Saturday, February 28, 2015

Among The Giants

It's one thing to look at brown desert landscapes peppered with multi-armed green cacti and think, "Oh, sure. Saguaros. Those are cool."

But it's another thing altogether to encounter them in person. 

Mind-blowingly tall and disproportionate to the average human. 

There is only one way to truly experience and appreciate the power and glory of the saguaro cactus and that is to walk among the giants. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Yin And Yang

Up in Washington, our trees grow all the way to the ground. The iconic Douglas fir is a perfect example. Though its uppermost boughs stretch to the heavens, the trunk is adorned in heavy, lush, and fragrant branches all the way down to the forest floor. The full effect is a pleasingly mass of evergreen beauty, solid and stalwart against the gentle elements of the Pacific Northwest. 

And that's why I am surprised and delighted all over again every time I wander down to the high Southwest deserts of Arizona. Here, the uniquitous palms, though also towering, are decorated only with a touch of delicate greenery at the tippy too of their supple, swaying trunks. Those fragile fronds are perfectly suited to catch the blazing desert sun and set themselves aglow in their own unique show of finery. 

And this mysterious yin and yang between these two wildly different corners of our dear planet Earth is exactly why I love to visit Tucson. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Happy Birthday To You

If you were to look inside my fourth born's mind, this is what you would most likely see. 
The lights of the city sparkling against the jagged teeth of the high desert mountains. 
The lingering glow of the sun, setting far to the west. 
The deepening twilight, stretching navy to black in the heavens above. 
The evening star, Venus,  rising against the western horizon.

Yes, this is a perfect picture of my fourth-born's inner landscape. A surreal mix of reality and fantasy; of nature and the wonders of the great beyond. She is a woman of mystery and sensibility and limitless possibilities.

And yesterday was her birthday. What a day to celebrate!

Happy birthday to my inscrutable, metaphysical, contemplative young dreamer. You never fail to amaze me.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Brownies In Asia

For the last twenty months, my third-born baby girl has been living in Vietnam.

"I don't know how you do it," Well-meaning friends and acquaintances often cluck their tongues and shake their heads in pity for me. "I couldn't stand it if my daughter lived so far away."

Well, let me be clear. I don't always love the 7,028 miles that separate me from my girl. Sometimes, it's hard:

When she had her impacted wisdom teeth pulled.
When she crashed her motorbike.
When she sang in a Christmas concert
When I make her favorite dinner and wish she were sitting next to me, enjoying every bite.

But I also find a lot to celebrate about my daughter's bold and courageous spirit of adventure.

* * * * * 

Baking is a big deal in our family.

Ever since my girls were old enough to stand, we included them in the creation of snickerdoodles, apple pies, birthday cakes and countless pans full of brownies. 

There were tiny aprons involved.

And plenty of measuring and stirring and recipe-checking and finger-licking and good-natured squabbling. 

And flour spilled everywhere. 

As the girls got the hang of baking, I quickly learned to back out. Leaving my kitchen in their competent hands, I would often retreat to my bedroom and deal with some neglected task up there while listening to their merry chatter through the floorboards below.

In those moments, I often daydreamed about my future grandchildren, and how someday they would carry these fine family baking traditions forward to a new generation and multiply my efforts to spread delicious desserts throughout the world.

* * * * *

However, to be completely honest, I never imagined that my third-born would move to Vietnam and live with a family of native Koreans. 

I did not foresee the sweet relationship that would spring up between her and this family's ten-year-old girl.

I couldn't know that my daughter would invite Sally to share her love of baking. 

And never, ever, in my wildest dreams, would I have guessed that pans full of our favorite brownie recipe would spring forth from a little Asian countertop oven and fill these faraway hearts, minds and tummies with their chocolaty delights. 

And that is why I happily support my daughter's life in Vietnam. Because you never really know how your own dreams might come true. 

Photo credits to Sally, who will someday come to America and bake brownies here with me.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Sunset Chasers: Philosophical Edition

Often times, when I am chasing a sunset, I find myself filled with regret.

Happened again just the other day.

Sitting behind the wheel of my car, which was still running while parked haphazardly in a light industrial park near my neighborhood, I was jumpy with adrenalin from the mad dash to get to this optimal sunset-viewing spot before the colors faded from the sky as I asked myself once again:

Why, oh why, do I turn a sacred moment of peace and brilliant beauty into a cross-country, heart-attack-inducing steeplechase?

Why do I behave as if a gorgeous photo snapped in haste means more than the sweet memory of a sunset savored in real life?

And why, once again, am I sitting in here staring at my dusty dashboard and thinking these troubled thoughts while my daughter is outside, actually taking all the photos?

I don't have any good answers for myself

But I do conclude that I am not the only person who struggles with the art of being truly present in the precious moments of life. My thoughtful and talented friend, Chris, created a video in which he wrestles with his own distractedness during a recent visit to Abbey Road. Check it out.

And while I am often tempted to beat myself up for - as Chris puts it - missing the moment, I wonder if there is something more going on here than meets the eye.

What if there is just as much value in evaluating the past and planning for the future, as there is in living in the present?

What if this constant tension between staying truly present in each moment, and rushing on to the next, are the twin guide rails that run parallel along the pathways of our lives, pushing us back from one extreme to the other as we try to find a reasonable balance?

And what if we are meant to wrestle, each and every day, with our hearts' desire to stay deep and truly grounded in the moment, while our hyper human brains and survivalist sensibilities demand that we shift our focus to the next big thing.?

