Archive for the ‘playing in the residue’ Category

Correspondence, Connectivity, Screens, and Free-Range Joy

July 18, 2012

[lightly edited]

It takes me 2-3 hours to get the kids to sleep at night. And then once they’re down, I take an hour or more to unwind. Which is foolish. I can’t afford to lose that precious sleeping time – I surf the web, play Angry Birds – it’s stupid. A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article on the addictive qualities of the internet – and while I take the tone of alarm in the article under advisement, it rings a bit true (and how ironic that I read it on the net via social media). I’ve thought before – I’ve observed in myself – about the way I keep clicking around in circles – Facebook, Google Reader, e-mail, Twitter – around and around hoping for an update, something interesting or funny or pretty to look at, for that little “zing” of pleasure. I remember when we did experiments with white mice in my college intro psych class, the intermittent and unpredictable reward was the addictive one. The little mice kept clicking and clicking the little lever, because the next click could be the one! That brought down the food pellet! Sometimes it did, and sometimes it didn’t. But even after we cut off the food supply, they kept clicking and clicking for a long, long time. A line in the article on internet addiction said something about people foregoing sleep in order to mess around online, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m losing my mind.

What would our lives be like, without all these screens?

When I was growing up, we were unplugged most of the time. When we lived in a two-room adobe house in a village in Peru’s “ceja de selva” (brow of the jungle, or highland jungle), our only connection to the world outside that village – besides walking trails – was a ham radio. The first thing we did every time we moved out there was to set up the antenna, stringing the long lines into a tree or up a bamboo pole. The first thing I heard every morning as I woke up under my mosquito net was the crackle of static and scratchy voices, my dad checking in with our call number – “OAX29 a OAX6, cambio.” “Adelante, OAX29.” And that was it. Over and out.

I have this memory. As an adult it has become “my happy place,” a moment in time suspended in a golden bubble of pure joy. I am 7; I am playing in the shallow creek that runs past the village, under the light shade of the guava trees that drop dried flowers all over the sandstone boulders dotting the creek. The sun casts a sparkling net through the water, where fish dart over the gravelly bottom. This is the only place in the village where my sister and I are allowed to go barefoot – we could get hookworm from the manure that free-ranging farm animals leave to dry under the sun, but the rocks are clean – so now I revel in the grip of my bare soles on the rough sandstone. The water is cold on my feet, the stones warm in the sun. I jump around from rock to rock, and I sing. It’s a Sunday School song, and I believe that God is watching me right this moment, that God is embracing me as warmly and closely as the sunlight embraces my young brown limbs. I am alone with God, with God and with my pure heart-lifted happiness.

A couple years ago my dad told me that our time in this village was the most difficult time in his and my mom’s 40-year career with the mission. This is the village where he first got sick, completely debilitated by one illness after another (he has never recovered. He has been sick for 32 years). There were times when we ran out of food, literally nothing to eat in the house, and then at the last minute someone would come by with a gift of dried red beans and rice, a papaya, a hand of green bananas.

But I remember pretending to float paper boats in the dew on the grass that lingered in the shadow of the church building next to our house. I remember climbing those sandstone boulders, finding the vacant shells of enormous snails piled between the rocks – snails the size of oranges, which people would cook and eat with manioc and boiled green bananas. I remember helping an old woman pull cotton seeds from the bolls, and I marveled at how heavy the seeds were, how light the cotton. I remember the utter silence of noon. This village was inaccessible by any motorized vehicle – we rode horses two hours from a little airstrip in the next village over to get there – so not even the distant drone of traffic interrupted the silence of the world at siesta. Only the occasional rooster crowing, dog barking, the distant rattle of pots and pans. The smell of wood smoke and guitar music at night brings it back to me in an instant. We would lie under our mosquito nets on church night, my dad would read us a bedtime story by candlelight while the village children lined up along the bamboo wall to stare at us – a row of black eyes all along the crack in the wall, a row of little fingers bracketing each nose.

This was our life without screens.

When we would visit the capital city to stay with my cousins, my sister and I would sit on the stairs and stare at the clock, counting the minutes and seconds until 10:00 when the children’s programs would start on TV. Then we’d run up to the family room to play with Legos and watch cartoons all day long. In the afternoon we’d watch the A-Team and Knight Rider dubbed in Spanish (I was shocked the first time I heard Mr. T’s actual voice – nothing so gruff as the Spanish-speaking actor who dubbed his part – and I always thought Kit’s name was “Keith”). We had no defenses against TV. We had no… I want to say filters, but that’s not quite the right idea. We had no guards, no screens. We couldn’t imagine choosing not to watch it.

I installed a site blocker on my laptop, in order to focus more on my work. It’s been good. I had completely broken my celebrity gossip habit for awhile – until the Cruise-Holmes divorce sucked me in again recently – but I found that I don’t need it anymore, I don’t want it. I don’t seek it out. I just don’t go there. (Oh, and a good Brangelina story has the power to pull me in as well. And maybe Kate and Wills. But that’s all. Really.) I still trawl Facebook – and I’m glad I do, I’m glad I stay connected that way, especially overseas. But it’s imperfect.

Here’s a crazy story. I saw a FB update on my cousin’s page – my favorite cousin, mind you, the one who looks like Bon Jovi and is about as free of bullshit as anybody I know in the world. My cousin had built a tree house restaurant in NYC, and there were all these photos of the grand opening, and the label on one photo of “Simon and his lovely girlfriend Lynn.” And I went huh? The last time I saw Simon was at my uncle’s – his step-dad’s – funeral three years ago. At that time he’d been married to Sabina (born Sara, she changed her name when she became a dancer) – a women I’d never really clicked with nor cared for much. They have one child. So who was Lynn? I checked Sabina’s FB page and saw she’d gone back to using her maiden name. Neither of them listed anything in the “relationship status” box. I mulled over this for weeks. Weeks. I mean, how do you ask your cousin whom you’ve been in touch with on Facebook fairly regularly over the preceding two years, “Hey, I saw that you have a girlfriend. What happened to your wife?” Weird, right?

