Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Dear Mrs. Ivanov

Thirty-eight Douglas fir trees line the edge of my neighborhood as it borders Chennault Beach Road. Anonymously, collaboratively, mysteriously, gifts have appeared on those sturdy trunks to honor Anna, Jake and Jordan. I may or may not have contributed the hydrangeas. 

In the past month, ever since three college students were killed at a house party down the street, I've heard it said over and again: Getting the news that your child has been shot dead is every parent's worst nightmare.

But I respectfully disagree

Infinitely deeper must be the horror of learning that your child pulled the trigger. 

Purple has been chosen as the color to honor the fallen victims, so my big red balls have been temporarily painted over. I find peace in lighting three candles every evening. 

Please hear me say that I have great compassion for the victims, Anna, Jake, and Jordan, and their families. Their loss is devastating, senseless, tragic.

But every one of the past thirty-one mornings, when I wake up, the first person I think about is Allen Ivanov. 

The shooter. 

I pray for him. Deeply. Painfully. Wordlessly. 

And then my heart turns to his mother. 

I try to imagine what she is going through. I can't possibly know. But then again, I do.

My mother's heart understands. 

I pray that she manages to get herself up out of bed to face another day of this nightmare.
I pray that she finds a way to focus her attention on whatever tasks she must be accomplish today.
I pray that she can lay down the heavy weights of grief and hopelessness, even if just for a few minutes at a time.

And I pray that the letter I wrote to her, along with the many other cards and letters that have been sent to Allen's family, bring her some small measure of comfort and remind her that she is not alone. 

This is the letter that I wrote to Mrs. Ivanov.

I share it with you and ask that you consider praying with me, in the hopes of healing this mother's broken heart. 

* * * * *

Dear Mrs. Ivanov,

You don't know me. Your son has never met me either. But Allen used to work for my daughter and she's told me about him.

This is quite unusual because my daughter rarely shares stories about her staff. But Allen was different. Right from the start, my daughter noticed and was remarkably impressed with his thoughtfulness, intelligence, and conscientious work ethic. Last November on Black Friday, of all the dozens of associates who worked that day, she chose Allen to be her right-hand man. Your son’s special assignment was to stay at my daughter's side and help her respond to the steady stream of emergencies and demands she faced as store manager on that insanely busy shopping day. She told me he did a fantastic job.

But more than that, my daughter enjoyed Allen’s personality. She found him to be sweetly sensitive, shy at first but eventually open and warm and funny. My daughter gives nicknames to most of her associates and because he was so gentle and kind, she decided to call him Baby. She told me that he politely protested the name, but always smiled when she used it.

Through these stories, I came to be quite fond of Allen too. I want you to know that, in spite of what has happened, my daughter's opinion of your son has not changed. My opinion of your son has not changed. We both believe the best of Allen, and while we must accept the truth of his actions, we will continue to care very much about him.
I pray deeply for Allen, for you, for all of your family.
I pray for your strength, your courage, your tenacity to weather this terrible storm.
I pray for Allen's attorneys, that they may be able to provide a context for Allen's behavior that will show the full picture of his strong character and good heart.
I pray that whatever challenges he will face in his life, Allen will meet them with the same thoughtfulness and intelligence that he has shown in the past.
I pray that Allen will be forgiven by the people he's hurt.
I pray that he will forgive himself.
I pray that always, Allen and your family will feel supported and surrounded by forgiveness and compassion, healing and love.
And I pray most of all that every day for the rest of his life, Allen will find wonderful ways to bring forgiveness and compassion, healing and love to our broken and hurting world.
* * * * *
To read more about this tragedy and the healing in its aftermath, try:

Sunday, August 28, 2016


Life really is a most whimsical thing. 
While we consistently try and chart its route, it goes ahead and takes its own turn. 

Just follow the paths it lays out before you. 
And you may find, at some sudden turn, a miracle waiting just for you. - Jyoti Arora

"Go look at the tree on the patio and tell me what you think."

As each of my daughters came home yesterday afternoon, I sent them to the backyard to check out my day's project. 

Grapevine spheres sprayed with a touch of copper and suspended with wire from the branches of a tree. 

"Mmm. So typically you." That's what my second-born said.

"What do you mean," I prodded. "How are they me?"

"They're just....whimsical," she said with the certainty of someone who has finally landed on just the right word.



But whimsical also means changeable, erratic, unpredictable, capricious.

Though I think she used the word to describe my kooky Dr Seussian landscape - which is fine by me - I also realized that my daughter's word perfectly captures my attitude toward life. 

At this point in my life, I've lived beyond all my childhood dreams, bucket lists and wishful thoughts. Honestly, everything I ever dared to want has pretty much come true.

And for the past few years, I've realized that the life unfolding before me is way bigger than anything I could have made up.

I mean, come on:

Math students.
A trip to Cuba.
A daughter in Asia.
Making peace with my mother.
Letting go of the past.

My journey - as well as my tree full of spheres - has become whimsical in the truest sense of the word.

And I am most definitely enjoying the ride.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Two Coats Of Paint

Take your mind off the problems for a moment, and consider all the positive possibilities. 
Consider how very much you are able to do. -Ralph Marston

Twenty-four hours ago, these chairs were bright orange.

And I decided that I no longer wanted bright orange lawn chairs.

I know. They aren't grey now, are they.

That's because twelve hours ago, I decided the grey was not happening for me.

So I chose a different color and painted them again. And now I'm happy.

My point is this. When it comes to changing up the color of lawn furniture, the sky's the limit.

All it takes is a few cans of spray paint and a drop cloth in the back yard.

And if the first color doesn't quite suit my fancy, then by all means I can just head back to Home Depot and pick out a new one.

This is life.
Full of choices.
All within my reach.
If  I'm willing to dream and put in a little bit of work.

Granted. I can't change everything in this world. But with imagination and determination, there is almost always something I can do to make life just a little bit better.

Even if it does take two coats of paint. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Tickled Pink

"Your bedroom is all pink," my hostess told me as I set down my suitcase in the front hall. "Go look for it. You'll know it when you see it."

Well. She was so not kidding.

^ As I peeked in the last towering door at the end of the grand second-floor hallway of my Cuban home-away-from-home, I was met with an explosion at the bubble gum factory.

Pink walls and pink brocade, in all their raging 1950s glory. And twin beds, straight off the set of I Love Lucy.

 ^ A sweet pink chair for primping at the all-white dressing table, which was stocked with slippers, toothpaste, tiny soaps and other luxuries for my stay.

^ Matching pink wing backs guard a huge wardrobe and my private door to the secret balcony where I dried my laundry in the Cuban sunshine. 

You better believe I stuffed a towel under that door to keep out las cucarachas. Only two slipped past my defense. 

^ Even the bathroom's curtains and walls match the rosy theme, though the fixtures are mercifully pure white. 

But my favorite part of the entire blush experience: the long, luxurious, coral-colored brocade drapes and their gorgeous attention to detail.  

Every morning that I woke up in this pastel paradise, I pinched myself to believe that it was true. I was truly tickled pink to stay in this beautiful room and felt every bit a princess. 

* * * * *

Thursday, August 25, 2016


I'm blessed with friends all around the world.

Different races.
Different religions.
Different ways of life.

And though we talk about all kinds of interesting and random things, there is one question that we ask each other more than any other.

"What are you making for dinner?"

I'm fascinated with how curious we are about each other's plates.
And I'm always willing to try to explain how Americans eat.

At least at my house, we eat fresh foods simply prepared. Sometimes the dishes reflect a particular culture - I serve plenty of tacos and spaghetti and stir fry - but often I just buy what's in season, punch it up with a few spices or herbs, and grill it up.

But better than words, let me just show you.

Zucchini roasted in olive oil with black pepper
Fresh red grapes
Tri-tip beef seared medium rare with olive oil and mixed peppers 
Sourdough bread grilled with butter

* * * * *

Fresh cantaloupe and blueberries
Boston lettuce and arugula topped with baby carrots, bacon, cucumber, hard-boiled egg, Parmesan cheese and blue cheese dressing

* * * * *

Baby carrots roasted in olive oil with black pepper
Turkey burgers: ground turkey, grated apple, egg, chili powder and paprika, and a dash of Panko bread crumbs
Kale roasted in olive oil with black pepper. 

* * * * *

So now you know what's on my plate.

Tell me, what's on yours?

My Cuban Home

^ Welcome to my beautiful Cuban home-away-from-home. Looks like an old Spanish castle, doesn't it?

But technically, this home is not in Cuba at all. Because I was a guest of the Ambassador of Malaysia and stayed here in his official residence, this house stands on Malaysian soil. 


^ That fact was hard to grasp when I first climbed out of the car and stood staring in the driveway, the Cuban sun beating down on my jet-lagged brain. Once I stepped inside, the cool entry hall did indeed feel familiarly Malaysian, from the shoes lined up at the door and the portrait of the Prime Minister to the proud display of mini Petronas Towers and lacquered Islamic art. 

^  But my goodness, what a gloriously beautiful and enormous house.

The ceilings soar twenty feet high overhead.
Curved arches and doorways echo from room to room.
Intricate moldings and heavy tapestries add layers of ornamentation.

^ The courtyard is straight out of my exotic tropical mansion fantasies, complete with wrought iron railings, a splashing fountain, and all manner of leafy green jungle plants. 

^ Most breathtaking of all are the living and dining rooms. Two comfortable seating areas - each one bigger than the average American family room - sit side by side in the living area. 

Coffee tables sparkle with coordinating displays of colored gems collected in Cambodia. 
Lush red pillows punch up the cream-colored upholstery with satin and gold accents.
Art collected from Vietnam stirs the imagination.
French doors layered with brocade and sheers keep out the pounding sun and open to the terrace and pool.

And a dining room table for eighteen - big as a bowling alley - is crowned with an appropriately gigantic chandelier, 

As I tiptoed through the rooms, I felt like a palace intruder. I wondered if it was possible to feel at ease in such a fantastically formal residence. I doubted that this showplace could ever feel like a cozy home. 

Then I was called to lunch. 

Jom, Makan.

At the far end of that diplomatic dream of a table, near the kitchen door, I found six homespun place mats, one of them clustered with simple serving bowls. Spicy smells of Malay home cooking rose up as everyone came running and slid into their seats. 

From the top left, clockwise: 
sambal, fried chicken, hard boiled eggs, shrimp and sambal, cucumber slices.

Suddenly, this massive, majestic house didn't feel like a palace or an embassy or a castle at all.  

This felt like the friendly home of my newfound Malaysian friends, a place where I could eat nasi with my hands and take second- or even third-helpings of delicious home cooked meals, and sit long after we had finished eating to talk and talk and talk.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Gentle Art Of Reframing

"To reframe, then, means to change the conceptual and/or emotional setting or viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in another frame which fits the 'facts' of the same concrete situation equally well or even better, and thereby changing its entire meaning." 
- Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch

* * * * * 

Me exploring in Nayli's bedroom: Oh, I love your collection of tiny blank books. I'm obsessed too. But I never know what to do with mine. What do you write in yours?

Nayli: Nothing. I don't write in them. I just collect them.

Me: *mind blown*

* * * * *

In an instant, my wise teenage Malaysian-hostess-in-Cuba changed my life. 

No longer do I feel a scrap of guilt over my stockpile of unused journals and tiny baby notebooks. They are my collection and I am set free to enjoy them just as they are - empty, pure and clean.

I feel entirely liberated. 

And what's more, I can't think of single reason why I shouldn't be adding new treasures to my collection on a regular basis. 

So today, I did just that. 

Thank you, Nayli, for teaching me the gentle art of reframing.

And thank you, Target, for satisfying my never-ending desire to collect.

* * * * *

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Aqil's Chicken

My Cuban hostess: "Would you be willing to carry a suitcase full of chicken back to Aqil in Seattle?"

Me: Okay.

* * * * *

My friend, Aqil, is a 19-year-old University of Washington sophomore who hails from Malaysia. He's spending the summer here in Seattle, working at his new on-campus job and catching Pokemons. 

His Malay mommy, chef extraordinaire, is currently living with the rest of the family in Havanna, Cuba. 

So when I paid her a visit this month, the question was put to me early on.

Of course I said yes. Who would deny a hard-working student his mother's home-cooking? 

And this is how I found myself at the U.S. Customs counter, deep in the bowels of the Miami Airport, declaring a suitcase full of frozen meat. 

Immediately, my passport was whisked off to a special agent and I was led deeper and deeper into the labyrinth,

passing various gun-packing personnel who waved me forward,
following sometimes green dots and other times yellow,
entering a series of Do Not Enter gates, and
eventually reuniting with my suitcase. 

As I finally took my place at the special declarations counter, ready to defend my case, I took a deep breath and reminded myself of the basic rules for dealing with any legal authority: 

Tell the truth.
But only answer the questions that are asked. 
Resist the urge to say more. 

And then the interrogation began:

So you're traveling with some meat today?
What kind?
Did you buy it at the airport?
It it cooked?
Yes. (Some of it was technically only half-cooked. But that's still a yes.)
So what is it, rotisserie chicken?
*Stares blankly at me, clearly stumped for more questions but wondering what the heck is going on.*
Okay. I'm taking the chicken home with me to Seattle for a hungry college student. I was just visiting his mom in Cuba and she made it for him.
Ohhh. Home cooking! Very nice. Have a good trip. 

* * * * *

Sadly, my foray into Customs ate up several hours of my layover and I ending up missing my flight. Waiting at the airport till morning for a new connection, I was on pins and needles, imagining my precious cargo defrosting in the heat of the Miami night. Once safely returned to Seattle soil, I rushed home to deposit the payload into my freezer and called Aqil to arrange delivery.

By midnight, my mission was complete. Aqil had his chicken.

And by the next afternoon, the first plate full of Mama's home cooking was ready for lunch. 

* * * * *

More stories about my friend, Aqil:

Friday, August 19, 2016

Dog Day Walk

Today is a scorcher. The mercury has climbed north of 90; the sun blazes down with not a cloud in sight to temper its fury. These are the dog days of summer and all the world is lying still.  

And yet my good old dog, Ranger  - so skinny now that I have taken to stirring chunks of butter into his evening meals - stamped his foot and threw his pre-walk fit right on schedule today.

At 4:30, he lifted his head, fluffy fur dancing the stream of air from a nearby fan, saw me in the kitchen, and gave me the look. It's time

At 4:45, he got up and came looking for me, laser eyes on me as I watered in the backyard. Put down the hose and take me. 

I was trying to put him off an hour or two  so the sun would be a bit lower and the air a bit cooler. But my spirited  it was not having it. 

By 5:00, he resorted to full-blown whining and the antsy back-and-forth footwork that tells me he is desperate to get moving. Now now now now now!!!

So we went. 

And while we did opt for our slightly shorter alternate route - which we use when one of us is recuperating or we are in a total pinch for time - my increasingly frail but always determined dog strolled along in fine style. Oh, he was pantting to be sure, his tongue dripping and hisskinnybribs  heaving. But make no mistake; he loved every hot minute of our dog day afternoon walk. 

And therefore, so did I. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Dear Cuba

Dear Cuba,

You are a funny little country and after spending twelve days with you, I have very mixed feelings. 

This is the airport in Havana. What more can I say?

I am sad to leave my hosts but let's face it. They are only living with you to serve the diplomatic aims of their motherland, Malaysia. Not because they love you. Because - let's be honest - they don't.

Havana city center on the distant horizon, this afternoon's storm gathering force

I mostly adore your jungly piece of Caribbean real estate. Sure, your August days are a bit hot and steamy, but your insane cloud formations and monstrous tropical storms really do it for me.

Heading north to Florida, the Keys appear below me in fascinating detail. I could trace out the causeways that link each one to the next

Your beaches are sweet. Not always turquoise blue, but rich in velvety soft  sands and warm waves. Me gustan muchas las playas. 

Clouds over the Everglades. I have no words for this sight either. 

But here's the thing. I am deeply worried about your people. They seem to me like ghosts; pale, washed-out inhabitants of what should be a vibrant, lively culture. There is precious little joy on your island, and that is a tragedy. 

Shame on you, Cuban leaders, for letting it come to this. 

I don't know how to help you, Cuba. And to tell you the truth, no one in this whole world does. 

Waiting in Miami for the morning to come, and the plane to take me home. 

But I wish you all the best, with your neat agromercados and vintage cars and dozing dogs. I hope to see you again. 

Muchos besos y abrazos,


* * * * *

Winding Down

This was not the best sunset I saw in Cuba. 

No exotic locale or ancient landmarks to complement the natural scene.

But this pale yellow sunset against dull grey-blue clouds, above an ordinary row of palms was extraordinary in one important way. 

It was the last sunset of my trip to Cuba, seen from my hosts' back terrace. And that made it very special indeed.  

* * * * *

Monday, August 15, 2016

Varadero, Cuba

Climb into the dark blue Mercedes in a pounding rain. Leave the flooded streets of Havana behind and travel south.

Oops. There's a highway bridge closed. Ask a friendly local for directions. Backtrack and find the unmarked detour route. 

Follow the twists and turns of the jungle road. See the backbone of Cuba, the Sierra Maestra Mountains, marking the center of the islands to your right. Watch for glimpses of the Caribbean Sea on the left. 

Take note of the entrepreneurs selling cheese along the side of the road. Here and there, a hopeful Cuban holding a hunk of homemade cheese on a piece of wood, standing on the side of a not-that-busy jungle track. Imagine what they would say if they could see the cheese selection at the average first-world grocery store. 

Loop back to the main highway and zoom on. Two hours into the trip, descend a smooth hill into the cultured city of Matanzas. Roll out to the Hicacos Peninsula where the resort town of Varaderos sits, poised just above the waters of the Caribbean. 

Park the car, grab the cooler, and climb over the ridge of dunes to find this. 

After the sun has set, slip back into the car. And still wearing a soggy swimsuit under sandy clothes, reverse the trip. Drive all the way back home in another wild torrent, knowing that this is a day you will never, ever forget.

* * * * *