Global Mom: French School, A Scream

From Global Mom: A Memoir

(Continued from last post, “Scooting Through Paris”)

Entrance to Parc Monceau

Entrance to Parc Monceau

Sometimes, Randall took the Vespa to the office because his work was just across the street from Dalton’s school. The two would head off together, helmeted and wearing biking gear, Dalton holding around his Dad from the back. They could drive right up to the gilded gates of the Parc Monceau where inside was the splendid converted mansion that housed l’École Active Bilingue. Here, Dalton spent his days and earned his French stripes.

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The Parc Monceau is about as far from Norwegian barnepark as you can get. In fact, it’s much closer to a Japanese Zen garden, only without bonsai trees, a stone replica of Mount Fuji, and bamboo rakes for everyone to comb the sand. And because it’s French, it is sumptuous but just about as ornamental. This elegant park is where Dalton, and then Luc when he joined the same school a year later, spent their recré, or recess periods every day. Dressed in navy and white uniforms, they stood in packs – boys here, girls there – for their thimble-full of outdoor time. Half an hour of a nine-hour day.

Parc Monceau through the eye of Claude Monet

Parc Monceau through the eyes of Claude Monet

Under the shade of huge old sycamores, the children huddled to play a rousing set of billes, marbles.  They sometimes drummed up a modest round of tag or ran after one another’s Yugio cards, very popular that year.  But that was the extent of their movement for the day. “Your boys should participate in one or two sports outside of class,” the diréctrice of the school had advised me in our first private consultation. “Swimming, soccer, tennis, anything you can find to energize them will help them metabolize all they’re learning.” She was a small boned woman with a strong brow and imposing presence, flawless Parisian French, and always a gold insignia ring on her left pinkie finger.  For someone so no-nonsense, she sure wore delicious perfume.

Monet again under the shade of sycamores in Parc Monceau

Monet again under the shade of sycamores in Parc Monceau

“This is why we have the open Wednesday afternoons,” she continued. “The children are encouraged to do all their sport then. I suggest you sign them up. Vite, vite!”

After the requisite bureaucracy for which I was braced this time around, we did sign them up: swimming, chess, choir, tae kwan do and then finally because we were in France, we of course signed up both boys for escrime.

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fencing 1

That’s pronounced  eh-scream, which should have made me nervous, but somehow didn’t.  That is until I saw that the boys’ fencing instructor had no right ear. It was a detail that inspired in me both confidence (hey, this guy really fences!) and worry (hey, but, uh. . . .?) The gymnasium full of twenty young fencers in tight white unitards and mesh-fronted helmets looked like an audition hall for Star Wars Stormtroopers wielding swords instead of lasers. For months and months they swung fearlessly, my two youngest did, while mincing and shuffling back and forth, arms raised just so, feet poised just so, an exhausting and beautiful discipline cum sport cum art. Fully French.

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Global Mom: Our Daughter With The French Name

From Global Mom: A Memoir

The following I wrote in my journal:

The hardest moment was in our bedroom tonight. We’d already told P by himself, which was a good move. We knew he’d be ecstatic. But C just finished doing Marian the Librarian in “The Music Man” and just last week we promised her a dog. Finally, the dog she’s waited a decade for. For D and L, we would just announce the choice when we’d make it, not discuss it, so we didn’t involve them at first.

Claire as Marian

Claire as Marian

Claire living her dream: horses

Claire living her dream: horses

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Piano teacher down the street

Piano teacher down the street

Big yellow American school bus also down the street...and a 6 minute drive to school

Big yellow American school bus also down the street…and a 6 minute drive to school

Free range living

Free range living

Did I mention a cottage and lots of open space. . .for a dog?

Did I mention a cottage and lots of open space. . .for a dog?

...Or for a little brother?

…Or for a little brother?

P and C were sitting on our sofa. We told them we had big news but wanted to discuss it. This isn’t final, kids, we said. Want to get your reactions. And when we told C, she immediately glazed over then her eyes welled up. P put his arm around her, and she just started crying, crying. “I don’t want to go back to that hard life. This is easy, good, perfect. I want to be here. I want to STAY HERE!” And she fell into P’s arms, bawling. I think I gave R an evil look, and I know I lipped to him, “This means no go.”

We kept trying to reassure her. We haven’t said yes to a thing, we said. We’ve just been asked if we could and we are free to say no, we said. We’ll never do something that makes all of us miserable and that Heavenly Father does not encourage us to do. We walked around and around the back yard, C between us, our arms wrapped around her shoulders, listening as she cried out all the reasons why this was all bad, all wrong. “All bad, all wrong,” she kept crying, stopping to catch her breath, to bend over and then shake herself upright. It broke my heart. I wanted to weep, too, but held it in. I was believing her.

I felt how selfish it would be to pluck them out of such bounty and ease, and I had just hung red geraniums on the wrap around porch, gorgeous! Why would we ever head to where things were, as Claire knew, much harder. The edges, harder. The expectations, harder. The language, harder. The traffic and school and rules and sky and air and everything, she said, HARDER.

Inseparable, these two

Inseparable, these two

What happened when Claire went alone into her room is something Randall and I didn’t ask or hope for. We sat, nauseated and sweaty, conflicted and brokenhearted, hands between knees, rocking back and forth on the edge of our bed. So what? we said to each other, if the company has an “acute” and “special” need? So what if that need is, as they assert, “tailor made” to be filled with Randall’s expertise? So what if this would only be “a couple of years” and then we could come right back to the home and the huge yard and the cul de sac on the hill and corporate headquarters where Randall, having done this, overseeing his function in the company’s largest subsidiary outside the U.S., would be “very well-positioned”, as he was told, to take on the job that his whole career had been grooming him for, the top and final level.

So what? I said.

So what? he said.

So what?

086

And Claire knocked on our door.

She wanted to talk. She came with news that became a turning point and a landmark to which our whole family would refer for years to come. She sat with us on the bed and told us she’d run while holding back tears to her girlfriend down the road. That friend, whose parents were in the middle of a horrible divorce, reassured and comforted Claire, and listened as her new friend cried. Claire had then come back home to kneel at her bed and pray. Not for an answer — to move or not to move, that was not the question — but simple comfort in this hurting moment. It was then that she felt warmth and heat wrap around her twelve-year-old shoulders and a voice (she felt it, she didn’t hear it), told her clearly that though this would be really hard at the beginning, over the long run it would be the best thing for the family.

Yes, she should, we should, move to Paris.

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Comparing: Sorrow That The Eye Can’t See

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Their holiday greeting cards? Picture perfect, every last one. Fifteen years ago, all in matching pastels romping in the surf at Cape Cod. Ten years ago, all four kids plus Mom and Dad swinging in the arms of their backyard maple tree. A couple of years after that, rumpled and ruddy-cheeked vogueness in a glittery snowscape with that year’s added essential; Bogart, the Labrador retriever.

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Because she is more sister than friend to me, I’d known for some time what kind of patchy reality lay beneath the airbrush of these annual images. In fact, I knew the moment when there wouldn’t be any more holiday cards. Well, not for a while, at least. In any event, never another one with Dad.

“Melissa, I’ve found. . .found out something. It is terrible. Something so terrible. . .”

Her voice on the phone dissolved into darkened tones that barely rose above a whisper. I had to hold one hand over my eyes to block out the sunshine that ricocheted off the blunt blows she narrated through restrained anguish.

She’d discovered a lie. The lie. Then more lies. Lies that revealed a separate apartment. A hidden bank account. His falsified business trips.  His serial affairs.

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I had to sit down. My legs were liquid.

“How long has–?”

Years, Melissa. I think this has been going on. . .I can’t. . . I’m having a hard. . .it’s hard just breathe–”

“And you’ve got proof–”

“It’s all right here. I’m holding it in my hands. Receipts. From his pocket when I was supposed to take his jacket to the cleaners. And I started tracing where he was making bank withdrawals. They weren’t where he said he was traveling. And then I found the messages left on the cell he forgot in the car when I dropped him at the airport. I had this haunting feeling and so I. . .there were those expenses he couldn’t explain. . .the erratic behavior. . and all his lavish gifts for me when he’d stay away an extra weekend. . .Penance payment, I see that now. Oh, Melissa, what am I –”

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Her voice, usually smooth and thick as fresh cream, erupted in one jagged sob. She sucked in the breath of someone going under for a long time. I had to lean back flat on the sofa to get enough breath myself; my lungs cramped so I folded over onto my side and cried along with her. We talked for two hours straight.

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What did they all mean, her twenty-something years of steady devotion?  Supporting him through grad studies? Having and raising babies while he climbed the ladder? Four preteens then teens then getting the eldest off to college? Where did I go wrong, she kept asking me, Did I misread his tension, she asked, Every marriage has its stretches of tension, I said, But all these recent inexplicable blow-ups, she told me, Did I do something? Put too much pressure on him, she’d asked, and No wonder he was at the gym every free hour, it seemed, getting fit. Lean. Buff. He told me I should be grateful he was keeping healthy. Not letting himself go. 

With eyes closed, I listened. Their manicured holiday cards pulsed and swirled on the screen of my mind.  And I remembered her phone voice from a year earlier, telling me he’s started getting mani-pedis, Melissa, body waxing, weekly massages. 

Oh, these men and their midlife crises, she’d said.

And I’d said, Uh. . . not the crises I know. What’s going on? You’d better find out.

Then she’d released the single, heavy pant of a work horse.

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“Honey, looks like I’ll have to stay over here another weekend,” he’d sighed when calling from New York. Or San Francisco. Or London. Or was it Bangkok this time? “This new CEO’s got me on this huge project and, well. . .You know.”

Somewhere along the way he’d developed a new laugh. It was a shrink-wrapped kind of cackle. She’d hardly recognized it as his, had hardly recognized who he seemed to be.

Yes, that was it.  He seemed to be someone. His presence, less frequent but more theatrical, made her uneasy. Why do you need all these new designer carry-ons? She’d asked that once. He’d nearly blinded her with his flippant, anger-propelled spittle, and that time he left before the weekend at home was even over. Sooner than planned. Sooner than promised.

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When she found him out, when she told him his betrayal was exposed, he was indignant. And then he was utterly infuriated that she would “humiliate” him like this. Then, as quickly as he’d spiked in a rage, he’d softened.  He’d cleared his throat, dredging up an apology. He’d asked,”Why can’t we just stay together? For the sake of propriety?” He would keep his “other side” quiet, he said. Not disturb the children with it. That way, there would be no public shame.  “We can keep things clean and tidy.”

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In any case, she shouldn’t tell her parents about this, he warned, his ears pinned back. And his parents? He strictly forbade her to speak a word. The tip of his index finger thudded with each syllable into the countertop as he made. his. point.

The day she told the children was the same day she filed.

And then she fled.

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Within a month and without raising her head or her voice, she’d sold the house and moved to a place far away. She would start over there, she hoped, start over after two decades living the only life she knew. She would start over wearing the safe sheath of anonymity. She could create a new identity in a network that she prayed would hold up the bundle of rubble that was now her life.  The rest of her life.

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Severed  by several hours on a plane from him didn’t remove her from the whole blistering distress that she now realized had dragged on for years. A desert of a marriage. Parched.  So arid it made her throat dry and her lips crack even though sometimes she was crying and sobbing lying on her side on the floor of her closet in this old basement rental. And now that the legal process was in full swing, that shrink-wrapped persona of his was showing signs of splitting at the seams. He warned her she’d not only mess up everyone’s lives, but she’d never make it in the world on her own. “Look at you,” she heard his voice sneering over the phone, “Do you have any skills?” He warned her that she was unmarketable.

Or had he said, “Unremarkable”?

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With verbal sleight-of-hand, he turned the children against her, planting suspicion and blame in their hearts. He softly undermined her, and then with spite and fear hissing through his incisors, told her she was acting ungrateful for all the years of service he’d poured into her.

And what about my gifts? He asked in a call where she finally had to give him her lawyer’s name because from now on all communication would go through that office. You’re sure not acting very grateful for all my gifts.  There was that pout again. He had mastered it and other methods of manipulation. Or so he thought. She was growing Teflon shoulder blades off of which these machinations were sliding.

She lowered herself into the sofa they’d bought together so many years ago. Times like this, she did question herself. Where did I go wrong? Were we ever in love? Wrong for each other from the very start? What does he mean? We had loved each other. This sofa. That time he held me in his arms, passion and loyalty igniting us like thirsty kindling.

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As the tale often seems to go, he’d conveniently and quickly all but drained their joint bank account. That, while her lawyers’ fees were accumulating, so finances forced her to give up on the basic requests for financial support.  And now he was claiming “emotional devastation” that rendered him unable to work, so naturally he couldn’t possibly pay alimony or child support or help with a mortgage. But he swooped by when he could, Dad did, dipping in and out of the family’s world like a pelican, scooping the surface with his big beak, dripping and losing things as he flapped away through the air.

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To fill in for his absence, he posted Facebook images with him smiling broadly at the theater or on a seaside junket with his new single friends.

“Recovering” was the subtitle he wrote.

Recovering is what she was still fighting toward when, in the middle of the night, she got the call about our son Parker’s accident.  And now my sister-friend was at my side, comforting me.

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**

This woman could be a composite of many of my divorced sisters and brothers.  Many of them, hearts widened from private excavation, have stood silent vigil during our family’s great sorrow, praying and figuratively stroking my back with their long, swan-like gestures. We hardly need words, these friends and I. The magnetic pull of pain links our hearts, locks our eyes. We each know something about death.

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As I’ve observed the residual, cumulative, compounding effects of so many marriage-death stories, I think of something I read from Gerald Sittser.

For context, Sittser lost his wife of 20 years, his young daughter and his mother all in a random lone-road accident for which the other driver, who was drunk, escaped prosecution. (To pour a ladle of acid on that sizzling pile of shock: in that same head-on accident, that driver also killed his own pregnant wife). We’ll agree, I think, that Sittser can speak with authority about cataclysms:

My own loss was sudden and traumatic, as if an atomic blast went off, leaving the landscape of my life a wasteland. Likewise, my suffering was immediate and intense, and I plunged into it as if I had fallen over a cliff. Still, the consequences of the tragedy were clear. It was obvious what had happened and what I was up against. I could therefore quickly plot a course of action for my family and me. Within a few days of the accident I sat down with family and friends to discusss how I was going to face my grief, manage my home, raise my children. …

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My divorced friends face an entirely different kind of loss. They have lost relationships they never had but wanted, or had but gradually lost. Though they may feel relieved by the divorce, they still wish things had been different. They look back on lost years, on bitter conflicts and betrayal, on the death of a marriage. Anger, guilt, and regret well up when they remember a disappointing past that they will never be able to forget or escape. My break was clean; theirs was messy. I have been able to continue following a direction in life I set twenty years ago; they have had to change their direction. Again the question surfaces: It is possible to determine whose loss is worse?
-Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 31-32

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**

This year our family, like yours, received lots of holiday cards. Many of them have images of picture perfect families. I love these people (and cherish their pictures).  I’m grateful for them all.

The images that hold my stare the longest are the ones whose current private stories I know best. It’s that intimate knowledge that allows me to see through a glossy likeness to reality.  In some pictures there are gaping holes or percolating anxieties. I see them.  There are also hidden triumphs – survival stories, stories of super human change – that even the best photographer can’t simulate.  These pictures remind me to focus there in my chest for the low rumble of “sorrow that the eye can’t see.”

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Now here’s a card.  Handsome children I’ve known most their lives, and their beautiful mother I’ve known from all the previous holiday cards, the sister-friend I’ve known through her great grief and through mine.  The father? Long gone, although featured, I assume, on another airbrushed holiday card that’s gone elsewhere in the world. In this card in my hand, the mother’s unfussed good looks are arresting, enough to stop the eye mid-scan.  Enough to stop a train.

There’s something more than cosmetic beauty there, however, can you see it? It’s so much more than gleaming teeth, her best profile or well-lit features. In her eyes shines something the eye untrained for depth won’t see.  Part softness and sorrow, part hope and courage, there is something my eye zeros in on that keeps me there and makes me swell toward her in closeness.

There is – I think I can describe it now – there is a density of wisdom, a laser look.   But it’s even more than that. There is an intensity of light, the sort many might ask for or even try to superimpose or edit into their image at whatever the price. But the real thing, the real light, few would ever willingly pay for.  It’s that sharp-sweet serenity gained on a level far below shiny surfaces, hidden well beneath the thick lid of images: it is down here, I know it, beneath the comfortable pace of daily breath and at a place so interior only great time and effort will attain it, right there at the invisible and excruciating scraped-off surface of the soul’s bone.

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Who am I to judge another

When I walk imperfectly?

In the quiet heart is hidden

Sorrow that the eye can’t see.

Who am I to judge another?

Lord, I would follow thee.
__
Susan Evans McCloud

Comparing: Grief Olympics

ethan smile

My friend Andrea is a prodigious athlete.  She runs for speed as well as for endurance. She fenced in college (she’s a wizard with weapons), then took up competitive running long ago, and has since finished or placed in I cannot tell you how many biathlons and triathlons.

The gal frightens me.

As she does anyone who gets in front of her on the track, because – eh-hem, move over – this is one driven creature.

That she’s also a scientist frightens me, too. (We already know how I feel about things numerical, and I recall science requires a few numbers here and there, and so we’ll just move swiftly along from that topic so I don’t break out in isosceles-trapezoidal boils.)

But what gets my attention more than anything Andrea is or has done, more than her fencing jumpsuit or orange lycra shorts for her latest what-have-you-thalon or even her mad scientist lab coat, is the heavy cloak she wears as a mother.

She has three boys and one of them, her firstborn, Ethan, is severely handicapped.

Family Rediske

Ethan suffered hypoxic brain injury at birth. This left him with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, severe developmental delay, no purposeful movement.  He cannot form words, he cannot crawl, sit up straight or walk, he cannot care for himself in any way, he cannot see. He is ten years old but his developmental equivalency is measured in months. His unending medical needs make Andrea and her husband Chris’ home a battle zone with concourses of nurses and therapists trudging in and out both day and night.

Then there are those wars with school systems. The wars with insurance companies. The wars with the armies of medical professionals.  The wars within Andrea’s own chest cavity. The list of assaults goes on.

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My firstborn, on the other hand, was ill precisely three times in his whole 18-year-and-five-months of mortality. A few hours total of illness, I’d wager. Maybe twenty hours, tops.  A mild allergic reaction to citrus juice. A normal inner ear infection.  And of course that one time I gave him food poisoning with a bad batch of bolognese. All that night, my 12-year-old convulsed and heaved between polite color commentary, assuring me from his crouched position over the toilet that it was (barf) not my fault (buuuurrrrrlch) and that he (puke) would be okay for (whaaagh) basketball (hurl) tomorrow.

That, in a nutshell, is what my son knew of illness. That’s all I witnessed of my firstborn son’s conscious suffering.

In the time we’ve known each other, Andrea and I have exchanged notes on the nature of major loss. In these exchanges, I have never felt that she has pitted this grueling day-to-day loss of her son against another loss she does not know, the sudden death of my son. She has never even intimated there’s competition between the two, a sort of Grief Olympics, you might call it. And I try, I do, to give her and her stunningly beautiful Ethan the same respect. I hope she senses that. I readily admit to not knowing the air pressure of the kind of galaxy Andrea and her family inhabit.

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But layer by exhausting layer, her story has given me the gift of beginning to understand something I did not understand five and a half years ago, at a time when I swore to heaven I wanted to experience Andrea’s galaxy firsthand.

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It was that first night I stood in the ICU over the body of my robust, muscular, athletic but comatose son.  That was the night I poured out my tears to my Father in Heaven and vowed that if He would let my child live – in any state whatsoever, just live – I would care faithfully for this child of mine. I would consecrate all I was and would ever be to caring for my boy as God would.

Let me keep my son,” I wept and pled and begged and insisted. I picked a fingertip-deep hole in the naugahyde arm of the metal-legged chair, I remember, drilling the idea into Divinity’s head. “I can already see in my mind where we’ll set up his hospital bed in the Munich apartment. Right there. I know where I can find daily medical care. I’ll educate myself, I’ll suction his lungs, adjust his oxygen, do nothing else in life besides care for him, stay with him. Read him Goethe and play him Brahms and stroke his stoney limbs.  God in heaven, don’t take him from us. We’ll all die.  I need him. I’ll die. . .”

They were furious prayers. I get sweaty just writing them.

What was I asking for? I didn’t know then in my breathless desperation. Andrea has an idea.  But I did not.  In that moment, I couldn’t imagine anything beyond the cliff that we were standing on that had us dangling over the abyss. Had God granted those pleas, I don’t know what person I would be now, stroking the arms of whatever remained of my son, herding strangers in and out of my home, funneling every nanogram of energy and every last cent into sustaining a life that is disintegrating before my eyes anyway. I’ll tell you: I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be writing books. Or writing this blog you are reading right now. I would have no surplus anything for such an undertaking. I would maybe have to take up running really hard and really fast for the sole purpose of  metabolizing the raging hurricane that bangs relentlessly in my thoracic cavity. Maybe I would become a triathlete. Maybe I would crop my hair to a snappy-sleek black Powerwoman ‘do.

And I would wield some real as well as some figurative swords. Maybe.  But can I know? Can any of us know what we would do with someone else’s lot? Maybe instead of becoming stronger I would cave. Maybe my whole family would die and I would die, too. I would hope not, but really: how can I know?

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Observing Andrea, I get a flimsy, fleeting glimpse of just a corner of only the slightest edge of an expansive world I was asking for that night in the ICU. And I marvel, thinking I wouldn’t make it.

But then I think, well.  . . I ‘ve made it this far through something else. . .

And finally, I must digest the plain reality that my fate and my loss have been of another sort.

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“Isn’t it odd?” Andrea wrote in a treasured email exchange, “You’re grieving the son you once had and lost.  And I’m grieving the son I never had but am losing every day.”

And she will lose him. She knows that. Which makes the enormous effort in keeping him alive that much more – how can I describe this? – that much more godly, in my eyes.  Andrea moves hour after hour after week after month after year along that crazy split path that reminds me of two side-by-side moving sidewalks, the kind you’ve stood on in airports – with one going quickly in this direction,  and the other going quickly in the other direction – she straddles that impossibly schizophrenic and simultaneous divergence of both frantically sustaining and inevitably losing the life of this beloved, perfect son.

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Now you tell me: is there any harder race than the isometric marathon of the soul?

So my friend Andrea, a weapon-wielding, race-running, warrior of a mother would be the last to say she’s in some competition about whose loss is worse. As if, with all that she and her family are dealing with, she has bandwidth for enlisting in some sort of Grief Olympics.

But she does have an Olympian’s spirit, which her oldest son, who coos like Chewbacca and sighs like the newest initiate to Mount Olympus, has inherited in full.

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For starkly beautiful descriptions of Andrea’s ongoing life with Ethan, go here and here and here.

Comparing: The Heartchip

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I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes–
I wonder if It weighs like Mine–
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long–
Or did it just begin–
I could not tell the Date of Mine–
It feels so old a pain–

I wonder if it hurts to live–
And if They have to try–
And whether–could They choose between–
It would not be–to die–

I note that Some–gone patient long–
At length, renew their smile–
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil–

I wonder if when Years have piled–
Some Thousands–on the Harm–
That hurt them early–such a lapse
Could give them any Balm–

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve–
Enlightened to a larger Pain–
In Contrast with the Love–

The Grieved–are many–I am told–
There is the various Cause–
Death–is but one–and comes but once–
And only nails the eyes–

There’s Grief of Want–and grief of Cold–
A sort they call “Despair”–
There’s Banishment from native Eyes–
In Sight of Native Air–

And though I may not guess the kind–
Correctly–yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary–

To note the fashions–of the Cross–
And how they’re mostly worn–
Still fascinated to presume
That Some–are like My Own–

-Emily Dickinson

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Let me begin with a story I’ve told in parts elsewhere.

With this story, I want to launch a multi-post discussion about “Comparing”, a sticky issue and one of the most complicated “C’s” with regards to loss, grief and co-mourning.

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Little Parker (aka Petit Parker, or “P. J.” for Parker John ,or also “Peej”) is Renée and John Hall’s son. He and his twin sister, Penelope, were conceived a few short months after our Parker’s funeral, which Renée attended. She’d flown to Utah from her home in Paris, which is where we Halls and Bradfords lived and loved each other, and where our strapping “Big” Parker had been assigned with Randall to be what we in our church call “home teachers.” That assignment means that once a month, son and father hopped on the family scooter to zip across town to check in on the Halls, one of their several stewardships in our congregation.
Back then when Big Parker was alive to visit them, the Halls had three girls under the age of six; Abby, Hannah and Axelle. These princesses always donned their pink net tutus and fairy wands, tiaras and pastel feather boas to greet their home teachers, then showered them with squeals of love and laughter. Big Parker was the monthly celebrity in their home.

Our Parker picking up his brothers Dalton and Luc and the gates of their school with Abby and Hannah Hall. Photo taken by Renée.

Our Parker picking up his brothers Dalton and Luc at the gates of their school with Abby, Hannah and Axelle Hall. Photo by Renée.

When word was official that our Parker did not survive his coma, John Hall was the second person in the world to call us. He phoned Utah standing surrounded by members of our church congregation in the courtyard in front of our meeting place in the heart of Paris.

“But. . .”, I could hear his usually voluminous voice shrivel to a whimper, “But, how can. . .how. . .how can this be true? I’m so. . .just. . .” His voice kept cracking. “We love you guys so much,” he said, every syllable pressed dense with sadness.

If you can imagine Jeremiah Johnson weeping and stammering through a phrase, you’ve got an image of our friend John grieving.

I remember virtually everything about the moment Renée took me aside during one of our visits to Paris that first year. Her blonde shoulder length hair was tucked behind one ear. She was wearing fire engine red. The sun was pouring in the window behind me on the right. Many others were in the room. And she took me over to a chair, whispering with joy dipped in sadness, “Melissa, no one knows yet, but John and I decided to have one more child.” She touched her stomach and shrugged, “And it’s two.

I reached and took her forearm, smiling with my brows furrowed.

“And if one’s a boy,” Renée said, her bright grin starting to tremble in its edges, “We’ll name him Parker. Is that okay with you guys?”

The first time we met Little Parker.  Major Parisian rainstorm outside, but we felt familiar refuge at the Halls'.

The first time we met Little Parker. Major Parisian rainstorm outside, but we felt familiar refuge at the Halls’. This ia a picture of a perfectly healthy baby.

When Parker and Penelope came into the world, they made the perfect sparkly disco spotlight over an equally snazzified family complete with ultra-octane parents and those three twirling princesses. At the Hall home things were kept at a rollicking clip with high-froth-quotient parties, spontaneous dance-a-thons, theme picnics in the local parks, and frequent excursions to Euro Disney.
And Euro Disney is, in fact, exactly where the Halls were on February 20, 2009. That date would have been Big Parker’s twentieth birthday. That was the day Parker Hall (just eight months old) contracted pneumococcal meningitis.

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When I got the phone call in Munich that Little Parker was in a medically induced coma and probably wouldn’t make it another day, I caught the next plane to Paris. Folding and refolding the waxy white airplane napkin, I couldn’t block out possible scenes of an ashen-faced Renée folding up baby boy clothes to be boxed or given away. I tried to suppress the impossible notion of my boy’s name being a curse. I foresaw the fragility that would invade and potentially reduce these mighty parents, this magnificent family. I narrated to myself the story of loss Renée would yearn to tell. And I feared all the ears that wouldn’t want to hear it, that would never ask to hear it, that sacred but scary story of the dead child. The story that so few can acknowledge straight on. The phantom child that makes the parent a specter, a bitter jinx in life’s otherwise carbonated cocktail mix.

At l’Hôpital Necker Enfants Malades and cloaked in paper gowns, masks, and gloves, Renée and I entered the isolation booth where her Parker lay motionless, his swollen head and listless body wrapped in gauze and sterile cotton, the hospital staff avoiding eye contact while attempting light conversation.

It was a still life (nature morte) of unspeakable but crashing familiarity. The volume of my pleading inner dialogue with God and with Big Parker—“Make him live! