I Smell Like Burned Beets, yet am I Loved?

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What do you smell like?

Do you have an odor?

Not the cologne or shampoo you use, or even your fabric softening dryer sheets.

But, rather, what do others breathe in as your smell wafts by?

A smell can tell you a lot about a person. What they’ve been doing, where they’ve been.

A smell can recall a memory greater than most senses, I believe. First boyfriend’s cologne? I’m frozen. Momma’s cooking? I’m heart-warmed. Hospital soap used in the NICU? I’m grief-stricken.

Smells can affect us, and those around us, to an emotional level.

And I smell like burned beets.

I was making beet chips with dinner last night.

(My kids like weird food. Kale chips, beet chips, sweet potato chips.. they request them. My kids are weird. But I’m weird and I eat weird food, too and I ate weird food when I was pregnant with them, so that probably has something to do with it, so I’m told.)

They were roasting away and all was under control, which should have been my first clue that I was on a precipice. Few things are ever under control at that untethered, chaotic time in late afternoon, before dinner, waiting for the man-tetherer called Daddy and Hubby to save us all. Pride comes before the fall as calm comes before the storm.

I hear it from afar. The arguing of my girl and boy. The verbal scraping, the hearts angry behind the tired tempers. I ran to intervene. I used my words to band-aid their wounds, to little relief. Too little relief. It was their 35th argument of the day. My words were like a lemon-sour band-aid.

I stormed back to my oven. To the smell. What was almost perfect, with a few poorly spent minutes more, had burned. The beets were black and smelly. I gasped,and removed them; the smoke filling my senses, my pores and my hair follicles, all eager to accept failure.

Hubby enters, Men have perfect timing. Even those who always run late.

“I am leaving!” I screamed. And storming away again, I barreled toward the front door, my escape.

(After turning off the oven, the burners, and making sure no plastic utensils were near any heat source. I have become my mother.)

I sat among my rose bushes, feeling like a thorn. I smelled terrible, I had yelled sorely at my children, I had burned dinner and was sure these were all litmus tests for each and every area of my life where I had been letting myself down lately.

I ran my fingers through my hair. I am losing some of it. A large amount of it, actually. I would like to blame it on my recent, and yet unfinished, kitchen remodel, and while those of you who have endured a kitchen remodel are nodding your heads, I am sure there is a deeper cause…

We took a brief interlude this weekend to run away from our kitchen chaos to spend two days in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. It is beautiful, cooler than El Paso, and we could pretend to have a summer and forget about our remodeling stress for a bit. With the hubby returning to work this week, it became a last-minute priority.

Ana on a Cloudcroft tire swing

Cows in Cloudcroft. Just on the side of the road!

While hiking, my youngest heard a dog barking and pointed. “Woof, woof!” He imitated. Yes, I said. That’s what dogs say.

I was pleased that he had stopped calling dogs, ‘Aslan’, our chocolate lab’s name. Every dog used to be Aslan, but now he knows that other dogs have a different name. “Woof, woof.” He repeated. I realized he was not imitating the sound of the animal, but was naming the dog, based on his sound. “Momma,” he pointed to me. “Ma-day-do,” he pointed to himself. “Woofwoof,” to the dog in the distance.

What is my name, if I am called by the sound that I make?

Yell!

Grumble-mother.

Whining wife.

“Furrowed-brow expectation-measurer who yells-a-lot” in Native American terms?

I did a terrible thing and asked my husband what I would be called.

(Wives, don’t be like me. Husbands, pray for my poor man.)

“I think you’d be called, ‘singer’. You sing an awful lot!”

(He didn’t say I sing awfully, a lot, mind you.)

I sighed. That was really kind of him. He’s very kind. And, forgiving.

“I don’t know about that,” I couldn’t resist smiling when I caught his eye.

Needless to say, I have been feeling un-beautiful lately. Not ugly, for one person’s trash is another’s treasure and even the ugly things can be found beautiful in the right light.

No. I have been feeling un. beautiful. My heart, my words, my insides and outsides. Un. beautiful.

So I have been doing what I do when I feel yucky. I work out more.

After my exercise this afternoon, I looked in the mirror.

Don’t be like me.

I have a magnifying mirror my mom gave me to “only use while necessarily grooming your eyebrows. Understand? For nothing else!” She admonished.

I’m rebellious. I look in it several times a day to intentionally self- flagellate. Don’t tell my mom.

I looked in it, at my magnified, enormous pores and I cracked. I couldn’t hold up the weight of the burden of being angry with myself anymore. I dropped the thousands of pounds of disappointment, unforgiveness and secret self-hatred and watched them crumble as I heard the words in my head:

“These pores are large because every inch of me longs to take in life to the fullest. I need large receptacles.

My mouth is so big because I like to smile, love to laugh and use big words that wouldn’t come out of a vessel any smaller.

My arm muscles are un-feminine in size to always remind me that I used to carry 90-pound bags of cement while building houses in Mexico.

My back is unnaturally curved and my bum sticks out. I am therefore, always ready to carry another’s burden.

My feet are ballet-ugly and a bit larger than they were four babies ago. I will never forget my years of grace in toe-shoes, nor the irreversible impact my children have on my journey, how I will forever walk differently.”

Every scar on my body is a mark not left there to remind me of my wounds, but to remind me that I have been healed.

I am not wounded.

I was wounded and now, I am healed.

If my skin can do it, so can my heart.

I walked back inside, last night, after my moments of feeling like a thorn rather than a rose and served my family our dinner. The children were thrilled to find some beets unscathed. They chuckled in giddy anticipation, for beets are special. They were used by many ancient “furrowed-brow” native mothers to dye clothing, animal hides, lips, and cheeks, too. Beets will coat your insides and leave everything that comes out of you a different color for a few days afterwards.  !!

The boy and his beet smile.
Nevermind the remodeling in the background!

My boy started talking about what his poo might look like in the morning.

Beets stain everything…

My daughter started coloring her lips and pretending to be on the cover of Vogue.

My hubby laughed with his boyish grin as he entertained the idea of extra-golden pee due to the golden beets I had roasted, too.

A dinner that began with burning, smelly beets, a reminder of my failings, ended with beet-smiles, laughter and a twelve-hour learning curve that I desperately needed.

(A funny and transparent confession is that the beets looked so beautiful on the cookie sheet before I put them in the oven, that I wanted to Instagram them and show the world the organic loveliness I was making. Remember that pride thing I mentioned? How it comes before a fall? Well, for me, it burned to smithereens, technically.)

My son asked to use my phone today. He wanted to take a picture of me. A portrait, he said. He said he wants to remember me, because he thinks I am beautiful and he thinks I smell good, like hugging-Mother.

How do we get these moments from children? These “out of the mouths of babes” moments, that are really divine messages?

A Ben-portrait.

It’s a terrible angle, I look twice my size, my ugly foot can be seen, but thank goodness you can’t see my balding!

However, you can see in my eyes and in my smile that I love my son. And he could see it, too.

And, I smelled good, better than last night, at least.

No more burning beet smell. I think. I hope?

If the smell of burning beets was where I have been and what I had been doing, I pray the odor would just be a bad memory.

Perspective

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Recognize this guy?:

Anton Ego has perspective.

He speaks in Peter O’Toole’s amazing voice and in the movie, Ratatouille, he says a word that, like most, sounds way more amazing in his British accent than in my American one. The word is perspective. Or, “puhr-spec-tif” as it may sound.

His name is Anton Ego and I have been thinking a lot about him, lately. He makes a huge character change in a Disney movie and since I don’t see many adult movies these days, he is who my brain referenced as I began to unearth some of my own character shifts.

For example,

I used to:

be proud of finding a pair of designer shoes on clearance in my size in Macy’s. (like, wow- I am smart AND hot!)

Now:

I am proud that I scored a full brown paper bag of bananas, slightly brown, to store in my freezer for baking, for 99 cents! (like, can’t wipe the smile from my face, proud.)

I used to :

look around a school cafeteria, desperate for company and conversation and to avoid the dreaded “eating alone”.

Now:

I am desperate to take a bite of hot food, chew it and swallow it and repeat that a few more times and ONLY then,  have someone talk to me, or need something, or yell at his sister, or stick garlic bread in his water glass.

I used to:

stumble out of bed, use the ladies’ room and brush my teeth, take a shower, a FULL, COMPLETE shower, dry myself off and think about my upcoming day and its “stress”.

Now:

I climb out of bed while holding a child, stumble to use the ladies’ room with the toddler watching me, wash my hands, re-hang the hand towel to the non-dingy side, clean out the sink, wash the toddler’s hands and go let the dog out, begin feeding the chickens……

I used to:

live in a dorm room while having two majors, two jobs and no kitchen. Ordering sushi delivered to my dorm from my favorite restaurant , named Ichiban, was one of my few dinner options.

Now:

I sit on my couch with a broken foot absolutely horrified at the little co-ed ingrate that used to live inside me, for not only is Ichiban still my favorite restaurant, but it is now 2385 miles away and is on the scale of  ‘anniversary dinner’ and I am starving. Eating a yogurt is my only dinner option, tonight. (*update: full disclosure would state that I am finishing it with a Shiner Bock I found in the fridge.)

I used to think:

a hero is Christopher Reeve in blue tights and amazingly dreamy frozen black hair.

Now:

I am convinced my hero is Mr. Dyson (yes, it sounds like “Mr. Darcy” if you say it out loud and yes, that reminds me of Colin Firth while I am vacuuming and yes, that is the point..)  I threw an IKEA rug from my children’s room into the washer and the rubber backing was pulverized! Mr. Dyson took care of the mess in my washer and laundry room and even Superman would be impressed, I think.

One of my favorite quotes used to be:

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” -Gandhi (and it still is, by the way)

Now, one of my favorite quotes is:

“Don’t kiss your children so they’ll kiss you back. Kiss your children so they will kiss their children.” -anonymous (on a Starbucks cup!)

I used to:

be convinced that romance was something that happened between a guy and a girl, alone.

Now:

I have experienced the romance of a hand on a hip in the early morning of a late night filled with nightmares. The other hands, his and mine, were occupied holding an eight-year-old lovely, a three-year-old handsome and nursing a one-year-old Mr. Aterrible. (adorable+terrible= nickname prophetically mispronounced by his brother when first he laid eyes on the new bundle who is both, adorable and terrible!)

The Little Weirdos :)

I used to:

live in a land with four seasons. Rivers and lakes are abundant. Mountains, valleys, Plimoth Rock, Montreal, Niagara Falls, Boston, the Statue of Liberty, Acadia National Park and Hershey, Pennsylvania- all! within driving distance. Anything can grow there, with little effort. It is a nourishing land. The miraculous comes easily.

Now:

I live in the desert. We have one and three-quarter seasons: hot with a tad of windy and a bit of almost chilly, in January. Great places in New Mexico are within driving distance, Carlsbad Caverns is a little bit East and I can throw a can and hit Mexico.

Stuff doesn’t grow here. If it does, it is a rare feat and makes El Paso Water Utilities a hefty profit! Every sign of life is a gift, sown with tears of hope and prayer mixed with fertilizer.

I used to think a floral gift was a dozen red roses from a fancy fresh florist (in Stuyvesant Plaza, to be specific). Now, I think a gift is a stray bloom, born from a seed blown far from the rest of her family across the street, she took root in a sidewalk crack and made me pause to catch my breath.

A blossom in a crack

I used to:

want so many things, need so many things, think so many things were important.

Now:

everything has changed. Most importantly, I have a changed perspective.

I am more grateful for the small.

More satisfied with the simple.

Just like Mr. Ego, I had tasted the fine and the fancy, experienced the fast and the furious, had been “epi”-ed and “cure”-ed. Yet I didn’t even know what my heart’s deepest cravings were. After all that fine dining, he really just needed his mother’s ratatouille to satisfy. Some roasted squash and tomatoes gave him perspective.

I do have an amazingly simple ratatouille recipe, by the way.

But more than that, like Ego, I also have more perspective.

No offense, Superman.

Superman.
Christopher Reeve.

You do look  better in tight pants than Ego.

But can you make ratatouille?

A couple of recent pictures, from my perspective:

Ana, the Lovely.

Bathed Boys Growling.

El Paso, a view at night.

Only in El Paso…

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Let me tell you a little story about this border town I have struggled, tried, grown to love.

Don’t get me wrong, when I first moved to El Paso I loved it!

It was always sunny and was a refreshing change of pace from my intense life as a double-major at a liberal university in the capital of New York State. I was an RA and putting myself through college by teaching ballroom dance lessons to local television news personalities. But it was a harried schedule, full of image assessments, evaluations of my future and a whole lot of pressure. It was so nice to leave cloudy days and high expectations behind. Always sunny, people not expecting much from me at all, El Paso seemed like a vacation destination. I was all-too eager to stay and when a handsome boy, who is now my esposo, proposed to me, my temporary relocation became permanent.

But lo and behold, after a few years, it was still sunny.  Like every day. Like really sunny. And hot. So hot, that for a long time, I was convinced that all the fluids under the hood of my car would combine and eventually spontaneously combust! And, while it was a vacation at first to leave high expectations behind, I actually began missing the satisfaction of meeting someone’s expectations, or even exceeding them. No one was expecting anything from me! Expect something- please!

After a few years with an attitude adjustment, a group of the best friends a girl could ask for, and a progressive city council, our city has evolved and so have I. I do truly love El Paso. I love that no matter where you may have wandered in your past, the city of the pass is honored to be part of your story. The present one, or even the one in your future.

The following anecdote is a testament to four things :

1. You are always welcome here in EP, no matter how dirty or downtrodden you find yourself.

2. You will have the opportunity here on the border, to witness truly one-of-a-kind events.

3. I used to be a bit snobby.

4. I married the right man.

It was a hot, sunny Sunday afternoon and my husband, daughter and I were driving home from church and approaching our neighborhood. I was grumpy. I guess church didn’t take. I was thinking about how clean my car used to be. Before I got married, before I had a baby, before I moved to a land where dirt blows into every crack, crevice, orifice and pore it can find. Every. Day.

See? I needed more church.

As we drove closer to home, I kept seeing the same brand-new, dark blue F-150 switchbacking our streets and alleys, crossing our path at nearly every intersection. If you are from El Paso, you are picturing this pick-up truck with a large silver star on the back windshield. You are correct in your assumption. It was a Dallas Cowboys’ unofficial team vehicle.

Pulling into our driveway, I whined at my (poor) husband, who got married to me too quickly for more than a mere crash course in Jewish-American Princess-dom and was unprepared for what that tone of whine meant.

“Could we Pleeeeease get my car washed this week?”

I opened my door. I put down my high-heel-encompassed painted toes on the hot cement.

He looked at me. Smiled and sighed. At the same time. His exhale is a pressure-release valve.

“Of course.” He nods. “Whenever you’d like.”

His church shoes hit the pavement.

I exhale. Another pressure-valve released.

We stand, looking at each other across the top of our vehicle, front doors opened.

“Thanks. I really—-“

And my daughter screams. Squeals in delight, would be a more accurate description in hindsight. But at the time, I heard a scream because all of a sudden, I wanted to scream, too. A stray dog, full of street dirt, wind dirt, alley dirt, dog dirt and more dirt, saw our open car doors from afar and took them as an invitation to hop from one open door to another and sit upright in the front passenger seat that I had, just seconds ago, vacated.

Speechless, stunned and, honestly, a tad amused at the dirty irony in front of me, I looked up at my esposo quizzically and asked, “What the h-ll?” with my eyebrows. The shock and confusion was reciprocated and esposo thought quickly enough to shut his door so his church clothes would remain un-dirty-ed. The smear on my dress was the result of my un-quick thinking.

Then, as if directed by Quentin Tarantino to slowly rise out of the desert dirt and pull up alongside our driveway, the F-150 re-appeared.

“What the h-ll?” I thought, again.

The driver’s window slowly rolled down, in perfect tempo with the soundtrack obviously playing for some audience’s amusement somewhere.

“Hey-” was shouted from the window as if the word, “vato” was to be said next.

El Hombre slowly relocated his sunglasses to the top of his head.

“Ees dat your dog?”

He nodded to the esposo first and the dog, second.

“What the h-ll?” I said, out loud this time.

(Sorry, Mom. I know. As you’ve always said, “Erin Leigh, you are very articulate and know many words. Could you not find another way to say that?” No, Mom. This time? I couldn’t.)

I look down at this dirt ball of a  pit-bull-boxer-esque canine in my seat in my car and thought, “how could anyone think this was MY dog?!?”

So although el hombre and esposo were the only invited members of this conversation, la huera was about to join in.

“No! It sure isn’t!” I shouted back.

See? Snob.

The look from esposo was for my tone-of-voice, not my word choice. I still had a unique relationship with strangers at this point in my life. (See:  Are You My Stranger, a previous post, for a thorough understanding.)

“Ohhh. Kaaay. Well. Do you want it? I been folloween it for a-while and it don’t look like it belongs to nobody.” Was el hombre’s reply.

I look at esposo. He’s nodding yes and calling the dog out of his side of the car as if the transaction has already been settled.

What was not settling was his manner. Or, how settled his manner was; how calmly this man asked us for this random stray dog in our possession and how calmly esposo was handing the dog over.

“Wait a minute, here.” I was clearly the only voice of reason.

Where I come from there are only two. Two! Respectable ways of procuring a dog on a weekend.

1. you go to a breeder. you pay hundreds of dollars for the breed you have thoroughly researched to be a perfect match for your family’s hair color, activity level and generational purpose. you get papers, lineages and veterinarian approval. Voila- a pedigree. You are a wise, respectable dog-owner.

2. you go to an animal shelter or human society. you look longingly and guiltily at each poor abandoned pooch and search the eyes of each one to find that sparkle, that knowing glance, the sign that tells you that this dog and your family were meant to be. the one! You take it out of its cage, you give it a second chance at life and- voila! you are a hero!  you are a humane dog-rescuer.

Where I come from you: never. ever. go. shopping. for. a. dog. in. the. alleys. of. the. nearby. historic. district. Ever.

Ever?

Ever!

Come on!! Who. does. this?

What the hell??!!!

Esposo pauses. El hombre hops out of his truck. His front door is open. We know what this means to dirt doggy over here. Dog runs over like a traded free-agent and hops into the truck. A Dallas Cowboys’ mascot in training, the dog plops on the front seat, tail wagging, tongue panting.

Esposo shrugs.

“See you, man!”

F-150 drives away with newly acquired dog.

Daughter giggles from the backseat at the hilarity of the surprising moment that has just passed.

I still stand speechless, jaw agape, watching the truck leave our neighborhood.

“So?” asked the esposo.

“So?” still bewildered at this strange land I have found.

With a huge,  proud-of-himself grin on his  face, Esposo:

“Wanna go get a car wash?”

Only in El Paso…

Where Mercy and Justice Kiss

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Where Mercy and Justice Kiss

One of my favorite wise men once said, “You never truly know a man till you walk a mile in his shoes.”

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is in the midst of the large social, political and racial issue of his time; the relationship between blacks and whites in his Southern- U.S. town. He was speaking to his young daughter, Scout, when this line was penned on his behalf. While his words were broad and inclusive, he had specific, individual people on his heart and mind.

He could name them. Picture them. He had known them and touched them; the marginalized, the misunderstood of his day, and that affected his opinion and how he spoke to his child.

He wasn’t campaigning for office, or asked his opinion in a telephone research poll, or giving a statement for the local newspaper. He certainly wasn’t writing a blog. He was a citizen, intimately involved in an exceedingly controversial issue of the day and was a significant player in his small town, as a lawyer representing a pariah.

His life touched the life of another.

Of an ‘other’.

He could no longer completely relate to those like him in race, stature and social position. He was no longer neutral. Yet, he chose not to take sides of an issue, but to rise above it in wisdom.

Oh, Atticus. Do you speak Spanish?

 If you have never lived on this Border, you have no idea what life is like here. All the Washington, D.C., National Geographic, CNN and old Western movies you may have listened to, read or watched, cannot substantiate your opinion until you have lived a life or touched a life “in-between” two nations. Come visit. We have an extra room. And chickens to feed. And the most beautiful sunsets you have ever seen.

In the meantime, let me tell you about a few entities that touch, besides sovereign nations, here, on the national border between the United States of America and Los Estados Unidos de México.

  •  the air from Ciudád Juárez, México; the brown, dusty cloud, touches the lungs of my children, every day.
  •  the bullet from a car chase in downtown drug cartel land grazed the leg of a grandmother pushing a stroller in downtown El Paso, on the same street as the courthouse, just last month.
  • the view from the center of our academic and financial pride: the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP)touches its mirror image, the view from a squatter’s village called Anapra, the poorest section of the poorest part of Ciudád Juárez.
  •  the eighteen wheels of the semi- trucks that carry goods across our nation, from Mexico touch our freeways, our roads, our tax dollars.
  • the women in labor as they legally cross the border for the day touch our county hospital, our tax dollars, again.
  • the delicious Coca-Cola made in Mexico, with real sugar, poured into a glass bottle to touch our hot, thirsty mouths.

There are many more to add to this list, and my fellow border-ans are probably thinking of them now.

This list isn’t the one that matters most, though, for it is impersonal.

There’s another list. One that grows with each passing day. The personal one.

The lives from over there, touching my life over here:

  • the children who are brought across the border with their parents as minors, grow to be middle-schoolers, and are enrolled as my husband’s students in Segundo Barrio, a neighborhood full of first-generation Mexican immigrants, one of the most impoverished zip-codes in our country. We touch.
  • the members of a drug cartel who murdered the husband of my teaching assistant on the first day of school, last year, after he surrendered his car to their violent request. We touch.
  • the distant cousin of my husband, raising her children and grandchildren, alone in a violent city, who saves her pesos and waits in an eight-hour line to have a chance at renewing a passport that will allow her to cross a border and do odd-jobs around others’ homes and mine, to secure a few days’ worth of groceries, dollars and old shoes to support her family. The line will not end before the consulate closes. She will be denied and un-renewed for another year. We touch.
  • the El Pasoan who found a bride in Aguascalientes, Mexico, had eight children and moved the whole lot back to El Paso. He’s my husband’s grandfather. We touch.
  • all of the families for whom I was responsible to help build a home as a twenty-year-old missionary, whose names and faces I won’t ever forget and to whom I am eternally grateful for drawing me here to the border. We touch.

I am not a politician. I do not presume to have solutions to our economic situation as a nation, our national security and Mexico’s threat to it or the international war on drugs. Our border forces; immigration officers, customs officers, border patrol and local law enforcement have very dangerous, very complex and very interconnected responsibilities. I have seen them in action. I respect them and are grateful for the protection I receive as a resident of one of the nation’s safest cities. We touch one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

What living on this border means, however, and what can’t be ignored in public policy, is that what our nation’s leaders see as an ‘issue’ in Washington, D.C., is a person with a name and a face, here in El Paso. It is complicated.

As human beings, our inner moral code, however you may assert it has been formed, demands justice.

Wrongs?  Righted.

Laws? Followed.

Also, as human beings, our eyes see and our hands touch the lives and the people living them, that turn our hearts merciful.

It is a tension, not a balance.

It is humanity. It is the border.

Parents speak to their children here on the Border, as Atticus spoke to his children then.

If we stand on one side with our child, we whisper, “You are safe. You are protected. This is our country, our security will not be breached.”

If we stand on the other side, we whisper, “You deserve to be safe. I wish I could protect you. Some day that will be our country and we will be free.”

We can all admit that there are racists on this side of the border and lawbreakers on that side. For every up-to-no-good infiltrator over there,  there is a vigilante minuteman over here . The law-makers and leaders and enforcers and agents know very real threats and great responsibility.

I think players on both sides of our new “fence” need to do some walking around in other people’s zapatos.

I wonder is there is a place, here on the Border, where mercy and justice kiss.

Most of me believes that there is no better place than the Border, to find two opposing forces touching.

It seems to happen every day around here.

Mt. Cristo Rey: Where three states, in two countries, touch. The site of an annual Good Friday pilgrimage.

If You Could See You Now…

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What do you want to be when you grow up? I am still undecided.

When I was a young girl, I thought I would be a back-up dancer for Michael Jackson, but then, my favorite flavor of Tic- Tacs was orange. My least favorite were the light-green spearmint ones. It was hard to moonwalk while blowing the mint out of my mouth.

As a teenager, I entertained the idea of being  a pediatrician. Later, in high-school, I thought I would be a Spanish teacher, then a Speech Therapist. College years brought plans to be a lawyer or a forensic pathologist (…who perhaps hangs out with David Duchovny?)

I haven’t yet decided on my official career path because I still want to be all of these things. I still really want to be an actress! (shh..) I’ll have to wait until heaven to do the first thing, but I think I still have time to go to medical school, law school and X-Files school.

My vulnerable non-admission through omission is.. I never planned on moving to the West Texas town of El Paso, having my fourth baby before I turned thirty and..owning chickens.  (see previous blog post)   My life does not look like I thought it would. I am realizing that the current version of my life has eliminated the fruition of a few of my dreams.  Why does my life not look as I thought it would growing up? 

There are a lot of things I didn’t know would happen as I dreamed about music videos and saving the world as an eight-year-old. I didn’t know that my high school yearbook committee would publish a backwards prophecy and name me Most Sophisticated of my Senior Class. You don’t know how many times, as I nurse the baby while cooking or teaching, or preaching on Sunday (that’s another blog post) or shoveling chicken poo, I think to myself, ‘If they could see me now!”

If they could see me now.

I didn’t know that I wouldn’t get my Master’s Degree before having my first child, like I planned.

I didn’t know that I would end up teaching children of preschool age instead of highschool age. (And that it would be their parents I would speak to in Spanish.)

I didn’t know that my pediatric medical experience would come by way of expert, hands-on, middle-of-the-night tears and fevers.

I didn’t know that my speech therapy talents would manifest in precociously articulate offspring.

I didn’t know that my legal interests in child advocacy would play out in a courtroom through testimonies on behalf of my foster-children and not from a fancy bench on behalf of groups of marginalized clients and non-profit organizations.

I didn’t know my singing and dancing would be performed daily to a captive audience of three.

I didn’t know my ability to act, to play a role, would come in handy getting through each hour of each day.

I didn’t know my forensic pathology pursuits would help me decipher medical records and cause-of-death determinations for my own infant son.

We all have a million and one “I didn’t know it would turn out this way” examples. If my childhood self could see me now.

Now, my favorite flavor of Tic Tacs is the white mint flavor.

My least favorite flavor  is the “Everything Happens For a Reason” flavor. You know, the little verbal tic-tac phrases that people pop out of their mouth and into your ears to wrap large, complex portions of your personal history into a bite-sized, palatable amount of empathy, understanding and resolution in twenty-three sitcom minutes plus commercial breaks.

I’ve said it myself, before, like when my husband  kissed me for the first time, under the stars, in the bed of a truck (geez, Louise, girl? Seriously?!? If they could see you now!), I thought, “so glad I learned Spanish! Everything happens for a reason!”

When I needed toilet paper and the plush 20-ply tissue was on sale, I thought, “so glad we ran out! Everything happens for a reason!”

(seriously?!? If they could see you now!)

But it is rare when such a Tic-Tac phrase is comforting or appropriate.

One day, shortly after my son passed away, I was walking along the canals of the Rio Grande in the Upper Valley of El Paso, waiting to pick up my daughter from her morning at her Montessori school. I was on the phone with my Dad and he was asking me how I was doing, how I was “holding up”. I wanted to give him a Tic-Tac answer, “one day at a time, Dad. One day at a time.” I wanted to sum it up, make it more comfortable for both of us, give him a quick little candy to enjoy and momentarily satisfy.

I looked down at my feet, walking along the canal dirt and looked immediately down and to the left, at the murky water a few inches below me. I suddenly had a much clearer picture of how this thing called life works. I answered, “Every day, Dad,  I have a choice. Today, I choose to keep walking along this path and not to step one inch to the left, and drown in the river running alongside me.”

The road less traveled and the well-worn path are not at a fork in the road. They are two roads, running parallel to each other. I can always see the other road and switching paths is as simple as making a choice.

Natural consequences aside, our past does not set in motion a chain reaction of events whose conclusions leave us helpless, hopeless and reeling without recourse until the jukebox plays our song and we can “snap out of it” and shout, “See! Everything happens for a reason!”  Our lives are not trolleys on wires or trains on tracks. When a hurricane comes, physically or metaphorically, the ends hardly ever justify the means. The reasons are just consolation prizes for the everythings that have happened for them. As steward of this life I have been given, I can’t treat it as a consolation prize for very long, however, before I teeter dangerously on ingratitude. As much as things are not what I thought they would be, as unsophisticated as I often feel, each new day has been a new gift. A restart and a redo, not to despise what I have done so that I do things differently, but to change the playing field so that I can see things with new eyes. I need to wake up and rub yesterday out of my eyes and see today for what it is. See me for who I am, instead of who I thought I would be.

I believe when I find myself in a stinky situation, covered in the muck of poor choices, and the mire of regret, God is not so happy the dirt happened so He can use His new washcloth to clean me. He cleans me because He loves me. He cleans the mess because He is good.

Basically, I think life is a beautiful, unexpected, lovely mess. I believe that actions have reactions, choices have consequences and each day is about walking through what is happening with as much sanity and grace as I can muster. God bringing beauty from ashes is not the same thing as God being a puppeteer who consoles me and my personal tragedies with elusive “reasons”.

Among all the other things I could never have imagined is: the truth. I never imagined, as I practiced my Spanish along with Sesame Street puppets, that I would some day sleep in the bed of a pick-up truck older than me, under the stars of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, building houses for some of the poorest people in the world. I couldn’t possibly predict that the greatest benefit of my straight A’s in Spanish class would not be the Foreign Language scholarship I won in my senior year of high school. It would be the man whose Spanish sweet talk I could understand and whose love I won by  being able to converse with his grandfather over dinner.

The truth is that I am not a disappointment to my yester-year self. She may hardly recognize me, or call me Doctor, Lawyer or Famous Actress, because that is not who I have become. She wouldn’t call me a disappointment, for how could she say that to someone whose story she couldn’t possibly imagine?

She would never hold me accountable for the paths I never walked, the roads I never trod, the journeys I left for someone else. She would never compare my present blessings to empty hypotheticals. No one, when meeting the brain surgeon, asks why he didn’t become a jockey. No one, when meeting the veterinarian, asks why she didn’t become a sculptor. I am not accountable for more than what is in my hand right now, what is in my life right now , where my path, right now, is headed. I need to stop being so hard on myself. My guess is, I am not alone. We all have parts of our life that look dull compared to the shiny poster we plastered on the wall of our minds of how things should be. We should never examine those parts except to find the truth. We should always ask, what do you want to be? Because we’re still here. So we’re not done.

So, what do I want to be when I grow up? Someone my self would be proud of. That will have little to do with my life’s circumstances and occupation and mostly to do with my heart.

Besides, the truth is, the young girl who worked so hard on her Spanish homework all those years would love to know it blossomed into some beautiful natural consequences. Those, as it happens, had nothing to do with the bed of a truck.

The Poultry Exchange- rated PG

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The Poultry Exchange- rated PG

I am a reluctant chicken farmer.

It was never my dream, growing up in Upstate New York, to own any of the farms I ever saw. Or the animals on them. Or to start a Saturday morning in a wide-brimmed beach hat, slathered in sunblock, schlepping along in bright red galoshes, carrying a baby on one hip and wielding a shovel to clean out chicken poo from the coop in my backyard. The Banana Republic camisoles I wear during the process are from years ago, but now are worn not for their fashion-ability but for my accessibility. (The nursing mothers in the room are nodding in understanding. If you’ve ever been fashionable, you are nodding with even more vigor and are, perhaps, shedding a tear.)

Now, I always have had a healthy sense of from whence my food came, but I was never interested in being a part of the process beyond going to a Farmer’s Market and seeing what Old MacDonald had brought for me to purchase. Aside from the apples and strawberries I picked from local orchards, or the vegetables from my mother’s garden, I was not responsible for any step in the farm to table process. I was fine with that. Totally. I was a huge fan of going organic, free-range, natural and pesticide-free, as long as it was someone else’s land and someone else’s animals and someone else’s chicken’s rectal prolapse. (Don’t look it up.)

I would have even wagered, in my college days, that I would be more likely to be a vegetarian in my lifetime, like my mother, than to ever own a farm animal. But I didn’t expect to have children in my twenties, either, so thank God none of these bets ever had real money attached to them.

You see, my appreciation for animals and farms and gardens and food never became personal enough until I had my first child. This baby was unscathed by the unnatural, untouched by the inhumane and unable to make her own choices about food. (Except the choice to nurse all day, every day, until just before she turned two.) It was my responsibility to put food into her mouth and her body and her brain and all of a sudden- Everything. Changed. Food became a big deal to me. Almost overnight. I made more thoughtful choices about what we all ate as a family and grew really intentional about each grocery dollar. And yet, even with this change, I still did not want a farm.

But this baby I had, weirdly enough, grew to be a toddler and a lot of toddler food comes in small, neat, colored packages. Almost any food you can think of can be put  in a package. Apples and peanut butter, deli meat and cheese, milk… From baby food in jars to Pringle’s snack packs, we are conditioned to be hungry, pick up a package of something, open the package and eat. Does food even come from farms anymore? Or just packages? (That’s another blog post.)

I needed my children to know where their food comes from. I needed them to know how things grow, how much work goes into a meal, the names and faces of the farmers and their creatures who provide us our sustenance. The desire grew and grew, fed partly by Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle! and partly by my own evolving opinions.

At this realization,  any normal person would have thrown themselves into their backyard garden and taken their children on a beautiful, but safe, horticultural journey of soil, seeds, sunlight and water. But not me! I am not normal! (If you’ve read my other posts, you are aware of this.) Besides, I live in the desert. Stuff is hard to grow here. And, when my friend said she was going to the Feed Store (the what!?! where is that!?! what do they sell there!?!) I was pregnant. Baby chicks sounded like just what I needed!!

This is the point in our journey together as writer and reader when you begin fervently praying for my husband. Even if you don’t normally pray. He deserves it. (If you’ve looked up chicken rectal prolapse and were informed that he actually handled it, you would be nodding with much vigor, again. But don’t look it up. Just pray.)

That day, four years ago, I got chickens. (And a goose. Named “Couscous”.  He was named by my daughter who was three at the time and that was the only word she could think of that rhymed with ‘goose’. I told you I was intentional at the grocery store! The goose is no longer with us. More about that later.)

Ana and Couscous

 

In a few short months, our children were holding eggs from the chick babies they had spent so much time loving. They felt their love reciprocated with nourishment. They could cook and eat and know their food in a way rarely replicated in these times of packaging and drive-thrus and microwaveable lasagnas. (No offense, if you’re eating one. It is a kind of a miracle in itself- a microwaveable lasagna!) 

My heart was swollen with joy and satisfaction. If they knew nothing else about what they ate, they knew where eggs came from. A clear distinction arose in our home’s vocabulary, “Is this a store egg or a chicken egg?”

Our First Eggs


Mind you, the only thing I knew about chickens was that I wanted them. I had no experience raising them and neither did my husband. We had a book and a few websites and our own resourcefulness. We were sorely unprepared. Our coop is behind our historic garage behind our historic home in a historic neighborhood in the middle of the city. Our neighbor’s house is but a few feet away. You could throw a tissue and hit it. We meet the city’s code for poultry ownership but just barely. And only because this is Texas.

We found ourselves in all sorts of tricky situations. And by tricky, I mean: something terrible would happen to our flock and I would stand at the back door with the chicken book, yelling instructions to my industrious, capable, faithful esposo in the backyard with the birds. For example:

1. Our goose was a boy. Not a girl, like I thought. Esposo had to drive him to a farm an hour away without me, I was too sad.

2. A baby chicken was almost decapitated by another, older chicken and had a bloody, featherless neck.

Me: “The book says you can put Neosporin on it and a Band-Aid.”

He was probably thinking, “How much did this chicken cost? $2.50? How much is a tube of Neosporin? Can’t I just buy another chicken?” As he bandaged her and tended her in Chicken ICU.

She ended up being our best layer ever. Her nickname is Chicken Bone. We didn’t eat chicken for a month after that incident, by the way..

3. One of our chickens suffered a rectal prolapse and my husband handled it while I “looked it up on the website”. (I told you don’t look it up. It’s bad. It contains the word, ‘rectal’. That’s all you need to know.)

4. Even recently, we picked up a couple of chickens who weren’t used to humans and they flew around our neighborhood like pigeons. Rooftops, alleys, esposo was running around for a few days before catching them and taking them back.

Our chicken experiment has been trial and error. Mostly error, and a lot of trials. Maybe some tribulation, too. It’s what happens when your heart changes careers. We have become farmers.

Over these last few years, our flock has changed shape and size to accommodate pecking order, the city’s code on poultry keeping and our family’s need for eggs. We’ve only ever kept 6 at a time, but we’ve owned Chamomile, Lavender, Cinnamon, Peppermint, Buttercream, Sonny, Isabella, Owl, and most recently; Sparrow, Coriander, Licorice,  Lemon Chicken, Curry and Lightey. (We don’t eat our chickens, yet they mostly have complementary spicy names. Pure coincidence?)

We went to the Feed Store again today. It was a bittersweet occasion, however, even though baby chicks were involved. We were completing a Poultry Exchange. This is the unfortunate situation where we ended up at the losing end of the mixed-run odds  and ended up with two roosters in our last batch of chicks. Coriander and Sparrow were cock-a-doodle-dooing in the backyard for a couple of weeks before I stopped wondering which neighbor got a rooster and started the slow walk out of denial into the Poultry Exchange plan to swap them at the Feed Store for some more hens.

I was in denial for so long because Sparrow, the rooster I wanted to keep, was so beautiful:

My handsome Sparrow

Our handsome Sparrow

And my daughter raised him and thought he was a hen, too. Poor thing. I don’t think she would’ve held a zucchini or a tomato like this:

Ana saying goodbye to Sparrow

So an exchange we had, and we’ve welcomed Garnet, Blackie, Miss Mustard and Peppercorn to the flock. They are babies and the cycle has begun all over again for us. It’s always sweet, the first weeks of tending baby chicks, but our easy-peasy exchange isn’t so easy when you have to say good-bye to something you’ve held and cared for, made docile, domesticated. We do not refer to our chickens as our pets. They are livestock. They are a source of food, a basis for agricultural lesson, biological study and the intangible “taking care of something other than ourselves” that is so healthy for young children to grow accustomed to.

However, my children have achieved what I have asked of them; an intimacy with their food source. Intimacy that grows from self-sacrifice: feeding the chickens is a process every morning that takes a chunk of time, is sometimes messy and the weather isn’t always kind. An intimacy that has grown from nurture: chickens are dumb and they are needy. The ancient insult, “go catch a chicken” only stings if you’ve actually chased one for forty-five minutes. (sorry, Esposo) An intimacy has been acquired from pursuing something over and over again until it forgets it’s supposed to run away.

My children have an intimacy with these beings that have no other purpose than to entertain us with their pecking and foraging, sing to us their calls for seed and, ultimately, to give us eggs to eat. It is always hard when intimacy ceases. Even for children, even with chickens.

Our children have a ritual of welcoming baby chicks to our flock by holding them in the car the whole ride home from the Feed Store. They listen to their new chirps, memorize their feather pattern, learn what their individual poo looks like and squeal when they fall asleep in comfort. Today was no different.

Except for one thing.

Upon arriving home, my faithful chicken farmers went dutifully to check on the current members of our flock while Esposo was setting up the babies in their “chicken nursery”. (sorry, Esposo) A squeal was heard from the backyard. More squealing, the pitter-clomp patter-clomp of little feet in galoshes running to the front where Esposo and I were waiting for them.

A sign of life. A sign of acknowledgement that this day was a hard farming day, but that no hardship goes unnoticed.

An egg.

From Lemon Chicken.

Her first, for she and her sisters are just now of laying age, barely.

Lemon Chicken belongs to my three-year-old boy farmer. She is pecked on the most, because she is the littlest, because she is held the most by my boy and rarely has a chance to graze as much as the others do. She is too loved to get chubby. (That’s another blog post, too.) She is the least-likely to lay an egg. The runt, the skinny, the human-loved. And, yet!

An egg!

Lemon Chicken's First Egg

Nothing could be simpler and nothing could mean more to us. We throw parties over eggs. We don’t take a single one for granted. When eggs break, we grieve. When we see eggs that go uneaten, we lament a random hens’ hard work and beg forgiveness for unaware humans and their lack of stewardship.

Lemon Chicken gave a gift to her farmers today. She restored their faith in this pursuit of ours. She gave them a reward for their tenacity and it came in the form of tomorrow’s breakfast. She made them proud owners of a food-producing hen.

For sure, we will not be reluctant chicken farmers tomorrow.

 

 

Too Much of a Good Thing?

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Too Much of a Good Thing?

I warned my husband when his mother moved in.

I warned him well in advance, actually. I warned him when he was on the phone with the cable company, fulfilling his mother’s only request when she came to live with us last Spring. She wanted cable. We’d never had it before. Or a new TV for that matter.

I told him this whole situation was not in his best interest. He would have to compete for my attention. With the Food Network.

Confession really does wonders for the soul: I could watch cooking shows. all. day. long. I am not addicted to many things. Actually, my addictions have souls and names. Except for the Food Network. (Unless their chefs count…)

Worse than being addicted to cooking shows myself, I have passed my addiction on to my offspring. My children each have their favorite Food Network productions. It was fun, at first. It was more than amusing to hear my 3-year-old little man ask, “What are the basket’s mystery ingredients tonight?” when I opened the pantry to start dinner. And, yes, I laughed when he announced “Let’s see whose dish is on the chopping block!” when I presented him his dinner plate one evening. Or his detailed, Brooklyn-accented critiques of chicken soup, “is there cilantro in here? It’s kinda flavory and fresh.”

The Food Network isn’t a bad influence on my children, either.  I don’t  mind that while her peers discuss the tween installations on the Disney channel, my daughter is fraught with anticipation, hoping that Anne Burrell or Alex Guarnaschelli will overtake Geoffrey Zakarian in the Next Iron Chef. (Sorry, baby, Zakarian won. Have I broken the news to her yet? No.) But I am beginning to see the signs of over-saturation. Very important, serious themes are being bungled up with vocabulary that has recently expanded to include a culinary lexicon. I will provide you with an example momentarily.

Meanwhile, speaking of serious themes, my daughter asked me a serious, very pointed question not too long ago. When she was three, our first son passed away, as an infant. As she grows in maturity and understanding, her questions about his death also grow in depth and complexity. She approached me with the latest wonderings; “Mommy, what did you and Daddy do with my baby brother’s body? Does he have a grave?”

Phew. Pause button. Where’s your father? Deep breath.

“At the time, I was an emotional mother. I didn’t want any land to own him. I didn’t want him to disintegrate. I still don’t like when anyone visits my children without me. Those are the reasons I didn’t want to bury him. His body was cremated. Do you know what that means?”

“Yes, Mommy. What are you going to do with me?”

“God willing, I won’t have to make that decision. Most people choose what they want for themselves and write it down or let a family member know. Your word is as good as done. Some day, you’ll make that important decision and your loved ones around you will honor it.”

“Can we change the subject?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

Done. Phew. Tough chat #3,458, over.

Our home is at times a truly hilarious place to be. Gut-wrenchingly funny, to be exact.

Other times, it’s a painfully real place to be. Heart-wrenchingly sad, to be exact.

Who says you can’t achieve true balance??

One evening after Cupcake Wars and my own personal Chopped experience, (making dinner for three judges who are related to me, with whatever I have left in my own “fridge” and “pantry” is much harder than the Food Network version) we decided to go for our usual post-dinner stroll. This time it was a long night-hike on an arroyo trail in the mountain behind our home. It was a lovely evening. The moon lit our path, as did the flashlights my children were holding/fighting over/using as swords to fight the mountain lions/using to light the path/shining in my eyes. (Your family, too?)

I was holding my lovely girl’s hand, in a trance from the syncopation of the desert trail rocks under our feet. The baby was asleep in a wrap around me, the esposo and the little man were up ahead “protecting” us with their flashlights. We were having a moment. It was bliss. I won’t ever forget it. She broke the silence. She had obviously been using this time for some deep thinking.

“Mom.”

“mmHmm?”

“I’ve decided.”

For a moment, I wondered if we had started a conversation that I’d forgotten about. Nope.

“Hmm?”

“I’ve decided, Mom. I’ve made my decision.”

“Okay.”

This could be about anything! Will it be fashion design, surfing, veterinary school, midwifery or a rock band called the Jesus Singers? Will her bridesmaids be wearing turquoise or navy blue? Will she be living in San Diego or New York when she leaves me? A shower or a bath with her brothers when we get home? Decaf Chai or Chamomile before bed? Really. You have no idea. The possibilities for a decision-making 8-year-old girl are endless.

“You know, what we were talking about a while back? I’ve decided.”

“Are you going to share this decision with me?”

“Yes. I have to. My word is as good as done.”

Ahh…now I know.

“Mom. I’ve decided. I want to be caramelized.”

Um.

“When I die. I do not want to be buried. I want to be caramelized. Please.?!”

.

At this moment I would love to tell you that I solemnly maintained composure and assured her that her wishes would be respected.

I would love to say that I nodded a mature, motherly understanding and made a mental note regarding a future vocabulary lesson.

But, that would be lying. We like to be truth-tellers in our family.

.

I busted out laughing. Totally. Could not stop. I laughed and sang out a hoot and a holler of a response. My smile couldn’t have stretched wider and as I kept laughing, my lovely started to giggle and chuckle as well, caught with the laugh contagion. She didn’t know what she had said that had made me laugh, but she couldn’t stop throwing her head back and giving it a good guffaw.

“What’s so funny, Momma?”

“Caramelized, baby?”

“Oh!! Like an onion?? No!! I mean… Cremated. I meant, cremated! I want to be cremated!”

This is one of those times when your child is shouting something that, taken out of context, would sound ridiculous and embarrassing and would cause complete strangers to pause a moment to let the “crazy family” pass by on the trail. Thank God we had the trail to ourselves. I looked around, though, just to make sure.

“Okay, love. I hear you. I understand. Thanks for letting me know.”

“Sure, Momma. That was really funny.”

“Yes, it was. Thanks for making me laugh. And, lovey?”

“Yes?”

“No Food Network for a bit, yeah?”

“Sure, Momma. Phew, I’d better be careful. You might have thrown me into a hot pan with butter!”