So finally I wrote him – Hey Simon, what’s up with you these days? Fill me in! I seem to have been out touch for far too long. Facebook seems to create the illusion of keeping in touch but it’s far too brief, too superficial… How is Chloe? What happened to you and Sabina? (I’ve been working over and over in my mind just how to ask that question… but it looks like you’ve both moved on???) Fill me in – and he responded that yes, he and Sabina split up three years ago.

Three years ago.

My favorite cousin got divorced, and I didn’t even find out until three years later? How disconnected can I get?

It still bothers me.

When I was in high school my boyfriend was three years older than me and so graduated first and went to college in the US while I stayed in the jungle. It was all snail mail then, and even more than that international snail mail. It usually took about three weeks for a letter to change hands. Sometimes when we were in the village it would be months, and then I’d get five letters all at once. I remember how my palms would sweat and my hands trembled as I opened each one, savored every pen-stroke, fingered the paper his hands had touched. He would draw our initials entwined together elaborately. Our romance continued until my first year in college. Being closer to him – Illinois to Iowa – I realized that I didn’t really like him all that much anymore. But oh how sweet the pain of longing for my distant love through those high school years! We constructed an intensely dramatic arc around the torture of missing each other all the time. It couldn’t possibly last (and I’m so very glad it didn’t).

It’s just wild to think about it now – how our one long-distance call during those years lasted thirty minutes, cost me $70, and got cut off abruptly when terrorists blew up a power station somewhere between me and the coast.

Now Gimli and I skype with our parents about once a week. It’s free. It’s face-time – sort of, anyway – and even though sometimes the connection is dropped, we can usually pick it right up again.

Which is the better connection, then?

All this to say, I don’t quite know how I feel or what I think about my online life. Or the ways I use digital media, or how it uses me. Clearly, blogging and connecting to other bloggers has enriched my life tremendously, and I hope I have contributed to the enrichment of others. On the other hand, the way I currently use it is robbing me of sleep. And when we lost Illyria’s cat? Gimli’s anger was about 98% about the fact that I was playing a game on my phone instead of paying attention. And yet, I let the kids watch videos or play with the iPad way more than I want to or think I should – because it’s easier. I can get stuff done while they’re thus engaged without constantly moderating conflicts. But what is this doing to their brains for the long-term? My husband likes to joke that “what’s good in moderation is great in excess!” (Tara wrote about this half a year ago and I’m still thinking about it…)

So, a 2000-word free-ranging ramble about various indirectly-connected topics… apparently that’s my blogging MO these days.


Playing in the Residue

May 31, 2012

Holy cow. Ok. Wow. So instead of deleting this blog (which was really just my tiredness talking, I won’t actually that) I went back and started reviewing my archives, copy and pasting each entry into a word document. I’m doing it one post at a time (and I now have over 520 posts) so I can preserve the comments, and also so I can edit a little bit. I’ve deleted a small handful of posts, the ones that went into too much detail about other people, and edited a couple slightly for identifying details.

But it has been so. much. fun. to do this. It’s all I want to do right now. It’s fascinating to see my life through the eyes of my 34-year-old self, six years ago – how different my life is now, how different I am. I feel like a different person. But I struggle with so many of the same things – insecurity, anxiety, self-doubt. Actually those things have been magnified incredibly by motherhood.

I’m about 6-7 months into the archives (I’m working from oldest to newest), and a few months ahead of the conception of our daughter. It’s kind of amazing to read back, knowing what I know now, about how the journey has gone since then.

It’s also amazing to see comments from people I haven’t thought about in YEARS – the women who just stopped blogging one day and never came back. And also amazing to see comments from people (Tara, Mel, Rachel, Sarah S-P) who are still part of my life today.

I found this fun iPod shuffle game we did a long time ago, where you do a random shuffle and then use the songs that come up, in the order they appear, to answer a list of 10 questions. I thought it would be fun to revisit it and see how it came out, and here is my list for today:

1. The song for the you that existed before you ever thought about your fertility:

“Anxiety” – Black Eyed Peas. OMG – the exact same song came out on top both times!!! Hit refresh. Try again.

“Down to the River to Pray” – from O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.

My “issues” with conservative/evangelical Christianity, the tradition I was raised in, were certainly in full force before infertility (or sub-fertility, if you will). But struggling to conceive certainly didn’t help resolve my issues. Having kids didn’t really, either. Well, maybe a little.

2. Would you really want to go back and be that person again?

“Shiny, Happy People” – REM

Not sure that that means… but I also don’t really know how to answer that question. I was so, so sad back then. But I was nowhere near so tired, so stressed, so anxious about everything. At the same time, there is no way I would want to lose this gift of motherhood. I’d like to regain the ability to focus I had back then, some of the balance I had, the intimacy with my husband, the fun I had doing things like play Scrabble and go out in the evenings. I know this will come again someday but right now it’s mostly really hard. Wonderful, but hard.

3. The song for when you first started fertility treatments:

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” – U2

Um, no further comment…

But so thankful that we eventually found them, or they found us – our babies.

4. What did infertility do to your sex life?

“Where Is The Love?” – Blackeyed Peas

Ok, who shuffled this now? Are they reading my mind???

5. What about superstitions and fertility rituals?

“Etcetera, Whatever” – Over The Rhine

“We don’t need a lot of money, we’ll be sleeping on the beach, keeping oceans within reach and I guess all I really mean is we’re gonna be all right. We’re gonna be all right.” (This one didn’t really fit the question. Which, phew, it was getting creepy!)

I did some rituals – I would pray for fellow stirrup queens when I couldn’t sleep at night, using the Hail Mary as a basis for rhythm and structure. And I would meditate after yoga using a heart-shaped candle. I don’t know whether or not I believed in either of these as effective beyond calming my mind.

6. How about “alternative” treatments, from cough syrup and pineapple to acupuncture and ‘body workers’? “

“Ribbons Undone” – Tori Amos

“She’s a girl / Rising from a shell / Running to spring / It is her time it is her time / Watch her run with ribbons undone”

This song makes me think of my daughter, although it has nothing to do with the question.

I didn’t do any “alternative” treatments.

7. How do you feel about coming out of the IF closet?

“Calling the Moon” – Dar Williams

“Oh, make sense of me, night / I can see so much from this cold height / The moon said, “Oh darkness, my work is done / I’ve poured this bottle of light from the sun / But their anger keeps on rising / And they don’t understand / I’ve shown them all that I can / That the world is at hand”

8. Your song for other people’s baby showers:

“Give Me Novocaine” – Green Day

Okay, getting creepily apropos again!

9. What about our scary friend hope?

“This Will Be Our Year” – Ok Go

“This will be our year, took a long time to come” I held on to this song for a long time. Held on to it hard.

10. And lastly, the theme song of your fertility journey:

“By Way of Sorrow” – Cry Cry Cry

Ok. So. TAG – you’re it!!!


February 17, 2012

“You fall in love so easily,” he said, somewhat wistfully, the guy to whom I had just confessed my crush. He picked up the end of my long braid and brushed it against my cheek, and I thought for a second he was going to kiss me, but he didn’t. Maybe it was the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights overhead, or the clatter of dishes in the communal kitchen beyond the lobby area where we sat. Most likely he was – to crib the infamous phrase – just not that into me.

Sometimes I think he was right; it’s easy for me to gloss over flaws, to give my heart over despite misgivings.

Early yesterday evening I walked across the main square in Tirana, where I could see an enormous red flag unfurling the two-headed black eagle across a backdrop of snow-covered mountains, and I felt that familiar romantic pang of affection I get for a place. It’s like a pre-nostalgia, anticipating leaving. Gimli calls it the “smell the loons” mood. I have loved and left so many, many places. Pieces of my heart are scattered around the globe – South Africa, Bolivia, of course Peru, New York state, Virginia (oddly enough, I can’t seem to form an attachment to the US as a whole, just parts of it), and now Shqiperia.

I’m glad we came to Albania (so far). The aspect I’ve enjoyed more than any other, by far, has been learning the language.  I’ve learned that I really am good at learning languages. I never actually had to learn a language from scratch like this before; I studied Quechua, and did very well, but I grew up hearing it spoken and the rhythms and a lot of words were familiar, so I attributed my rapid learning to that familiarity instead of innate ability. It’s been really flattering, I guess, to hear from so many people so many times that I speak Shqip really well. I’ve certainly nailed the Motherese register, anyway. Gimli’s vocabulary and grasp of grammar is better than mine, since he actually studies and reads every night, but my accent and ear are far better than his since I actually talk to people.

But I don’t think we’ll be staying on. The implications for Gimli at the university in the US are not favorable for staying on here, and I think he feels just enough ambivalence that it precludes him from taking a drastic, proactive measure – which is what it would take for us to stay. Staying another year would be nice – but in the end, we’d still be leaving, and dealing with all the same issues and questions as we are now, just a year later.

I think the hardest part about leaving will be saying goodbye to Dhurata. She pours love on my kids, and Oscar especially is attached to her. I feel incredibly bad about leaving her, actually – just as I felt incredibly bad about leaving my BFF in the US when we came here. I know Dhurata is my employee, but she’s also a friend. We borrow each other’s clothes, we gossip about people we both know from church, we do “troubles talk” (which, according to Deborah Tannen, is a primary way women bond with each other). I don’t think I could find a better nanny anywhere in the world, and I’ve told her so. She in turn has thanked me again and again for the employment we give her. I know our leaving will not only be personally hard, but economically hard for her family as she is the primary wage-earner (her husband has been unemployed for six years now), cleaning house and babysitting for missionaries and Christian expatriates. Our departure will leave a big hole in her roster and budget.

So I feel bad. I wish we were staying another year, just for her sake. But then… a year from now, what would be different? We’d be having the same tensions, sadness, anxieties, and fears anyway. Just a year later.

So yeah, I feel myself shifting – with a mere six months ahead of us here – into early departure planning: mentally sorting out the toys and books – what to take, what to leave; mentally marking small items to gift to Dhurata and her family (a sweater for her, a backpack for her older son); thinking about whom to contact in the US about preschool recommendations, thinking about how to organize our home back in the States. We’re toying with the idea of moving to a bigger house, maybe somewhere in the county, although if we stay in the city we might be able to get Illyria into a dual-immersion bilingual kindergarten program the year after next which would be FABULOUS (English/Spanish).

And this is familiar too; this living with one foot in either world, neither entirely here nor entirely there. I have to be careful not to do it so much because then I’m never really present where I am.

and again with the motherhood angst

December 19, 2011

I read this lovely post from Stirrup Queens last night (or was it this morning?) and what is sticking with me, along with the metaphor of the Y representing the choices we make daily, was the phrase “they have all the tools.” Now that her children are in school, and she releases them each day into the world, she has to trust that she has given them the tools they need to navigate and manage that world and the people they will encounter in it.

It terrifies me, this responsibility to stock their toolbox. In some ways it is simple and obvious, and having two children means that we have a daily arena for teaching things like not hitting, and sharing, and taking turns, and acknowledging and honoring the humanity of the other (although we could achieve this also if we had a singleton by creating social situations where she was forced to interact with other children her age). But I am so afraid that I’m missing something big and huge and important that will become clear only further down the road as they descend into truancy and delinquency – or just simply unhappiness and self-hatred.

When my parents dropped my sister off at college, I went with my mom to a prayer meeting for parents that was scheduled as part of the orientation activities (yes, it was that kind of college) and my mom broke down in tears during the small-group sharing part, suddenly feeling that terror, that fear of having failed her daughter and it now being too late to make it right.

One time recently (maybe even last year) my sister said of our mother, “she’s been hurting me my whole life, why should it be any different now?”