Hmm. This is something to think about next time I'm gazing at a sunset.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Moments Of Peace

I did not have a tea party today, but I did manage to put my hands on a bouquet of daffodils that 
were clearly tea-party worthy.

"Hi, Diane!"

My mom gaily picked up her phone and greeted me.

"What am I doing right now?"

Always with the guessing games. Even in these days of advanced dementia, my mother loves to quiz me.

I can't imagine, I replied. Tell me!

"Samantha and I are having a little party. She baked us some peanut butter cookies and right now, she's making me some fancy coffee. We're almost ready to eat!"

And while that may sound like a lovely afternoon in any context, the news that my mom was sipping cafe-au-lait and munching treats with her caregiver spun me around like a cyclone till I was limp as a rag doll, dizzy, and seeing stars.

Because just 24 hours earlier, my mom's anxiety levels had spiked off the charts. Hoarse from hours of uncontrollable screaming, intermittently curling up on the couch in the fetal position, and interrupting our phone calls to wildly argue with her hallucinations, Mom's behavior was so extreme and concerning that I placed an immediate after-hours call to her physician and asked if he thought she needed emergency care.

Daffodils are one of the first to flower each spring, and many specimens - like these - are grown indoors and forced into bloom ahead of season, while winter's pale still settles over the earth

My mom most likely has Lewey Body Dementia.

Overshadowed by its more famous cousin, Alzheimer's Dementia. LBD is a little-discussed, hard-to-diagnose, and frustratingly mysterious memory-loss disease.

In simple terms, my mom struggles with visual hallucinations, extreme anxiety, and an ability to concentrate that changes from day to day, even minute to minute. It must be terrifying to suffer from LBD, and the panic and free-floating despair that she often expresses are real and justifiable responses to her condition.

A whole new approach to communication is essential. Whatever Mom is seeing, feeling, or thinking in the moment is totally and unarguably real to her; those things must become my reality too.

Mom is unusually sensitive to the emotions of her companions. When I'm with her on the phone, as I often am for hours each day, I must present my most strong, soothing and stable self. When she becomes agitated, angry, anxious, then it's all the more important that I stay in my Zen zone.

Patiently, I try to listen and truly hear what she is saying.
Calmly, I try to acknowledge how she must be feeling.
Soothingly, I try to redirect the conversation in more positive directions.

None of this is easy.
None of this is fun.
And none of this works every time.

I struggle every day.

They bring me joy, these daffodils, as they celebrate spring's lively hopefulness on yet another 
dreary day of February gray.

But I have learned a lot about how to be at peace with my mom.

And while the storms will surely continue to rage in her desperately damaged brain, I will celebrate every moment that she finds a way to be at peace with herself.

Especially when there are cookies involved.

Monday, February 16, 2015

In Honor of James K. Polk

A President's Day algebra/history mash-up. 

One of the best things about being homeschooled is flexibility. Class times, study hours - heck, even subject matter and teaching style - can often be negotiated and rearranged to suit individual circumstances, and there are precious few hard-and-fast rules.

However, one of the worst things about being homeschooled is putting up with an entirely too flexible, convention-less teacher who makes up her own rules and insists on meeting to study on a national holiday for crying out loud, when decent, law-abiding traditional schools are closed for the day.

Yep. That would be me.

I know. Sounds so ugly when I say it like this, but last week, I told a group of my students that I expected to meet with them on President's Day.

The stunned and sickened looks on their faces told me that they had not see that one coming. Surely, they expected the day off to sleep in and play video games with their more traditionally schooled friends.

Quickly, in an instinctive attempt at keeping the peace, not to mention saving my neck, I concocted what I thought was a stunning proposal.

In honor of President's Day, let's all bring in a snack to share that represents our favorite president.

Oh my gosh, brainstorm! I love presidentially inspired snacks. In fact, my teaching buddy, Heidi and I once made a year-long celebration of the U.S. presidents, exploring each Commander in Chief according to his interesting quirks and biographical oddities, including his favorite dishes. That experience was a high point in my teaching career, and I was beside myself with excitement over this unexpected chance to relive the fun for a day.

Apparently, my students felt differently.

With their faces blanched and foreheads gently perspiring, they barely responded to my festive idea. They were gathering up their books and running for cover as if they half-expected me to suggest holding the final exam during a trip to Disneyland.

* * * * *

My students' expressions were equally quizzical when I showed up to class today with a bag of Tostitos.

Oh right, they remembered my President's Day snack idea. But exactly which president is represented by corn chips?

Well, obviously, James K. Polk.

Our nation's 11th president, Polk was a gem. Among his long list of notable presidential accomplishments, he led our country into a war with Mexico that allowed us to gain the territory that now makes up the American Southwest, thereby single-handedly introducing the unique deliciousness of Mexican flavors and all things taco-related to American cuisine.

Probably, Polk should be considered the founding father of Taco Bell, and the fairy godmother of the humble jalapeno. His contributions to the sour cream and salsa industries are staggering, and for this flavorful reason alone, Polk is a true American hero.

So, while I am perfectly willing to admit that I am probably a nihilistic meanie of the highest order for making my math students meet with me on President's Day, may I also venture to say what a refreshing and relaxing moment we shared before beginning our algebra lessons, as we munched on tortilla chips and swapped stories about the amazing and colorful legacy of our American presidents.

And the flexibility that allows us to pull that off is, without a doubt, one of the very best things about homeschooling

* * * * *
More stories about the interesting overlap between learning and eating: