Blogueuse Relooking

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Which means, roughly, that I’m a female blogger (French: blogueuse), and I’m going to spruce things up (French: re-looking).

I thought it only fair to warn you.  Don’t freak out.  You’ll still recognize me.

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Next time you visit here, you won’t find the lugubrious blue-gray background, the flashy hot yellow-to-vermillion-to-hot yellow strip along the top, the calendar and Goodreads list and other cluttery widgets. Maybe you won’t even find my come-hither grin on the left hand side of the screen, I’m still deliberating.  (Although please, I do sincerely want you to come hither. Or, uh, come here.)

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What I hope you’ll find is a brighter, fresher page – so subtly tucked, so gently stretched, with a lift and a plump and still all the warmth and candor and depth and spirit I hope you have come to expect when you click for a visit.

Why all of a sudden this relooking? Age, quite frankly.  This blog is coming up on One Year Old.  In blog years, I think that’s over the hill.

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But more salient than the age thing, I’m making a shift.  We have spent two solid months of posting exclusively on my book entitled Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward.  As you know, but as I should probably explain to newcomers, that volume is a manuscript born out of our family’s ongoing experience with catastrophic loss. I’ve written at length here at the blog and elsewhere about the realities of traumatic loss, acute grief and the droning underscore of absence that have been our family’s journey since July 2007.  That was when our eldest, Parker, then 18 years and 5 months old, lost his life while attempting at saving another’s.

While I think a lot and deeply about the experience of loss, (my own and others), and while I’ve researched and written extensively about what major and permanent loss means in our lives, (both intimate and communal), it was the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school that flipped a major switch in me.  I simply had to post on only this topic for a while. I’m certainly not done with it – neither with my own grief and burden of absence, nor with writing about it – but I find it necessary to shift this blog’s focus to other topics for a season.

But first, here is where I want to thank you, my readers.  Some of you have come here loyally without posting comments publicly. Instead, you have written to my private email address.  I need you to know that you have taught me life-altering things in your tender and stark messages.  You’ve confided sacred things in me.  You’ve sent, a few of you, pages of  straight-from-the-gut writing, and I have read them with respect. It is hard to know how to thank you enough.

Others of you have posted comments for all of us, mostly strangers to one another, to sift through. Not easy, especially when the topic singes nerve-endings and cuts right down to the marrow.  I honor your experiences and appreciate your trust in sharing such personal treasure in a public forum.

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As I re-look the blog to something slightly cheerier and hopefully easier on your eyes, I hope the content will follow suit. You know already that my book, Global Mom:A Memoir goes to press. . .GOES TO PRESS?. . .(goes to, gulp, press). . .tomorrow. . .and will be in your neighborhood bookstore (and on Amazon) as of June 1.  Between now and then, I want to return to posting from that manuscript. I will be picking up from where we left off ages ago (does it feel like ages ago to you, too?), in Versailles on our way to Croissy-sur-Seine, a village outside of Paris, where we lived for a while.

Then on to five other addresses/languages/cultures/homes.

Here’s what you can anticipate over the next few months:

-More frequent but shorter posts, mostly excerpts from Global Mom: A Memoir. (I’ll try to post 3x a week)

-Lots of photos from my archives (which, of course, will not be included in the printed book. So you get the exclusive illustrated version!)

-Behind the scene peeks into the process of writing and editing this book; what it’s been like working with an exceptional publishing/design/editing team in a cutting-edge boutique publishing house; you’ll meet some of my online writing/cheerleader friends (so you might meet yourself); and you’ll get an inkling of how my family has been (stupendous!) through this all.

-Glimpses into what’s happening now in the real Global Mom’s world, namely: what does spring in Switzerland really look, smell, sound and taste like?

-And with all that, some extra fun travel in and around central Europe.  I envision a little Poland rather soon, some more Italy, probably some Austria, undoubtedly a whole lot of France. I’ll take plenty of pictures and even video footage.

-Speaking of video footage, I’ll be adding much more of it, and will link to You Tube.  I want you and others that you tell about this blog and the book, to get to know Global Mom on the road.

-And then, of course, anything else that happens to pop up on the journey.

This should be so much of fun! Thanks to each of you for being here and for making my world an abundant place worth living in.  With you, I want to dig into it with both hands,  my head on straight, and my heart wide open.

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Global Mom Meets Grief and Grace

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013. All photos from Milan's Duomo.

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013. All photos from Milan’s Duomo.

How do you celebrate the birthday of your deceased child?

Yesterday, February 20th, would have been Parker’s 24th birthday. Days like these can be hard and lonely. I have to resist the temptation to self-medicate under feathers packed into three hundred count cotton, and have to turn my back from the pit of quicksand. If I don’t, I’m a gonner.

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Until last year, I thought the suction of oblivion, powerful on certain landmarks like yesterday, was maybe just my fault, the curse of my sensitive nature. Until I came across enough statements – dozens – from other parents, who had the same experience.

Actress and bereaved mother, Marianne Leone Cooper, was frank in her memoir Knowing Jesse,about losing her 17-year-old and only son, and wrote that although she can star in a TV series, laugh til she cries, and host a hundred for a holiday party, there are still difficult days like Jesse’s birthday, when she is overcome with tears and longing and craves an entire day in bed. It’s then that she challenges herself to stay engaged with people. Love them. Serve them. Share her son with them.

Solid advice.

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But I couldn’t follow it yesterday because I had work to do, and my work is writing, and writing is a doggoned solitary pursuit.

So I kissed by kids goodbye at 7:15 a.m. sharp at our front door, waved them off to school, then walked straight to this computer. And I worked.

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And worked.

And I worked for hours. Eleven of them. Straight. One ten-minute break every two hours. All generators running at a low, that constant hum, pushing toward a self-imposed deadline: dinner time, February 20th.

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Let me quickly explain what deadline I’m referring to.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I’ve authored two books, both of which are in different stages of getting out the publishing door. One, an anthology entitled Grief and Grace, is presently stalled a bit in the approval process. I’m desperate to get that work into your hands and can promise it will indeed happen, I just can’t tell you exactly when. I’ve been including quotes from Grief and Grace in this blog since this moment , when, saddened by the senseless killings in Newtown, Massachusetts, I decided to devote as long as it takes on this blog to the topic of loss, grief and mourning.

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Up to that point in the life of this blog, however, I’d been posting regularly on a different manuscript, my other book, Global Mom: A Memoir, slated for bookstores in June. In those entries, I’d taken you along on our family’s journey from New Jersey to Norway to France, had looped back for some extra Norway scenes I thought you would appreciate, and was heading back to France again, (as our family did), only this time to the heart of Paris.

Uh, yeah.  If I’m not mistaken.

(I totally sympathize if you sometimes come here not knowing quite where you are on the world map. It feels that way to live it.)

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What has all this blogging and booking meant? While I’ve been posting every week on Grief and Grace, and while, to my complete surprise also increasing my readership, (thanks in part to this post and the award it received called “Freshly Pressed”, granted by our blog host, WordPress), I’ve been quite busy off-blog, getting Global Mom ready for design lay-out and then publication in a matter of weeks.

Put neatly: my ankles are swollen and other things are flumpy from all this dadgum sitting.

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“Publication in a matter of weeks” means now’s when things get granular: I’m running out of time to condense a tad here, expand a bit there, source-check, send pages to Norwegian, French, German, Austrian, Chinese and Singaporean friends, to make sure that my observations of their cultures stay just on this side of landing me in jail. Pretty soon is when someone, my editor, I guess, yells, “Uncle!”, and confiscates my computer. No more fiddling. And I develop an ulcer over all I wrote but shouldn’t have, all I should have written but didn’t, and why I didn’t think to wash my hair the week those candid shots were taken in front of the Eiffel Tower, one of which, the very last image in this post, will be gracing a book cover. But ah, the rest of my family is so, so heartbreakingly beautiful. . .

Which rambling preamble brings me to yesterday. It brings me – books and blogs and the forces of destiny – to February 20th, what would have been my beautiful boy’s 24th birthday.

As I watched for months the approach of this date, I made a personal commitment a little like Marianne Leone’s: I’d devote that day to being  literally or at least literarily as close as possible with others and my son. I would get this book done-done. For him.

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In the eery soundproofing of Swiss silence, (tell me: can you hear individual snowflakes thawing where you are?), I worked. Head low, eyes swimming, shoulders tensing, ankles spreading, I worked. I read and read and compared versions and tweaked and cleaned and read and read more. My breaks I took only when I’d clicked “send” on the chapter going to my editor. Otherwise, I didn’t budge.

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What was I reading? I was reading the last eight chapters of this 26 chapter book. I have to admit I’d put it off, fearing where it might take me, because it is potent material: the narrative that starts with the last hours of Parker’s life and stretches over the five-and-a-half years of our family’s life without (and with) him in this world.

In other words, I spent 11 hours not only reviewing Global Mom, but reliving Grief and Grace.

I spent my dead son’s birthday with him.  In every line. Filling every margin.

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I revisited the death chamber of the ICU, which spilled over with love and light brought by seen and unseen loved ones.

From Global Mom:

We brought all the waiting family and friends into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed. There was such a weight of reverence in that room that the space itself felt denser and more illuminated than the hallway. Walking through the doorway was like moving through a plasma membrane. As Parker’s body had by that time been turned over onto its back, we could freely study and memorize his face during these, our last minutes of private communion with him. As heads bowed, I looked around. I felt that reverence or that illuminating presence, that vibration, only greatly heightened, and realized in an uncanny way for which I cannot account even as I write this, that everything was exactly as it was supposed to be: the shape and placement of the windows; the slant of late morning light on the floor; my own hands so ice cold their nails were bluegray; Randall’s soulful expression like a late Rembrandt self-portrait; Dalton whose bearing and depth was of a forty-five year old; Claire with her open, light-filled stare; my parents, so vulnerable and shaken; the soft faces of friends and family; the sense that others, unseen but real, were there, filling in all the blank spaces. And Parker’s Adonis form under a perfect sheet of white.

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On the next page, I’m standing again in his funeral, where a sea of faces full of compassionate anguish looked at us and sang a closing hymn that practically blew out a Mormon chapel’s walls and roof. Pain erupting in joy.

From Global Mom:

“The funeral,” Randall whispers, “It was. . .just. . .I can’t believe they all came.” I don’t want the children to notice our tears; weeping is almost all they’ve seen and heard and done for two weeks straight.


“They flew across the world, all those people,” I look down at our hands, gripping one another’s. He shakes his head; “How could they. . .? I’m just . . . And the music. . .” We tilt our heads to where our crowns meet. I feel him shaking.


The day of your own child’s funeral is the day you should never live to see. It is, in the imagination of those anticipating it in the abstract or in the minds of those observing it from afar, the hardest possible day of any parent’s life. It is the day when the father should collapse with a heart attack, one thinks, or the morning the mother should do something dangerous in her bathroom. The day you should never ever live to see, you parent. The day you would of course never want to relive.
Yet here we are, The Father and The Mother, bent together in Row 34 of an airplane, aching to relive it frame-by-frame. The day was that brilliant – brilliantly excruciating and brilliantly exquisite – like the sun that seemed to affix itself stubbornly at its peak, a sun that wouldn’t be dismissed from early morning until early evening, perched there on the topmost rung of sky like the high sounds of a bugle’s call, punchy, relentlessly scorching and brassily happy. All those things at once. That was the day.

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In the next chapter, I returned to Munich, the place of our exile, and remembered those who, though stymied in their efforts to connect with us parents, swooped in and carefully cradled our disoriented children. I read of teachers and church goers and work colleagues and utter strangers, I saw friends calling across the globe and emailing at all hours with wise counsel and sorrow in each syllable. I revisited revelation and miracles for which there can be no explanation unless one considers and accepts the reality of a spiritual world. Everywhere, I saw a tall, handsome young man whose highest post-mortal priority was and still is to minister to his family.

From Global Mom:

Somewhere in those half-sleeping, half-waking hours that immediately followed, all the lights went on in my inner dream cinema. Parker was there.

I wrote in my dream journal:

He was standing, smiling and fully in his element, in the center of a crescent shape of five people; two figures to his left, two to his right. He wore a light blue rugby shirt with a collar, white horizontal stripes and short sleeves, faded jeans, and sandals. Both his hands were in his pockets and his head was turned to look intently at the person to his left. That person, carrying some stacked books in her arms and dressed conservatively, was talking quietly to him. The setting was campus-like, with a backdrop of brilliant, glimmering green trees, and there was a neo-classical building like a specific one I knew from my own alma mater’s campus. Behind this crescent of figures, there were just a few other figures, all in their late teens or early twenties, crossing behind Parker and going up and down these steps into the neoclassical building.
Again, Parker was calm, but in no way indifferent, in fact, he was nodding lightly and seemed eagerly engaged. It was clear to me that he was learning something from whatever the young woman to his left was explaining. She was teaching him something, this I somehow intuitively understood, and he was new there in this setting,  being introduced to these people, to their conversation and to their ways.
As well as looking wholesome and healthy, he was radiant, cheerful. There were no multiple and severe head wounds, no swollen eyes, no bruises, no protruding contusion over the left ear, no tubes, no corpselike pastiness. Just Parker among all his friends, as natural as the air. Parker as he’d always been, but visibly serene.
As I marveled at all the beauty and tried to get closer to take a closer look at him and perhaps get his attention and interrupt (why was I not able to run to him, to get closer faster?), he turned his head slightly from the young woman still engaging him in conversation at his left. He looked right at me. It was a knowing, intimate glace, and it lasted perhaps five seconds. He looked at me and said nothing, my heart startled, and I understood these ideas: “This is how it is, Mom. This is where I am. I am learning. I am with my people. You have done with me what you did with the other kids tonight: You’ve handed me into someone else’s care to be schooled further.”

And then he turned his head back to his new friends – ah, sweet Parker; your friends always got more of your time than I did, even in death – and the lights dimmed and the picture washed away.

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I moved on in my reading to Singapore, where there were such warm waves of love, you could have bodysurfed in the foam alone. I was reminded of the countless kindnesses extended to our family, the private remembrances of a son no one there had ever known but were willing to commemorate.

From Global Mom:

There were friends for hiking up and down Singapore’s hilly tropical rain forest, friends for yoga, friends for making music, friends for serving in church and traveling to near-lying Asian destinations. There were, to our surprise, friends to mourn with, friends to remember Parker even though no one here knew us, no one had ever known of Parker. There was the one friend who remembered every single 19th of every month, the day of Parker’s accident. Or another who digitally designed an up-to-date family photo into which she magically added Parker’s 18-year-old face. The woman who, on Mother’s Day, sent a brief but soothing email, “Hey, thinking of you today. How are you doing?” and the friend who spent months painting Parker’s portrait from a photo, one of the last photos ever taken of him while he played a drum solo in his senior class talent show. People were there on every hand, it seemed, enfolding us in more love and compassion that one family can know what to do with.

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I saw in my writing how each of us – Randall, Claire, Dalton, Luc, and myself – had been hugely fortified over time, and how our experience disproved all the  conventional language for grief. We had not “lost” Parker; he was in no way “lost” since we knew where he was, nor had we forfeited him to some random cosmic lottery. And he wasn’t actually “dead”, at least not in the sense we’d habitually used that word. Unwatered house plants, our Internet line, your smartphone connection, they were what we call dead. 

But Parker? He was more alive than you or me or anyone.

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By the time I hit my deadline – I did hit my deadline – I was as bonded to Parker as I’d been in a long time. He was at my elbow, it seemed, nodding, prodding me forward. I had spent the day engaged, if only literarily, in his immortal life and others’ mortal ones. In a small way I was, through my work, serving them by sharing my son’s story with them.

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Stiff but satisfied, I checked email one last time. It was our Claire, with this week’s missionary letter:

Carissimi amici,

I wanted to begin the email by acknowledging Parker’s birthday, which is today. I have been thinking a lot about him, and how often, during my mission service, he has shown me in little ways that he is involved with my work here. This week I saw it in a big way.. . .

Eight enthusiastic paragraphs later, Claire had described in detail her brother’s ongoing presence in her life.

I shut this overworked laptop of mine and let peace move over me.  It was much softer and far more enlivening than any feather comforters and three hundred count cotton sheets. So galvanizing was this day of comfort, in fact, and so complete was my gratitude, I couldn’t even force myself to stay in bed under my fluffy covers last night.

So I waddled back in here, and for some hours and by the light of my screen alone, I wrote this post to thank my God, my Parker, and my friends like you.

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Fashions of the Cross

Text and all images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Text and all images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

When I told my friend our family was taking a quick day trip to Milan, she clucked, “Ooooo, Milan! Shopping, right?”

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Milan is known throughout the world as one of the major fashion pulse centers. Over the last few decades, this northern Italian city has become a formidable haute couture-opolis, one that makes Parisians quake in their Louboutins, Londoners tip their Vivienne Westwood hats, and New Yorkers bend a Donna Karan knee or two.

But fashion was the last thing on my mind when I traveled there on Friday.

What was?

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You.

Well, you and Emily Dickinson.

Alright. You, Dickinson, and all of humanity.

Okay. You, Dickinson, all of humanity, and the cathedral of Milan.

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Il duomo, as this famous cathedral is known, put Milan on the map long before the Prada brothers Mario and Martino opened a leather goods shop in 1913 in the famous Galleria Vittoria Emanuel II, one of the world’s original shopping malls dating from the 1860’s.

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As a matter of fact, the cathedral’s unparalleled architectural phantasmagoria dates to the 1300’s, when its nearly six centuries of construction began.

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It’s true; while traveling to Milan, I was thinking of you and the recent discussion we’ve been having in this blog about types of grief. Dickinson called these variations on sorrow the “fashions of the cross” in her poem on grief I shared in a recent post.

It was these fashions, and not fashion-fashion that preoccupied my thoughts as Randall, Luc and I boarded our crack-of-dawn train and chugged from Switzerland into neighboring Italy.

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Along the way, and while anticipating visiting il duomo, I quizzed Randall on all we knew personally about various “fashions of the cross”. Specifically, we discussed varieties of suffering we’re acquainted with close-up, from within our two combined families, the Daltons and the Bradfords, and from our most intimate circle of friends.

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Because I’ve been writing about “sorrow that the eye can’t see”, we two were concentrating on those sorrows which, for whatever reasons, are grieved privately, sorrows no casual outside observer could necessarily identify or would even recognize without some guidance, sorrows which are sometimes intentionally shrouded in secrecy.

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By the time we reached Milan’s stazione centrale, we’d had a sobering conversation. We’d also compiled quite the list. What hidden or unspeakable sorrows have marked our two families and our closest circle of friends? What private crosses are being born within a community of responsible citizens, solid families, folks with access to education, running water, vitamin supplements, several pairs of shoes? People who stay out of the tabloids, off of the Most Wanted wall in the post office, well under any FBI radar?

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As I said, the list is sobering. Still, I’m convinced we’re what you’d call a normal bunch. Maybe your normal bunch is a little like ours.

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I mentally scrolled through this long list of sorrows as we made our pilgrimage all the way from the central train station to this, the city’s heart.

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Here, at the piazza del duomo, or the place of the cathedral, we came upon a kind of buzzing epicenter. The cathedral, which dominates and draws everyone to this open place is symbolic of paradise – entering its huge carved doors and crossing over its threshold into its cross-shaped floor plan is supposed to symbolize approaching God’s throne.

Now here it stands like so many cathedrals today, like the celestial city of God right in the core of the urban city of man. Three steps out its front door is a bustling commons where all of humanity seems to be sharing in one big party.

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It’s here where I, list in mind and camera at eye, watched this human pageant. I had one question in mind: who here might be bearing invisible sorrows like those from my list?

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Chronic unemployment

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Fraud, larceny, imprisonment

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Falsified credentials, falsified identity

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Abuse (sexual, emotional,verbal, physical) either as perpetrator or as victim

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Social humiliation

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Substance abuse or addiction

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Paranoid schizophrenia

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Borderline personality disorder

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Anxiety disorder

Debilitating phobias

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Cutting/scarring

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Eating disorders that flourish in secrecy like anorexia, bulimia

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Bipolar disorder, depression, manic depression

Suicidal tendencies

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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

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Aspergers Syndrome

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Sexual dysfunction

Uncertainty of sexual orientation

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Chronic and/or terminal illness

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Incontinence, bladder or bowel

A loved one with dementia

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A loved one with advanced Alzheimer’s

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Spiritual decline or apostasy

Unforgiveness, grudges, vengeance

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Estrangement from family or friends

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Abandonment

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Loneliness, hopelessness

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Isolation, prejudice

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Somewhere around my hundredth photo, all this sorrow I was imagining started pressing on me. I felt its cold weight. I stopped shooting and let my camera dangle on its strap around my neck. For a moment I stood still.

Then came a minuscule epiphany – an epiphanette – scratching on my spirit, gerbil-like.

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Or maybe it wasn’t a scratch as much as it was the itch that comes with the thaw of cold.

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Was I smiling? I know I was. I sensed warmth seeping from the cathedral out over the plaza, radiating in an astral pattern like the roads do from the piazza del duomo itself. The warmth moved in all directions over the milling human bodies spinning and toitering like asteroids in some inscrutably ordered chaos. Bumping. Fumbling. Stumbling across the square. The too-brief moment on this crowded mortal square.

It was there, a humming warmth, and it saturated all this jumbled humanness. From its darkest secret sorrows to its brightest hopes for relief, everything was accounted for, comprehended, absorbed.

With noontime clarity, I understood this is the nature of things. Holy presence. Human Plaza. The two indissoluble. Eternally one.

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The late afternoon crowd wasn’t transformed by what I was sensing in the moment. But my experience was. The hundreds remained hunched inward, backs close to but turned away from the cathedral entry. Every last one seated right on the verge. Less than a hair’s breadth from that blazing, light-gushing threshold.

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“Hey,” Luc hopped onto my train of thought, “You ever coming inside to see your cathedral? We’ve already done the whole tour.”

“Coming,” I said, replacing the lens cap and reentering reality. “Whew, sorry! I just got a little carried–”

“While you go check out the stained glass and the statue of that one Saint guy who was skinned alive, we’re going shopping, kay?”

He lifted his eyebrows and half-smiled while reaching over and removing the lens cap I’d just clicked into place. “You’ll want to take lots of pictures in there. Lots. Like for at least an hour, right?”

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Next post, I’ll take you on that tour.

Swiss Christmas

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From Christmas in the Serengeti. . .

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. . .To Christmas in the Swiss Alps.

 

They say that strong contrasts make for strong writing. But I say that if nothing else, they make for heavily textured living.

So may I begin writing about this, our First Swiss Christmas, by taking you back to a contrasting one, to a Last Christmas? Not our last Christmas chronologically, the one spent in Africa, the one about which you’ve just read.  But the last one we spent in Paris, our last Parisian Christmas.  We’ll always refer to it as that.  At the time, though, we didn’t know it would be the last we’d spend there, as we were still leaning toward staying in Paris from where Randall would commute back and forth for his new postion in Munich.

Despite those details, we did know we’d  be sending Parker off to college in June.  So it was a “Last Christmas”. Of sorts. Our last Christmas with all of us together like this. So I’d run my self a bit ragged with holiday preparations, writing and directing and performing in the church Christmas program, writing and printing out and folding and addressing and sending by snail mail our 95 annual Christmas missives, decorating and baking and scurrying and visiting and hosting and getting into the holiday spirit.

At least euphemistically so.

That Christmas Eve I hit a wall, and the collision landed me in a mental state I’m not so proud to write about.  For lack of a more incriminating description, I’d holed myself up. While holed up, the universe didn’t bother to tap me on the shoulder and whisper into my heart, warning me that this would be The Last Christmas, the very last we would ever share with our firstborn son. We weren’t given the luxury of preparing ourselves for devastation.  Usually, if devastation is coming, the universe is preoccupied preparing you in other, extremely subtle ways (besides shoulder-tapping and coded whispers). I suppose we’re all being trained in one way or another for whatever devastation will surely be ours.

But something did tap on my shoulder that December evening.  And something did whisper.  And something did warn me it would be the Last Christmas with Parker.

And that something was Parker himself.

**

The Last Noël

A true Christmas story

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

“Mom?”

Her son, whose voice normally had the resonance of a foghorn, was whispering from behind her, kneeling next to her bed.  She was on her side, knees curled up a bit, a dark purple woolen comforter dragged up over her curves and tucked into her hands, which she held against her sternum.  Her eyes she kept firmly closed.

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. . .

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. . .

She faced away from the voice, away from the faint glow of the one night table lamp, away from the door, which she’d closed a couple of hours earlier, barricading herself into silence and as far as possible from the everyday, holiday noises that emerged from the end of the hall.

The holly bears the crown. . .

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood. . .

Kitchen sounds.  A swirling, tinkling holiday CD. Conversations between teenagers, the low word or two from the Dad, the swish-swish-swish up and down the hallway of two younger children in houseslippers.

The silent stars go by. . .

The silent stars go by. . .

A spike of laughter here. A name said with a question mark there.  Noises she simply wanted to escape.

How silently, how silently. . .

How silently, how silently. . .

She was doing it, that thing she sometimes did.  She was retreating into silence.  She was sending a loud signal.

“Mom? Look. . . Listen, Mom.” He was leaning his weight on the edge of her bed, now.  “Please, don’t do this.  Not again. Not tonight.” The weight of his hand on the mattress next to her hip was enough to make her flinch and consider scooting away. But she couldn’t muster the effort. Tired.  So bone-deep tired.

And sad.

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

He sighed, her oldest child, and then readjusted himself on the floor with a groan. She could tell from the sounds that he was wearing jeans. And wasn’t he also in a turtleneck? Probably his maroon one.

Let loving hearts enthrone him. . .

Let loving hearts enthrone him. . .

Should she just turn around, face him, turn around and face the family? Just roll over and brush back the matted hair a bit soggy, now, with old tears, just roll over and swing her legs out and plant her feet on the floor, shake some oom-pah-pah into her limbs, just turn it all around like that, switch directions as slickly as a Brio train track, switch gears, flip some switch, just head back out? Smiling? Humming Bing Crosby?

Let loving hearts enthrone Him. . .

We traverse afar. . .

She remained silent and still, hoping he’d think she was sleeping deeply.

Sleep in heavenly peace. . .

Sleep in heavenly peace. . .

This is when he tapped her right shoulder.  And then he left his hand there.  The heat traveled all the way through her, into the mattress, as she envisioned its course, and to the floor.  How she wanted to respond. But her jaws were clenched and held in all the loving feelings her heart held in its pulse.

For unto us a child is born

Oh come, Oh come, Emmanuel. . .

“Why don’t you say something, Mom?  What have I done? Okay, so I should have cleaned up the dishes first.  But c’mon, they’re done now. Just. . .just come out there. Come see.”

She had lodged herself too deeply in the silence to creep out so easily now. Tired of speaking, giving orders, answering to everyone. Tired and worn out.  Another year: Gone, wrung out like I feel, squeezed dry to its very last particle.  

Ring out wild bells and let him die. . .

Ring out wild bells and let him die. . .

Here we are again. Christmas. And stymied.

For mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

For mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

Then she heard the lightest tap-tap on the door, and the sound of its edge shuuuuushing over carpet. The smell of her husband’s cologne.  And she pulled the purple up over her head.

Sing, all ye citizens of heav'n above. . .

Sing, all ye citizens of heav’n above. . .

“Hey.”

“Hey.” The son’s voice was deeper, even, than his Dad’s.  And heavier.

“Honey. We’d love you to come out, just eat a little dinner, kay?  And then watch the movie with us. Maybe? No big production. Just be with us.”

And still their heavenly music floats o'er all the busy world. . .

And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the busy world. . .

So, so tired. And so emptied clean out.  All this pressure to be happy. Please. If you could let me be alone.

The oldest son made a sudden move.  His voice came from above her, now. “Alright. I’m just. . . I’m going to change things here.” There was ballast in that voice now, a clip on each consonant. “Mom. Mom. Get. Up. And. Turn. Around.”

Rise up shepherd and follow. . .

Rise up shepherd and follow. . .

She pulled the purple from her face. She rolled over, opened her eyes, and was looking right into the knees of two men in jeans.

Then the son knelt.  His eyes were at her eye level and he looked right into her. She’d never seen this look, at least not from him. The earnestness and resolve. The deliberateness.

Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices. . .

Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices. . .

“Kay, I’m not going to add to the drama here, but you know, um, this is my last Christmas with you all.  This is it.” He pounded a fist into the carpet and shook his head.

Was he trembling? What was the stiffness in his lower lip? In his chin?

Their watch of wondering love. . .

Their watch of wondering love. . .

“And so I want us to celebrate and have the Spirit.”

Let every heart prepare him room. . .

Let every heart prepare him room. . .

“So will you please come out and be with us? Now? Mom?”

God and sinner reconciled. . .

God and sinners reconciled. . .

He took her hand, which gesture was a bit odd, but not too odd right then, and she let him take it. She felt each of his callouses from dribbling balls and pummeling drums.

And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there. . .

And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there. . .

“Come on, ” now he was whispering so low she could hardly hear him. “Come in here with me.”

Close by me forever and love me I pray. . .

Close by me forever and love me, I pray. . .

The gesture, a tug, unlocked something in her bones and she moved, almost effortlessly, letting the purple wrap crumple to the floor as she trailed her son and her husband down the hall, into the light, the noise, the company of her family.  The other three children looked at her, stopped tinkering, quibbling, and went quiet.  A suppressed grin and, “Hi. . . Mom!” came from the youngest, who wriggled his nose under the round little red frames of his glasses.

Round yon virgin, mother and child. . .

Round yon virgin, mother and child. . .

“Okay. Everyone?” The son holding his mother’s hand announced in the middle of the room, “We need to have a prayer.  We’re going to turn things around here.  So. . . we need the Spirit. Right now. So come on. We’ve got to kneel.”

In the dark streets shineth. . .

In the dark streets shineth. . .

It was the prayer of a full grown man, and his mother – no, everyone – felt its weight settle on their shoulders.  They knelt for a moment in silence.  But not that resistant, withholding kind of silence.

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you was. . .

This was the silence of soft awe, and like the invisible bending of the arc of a rainbow, it did indeed turn things. The mother spoke, but her words opened up a whole swamp of apologies, to which all the children and the husband now countered, wading in with their own apologies. Then they embraced, got off their knees. . .

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

. . .And embraced again.

And so it continued both day and night. . .

And so it continued both day and night. . .

Later that evening, the mother and her oldest son sat next to each other, legs stretched out, on the overstuffed sofa.

Where meek souls seek him the enters in

Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in. . .

He, between spoonfuls of ice cream straight from the container, lip-synced Jimmy Stewart. . .

Heaven and nature sing. . .

Heaven and nature sing. . .

. . .And she knew all the lines for Donna Reed. . .

Tender and mild. . .

Tender and mild. . .

And the whole family sat together and watched, like they had every Christmas Eve for as long as they could remember, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

And it truly is.

002

**

“Temporary separation at death and the other difficulties that attend us as we all move toward that end are part of the price we pay for. . .birth and family ties and the fun of Christmas together. . .These are God’s gifts to us – birth and life and death and salavtion, the whole divine experience in all its richness and complexity.” — Elder Jeffrey R. Holland

The Maasai and Rites of Passage

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Late in the afternoon of December 29th, 2011, the eve of our Dalton’s 16th birthday, together with our travel friends you just met in the last post, we were invited by Masenga Lukeine, our bilingual Maasai guide, to visit a local boma. Masenga himself has a simple but modern apartment in the big city, since he works during the weeks as a guide.  But weekends, he rushes back to his wife and child in their boma. To be at home there, he first changes his clothes, shifting a century or several, and sheds all his modern accoutrement.  What’s complicated, he explained to us, is that when he goes home to the boma, he has no place to put his things. No shelf for a cell phone. No cubby for his camera. Those things he has to leave in his 21st century home with its shelves built for private property, a concept so far removed from the Maasai culture.

Masenga Lukeina, our Maasai guide

Masenga Lukeine, our Maasai guide

“Boma” is Maa language for community/settlement, and Masenga wanted to take us to a boma lying between the Ngorongoro Crater (a 2,000 ft deep, 100 sq. mile large caldera—a virtual petri dish of African wildlife) and the borders of the Serengeti.

DSC_6416DSC_6417DSC_6448DSC_6461DSC_6488DSC_6504This area is what science calls “The Cradle of Humankind.”  Mankind is to have sprung here; the earliest signs of human life, in fact—dating back over 3.7 million years—have been discovered and preserved within miles of where our tents were pitched. Spending our son’s birthday (not to mention the birthday of the Son of God) in the “The Cradle of Humankind” felt significant to me, and in more than just a poetic kind of way.

But you see I’m already getting ahead of my story.
Let’s get back to the Maasai and their boma. . .

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The Maasai, as you probably already know, are a dominant tribe indigenous to eastern Africa. Nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai populate sizable swaths of Kenya and Tanzania where they herd cattle, (which they consider both sacred and theirs by divine right), sheep and goats, subsisting almost exclusively on their meat, milk and blood.

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For centuries, they have lived in polygamous clans governed by strict patriarchal rule, which weaves an iron clad fabric of social stratification. As a result, the boma is a formidably fortressed refuge from modernity.

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But it’s not an impenetrable fortress.  Generally, the Maasai feel endangered by modernity and its free market system (the governments of Kenya and Tanzania have acquired and zoned much of what the Maasai claim is their rightful land, moving them into areas similar to native American reservations), and in an effort to hedge against their culture’s subsequent instinction, the Maasai have had to maneuver inchwise into the free market.  They occasionally allow foreigners ––folks with cameras and computers and power to share the Maasai stories broadly the way I’m sharing them here –– to enter their settlements and observe their ways. What do we encroachers from the 21st century observe?  Besides gathering fantastic stuff for a photo essay, there’s much that should be apparent to you in a moment or so. . .

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When, that afternoon, our Jeeps approached the thorny acacia thistle hedge boundary of this particular boma of a dozen or so huts, the first to greet us was the boma’s senior chief, followed by men from all six ranks of elders including the young spear-carrying warriors.

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This Maasai boma, Masenga told us, had never before welcomed western visitors like us.  Their chiefs had been resistant to the idea, fearful that the odd, creamy-fleshed androids with light eyes and blonde hair, fitted pants with zips and buttons, and their bulky digital cameras slung around our necks like strange black calabashes would somehow appeal to their younger clan members, drawing them from their cultural obligations. Polluting them. They could not afford to lose the rising generation to the strange suction of the 21st century.

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Trailing Masenga, we came face-to-face with about four-dozen Maasai all draped in brilliant reds and blues, their distinguishing tribal colors. I smelled farm and only farm. I saw the stretched earlobes, the yellowed eyes, the perfectly round heads, and everywhere in adults (as I’d noticed with Masenga), the two missing lower and center teeth. They’d been removed in one of the many Maasai rites of passage, the childhood “maturation” ceremony. With a single jab of a blade. Without anesthetic. Or tears.

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And though everyone was swatting flies from their faces, I felt the clan’s regal bearing, their dignity.

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I’d done my research, of course. Their polygamy? Because of my Mormon pioneer heritage, I remotely comprehended it. But their resistance to educating their girls? I growled inside. And their bloody rites of passage, especially the cruel (and continuing and incomprehensible) enforcement of female circumcision performed, in many cases, in early childhood? My very bones groaned. Could these people see the indignation I was trying to hide behind my eyes? Could they see my reprehension, my judgment, my sorrow, my seething? And as important, could I see anything in their eyes but all that essential yet messy cultural packaging? Could I see into those eyes, past the unpalatable facts? Most importantly, could I see with their eyes into their world? Into my world?

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Old women. I eyed them. Young wives. I tightened my aperture. Several younger soon-to-be brides toting other mothers’ and sisters’ and aunts’ toddlers on their hips. I searched their faces, adjusted my focus, zeroed in on what lay behind their eyes. There, I thought I saw pluck, intensity, wisdom. There was something else I saw, but I couldn’t interpret it.  Was it resignation? Or contentment? Or was it familial pride? Fatigue? Fear? Hunger? I lacked everything to understand it, though I wished I could.

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These women, I was taught, were the sole architects and engineers of the physical boma itself. Twelve huts made of mud, sticks, cow dung and cow urine comprised this boma, and each was built and inhabited by a different wife.

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From each wife, as many children as physically possible, Masenga told me. A man’s identity was determined first by bravery, and then by the number of cows, wives and children he maintained. A woman’s identity was derived from a similar kind of bravery — toughness and grit—proved first by withstanding  circumcision with no tears, and then by maintaining the boma and all its inhabitants: house-building; wood-gathering; cow-milking; goat-slaughtering; hide-tanning; meal-preparing; child-bearing; child-burying; child-rearing. All such burdens were necessarily delegated among the several wives.

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And so there were many wives, (and many children, and many cows) in the boma, the former two wading in sandals or barefoot in the raw soupy manure of the latter. Stench and muck filled every walkable space.  I’d probably never survive a night there due to the bacteria alone.

But I’ll tell you, I wanted to try to.

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That initial visit (I was taking several pages of notes and was learning the Maa language for body parts) was cut short when Masenga rushed toward us. “The river is flooding. It’s over its banks,” he hissed, short of breath, wide-eyed. “And it’s getting higher every minute. We must leave now and drive very quickly.” I clasped the hands of the two young girls and the blind elderly man I’d been hunched closest to, the ones I’d hoped to interview with Masenga as translator, and I smiled a sad goodbye. I hurried off, notebook in hand. Some elders from the boma accompanied us for help.  They knew well what a flash flood could mean.

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That same river which had been hub-cap shallow a couple of hours earlier when we’d forded it on our way to this boma, was now too deep and swift for any Jeep to cross. Rains moved like great silent shadows on the distant horizon.  The formerly solid road before us was a total, gushing wash.

DSC_7159DSC_7162 Evening is heavy and lightless in the African wild, and soon, our headlights were the only source of illumination for miles. Albert, our driver, was on his radio with other guides in the region, trying to figure out an escape.  We were weaving along the river for an hour or more, trying without success to find a place to cross, our lights glinting off of the eyes of 50 or more head of migrating wildebeest and the occasional jackal or warthog.

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After running out of options, we knew we’d be stuck on the wrong side of the river until waters receded, which could be several hours.  Albert and Masenga were huddled, calmly conversing in Maa.

“Here are some blankets,” Albert offered us.

“There is no place to cross.  Please prepare the children to stay the night in the Jeep,” Masenga said, patting a plaid Maasai woolen throw.

“We might have drinks,”Albert turned to Randall, “But no food for dinner.”

Luc didn’t seem upset about much; “I think this is where you break out in one of your happy songs, Mom,” he said, the drama of the moment overriding his otherwise perpetual hunger.

“But what about crashing. . .” I  asked, looking first at Masenga, then Albert, then Randall, then at my fingertips so I looked casual “Crashing at . . . the boma?”

Everyone else, including and especially our two scientist friends, who were undoubtedly calculating our lack of resistance to the boma’s wealth of bacteria–everyone else seemed, oh, I don’t know, somewhat less enthusiastic.

Nonetheless. . .

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Our Jeep’s low beams framed the boney outline of the familiar thistle hedge, and from the utter darkness of a corner hut emerged a few dark faces, children I recognized from our daylight visit. Within minutes we were completely surrounded by our Maasai friends, and soon the entire boma and the neighboring boma, too, spilled out into the diffuse pool of headlights. Children’s bright eyes circled us in the darkness. Their teeth filled their smiles and their smiles filled their faces and their faces filled the night and before we knew it, music filled the air.

We had LDS Primary songs going from atop the Jeep, (imagine a throng of Maasai kids in a chorus of “Do As I’m Doing”), the whole time warm heads nuzzled up to our ribs, small black hands reached and clasped, stroking our shockingly white arms.

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The flash of Luc’s Life Is Good T-shirt raced past, chased by a gaggle of boys, naked arms flailing, bare torsos cloaked in reds and blues. A cloud of laughter and giggling gibberish floated into the sky.

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From within a Jeep, Dalton introduced Peek-a-Boo, leaving a symmetrical series of nostril fog smudges on every window, and when that grew old, he and Luc drew an audience with a round of beat-boxing. The Maasai caught right on.

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Then our brilliant scientist friend explained the mysterious amusement that was his digital camera. From where I stood, it looked like he was unveiling the arc of the covenant. Its radiance lit up the faces of a pressing crowd of kids, who seemed transfixed as this bearded man with hair the color of cinders narrated, in his strange tongue, “Our Family’s Year in Pictures.” He spoke louder and louder until he was practically barking, a surefire way to make yourself understood in your tongue when speaking to those who don’t speak a lick of it, by the way.
The crescent of unblinking eyes locked on the shining images.
“And this is our skin cancer clinic in Salt Lake City, Utah! Uuuuuuu. Taaaaah.”
“And this is snow. SNOW. White and cold. COLD. Do you know cold?”
“And this is Yosemite. YO. SEH. MEH. TEEEEE.”

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It was right about then that from the darkest part of the darkness and coming behind me, warriors filed in with their spears, coiling into a circle. Their bodies pulsated, the points of their spears rode up and down as they breathed their low, monotone chants. Two young women took me by each arm and led me, singing along with their piercing wails, into the spiral. One slipped two of her bracelets, green and red, onto my wrist. The other girl took the broad, ornate beaded neck disc from her mother who was dancing nearby, lifted my hair, and fastened the collar around my neck. Some surrounding women, stroking my long hair, (I was a freak, I’m sure), tried to teach me how to make the disc roll and rock up and down to my chanting and the awkward flapping rhythm of my shoulders.

(Just a note: White girls can’t flap.)

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I couldn’t flap, but I could belt, and right then I cut loose, wearing my vocal chords raw, while I wailed a string of their sounds to the moon. It came from the soles of my feet, this wholly joyous wave of celebration, this unison movement and exultation, this mix of darkness and light, fear and belonging, awkwardness and fluidity.
I glanced to the left to see Dalton in his kelly green T-shirt next to what we figured was an albino Maasai, kept shielded in daylight from the severe African sun. The albino and then my son sidled up next to me. “Mom, someone’s got to be here to hold you back.

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Next to Dalton was the tallest, lankiest of all the warriors, who soon pulled Dalton right into the center of the circle, shoved a spear into his hand, and with less than a nod and a half-smile, motioned that he should jump.

Jump.

The famous Maasai vertical jump.

The legendary initiation jump.

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Hours later, right up to midnight, we were still jumping. And singing.  And sweating.  All of us.

Until Albert and Masenga got word by radio that there was now one spot in the river low enough to try to cross, although it could be dangerous. We left our Maasai friends with their two or three live torches and their hours yet to go, I guessed, of dancing.  We drove to the river.

I have no shots of that moment when our Jeep went nose deep, headlights under water level into the river, churgeling and gruggling and shlushing up onto the other bank.  A cheer exploded into the crisp night sky, everyone whooped and high-fived and then we waited, holding our breath, on the other side until the trailing Jeep followed suit.

And everyone cheered.

Except, really, me. I fingered my two bracelets listening to their delicate clink – one red, one yellowish green– and turned back to look over my shoulder to see something, I don’t know what.  I smelled the biting acrid residue of the boma still in my hair.  It lingered in me like that for the next couple of days.

Nearly one year since that night, those bracelets sit on a clean white shelf.  Unlike Masenga and the girl who gifted me these, I have more than plenty of places to put my possessions.  The shelf is behind my big soft bed with its several pillows, a pearly landscape of white and silver embroidered linens. Outside the world is plush and pristine. It’s Swiss, after all, well-fed and nearly antiseptic. The cows in this season don’t need their fancy neck bells, bells that make a beautiful but somehow hollow sound compared with the clink-clink of two Maasai bracelets whose owner I left but have never forgotten since I passed in the night over a swollen river.

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Teacha Claira

On the road between Arusha and Moshi

On the road between Arusha and Moshi

Moshi lies an hour north of Arusha, Tanzania, literally in the foothills of Kilimanjaro.

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This is where our daughter Claire spent nearly five months volunteering in a juvenile detention center which, at the time, housed over twenty boys. Officially, these detainees were supposed to be between the ages of twelve and eighteen. But age is a flexible reality in Tanzania.  Some of them might have been almost as young as they looked, closer to ten or eight, it’s hard to judge.

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Officially, Claire’s work was to teach reading, writing and arithmetic; she was their one-room schoolhouse teacher.

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But she also instructed them in psychosocial skills.

And cooking.  Hygiene. Hope. Self respect. Whatever these boys needed.

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A year earlier, the boys used to share the same, cramped facility with girls lodged in an adjacent room.  Twenty-plus simple metal-framed bunk beds to a chamber.  This season, however, there were no female delinquents, it seemed. The system, otherwise full of loopholes and inadequacies, had at least succeeded in separating the sexes.  One can only imagine (and research and statistics verify) the rampant abuse, both sexual and physical, that takes place in conditions where youths are detained for prolonged periods in one facility with children or adults of both genders.  Such mixing is illegal of course, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.

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Why were these boys incarcerated in the first place?

From the boys with whom she grew closest and from a local assistant, Claire got a description:

This one had played hooky from his school, and so his parents sent him away.

The other one over there who looked ten years old but was probably eighteen had disrespected an elder. In other words, he’d fought back to protect a woman his uncle (and caregiver) was physically abusing.

The boy by the window was guilty of being abandoned. Next to him was a child whose mother had turned to prostitution to feed her children.  It is apparently illegal to be the child of a prostitute, not to be a prostitute oneself.

Another was the product of two AIDS-stricken parents who could no longer care for him.  There was nowhere else to put him but in detention.

This one had used “offensive language.”  One had been accused of homosexual activity. A few had been found wandering the streets begging, which in spite of Tanzania’s ubiquitous poverty, is a criminal offense.  Another had been selling plastic bottles on a corner, the gain from which his mother required to buy food for his siblings since there was no wage-earning father in the house.

Among them all there were but two serious allegations, one of rape and the other of murder. But the legitimacy of both allegations was dubious, and the accused perpetrators looked as world-weary, wide-eyed and vulnerable as starved hunting dogs.

What did they do day in and day out in juvi? Who was in charge?

The boys were overseen by two women they called The Mammas. These women –imposing, surly, dispensers of brusque corporal punishment – kept the boys in line from where they sat in a shaded alcove, directing the boys’ day’s work which included hauling the logs to build morning fires over which the boys cooked their own meals in this kitchen.
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“You must beat them,” one Mamma advised Claire in broken English the first day Claire came to work. “Beat,” the Mamma clapped her meaty hands in a firm whack into the air and then kicked her sandaled foot into the dirt, “Big beat.

Claire was not allowed to touch let alone beat the boys, of course, not that they ever needed beating or that she would ever have been inclined to beat them. She found them totally deferent and frankly too weak and fearful to do anything but follow orders.

The boys spent their mornings and afternoons in the classroom, where they were taught by Claire and an assistant.  Anything she ever knew about world geography, nursery rhymes, Robocop and Jackie Chan movies came in handy.  She taught it all. At the end of each session, she rewarded them by letting them congregate around her iPhone. They were quick to master technology.

At noon, the boys would kick around a ball in a small courtyard. Otherwise, they were to stay in their communal bunk room.

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There, they played a lot of cards. Some tried to read. Their life, you could say, was one protracted wait. They were never updated on their particular case, where it lay in the mounting pile of cases involving children in the Tanzania legal system.  They would wait for months at least. Some, for years.

And it would require a dissertation – or several dissertations, which no doubt exist – not a mere blogpost, to begin to pick apart the societal and governmental complexities that sustain such a corrupt program as the Tanzanian juvenile justice system. I wish I could devote more time and research to what I glimpsed in a matter of hours and gleaned from my conversations with Claire.  What I can write, though, is that these boys’ incarceration, living standards, and hope for a fair trial and for any decent future were grim beyond belief.

Most if not all of these children would be sitting in the bleakness of detention for months on end before their case would ever reach a given desk so they could appear before a judge.  On that day, they would not be allowed to defend themselves, would probably not see their parents, (who because of poverty, shame, despair or disinterest would not appear to defend their child at court), and most children could not speak the language of the court to begin with.

What was also striking was that for being “delinquents”, if every last one of these youths truly was delinquent, they were extraordinarily well-behaved.  They kept their eyes low, their voices soft, their hands folded tightly in their laps, bare feet flat on the cement floor. If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think juvi was a clearing house for the Gifted and Talented.

“Good morning, Teacha Claira,” they chant in quiet unison. They hold their boney arms straight to their sides.  Their hands look overused and overlarge. Some of their backs probably had scars whose history I would hate to know.

These are real-life lost boys, and as I watch them all rise on their impossibly thin legs, my mind goes to the only other Lost Boys I know of; Peter Pan’s lively cohorts.  Troublemakers and goof-offs, those boys, hooligans and, since they eventually turn into donkeys, I guess I’m okay writing here that they were smart-asses.  They aren’t like these boys who stand in front of me, barefoot and obedient, toeing this unforgiving cracked cement.  Those fairytale donkey boys are not like these forgotten and disposed-of ones who eat thin gruel and bear their daily blows from The Mammas.  These lost boys in front of me stand waiting helplessly for their orders, be they from their advocate-teacher who will teach them English synonyms for “happy” today, or from a one-day judge who will, the world can only hope, hear them in their voicelessness.

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Tanzania and Juvy

How do you land a job as an assistant warden in a Tanzanian juvenile detention center?

Entrance to Arusha, Tanzania Juvenile Detention Center

Entrance to the Juvenile Detention Center in Moshi, Tanzania

Approximately the same way you end up serving as a full-time LDS missionary in southern Italy.

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You prepare yourself. You apply. You close your eyes, open up a letter, then open those eyes to see where you have been assigned.

And you ratchet up your Swahili.

(Or Italian.)

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Since her childhood, Claire has had this fixation on African animals. And since her youth spent in Paris with its dominant francophone-African population, she’s felt a keen interest in all things African. And so during her junior year at University, (where she studied Humanities with an English emphasis and French and African Studies as her double minor), she began inquiring seriously into different service programs that would take her for a semester as a volunteer to the Big Continent.

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Clinton Foundation?
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Gates Foundation?
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Peace Corps?
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Green Peace?
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Kenya? Sudan? Ghana? Cameroon?
Mali, Malawi, Botswana?
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Working with endangered animals?
Endangered women?
Endangered children?
With entire populations endangered by AIDS?
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After months of research and telephone interviews, we settled on a reputable program based in Arusha, Tanzania, in the shadows of Mount Kilimanjaro.
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As is required for an LDS mission, Claire had to have a certain level of preparation and stability and a strong endorsement in order to be considered for this program. She filled out lots of forms, submitted letters of recommendation, and was finally accepted for the fall 2011 program.
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What she did not know on the outset was precisely what her assignment in Tanzania would be.

She could have been placed to work in a hospital, or in one of the many shelters for battered women, or could have interned with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, located in Arusha.

Headquarters for the International Tribunal for the Rwandan Genocide

Headquarters for the International Tribunal for the Rwandan Genocide

But. . .our girl was assigned to juvi.

I can’t say her initial reaction to the whole juvi idea was effusive. And just between us, I had my reservations, too, of course. Teaching delinquent male teenagers (some in for serious crimes like murder, I was told, and some for minor and trumped up infractions like disrespecting their elders) in a caged environment? Every day? So I asked: uh, so, any chance my daughter’s going to pack some heat? Wear Kevlar? Who gets to be her body guard? Because she’d never be left alone with felons. . . right?

. . .right?
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After less than a week teaching her twenty or so charges at juvi, Claire had fallen fiercely and irreversibly in love.

Next post, I’ll tell you more about the young men my Claire calls her “Boys”, the ones who call her “Teacha Claira”, the boys-made-men who won my daughter’s heart, the ones who, that last day in late December when we came as a family to pick her up and take her away into the wilderness, were silenced with respect, motionless on their low, dilapidated wooden benches. Sad and adoring. Concerned and apologetic when they saw their “Teacha” was wiping tears.
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These boys were the same “criminals”, by the way, who showed their depth of love for Claire in a most visceral way.

They begged and insisted she come back the next week after Christmas. “A big party for you,” the leader boy named Prosper told her, his eyes glinting with pride, yet weighted as if he were forty. She must come back because all of them wanted to give her something “very special.” And so Claire managed to come back.

She left well before dawn from where our family was camping out in the Serengeti and by means of three modes of transportation driven (or flown) by the kindest locals, made it back to her juvi where the boys were waiting, she told me later, all lined up, shy, sober and smiling.  Practically happy with themselves.

Prosper escorted her into the courtyard on whose walls they’d painted a mural together that fall.  He was eager to show her their extravagant gift.

“Please. For you, Teacha Claira.”

And there is was, fresh and bright, a most luxurious offering.

The boys had slaughtered her a goat.
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2012: A Year’s Passage

Christmas Day 2011, Tanzania

December 2011, Tanzania

December 2012, Switzerland

December 2012, Switzerland

Like you, winding up a year makes me look back, unwinding it.  While you’ve been with me for half of 2012 (I launched this blog in May), having strapped yourself in just in time for the second part of the year’s ride, (that big move from Singapore to Switzerland, if you remember), you missed out on the entire front half of the calendar.  That’s kind of a shame, really, because there was stuff going on, friend.  Are you interested in seeing a bit of that passage?

Christmas week, 2011. . .

Christmas week, 2011. . .

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Before I get carried away, though, may I insert a small, smiling caveat?

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As you visit here throughout December, would you please keep something in mind? It’ll help so that I don’t feel too crippled by self-consciousness and you won’t feel sludgy or arrggghy or slumpy. Or slap-toppy.

(That stinging state of mind when you slap shut your lap top, resenting what you just saw inside it.)

Not that you would slap shut on me. But in case.  Since you know, things happen.

Please hear my whispered voice saying that these posts are all given in the spirit of sharing between friends this riotously colorful and complex globe we live on. These posts are about nothing but that: sharing, celebrating, being whooshed away with wonder.

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So consider today’s post a jiffy Table of Contents for what you can expect to read here throughout December, this last month  of 2012.

There was an extended trip to Tanzania, Africa.  I will post several times on that and explain why we were there in the first place, what things I observed, why I want to return.  The photos alone are worth clicking in here once in a while. (I didn’t take them; my men did.)

Then there was Viet Nam, Cambodia and Thailand.

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 And Indonesia and Hong Kong.

And that morning spent diving with dolphins in Mauritius. 

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When not posting on the past passage of 2012, I’ll keep you abreast of the current passage, what we are experiencing in the here-and-now.

“Here”: Central Europe.

“Now”: right about. . . now. This alone will keep us busy, as we’ve planned a couple of family outings.

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Come with us to Vienna to hear these talented boys sing…

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Drive with us to Strasbourg for the Christmas market that dates from the 1500’s…

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Take the TGV with us to Paris

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Then get some retrospective Paris with a few excerpts from Global Mom: A Memoir where most recently we’ve been looping back to Norway but we’ll now return to France.

Only to leave France briefly.

Only to return to France for a few more years.

All to keep you thoroughly confused and a bit transfixed.

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And finally, come share with us our first Swiss Christmas. They promise to be deeply, whitely, purely holy days.

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Global Mom: Farm Wedding

Østfold lies southeast by an hour from Oslo’s talk show and television commercial studios.  In the middle of that county is the village of Ski, and in the middle of Ski is a tiny white stucco chapel.

credit: woophy

There, on one of those brilliantly blue-skied late spring days, Sigrid, the daughter of a prominent local farmer, is getting married, and I’ve been drafted to serenade the day-long traditional farm wedding. What will unfold before me, the only non-Norwegian on hand, is like a movie so enchanting I start to feel I’m unfit as the soundtrack.

I arrive early by car, ready to review the program one last time with the church organist who skids into the gravel parking place on his road bike, and who, with no more ceremony than the nod of his head (which he keeps wiping as he continues to sweat) launches us into a break-neck dash through our program, tearing through four Norwegian love songs at the same speed with which he arrived on his bike. “Well now,” he says, slapping the organ bench, “I think that’ll about do it,” and he’s running over a hill to squirt off at a nearby farm. I’m still catching my breath, leaning against a pillar in the choir loft, when I peer down to see a procession.

A thick, inching sea of rich bunad colors seeps into the chapel’s all-white interior. Figure upon figure, couple upon couple, family upon family file in gracefully, cautiously, as if someone had told them the floor was made of the thinnest sheet of glass.

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There are mostly heavy black wool skirts that swish almost to the floor, barely exposing the occasional edge of white stocking, which meets the black shoes. On the front of the shoes, ornate, pilgrim-like silver buckles.

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In some of the many regional versions of bunad, the skirt fronts, as the bodices, are gathered into the waistline with the smallest pleats—dozens of pin-tucked pleats—that make architecture out of wool. They’re encrusted with clusters of embroidered flowers, the sheen of which looks like jewels in the early afternoon light coming in through the high windows.

Everywhere there are balloons of starched white linen sleeves tapering to lace-trimmed cuffs and, on some women, wrist wreaths of silver coins which tinkle and glint, the sunlight flitting on their surface. There are brooches, some larger than your palm, clasped at the top of the bodice near the collar. Some women wear small hats, wool and embroidered too, without brims and close to the shape of the head and in the same color as their dress, tied under the chin with ample satin bows.

And there are small handbags made of matching wool with iridescent embroidery, affixed to a silver chain draped at the waistline.

There are dresses, a dozen among hundred, maybe, that aren’t black or deep red, but are bright cornflower blue.

The men look like they’ve arrived on the last commuter train from Brigadoon: velvet knickers, embroidered vests, white linen shirts, black leprechaun shoes. Some children, just a handful, are there, too.

One mom indiscreetly yanks her Karl-Andreas or Anders-Håvard to attention, and directs him into the pew next to her as she tugs down the bottom of his red vest and re-tucks the bunched hem of his starched shirt.  He’s sullen. Thirteen. Has spent the morning bailing hay or milking his own goat, I fantasize.  Or skateboarding, my inner realist corrects me.

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Here is old Norway, but again contemporary, now-a-day Norway, History and The Present, in all its splendid finery and well-mannered neighborliness waiting reverently for a høy tid.

My organist has traded in smelly lycra bike shorts for full bunad regalia himself, and ashamed that I’m just in my best cream silk suit and heels, I slip behind a marble pillar.  At the same moment, the organ opens up all pipes announcing Sigrid’s arrival.  The groom, vigorous-looking with muscles everywhere, (even in his jaw, which he’s clenching, like his fists), waits at the altar.

Sigrid, also blonde, is fresh and freckled, poised in a simply-cut white satin gown.  She proceeds up the aisle: a cool, tall glass of milk. I’m staring at her while I take a deep breath and begin singing: “Kjaerlighet, varmeste ord på jord. . .”  Love, the warmest word on earth.

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When the ceremony ends, the new couple clambers up into a handsome horse-drawn carriage which, trailed by other horse-drawn carriages carrying parts of their bunad entourage, clops over the rolling hills of Østfold toward Sigrid’s family estate.  The parents who’ve invited me to sing, Solvor and Lars, lean down from their carriage to give me road directions, complicated automobile ones, I’m told. It’s much more direct over the fields.  I’m in a tailored suit with stiletto pumps, driving a motor vehicle with a CD player and automatic windows.  I’ve obviously missed a road sign and driven into the middle of the wrong century.

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This family farm’s got to have its own zip code. Lars escorts me up to a crest beyond the limits of the groomed property that radiates outward from the central manor house, and there points to a place on the horizon that I’m sure must be Sweden.

“It’s just the easternmost edge of the property,” he smiles softly.  Then he swings his arm in a full arc in the other direction and, those specks over there?  Those prominent mountains several kilometers away?  “Also the edge of the family domain.” It’s deep green the entire expanse of it, abruptly tree-rich in spots, deliciously farmable in general. Lars seems too soft-spoken to own a whole county.

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“It’s my husband’s family’s soil, too, you know,” I tell Lars. “Aamodt, Haakon. Thorkildsen, Christian. Farmers going way, way back. Do you know the names?”

“Then,” Lars reaches down and pokes his finger into the earth, drilling it softly, pinching and rolling its brownness in his fingertips like he’s testing its character, “Somewhere not more than a century or so ago, we were family, your husband and I.”

Back at the manor house people are starting to arrive, leaping down from buggies, off of single horses or out of Volvos. Solvor wants me to see the house, and doesn’t hesitate to escort me, room by room, through its every antique corner.  The place is a fortress with massive oak staircases flanked by oak banisters so big you’d need two hands to grab the circumference, leaded-pane windows dating back 300 years, lustrous floors of wide, worn planks bulleted in place by chocolate-colored dowels, hand-tufted carpets brought from Sweden and hand-woven linens from Denmark.  Huge family portraits with their oily sheen on pallid, stern visages line the walls above a stone fireplace that cuts a garage-sized hole in the front salon.  Everywhere I turn there are signs of The Hunt, and rounding a bend a bit too frivolously, I nearly lose an eye on a low-hanging reindeer antler.

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The men look ready for a barn raising, but tonight they’re only reinforcing the orchestra pavilion in the courtyard, and moving into rows the long, decorated banquette tables where wine, breads and dried meats are already being laid by a troop of diligent women. I’m handed a pewter platter of cured venison and a wooden trough of sculpted pickles and radishes to put on a table somewhere and make myself inconspicuous (in my twentieth century silk suit and patent leather stilettos) by being industrious like every last body around me.

Suddenly, the farm’s cutting loose. There’s the metallic commotion of cow bell ringing and wild whooping, everyone around me chanting something in unison, something that’s accelerating, something that has us all stamping our feet and clapping our hands at once.  I dive in full-throttle, although I end up almost falling over when I jab all 4-inches of my  stilettos into black-brown farm soil.

The bride and groom have arrived.

A large woman, Inger, red-headed and white-toothed, clinches her fleshy arm around my shoulder and shoves a glass of wine in my hand, hollering and stamping still.  Since I don’t drink, I wrap my arm around the shoulder of the next guy, Ingemar, white-haired and red-cheeked, do a little holler and a light stamp, and shove the glass into his hand.  He downs it in one hearty swig like water, establishing the drinking blueprint for the rest of the night.

People stay primarily sober for at least the first two hours of the four-hour dinner for two-hundred guests, a spread of gelled vegetable aspic, smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and sour cream with dill, crab and coriander salad, cucumber salad in a light vinaigrette, lamb, and tender little new potatoes, all served in a grand hall downstairs in the central house. I sit on the middle table, not far from Lars and Solvor, who are poised under an enormous stuffed black bear head that looks like it’s belting a high note.

credit: US Gen Web

After dinner and under a sky of polished cobalt, we all dance and sing like barefoot children.  Really like barefoot children, because somewhere between the hired band’s Johann Strauss and Bee Gees, I’ve kicked off my shoes like everyone one else.  Has grass ever felt so cool?  Has the moon ever been so close? Have I ever not lived here, not loved these people, not wanted to sing at every single one of their weddings?

Around four in the morning I watch the delicate, black shadows of horse-drawn carriages tiptoe over the far ridges, disappearing in a rising sun: spiders crawling into a flame.  Motors cough and hum, the trumpet player Hermann is packing it in, the lead singer Nils drops another empty Aquavit bottle onto a pile of many other empty Aquavit bottles.  Its “cli-shink” makes the mottled cat dart under a cleared banquette table.  Solvor comes at me from behind and, putting one arm around my waist, strokes my hair, and draws my head to her shoulder.  A mother’s touch. A new sisters’ pact.

credit: woophy

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: An Ambassador

There would be many other singing engagements over the two years that would remain in Norway. There were months when I was learning new music every week, my children wandering in and around the piano or sometimes around other vocalists or orchestra members. I was recruited to sing at all sorts of functions; the library’s opening social, a 50th birthday gathering, the kindergarten’s closing social, the local book club, a corporate mid-year social, a neighboring town’s Late Winter Song Evening, another town’s Early Spring Poetry Reading, a high school’s mid-spring chamber concert, and the frequent American Broadway potpourri.
Breech after flagrant breach of the sisters’ pact.

When invited with three other American musicians to give a private concert at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, I took along nine-year-old Parker. He sat primly in his navy suit and bow tie, his hair parted on the left side and slicked flat like a confederate soldier.

“You have to sit right in that seat, honey,” I told him, pointing to an upholstered chair in the front row, “Because in one song, I’m going to give you the signal like this,” I nodded just once and discreetly, “and then I’ll come get you with my hand just like this,” I took his fingers in mine, “and then I’ll bring you uon front of the audience. Then I’ll sing right to you. Right into your eyes. Kneeling in front of you. Got it?”

“Got it. I don’t have to sing, too, do I?”

“No, you only have to listen. And you also have to help me not mess up, buddy. Can you do that?”
It was “Not While I’m Around,” a lyrical, haunting piece from Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical, “Sweeney Todd.” When I pulled the young boy with a bow tie and confederate hair to my side and knelt on the stage and sang right into his eyes, I nearly abandoned all efforts at composure. I nearly forgot about the respectable audience, the professional distance, I almost forgot about Mr. and Mrs. Ambassador sitting right over my shoulder in a gown and suit. I nearly let emotion seep into my vocal chords, a perilous thing. But I was composed and tried not to feel the moistness of his palms as I held his two hands, tried not to sense a quiver climbing up my sternum. I just kept singing the tender tune a bit baldly, I think; “Nothing can harm you,” I sang to my child, “Not while I’m around.”

And I finished, as I remember, with a smile so totally incongruous with the broader context from which that song is taken – a smile, now that I think about it, like that of a weather channel person waiting for the camera to blink on – I ended smiling with my head tilted, squeezing his skinny suited shoulders, giving him a peck on the cheek and dismissing him with a tap on his rump, clapping the fingertips of one my right hand on the palm of my left,  nodding to him and then to the audience, “Too cute, isn’t he?”

(Some minutes in life you revisit to reinhabit their sweetness. Others you revisit to reinhabit their sweetness and to mentally redo them altogether.)

After a performance with fellow artists. The Great Dane favored us with a solo.  It was in Danish, of course.  And great.

 

 

I didn’t take the children to all of my performances. One such, I described in my Journal:

Flå is a small arts community tucked deep in the folds of Hallingdal. Flå had invited an “American Broadway Singer,” to appear at their annual Arts Days celebration.

I stood in a glitzy American gown on an outdoor stage with microphone in hand and sang three hours of show tunes and big band standards flanked by twenty-five somewhat rigid but nevertheless hearty and well-amplified members of Hallingdal’s civic “Big Band.” The locals, robust and impossibly well-scrubbed, wielding sausages and wearing boiled wool knickers, stomped patterns across the pavilion’s dance floor till all the Aquavit ran dry and the moon peered over the rough ridges of Hallingdal’s towering walls. I went through everything the band had in its repertoire; Benny Goodman, the Andrews Sisters, Bing Crosby, Glenn Miller, even Neil Diamond.  Which was a good fun even though I felt strangely like a disco ball rented for a country picnic.

But then there was this last number, a traditional Norwegian Saeter tune I’d prepared just for this event. When it was announced, five band members, rosy-cheeked, woolen knickered, flannel plaid, stood to join me.  Against the evening chill I slipped the bass player’s boiled wool jacket around my shoulders.  Three of us sang tight harmony first with Ole on the accordion, then all six of us sang in a capella harmony, arms wrapped around one another’s waists or shoulders.  We howled like mountain sheep herders under the moon’s perfect spotlight. And on the way home, driving alone down that ancient black canyon, I decided things don’t get much better than this.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.