During our hesitation before TTC, I thought about this a lot – I saw the tremendous conflict and pain between my sister and my mother, between my SIL and her parents – and I had to wonder whether having children was worth the risk. What if it should come to this, with my own children? This distance, this pain, this horrifying power and ability to wound each other to the core?

I think this fear has shaped my parenting style a lot. I err on the side of indulgence, rather than discipline. I know this is not always what is best for them. I don’t limit screen time as much as I should. I give in to too many of my toddler’s demands – or perhaps I should say commands – like when she doesn’t want any of us to stand and join in the singing at church, for example. I know that I shouldn’t let her control me, but sometimes I do. Of course there are non-negotiables – like holding my hand when crossing the street, or getting her hair washed, brushing teeth, and the aforementioned not hitting or pushing her brother.

When I was in grad school the first time, in 1999, it was a year after my cousin had committed suicide, and because I felt like I hadn’t done enough to help him during life I volunteered as a crisis counselor for a suicide prevention hotline. It was one of the best and hardest things I’ve ever done. A major component of our training was on reflective listening, and it stuck in my mind when one of the trainers mentioned that this skill had made her relationship with her teenaged children much better. Her ability to reflect back to them what they were feeling diffused tension and opened the door to communication. So I try to do that with our children, and I think it helps them a lot, to understand and release their emotions. I remember what someone said to me once (was it my therapist?) that emotional needs that are ignored or suppressed will never go away – they’ll just come back, sometimes in difficult or even dangerous ways. I’ve also been holding in my mind what Lori said in an interview about being in the moment, about feeling and releasing the emotion over and over again, and how physical movement can help in this process as well. So this is a big part of what I try to do as a mother – build up their emotional health and their tools for coping with strong emotions in healthy ways. So it’s frustrating when my MIL tells my daughter “Now don’t get mad,” or “don’t cry,” because, well, I think this is actually pretty harmful. I tell Illyria, “it’s ok to be mad, but you can’t hit your brother.” Usually then she requests to go to another room and “have a little talk” with me or another caregiver – it’s her way now of removing herself from the situation that’s frustrating or stressing her out. So we go away, and talk about sharing, or about whatever pissed her off, or just play for awhile in a different space, until she’s ready to go back and try again.

I long to be the kind of mom whose house is a haven of clean and tidy peace and serenity, who has Montessori-ed her home, who can make cake pops, who just generally seems to be competent and well-organized (Raspberry Chip, I’d link to you but you’re PWP!). I’m just not that kind of mom. I’m too overwhelmed by the quotidian. And I think I set the bar too low.

I’m gonna rock at homework help someday though.

The thing is – my mom didn’t TRY to make mistakes. She didn’t set out to hurt my sister. My MIL doesn’t hate her daughter, she loves her. They both did what they thought was right; they did their level best. I don’t fully understand what went wrong, why my sister and my sister-in-law have felt compelled at different times to put as much physical and emotional distance between themselves and their parents as possible, and why for each of them in different ways this seemed to be a move for self-preservation. So how can I know that I’m not going to end up in their position someday?

Theft 3

August 11, 2011

Part 1, and part 2.


            At first I thought that no one was home.  The doors were all pulled shut and secured with twigs through the latches to hold them closed.  But I heard voices coming from the back, so I walked around the little buildings and saw the family gathered around a cow near the paddock.

The Rodriguez Mariscal home was built on a narrow flat space between the road and a steep hill that extended back up into their property.  They had only half a farm—25 hectares that had come from the sale of someone else’s land.  And it was not great land, either.  A deep ravine cut through the property, carving the soil into steep slopes that were difficult to work and eroded easily.  Only at the far back of the property was a high, flat place suitable for rice and corn. Everything in between was being used as pasture land, although Octaviana’s interest in diversification and innovation had led to the planting of small trees strategically placed to slow erosion.  At different times she raised hair sheep (bred for their lack of wool, they did better in hot climates), rabbits, and ducks, but their main income came from cheese and Octaviana’s per diems as a community educator.  She was one of the only women in the community who had been to high school.

At 36, Octaviana was the mother of eight and grandmother of two.  She ran her household like a general—shouting orders, mobilizing the troops, seeing exactly what needed to be done and knowing exactly who needed to do it.  Her husband, Don Pedro, was a quiet man with beautiful dark eyes made soulful by thick black eyelashes and a sad expression.  But he loved to laugh as much as she did, mumbling his small jokes through toothless gums, then chuckling quietly as his children hooted with laughter.

I watched Octaviana and her four youngest gathered around the cow.  Emma and Elba, the twins, held the cow’s head, keeping its nose in a hollowed half-gourd of feed.  Rachel, their older sister, held a tin of salve that Octaviana was rubbing on the udder, and Javier, the youngest, kept the dogs and other sundry animals away with a long switch.  I walked over.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Good morning, Elizabeth,” shouted Octaviana, and the children echoed her, “Good morning, Doña Elizabeth.”

“What’s wrong with the cow?” I asked.

“Oh, just some sores she has on her udder.  I bought this from the veterinary in town but I don’t know if it will be any good.  I always used to use dung mixed with used motor oil, but you know how they say that’s not really good for the cow.”

“True,” I said.

“We’ll see if this works.  There,” she said, patting the cow on the rump and standing up.  “Emma, Elba, you can let her go now.  Raquel, put that away with my other things, you know where.”  She walked past me towards the kitchen, and I turned to follow her.  She paused to wash her hands off with water from a green plastic jug, a recycled vegetable oil container.

“Come in,” she said kindly as she unlatched the door and pushed it open, shooing the chickens away.  She pulled out a small stool for me to sit on, then sat down herself and pulled a ten-gallon white plastic bucket towards herself.  Taking the lid off, she reached in and began to lift out the cheese curds swimming there in the thin, gray whey.

“Have you found out who stole your money yet?” she asked, not hiding her curiosity.

“Yes, I think so,” I answered miserably, and out poured the whole story: the running feet, the cash tossed through the window, and Centeno and the teacher’s plan to bring in the police.

“That Centeno!” she tsked, really angry.  “He always has to stick his nose in everywhere.  He doesn’t have enough work to do, he just goes around making trouble.”

“I want to go talk to Betty’s parents, but I don’t speak enough Quechua,” I said, exploring the idea.  “I really don’t want the police involved.”

Octaviana was silent for a moment.  “I don’t speak Quechua either,” she said.  “I understand it, but I don’t speak it.”  She thought for a minute.  “Maybe Doña María could go with you.  She speaks Quechua.”

“Would you come too?” I pleaded.

“If Doña María goes, I’ll go,” she said decisively.


“If Doña Octaviana goes, I’ll go,” said Doña María a few hours later.  “Just let me give supper to my workmen, then we can go.”  It was almost dark, and she was dishing out rice and a vegetable sauce for the men who had come to help build her new brick house.

“I’ll go call Doña Octaviana,” I said.  I took my flashlight, crossed the creek, and went back to Octaviana’s house.  Soon we were somberly making our way back.  María met us by the road, and we walked the short distance into the cluster of thatched huts  in the center of the of the community, to the Quispe house.

They were home.  Doña Victoria and her husband came out when María called.  I could hear hushed voices and the sound of spoons and tin plates inside the kitchen, where the orange flare of the cooking fire blazed through the cracks in the cane wall.  There was no sign of Betty or Marina.

Doña Victoria offered us seats on a log outside, laying her woven aguayo over it to make a bench.  The three of us sat down, but she and her husband remained standing.  I could only barely follow the conversation in Quechua; María did all the talking for me.  I could hear the hesitation in her voice, the over-use of her “um”s, the slow stringing together of words.  Then Doña Victoria spoke.  I could hear the anger in her voice.

Octaviana translated for me: Victoria was furious with Centeno.  He had come to her house in the afternoon, and she imitated the “sh-sh-sh” with which he had silenced her when she tried to speak.  I could see her skinny legs and tattered pollera in the moonlight, but could not see her face, shaded under a broad-brimmed hat.  Her husband said nothing, merely grunting corroboration at certain points.

“They’re going to pay back the rest of what they owe you,” said Octaviana quietly in my ear.  “They just need to sell a pig first.”

“Doña Victoria,” I said.  “I am so sorry that this happened.  I really like Betty and Marina, I like having them come visit my house.  It really hurt me that they took my money.  I just need to be able to have confianza in them again.”

She said something, and Octaviana translated: “She says they’re going to pick rice and kudzu seeds for her now to earn the money back.  The money is no problem.  She’s just angry that Centeno yelled at them.”

“I don’t want the police to come,” I said.  “They’re just girls, they’re children yet.  I just want to be able to fix things up between us ourselves.”

Evidently we were all in agreement; we shook hands all around, then the three of us left together.  I felt enormously relieved, and more grateful than I could say for the help of Octaviana and María.  I thanked them again and again.


Sure enough, about a week later, Doña Victoria came by at dawn with 100 Bolivianos in hand.  She had sold her pig.  I didn’t see Betty or Marina for a long time, and Centeno avoided me.  He was angry that I had gone to talk with Betty’s parents behind his back, without his sanction.  I myself was still angry at the heavy-handed way in which he had tried to take over, that didn’t feel like helping to me.

But Doña Victoria was cordial, grave, and dignified as she handed me the money, her spine straight, her head erect.

“Thank you,” I said.  Now Betty could come back and color at my table.  And, eventually, she did.


If you’ve made it this far… thanks for sticking with it! I’d love to hear any feedback you might have.


August 4, 2011

This is another blast-from-the-past, something I wrote in 2004 about an event circa 1998 when I was a community development volunteer in Bolivia. It’s really long, so I’ve divided it into three parts and this is part I.


           I hurried along the dark, empty street towards the market.  Most of the shops closed at seven.  As the low block building came into view, I saw with relief that there were still a few lights on.  Without breaking stride I threaded the narrow passages towards my favorite shop, passing rows of dark, closed stalls.  Under the dim light from the single 40-watt bulb I quickly selected rice, salt, and few spices before turning to the shopkeeper for the total.  But when I reached into the inner pocket of my shoulder bag to pay him, I experienced one of those momentary waves of unreality that occur when something that exists in your mind fails to match your sensory experience.  There was no money there.

Mumbling an apology, I replaced the items I had selected and went back outside.  What in the world?  I clearly remembered having at least 200 Bolivian pesos, as well as a few smaller bills in that pocket of my bag.  As I walked along towards the taxi stand to catch a ride home, I mentally retraced my steps over the last few days.  I had a distinct memory of pulling out a ten-peso bill two days previously, when I had bought a bottle of soda at Doña Petrona’s house.  And I could just as distinctly picture the two reddish 100-B bills enfolding the blue 10-B note at that time.  Because I had to keep track of all my expenditures for the organization I volunteered with, I always kept a running mental list and a daily log of every peso spent.  I knew I had not spent that money.  And I couldn’t imagine having lost it on the way to the market, either.  I had been alone on the road, and furthermore I had not even once opened the bag for any reason while en route.  There was no possible way that the money had accidentally fallen out.

I had lost more money than this on previous occasions, but 200 Bs was still enough to bother me.  200 Bs converted to around $30, which could actually buy a young sheep.  It was sixty percent of my monthly personal allowance.  And where could I have lost it?

I found two coins at the bottom of my bag, enough to pay the motorcycle taxi to the village of San Rafael where I lived, so I flagged one down on the main drag, negotiated the price, and hopped on.  I balanced easily on the back of the Suzuki 125 as we wound our way up the hill and onto the dirt track that led to my community.  The dim headlight illuminated the flapping wings of nightbirds frightened off the road in front of us.  This particular driver was not given to small talk, so I continued to mull over the disappearance of my money until we arrived at the schoolhouse.  I paid him, and he turned the motorcycle around to head back to town while I strained to distinguish the numbers on my combination lock by the dim light of the stars.

Once inside, I switched on my single solar panel-powered light, and gave my small room a serious once-over.  No money anywhere.

The next morning, I mentioned the missing money to my neighbor, Doña María, as we sat in her smoky kitchen visiting.  The board walls of the room leaned at askew angles, and puddles of spilled water made mud of the dirt floor.  Soot from the wood fire had turned all the walls and ceiling black.  Skinny cats darted in and out, and María had to keep shooing chickens away from the door.  I sat perched on a small block of wood, my knees up in front of my chest.

María was instantly concerned.  “Who could have taken it?” she asked, her eyes wide.  She stopped stirring the pot to stare at me.

“Maybe nobody took it, maybe I just lost it somewhere.”

“Maybe, no?  But did you look everywhere?”

“Yes, everywhere.   I know I had it on Tuesday, and I didn’t buy anything since then until I went to the market last night.  I can’t think where I could have lost it.”

“You know those Quispe girls, you shouldn’t let them come into your house all the time they way they do.”  She stirred the pot furiously.  It sounded like a subject shift, but I knew it wasn’t.  I thought of Betty and Marina, the skinny sisters with long, thick-lashed eyes who often visited me at home.  Especially Betty, the younger one.  Just yesterday she had been sitting at my table coloring, and I had helped her with her homework.  But I hated María’s deductive leap of suspicion.  We had no evidence, nothing.

Florinda, María’s nine-year-old daughter had been listening from the doorway.  Just then she burst out, “Doña Elizabeth, do you know what!  Yesterday Marina was paying the schoolteacher the fees with a 50-Boliviano bill, and he said where did you get that?  And she said my patrona paid me, but she hasn’t been working!”

“Aha!  You see?” said María, angry now.  “They took your money!  Are you sure you didn’t see them?  Are you sure they weren’t alone in your house?  Did you leave them there on Tuesday?”

“Maybe,” I said, feeling tightness in my stomach.  “I don’t remember.”  How was a 50-Boliviano bill proof, though?  I had lost two hundred.

“Those Quispes, they’re all like that,” said María, “especially Betty.  You can’t leave anything lying around, she’ll take it.”

It seemed like it took no time at all for the rumor to take wing—Betty Quispe had stolen 200 Bs, maybe more, from Doña Elizabeth.  People began to re-circulate stories of small items that had gone missing when Betty was around—a comb, a bar of soap, candy.  Everyone just knew it was her.  I felt miserable.

The next time I saw Betty hovering outside my one small window, I called her in.  She came, uncertain, the tangled hair, dirty dress, and open sores on her legs all testimony to the grinding poverty her family endured.

It had taken me some time living in the village to begin to distinguish the layers of poverty around me.  Although all were farmers, living in homes made from materials found on the land, there were certain gradations.  At the top were the land-owning families, with 50 hectares each—enough to graze a decent sized herd of cattle.  Most of them sold milk or cheese through the local cooperative, and a few had branched out into other forms of income, such as citrus or trucking.  The wealthiest had homes made of brick, with tin roofs.  In the middle were families who had come later on, to tired land.  But they had enough to live on, to slowly build into something better.  And at the bottom were the families who had no land of their own.  They rented rice fields and rented themselves out as hired hands.  They tended a few small animals around their homes in the village’s “urban center” but did not have the wherewithal to invest in cattle or citrus with the attendant higher returns.  At the very, very bottom was the family of an alcoholic, who refused even to rent a field.  He preferred hunting and fishing – going further and further afield, leaving his no-longer-pretty wife and three small children to make do with the perpetual starch of their manioc garden.  Betty’s family was slightly better off, but not by much. Her mother’s teeth were worn to nubs from a lifetime of chewing coca, and her father looked on the verge of death.  Marina was her only sibling still in school – a stubborn girl on the cusp of puberty, wearing her new breasts with an “I dare you” smirk.

Once, sitting at my table, Marina told me, “my baby sister died because of Betty.  She was a beautiful little baby too.  But this Betty was sick, and because my mother was looking after her, the baby fell into the creek and drowned.  It was all Betty’s fault.  If it wasn’t for Betty, the baby would still be alive.”  Betty sat silently during this story, watching and listening, giving away nothing with her face.

Now here she was again, sitting at my table, looking at me with those same guarded eyes, alert and interested, but giving away nothing.

“Betty,” I said, each word hurting.  “I am missing some money from my purse.  I need to know, did you take it?  If you did, I’m not going to do anything against you, I just want to get my money back.  It’s not right to take things that belong to other people.”

“I didn’t take it, Doña Elizabeth,” she said.

I looked at her for a long time.  “I hope you are telling me the truth,” I said.  “If I don’t get it back, I won’t be able to accept children visiting in my house anymore.”


to be continued…

Something old, part 2

July 30, 2011

Riding a boat upriver is mesmerizing.  The steady gliding motion with its gentle up and down swell, the rackety hum of the outboard motor, and the breeze that fans your hair out behind you are soothing.  You can watch the brown water slap the side of the boat or foam and splash in a V behind you.  You can watch the silent jungle gliding by, and look for anacondas or parrots in the trees.  The sun is hot, but the breeze created by your motion keeps you cool.  If mom’s not watching you can slip one hand into the cool water and feel the tug of the river on your arm.

At last we came to the aguano muyuna, as it is called in Quechua, the spinning water.  This was a place in the river where the current went both ways at once—on one side, it flowed in the normal direction, but on the other, it curiously reversed for no apparent reason.  We slipped into the current that was going our direction, careful to stay away from the churning center of the opposing currents.  Just beyond that, we pulled over to the shore and climbed out, at our destination.

A small crowd had gathered to meet us, black haired and barefoot.  A couple men picked up our bags and we climbed the bank to the cluster of little houses just beyond, just far enough from the bank to be out of danger of being flooded in rainy season.

My little sister and I were taken to a room in one house to rest while my parents went with our hosts somewhere else.  The room was perfect—quiet, private.  The thatch roof and cane walls let in strips of sunlight that fell across a wooden bed built into one wall.  No mattress, just a blanket over bare boards and a burlap bag stuffed with straw for a hard and lumpy pillow.  But I was perfectly happy.  I found a little hand mirror on one wall and admired my swollen eye.  My sister went to find my parents, and I lay down on the bed and fell asleep.

I must have slept a long time (ah, Benadryl!), while my parents met with the people of Aguano Muyuna.  What I remember next is getting up in the chilly dawn with my mother and sister and crossing a grassy open space—wet and cold with dew—to find a place in the trees to relieve ourselves in the morning.  I saw an empty bird’s nest lying on the ground.

Later we were fed a breakfast of coffee, boiled manioc, and dried salt fish.  The fish was so salty we could not choke it down.  While our hosts ate their own breakfast squatting around the fire in the separate kitchen hut, my family sat alone at a table in the main room and shame-facedly slipped the precious protein to the skeletal dogs that lurked under the table.  We prayed our hosts could not hear the dogs crunching down the dried fish that we could not eat.

During the day my sister and I amused ourselves while our parents visited with folks.  That night we slept on the beach to wait for the boat that would pass at 4:00 in the morning.  It was exciting to snuggle into our sleeping bags in the sand under the stars, with the river rushing quietly nearby and a bonfire flickering near us to keep the mosquitoes away.

As I drifted into the inert stages just before sleep, I could hear my mother talking with a small crowd of children who had come down to watch us settle down for the night.  She talked with them about Jesus, then led them in a unison prayer of repentance for sin and acceptance of Jesus as savior.  “Wow,” I thought, drifting off into sleep.  “My mom doesn’t miss a chance.”

Something old

July 29, 2011

This is something I wrote a long time ago, a memory from my childhood in the Peruvian Amazon. I’m falling behind on my 3x-a-week posting goal so I thought I’d dredge something up from the past – my sister calls this “playing in the residue.” I think I was about 11 years old when this story happened. 


Aguano Muyuna

My family sat on the bank of the Urubamba river, waiting for the boat that would take us upstream to Aguano Muyuna.  The sun was hot and bright, reflecting off the sand of the riverbank and sparkling in the pebble-bottomed rivulet that ran into the murky brown rushing river.  On the opposite bank, a wall of jungle rose into the sky, slender trees holding up a green canopy and trailing vines and other climbing plants.  Close by, two women from the nearby village of Chazuta were washing their clothes in the rivulet.  We sat on our bags and waited.

I had to go to the bathroom, but there was no bathroom, no outhouse or latrine, so my mother told me to go into a clump of bushes just up the shore from where we sat.  I meandered over, picking my way around knee-high scrub into the higher bushes.  Around the back of the bushes I saw a man cutting coconuts from a palm tree, up on a ladder thwacking away with his machete.  I carefully made my way into the middle of the bushes, peering in all directions to make sure no line of sight would penetrate my shield.  Finally satisfied with my spot, I started to unzip my pants—when a buzzing swarm rose up from the grass at my feet and enveloped my head.  I screamed and ran out of the bushes, zipping up my pants as I ran towards the coconut man, waving my arms wildly around my head and face, feeling the burning sting on my hands.  “Al agua, al agua,” he shouted, waving his machete towards the river.  I stumbled down the bank to where my parents were rising to their feet anxiously.  I had left the cloud of bees behind me but my mother swiftly began to pull live bees and dripping stingers from my hair.  I was sobbing from the pain.  The clothes-washing women hovered around offering advice and clucking sympathetically.

I heard my father say, “maybe we shouldn’t go after all,” in his worried voice.  I didn’t understand.  Because of the bees, we wouldn’t go to Aguano Muyuna?  Was it really possible to cancel a trip?  How could we not go?  Weren’t we all packed and waiting for the boat?  Weren’t people waiting for us to arrive?

The pain had subsided and my crying calmed.  I looked at my arms, wondering how many times I had been stung, trying to count the welts.  I saw big red welts, and between them a whole rash of tiny little bumps.  “Look, Mommy, they must have just barely stung there without leaving the stinger,” I said.  She looked more closely, afraid now.

“Those aren’t stings,” she said.  “That’s a rash.”  She pulled out her toiletry bag and fished for a bottle of antihistamines.  “Take this,” she ordered, handing me a pill with a tall plastic cup filled with boiled water for drinking.  I obeyed.

Evidently my folks decided to go ahead with the trip, because the next I remember we were on the boat heading upriver.  I was no longer in pain, except for my right eye; despite my flailing, one bee had managed to sting me just at the corner of my eye, and the whole eyelid was swelling in a comically lopsided way.  I felt relieved that my accident with the bees hadn’t prevented the trip.


To be continued…

On friendship

July 17, 2011

I’ve been pondering, as I tentatively attempt to make new friends here while maintaining ties with friends in the US, how much I suck at friendship as well as how I’m good at it. Funny that Mel posted something about friendship too just as I was thinking through some of this. But rather than try to enumerate the ways in which I both suck and rock, I thought I’d start with a story about my high school frenemy – Jessica (not her real name) – from a time long before that term was coined.

I think I was in 9th grade when Jessica and I became best friends. I needed a place to stay for a few weeks while my parents were traveling for work, and her family offered me a room. Jessica was a year older than me – tiny, blonde, cute, with enormous blue eyes and the kind of personality that is usually described as “bubbly.” She had a cute Texas accent, played the flute and piano, and had recently returned to Peru from the US with a suitcase full of the latest fashions and hair accessories. At school, she was generally considered to be an “air-head,” so I guess I was surprised to learn when I stayed with her that she loved to read, composed piano accompaniment to songs she wrote, and had some interesting observations to make about the social scene at our tiny high school (five in my graduating class). So I was amenable when, one evening, she said “Hey, let’s be Best Friends next year.”

Being “Best Friends” meant, apparently, spending nearly all our free time together. Actually, as far back as 7th grade we used to hang out on a regular basis; every Saturday we would buy two bottles of pop (and in Peru in the ‘80s, pop still came in returnable glass bottles) and a bag of animal crackers, borrow a rowboat, and spend the day rowing around and swimming in the lake near the mission center where we both grew up. At the time I probably considered Rachel to be my actual Best Friend, but she didn’t care if I hung out with Jessica as well. Rachel was a lot more like me than Jessica – brown-eyed and nerdy, we both played the violin and pondered growing up to be English teachers. But in 9th grade I started going with Rachel’s older brother, and I think she felt a little betrayed because he’d used to spend a lot more time with his sister before he started going out with me.

Anyway. I guess I had a best friend vacancy in my life when Blue-Eyed Jessica suggested we be Besties, and I said, “okay.”

I call her my frenemy, though, because of the envy I always felt, that in the end poisoned our friendship and led me to abandon her about the time I graduated from high school. Next to Jessica, I felt big and awkward and dark and fat. And more masculine, somehow. Which I hated. And I think this envy had deep roots; I remember when we were in elementary school (I think I was in third grade, she in fourth) we were playing at my house with another friend, Sara. Jessica was playing the piano downstairs and I think Sara and I got annoyed because we thought she was showing off, so somehow we convinced her to get into an empty barrel in the attic and then we put the lid on and ran away. Jessica couldn’t get out and started crying. I feel awful about it now, just imagining how she must have felt, and I don’t think we left her there very long; but see, the envy was already there.

But in high school, something clicked, at least for a while. I remember how just by being sarcastic I could make her laugh until she was rolling on the floor, clutching her stomach, her face red and tears streaming down her cheeks, and that was fun. And we liked a lot of the same books. We would lie on the floor side by side, our heads on the same pillow, each reading a different page in the same actual, physical book – usually Daphne DuMaurier. We liked the same music – Christian contemporary, which I absolutely cannot stomach anymore – and sang together a lot. We harmonized really well, and recorded two cassette tapes of songs she wrote with her playing the keyboard and me singing alto to her soprano. She had a little motor-scooter (a Honda 50) and I’d ride behind her for hours around and around the mission center (I could write several thousand words about the role of motorcycles in our high school social life but that’s, as they say, another story). So, most of the time I could ignore the fact that she got about 2,000x more attention from boys than I did, or that she looked way cuter in my stretch jeans than I did, or that she was somewhat tone-deaf to certain things.

Like this one time, my mom had sewed a fancy dress for my cousin who lived with us – Margarita, who had been adopted from a Quechua family at age 7 by my aunt and uncle and then was sent to live with us when she was 16 and her parents couldn’t handle her (yet another long story that I won’t go into here). Anyway, Jessica said to me later, after the event where my cousin had worn the dress, “Margarita’s dress was pretty and all, but it just looked so Peruvian.”

Do I need to spell out how much – and why – that hurt and enraged me?

Or another time I had made myself a pair of earrings out of purple and blue electrical wire, and Jessica just seethed with embarrassment and refused to be around me when I wore them, because they “looked home-made.”

I finally dumped her, though, when she started going out with the guy that I wanted. That she knew I wanted. And you know why this was such a bad reason for me to dump her? Because I already had a boyfriend. My boyfriend, Rachel’s older brother, was in college in the US, and had been for the past 3 years (let me tell you about long-distance relationship… some other time), and in his absence I’d developed a crush on, um, let’s call him Dave. So I secretly wanted Dave (who had previously dated my sister – ugh, what an inbred little bunch we all were!), so when Jessica came back from a year in the States, with a spiral perm and trendy clothes and contacts in her huge blue eyes, Dave couldn’t hide his lust interest and they were an item within two weeks.

This was right before I graduated from high school and went to college in the States, myself. So all summer and into the fall I got letters from Jessica detailing the nuances of her romance with Dave, and I just stopped writing back. (Or did I write a “Dear Jane” letter? I don’t remember. I remember sitting in my dorm room, freshman year, with a letter in my hand, feeling grumpy and morose and it had something to do with the end of our friendship. But was it a letter from her? What did it say? And what did I write back? I have no idea.)

I have some vague and not-very-interesting memories of sporadic contact since then, so we must have maintained or restored amicability in some way. She even asked me to be her maid of honor in 1994, but I wasn’t able to since I was doing an internship in Bolivia (my understanding is that this was less about our friendship and more about forcing her sister out of that role for some reason). When we both got e-mail accounts, she wrote me of her infertility – endometriosis and low sperm count – eventually they decided to foster to adopt, and now have three little ones. I was sympathetic at the time but of course I didn’t really get it until we encountered our own roadblocks to family building. So we’ve kept in touch over the years, off and on, now pretty much exclusively through FB.

So that’s the story. I’m not sure now what the point was… I suppose it is that I could be really petty and jealous in high school, and that the way I dealt with it was to silently distance myself from Jessica instead of talking with her about the things that bothered me. I suppose what I most regret is how much I hated her sometime because of her looks – which had everything to do with how much I hated my own looks. Having a boyfriend helped, of course, even though he wasn’t even on the same continent – but how clearly I remember walking with Jessica up from swimming in the lake, hating how the breeze lifted her shining gold hair and how slender her torso and thighs were in that sparkling lavender bathing suit. How I felt fat and dark and ugly, and somehow, I blamed her.

Dot Day

August 28, 2008

It has been exactly one year now since my LMP.  It’s easy to remember the date after writing or typing it so many times to calculate the due date.  This day started the cycle when little V. was conceived. 

I remember this day last year very vividly.  I was in tears for much of it.  I didn’t want to do clmid this cycle, but T. talked me into it.  I think it sucks when you’re ttc that you get so little time to mourn a failed cycle; the day you get your period you already have to start thinking about the next one. 

Today, I am deeply grateful.