings (both a Catholic and a Baha’i ceremony) plus a reception, in what I am convinced is one of the most beautiful places in the United States.  I had never been to Northern California before.  I had no idea the bragging I’d heard wasn’t an exaggeration.  And I was still on “Get out of Mommy-hood free” card.  I had so much fun looping tulle, baking cupcakes (the bride wanted six varieties for the wedding cake she was baking, so who was I to complain?), and running around trying to keep the girl sane.  On Friday, those of us present conspired to kick her out of the house, and sack her from her wedding planner position to remind her that she was the bride.

The next day was perfect.  The Catholic ceremony was held at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, where we ate fabulous almond croissants from La Boulange in the bride’s room 10 minutes before the ceremony started.  All I can say is, “Yum.”  Wow, those were good!  Plus, the wedding was beautiful, and sweet and funny. (I’ll go to my grave with the bride’s slip-of-tongue during the vows!)

Then we all trekked out to Alamo, across the Bay Bridge, up through the tunnel above the fog, and into the paradise venue that is Oak Hill Farm.    The owner, Roberta Morris, doesn’t have a website, so I can’t share a link. But I have to show some pictures.

This place had beautiful rooms for guests to stay overnight, a large pool house and pool, plenty of everything a large party needs (linens, utensils, a kitchen, a pool table and Foosball table, a bar, extra chairs and tables, etc.), and the fantastic warmth and genuine hospitality that Roberta offers.   I have to give her a plug because I don’t think people in the Bay Area know they have such a treasure of a venue available, and Roberta deserves all the recognition she can get.

The site for the Baha’i ceremony was the lawn next to pool. The deck overlooks this area as well.

Beautiful deck for dancing

Though the groom was admirable in his attempt at the couple’s first dance, my favorite was the Daddy-Daughter dance.  My honey twirled his girl around the dance floor with grace and flair.  They both look great, and the deck was perfect for dancing.

The Pool House patio had enough area for seating  about 50.  Another 20 guests were seated at the pool-side tables.

The pool. For swimming. And looking pretty next to.

The pool was gorgeous.  Some folks swam in the late afternoon.

And just because I can’t help but show off, I’ll show the Italian cream cake the bride made two days before the wedding, plus the carrot, red velvet, lemon, chocolate, and chocolate-hazelnut cupcakes we baked, and friends frosted the day before the wedding.  The Italian cream was beautifully decorated by the groom’s mother, who carted the makings all the way from Britain, and almost had them confiscated twice by airport security.

Soooo yummy!

I’m happy to report that the Mommy-switch works just fine.  I was able to be in full mommy-mode each morning when I Skyped with my little doodle-bugs, and slid right into place when I returned to China, with my kids no worse for the wear.

Ok.  So that’s  what I did on my summer vacation. It’s no match for Olivia the Piglet‘s report, but mine is wholly and completely true, with photographic evidence to prove it. There were no earth-shaking revelations or insights.  There was no explicit deep wisdom in my wanderings.  Or maybe there was.  Because what I found was pure, blissful joy in just having fun.  What a revelation.  I think I need to go and ponder that for a while.  But first, I’m going to go dance with my husband!

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Take time to smell the snigglehoppers?

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Juliet said. I learned my name when I started kindergarten. I don’t think Juliet realized no one would smell a rose if it were named something else, like “cumquat” or “poop”. No one would say, “you should take time to smell the snigglehoppers”. A rose is called thus because names mean something more than just a label.

“Her name is Amalia,” my mother told my new teacher as I stood there holding her hand tightly, “but we call her ‘Amy’”. The teacher, Miss Kelly, scanned down the list of new kindergarten students and found me.

I didn’t understand what my mother meant. I only knew the sound of, “Amy, it’s time for dinner,” and “Amy, put your toys away.” I knew to respond to that sound, the long sound of an “A” followed by “me”. I was supposed to listen. After my first day of school, I asked my older sister what my mom meant when she said my name was “Amalia.”

“Your name is ‘Amalia’,” she told me. “Like my name is ‘Larisa’, but they call me ‘Lisa’, and Jeff is really ‘Jeffery’.”

Something popped open inside me. The sound of it rolled and flowed inside of me. It was musical. It was lyrical. It was a name for an exotic princess, or a beautiful artist.  I had never really connected with “Amy,” but this name set off all sorts of bells of recognition.  It was the name of someone who loves deeply.

“Amalia,” I said. “That’s me.”

My family’s habit of calling me “Amy” persisted in spite of my protests.  Every year in school, I tried to stake my claim as “Amalia” but invariably was defeated by a teacher who just couldn’t pronounce the “Uh-mah-lee-uh”. “Amy” was shorter, simpler.

It wasn’t until I left home and got married that I began to establish a foothold.  A new family name, a new job, and new city.  Most of the people in my life now call me by my real name.  But there are still hold-outs: people who knew me as a child, but didn’t know my real name; people who have a hard time changing their habits.  When I hear someone call the name “Amy” I often forget they mean me.

Until recently, I didn’t realize how important a name is.  Digging into my deep memories, I began to feel the old, raw pain of not quite being seen every time my name was misused or not used.  I shrunk inside myself, and let the world deal with “Amy.” She was good at reading, but had messy hand-writing, and wasn’t good at math. She chatted too much with her friends. She was taller than most of the kids in her class.  She was shy and geeky.

A few days ago, I was scanning through some photos on a friend’s Facebook page.  I noticed a distinctive difference in the smile he showed in the pictures.  With his two daughters, his smile was relaxed, genuine and inspired a smiling response.  In other photos,  with just the right poses, in just the right places, with all the right people, the smile was just as big, his lips curved up in a perfect smile, showing perfect white teeth.  But his eyes are haunted, seeking, as if to say, “Am I enough?”  Maybe I’m imagining it, or maybe those who know him better read his face better.  But it echoed my own longing for acceptance, the deep acceptance that says, “I matter.”

So many of us wear masks, trying to show that we matter.  Mine was in the form of a name other people expected me to answer to.  That later morphed into living a life of “shoulds”.  You should be useful.  You should be grateful.  You should be helpful and kind.  You should do well in school.  You should get a good job that is important.  You should make others happy before your make yourself happy.

I am not saying that any of these “shoulds” are fundamentally wrong.  It’s the source of the motivation that leads down the wrong path.  “Shoulds” come from society’s, our families, our peers’ expectations.  They do not come from the heart.  Unexamined shoulds lead to chasing a kind of acceptance that will never come.  The shoulds lead me into a marriage meant only to make him happy, and down a career path that lead…nowhere.  Answering sincerely, for oneself, the “why” questions about the shoulds leads to more purity of living.  “Why should I be useful?”  Because in service I find my virtues, and in finding my virtues I see my inner nobility.  “Why should I be grateful?”  Because in gratitude I find the joy in every circumstance, and learn the lessons inherent.  “Why should I have an important job?  What is important to me?”  Because I have gifts to share that make the world a better place.  Sharing my voice is important to me.

Each person’s “why” is unique, and resonates like that bell of recognition that rang in my heart upon learning my name.   I want to look into the eyes of the people in my life and say, “You matter.”  I want my writing to reflect how important you are to the universe, to the world, to me.  There is a deep compassion in those words.  And it doesn’t matter what faith, nameless or not, you subscribe to.  When you share what you see inside someone, when you honor it, you are connecting at the level of existence.  We change the “I should” to “I am,” and the “You should” into “You are.”  I want to tell my friend with his haunted eyes, “You are enough.  You are beautiful.  You are loved.”  Because I am Amalia, and that is enough.

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Time to breathe, time to paint

The spider creeping across its web, its big brown and yellow shiny abdomen and legs reflecting the yellow porch light, should not have freaked me out.  It was catching plenty of mosquitoes.  It only made me shriek because it perched directly above the chamber pot I was supposed to use.  I could imagine myself squatting over the bucket (a paint bucket I think), and the spider, seeing me, and knowing it had such power over me, would drop down on a single silk web and dangle directly above me, just waiting for the proper moment to drop on to my neck.

“It’s a homey spider,” my husband tells me when I ask him to move the pot. “It’s not a dangley spider.”

“Yeah.  Remind him of that,” I say.  I don’t think it would have comforted me more if he had used the creature’s scientific designation.

We slept that night in utter peace, after I emptied my bladder far from our mosquito-munching friend.  After the children cuddled down together, their voices finally drowsy and sweet.  After the watermelon and corn-on-the cob fresh from the garden outside our window had cooled us, and satisfied our travel weary bellies. The five-hour bus-ride was long forgotten.
The sounds of the city had vanished, and only the whir of the fan stirred the sultry night.

My daughter was the first to stir this morning.

“Mommy, it’s time to wake up,” she says, kissing my cheek.  “The chicken says it’s time to wake up.”

She doesn’t know the English word for the male of the species.  That makes me smile.  I am happy that she knows more Chinese than English.  I am happy that she has anticipated this visit to our friends’ home in the countryside for days.  There is an outhouse here, and a solar-heated outdoor shower.  Two large black rubber skins hold the water on the roof of the shack.  A tube runs down from each to a small shower-head/stopper.  Pull the shower-head out of the tube slightly, and the water flows. That is the only running water.  We wash in basins scooped full of water from barrels nearby. This is not the city she is used to.  But she doesn’t even have to think about being open to the experience, because she is also used to going with the flow.  It is all she has ever known.  She is a Chinese child.

I help her get dressed.  She runs downstairs to play with aiyi and shushu.  This “aunt” and “uncle” are more well-known to her than my sister and her husband. She sees her Lao-lao and Lao-ye more often than her real grandmas and grandpas back in America.  I had never met these people before last night.  They are the parents of a friend of ours.  We haven’t really spoken more than twenty words to each other.  But I trust them far more than strangers back home with her.  They haven’t even said to me, “Oh, go ahead.  Leave her with us.  You go and relax.”   It is more than implied.  It is expected.  We are really here so they can play with her.  I sit in the upper tea room and paint what I see across the road.  A pond.  A willow.  Acres and acres of corn crisscrossed with electric lines.  A whole picture without interruption.  She falls asleep after noon.  Someone else made sure of that.  I am breathing.

Later, I am swinging in a hammock strung between two plum trees, eating a plum from another tree.  It is ripe and sweet and juicy.  The smoke from the barbecue floats by.  It is small metal box resting on two bricks.  Sticks and hay were lit, then coal bricks were added to the fire.  A wire mesh grill will be placed on it later to cook the chuar…stuff on sticks.  We eat lamb and beef skewers, a cold dish with clams and cilantro, a hot dish with octopus, peppers and spices, and rice.  Then there is the grilled dofu. I politely accept one, and choke it down, a smile on my face.  But then, there is more watermelon and more plums and I am stuffed beyond belief.

This is China.  I realize people only eat like this when special guest are around.  Foreigners always count as VIPs.  But this time, the notoriety allows me to relax in a way I can’t in the city.  We are a curiosity, my husband and I, as we walk down the farm road past rice fields and garbage.  But the curious eyes only glance and then they move on, busy with their work.  Our children are safely ensconced in a country home down the lane, playing with their new aunt and uncle.  My husband, the best friend I know,  and I talk about the future.  We look down the lane and wonder where it will lead us next.  Then we turn back, and wander in to the courtyard, where our daughter blows bubbles with a new friend.

 

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Katya Lensky

Katya Lensky at her desk at Focus on Dalian. She died December 15, 2012

Yesterday I experienced a China miracle.  It’s difficult to describe because I’m not really sure what happened.  It was rush hour, and traffic was bad.  I got out of the taxi half a block from the corner to walk the rest of the way to the restaurant where I was going to meet my husband for dinner.  Ten feet down the sidewalk, I heard some shouting behind me.  A policeman who was standing on the sidewalk  in front of me yelled back at the man, and I turned to see what was the matter.  It was my taxi driver.  He was shouting at me and pointing down the road.  I thought maybe he wanted more money, or he was angry with me.  I didn’t understand.  But the cop understood.  He walked over to a man on a bike at the corner, and took something from him.  It was my wallet.  How…? What…?  What just happened?  I told the police officer that it was my wallet.  He said, “It’s yours?”  I said, “Yes.”  And he gave it to me.

The whole thing took less than thirty seconds.  How did the man on the bike get my wallet?  I thought I had put it in my bag after paying the driver my fare.  Did the guy on the bike slip it out of my bag while I was putting on my gloves?  Did I leave it in the car, and the driver gave it to the bike rider to pass to me?  I don’t know.  I was so confused by the whole thing. If he had stolen it, why did he just hand it over to the cop?  And why did the cop just let him ride away? It really didn’t matter though.  I had my wallet, and nothing was missing!

I get so involved in my own stories.  What just happened to me?  What am I feeling?  What lesson do I need to learn.  And I am at the center of it all.

Last night at that lovely dinner with my husband, in a European restaurant at the heart of Dalian, I learned that my friend Katya died.  This past summer she was diagnosed with cancer, and she had a short battle because it was so advanced.

What happened to Katya?  What did she feel?  What lessons did she learn?  She took the time to tell us in letters.  The magazine she worked for, Focus on Dalian, published several letters from her in the latest issue after the community held a fund raiser to help her with medical costs.   She shows her spirit in these letters.  You may begin to understand why I am writing this post about her if you read those letters.  (It’s difficult to mark the specific article in this website, so look for “Letters from Katya”, twelve pages in.)

Katya was an extraordinary person.  When I first met her, she had just been hired by the magazine to help with media production.  When she was 21, she left her home of Ekaterinaburg, Russia to study new media in Indiana.  She worked for a short time in New York City and Moscow before she came to Dalian to study Chinese almost five years ago.  The magazine was lucky to find her.  I could tell immediately she was a person of great capacity.  Over the years of working with the magazine, I got to know her better, and her capacity astonished me.  She rapidly became the heart of the magazine, pumping energy throughout the organization and into the community.  She was production manager, office manager, designer, photographer, events planner, community organizer, trainer, encourager, peace-maker and good friend to all.  She was professional, kind, considerate, intelligent, had great common sense and always served others.  Things got done because Katya made sure they got done, no matter the obstacles. And there were plenty.  She held everything together through a turbulent change in management, working with inexperienced foreign staff and volunteers.  She also recognized the wealth of experience available in the local staff, and respected their expertise.  And the way she did it all was so completely selfless.  Even when writing those letters to thank the community for their support, she focuses her attention on being a light to others.  She writes, “My wish to you: Love each other, forgive each other, take care of each other, and be ready to help when your help is needed and nothing bad will ever happen to you.”  She was a woman who could offer such advice, because she was a constant example of this.

Katya told me while she was in the hospital that the only reason she was sad was that she had to leave the editor to work on the magazine by himself.    She also said, “I just have to ‘eat’ whatever God puts on my plate and not worry about it too much. I will be over with it sooner than later.”  She always kept a positive attitude, even to the end.  And she kept working.  She continued producing content for the magazine from her hospital room back in Ekaterinburg, managing the website and putting together the e-newsletter via Skype and e-mail.  She built this website last year.  It was the project from hell, but she eventually was able to pull all the chaotic pieces together and create a clean, well-organized, interesting website that is a useful resource to the expatriate community of Dalian.  And she did this during yet another tumultuous upheaval in management.

Part of me regrets that I was part of that upheaval when I chose to leave the editorship.  It was a difficult decision, in large part because I would have greatly enjoyed working with Katya.  I am trying to steer clear of the thoughts that go something like, “Maybe if I had worked there earlier, or longer, I could have encouraged her to get her symptoms checked out sooner,” or  “Maybe I could have made her life a little easier.”  These things might be true, but they live in the realm of “shoulda coulda woulda”.  Even worse, they bring me straight back to myself.  Katya always encouraged me to follow my heart though, even if it meant leaving the magazine we both care about.

I keep thinking about that corner on the road, where my wallet was returned to me when I didn’t even know I had lost it.  It was so surreal.  It had “angel” written all over it.  Katya was an angel for me when she was in this world.  I’m betting that she’s an angel to us all now that she’s in the next.  I want to be like that.

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I want to tell you a love story.

I am three.  My family is visiting my grandparents’ home on Carlisle in Albuquerque.  There are always people there…my favorite Aunt Robbi, and her friends: the man I always call by his first and last name, Roger Coe, because it’s like saying “Roger Wilcoe”, which I don’t understand, but it sounds neat; Donny Thompson, with the crazy wild hair; Bill Larsen, the nice guy; and Joe, my aunt’s best friend, the lady with the man’s name.  These are the regulars, the ones I always like to play with when I go to see my grandparents.  Grandma and Grandpa are far too old to play with me.  My parents have nearly forgotten that children like to play.  My sister is too old, and my brother too mean.  But these big people, they still understand how to play with kids.

My grandparents always have someone new over.  I don’t understand why, but people seem to like coming to their house, even though it smells kind of funny and my grandma’s in a wheel chair, and my grandpa’s too old to hear very well.

Then one day there’s this new guy.  We play in the grass. Maybe there is someone else playing with us, but I only have eyes for this new guy.   He swings me up into the air.  I jump so high with his help, up and up and up.  Then he plays airplane.  He lies down on the grass and holds my hands while he gently lifts me into the air on his feet.  I fly like an airplane.  I look down at him and he sees me and we laugh and laugh.  He sees me.  The others, they all played with us together, and I was just one of the kids.  But this guy, he sees me.

The next time we go back, I hope to see him.  But he’s not there.  I look for him every weekend that we visit my grandparents.

“Where’s that guy?” I ask.

“What guy?” my  mom says.

“That guy who played with me,” I tell her.  “You know, the one with the sunshine in his eyes.  The one who played airplane.”

“What?” she says.

“The guy who plays with me…” I say impatiently.

“You mean Donny?”  she asks.

“No, I know who Donny is.  I mean that other guy?”

“What’s his name?” she says.

“I don’t know. The one with the sorta brownish hair. And the big nose.”

“You mean Bill Larsen?” she asks.

“NO!” I shout.  “I know who he is.  I mean the other guy!”

My mom gets frustrated and leaves me to myself.  I pester her every time we go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.  She doesn’t know who I’m talking about. Neither does my aunt, or my grandma.

When we take the hour and a half drive home on weekends, we leave after dinner.  It is sunset, and the sky is dark blue at the mountains. Stars begin to poke out. It is pale above, and pink and orange and golden where the sun goes behind the mesa.  I listen to the radio while I lay in the back of the station wagon.  My parents want me to fall asleep on the ride home.  But I love to hear them talk. I watch the moon race along with us, its reflections wiggling like a zooming lightning snake along the train tracks.  I love to listen to the radio play mystery theater and love songs.  I always listen for that song.  Neil Diamond, my parents say.  “You are the sun, I am the moon, you are the words I am the tune, play me.”  I want to sing with this song, with this man.  How do I know what this means?  I am too young to understand, but I know this song like I know my own soul, and I want to sing this with him…him who?

And that man, the one who gave me the airplane ride, stays with me through the years.  I ask my parents, my aunt, whoever I meet who knew my grandparents at the time, “Who was that guy?” No one knows who I am talking about.

It could have been anyone.  My grandparents’ home had a wide open door with a “welcome” sign that everyone knew about.  It was like a safe haven, a refuge for the sad, lonely and the destitute. My grandparents taught me to see strangers as friends.  I grew up wanting a home like theirs, filled with people, and with laughter, and true friendship. The love was constant, like the air and the bologna sandwiches that fed the crowds.  My grandparents were not rich, but they gave what they had.

As I grew older, I would help make those sandwiches.  Then we would listen to Neil Diamond and Judy Collins and the BeeGees on the road back to Mountainair.  And I would pretend to be asleep when we got home so my dad would carry me in.  I loved being in his arms.  It was the only time I could get him to hold me like a baby.

But no one else ever played airplane with me.

Who was this guy, and why was there such a connection with him?  He touched a part of my soul that no one else had, or even could.  He saw me, not just some kid.  And I remember his brown hair, golden on the edges with the sun in it.  And his smile like a warm blanket in front of a fire.  I didn’t know or understand romantic love.  I was three.  But this was not an uncle or a brother.  And I loved him, and missed him, and wanted to see him again.

But I had a life to live and I had to grow in to a woman before love like that would be all right for me.  It would be many years before I sang those words, “You are the sun, I am the moon, you are the words, I am the tune, play me…” with a man, singing the same harmony I found while laying in the back of my parents’ station wagon, looking up at the billions stars of in the New Mexico sky, imagining myself flying like an airplane towards an unknown future.

Am I crazy to believe I had a connection with this man at the age of three?  Do you remember your first love?  Does it make you happy or sad to think of it?  What songs do you associate with that time?

This is the beginning of the story. Stay tuned for the next chapter…

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The Shaffer Hotel, Mountainair, New Mexico

The Shaffer Hotel in the 1930's

I have been to the house with the haunted hospital.  The hospital is gone now.  I found out that it was demolished years ago.  When they entered the abandoned facility, they found things we shouldn’t talk about here, but I will.  It was an abortion clinic.  There were fetuses in jars.  They were very, very old.  The story has expanded in my mind now, from the creepy curiosity I had as a child to a outright horror story.  I see an illegal abortion clinic in a small desert town in the 1930s, with city folk from Albuquerque and Denver taking in the drive south and east into the Manzano mountains.  The Shaffer Hotel provides hospitality and native decor, with its Pueblo Indian symbols inscribed on the facade, and the chandeliers, beams and posts in the saloon decorated with  carvings in maroon, turquoise, white and navy.  Men wait with grim faces as they toss back whiskey and gin, while two blocks down, their girlfriends face the horror of having their insides vacuumed clear of the unwanted life their illicit love created.  I see the raid – panicked doctors and nurses in white dresses and caps scurrying around in their padded shoes, frightened patients in recovery, or even worse,under the knife with uncompleted procedures, the arrests and the quiet rumors that spread throughout the region about the clinic that was shut down in Mountainair. There’s more story in there I’ll have to dig out one day.  Maybe it was shut down in the `60s, I don’t know.  But this version is pretty vivid in my mind, so maybe it will end up in a story like I see it.

When I was a child, the Shaffer had been abandoned for years.  My brother and his friends found a way in in the back of the building, through a broken window.  He shared his discovery with me, and we crept through its dusty rooms, books thrown to the floor, the stairway to the second floor too broken for us to risk a climb.  A wooden throne-like chair with three seats curving outward sat near the fireplace, and we played that we were king and queen.  The sunlight coming through the high windows in the saloon made the dust we had kicked up dance like a million fireflies, and we gazed in awe at the designs and symbols on the ceiling.  The day we moved out of Mountainair, my brother decided to make a farewell visit to the Shaffer.  That was the day he was caught.  My dad was carrying out the couch with a friend when the patrol car pulled up, and my nine-year-old brother was escorted by the police to my parents for the first time.  I was playing on the porch and my stomach sank to the floor when I saw him.  When I found out why he had been “arrested”, I nearly danced with glee that I hadn’t been along that time.   My glee was uncalled for, and in the end it spelled my doom.  My parents asked me if I’d ever been there, and my face gave me away instantly.  Unbeknownst to me, my sister had also committed the crime, for which our punishment was going to old man Shaffer’s to apologize.  We ended our time in Mountainair in disgrace.

On our visit to Mountainair last week, my father, my sister, her kids, me and mine had lunch at the Shaffer.  The saloon is now a diner that serves some pretty darn good New Mexican fare, and a fantastic peach pie.  After lunch, my kids and I took the two-block walk down to our old house, which now has a chain link fence instead of the red wood fence that was almost as tall as my dad.  The house is now painted the ubiquitous New Mexico adobe beige-ish pink, instead of white with blue trim.  The lady who lives there let me show my kids around.  Many things had changed.  I had changed the most.  The living room was tiny.  Even in the photographs I have of it, I still see it as large.  My son is eight, and he saw it through those smaller eyes.  The kitchen and bathroom have been remodeled, and my attic bedroom is no longer accessible.  The dormer window has been replaced with just a flat roof.  But other things were exactly the same – the pantry I used to sneak Ritz crackers and Rolaids from; the dish cabinet in the hallway with painted-over latches that keep the doors from closing properly, the closet where my brother hid with the babysitter, doing who knows what.  I collected the memories that were hiding in the closets.

Mountainair is a different place now, an artist haven, a southwestern retreat, almost cool.  The old grocery store has a beautiful mosaic on the outside of the front wall, and murals have been painted here and there. There are still vestiges of the red-neck ranchers and low-riders, and it is even more of a haven for drug dealers now then it was.  But the abandoned hospital is gone, and the Shaffer is now a tourist destination.  Somehow, knowing that it has changed feels right.   There is life there.  A ghost town is a good place to be a child.   But the life that has been injected comes from the creative souls that have seen the beauty of the place.  It reflects my own journey.  And going back settled something inside me.

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Young and foolish

I am leaning against a pillar next to the back of a vending machine in an alcove of the community gym. The squeak of sneakers on the basketball court and the hum of the compressor keeping the Cokes cold are drowned out by the pounding of my heart.  How did I become so visible?  Only six months ago, I was invisible to all but those who torment tall, awkward, geeky girls.  Now, a beautiful man’s hands are pinning mine to the wall.  The scent of him fills me, light with Polo aftershave and strong with something unfamiliar but dizzying.  He leans in and kisses me softly.

At the end of the previous summer, he told me he’d gotten married. Jennifer, and a job with her father’s company, were waiting for him back in the States when he got out of the Army. During choir practice over the next few months, somehow, without really knowing what I was doing, I had learned to flirt. I thought we were just joking. But during the Christmas concert, he had leaned over and whispered hotly into my ear, “If it weren’t for Jennifer, I’d go after you.” I couldn’t sing after that. Why would he say something so useless to me?

Now it is January, just after my seventeenth birthday, and my heart is breaking with the sweetness and the sadness of my first real, non-dare kiss, and my head is swirling with the rush of blood to places that have never been paid such attention.  His thighs lean into mine, and I discover how much heat can be conveyed through denim. He is a twenty-five-year-old soldier.  A man married for all the wrong reasons, I think.

He pulls away and whispers into my ear, “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Then be happy,” I whisper back, and I mean it.

We haven’t just been flirting. We have been friends. He has told me of his fears of life outside the military. I have comforted him, and tried to encourage him to find his heart’s dream. He has made me feel beautiful.

It is the only time he kisses me. He leaves several weeks later.  He tells me good-bye in a crowded room during a cast party.  And for years, the “What if…?” of him torments and blinds me so I can’t even see the desire in the eyes of the boys around me.

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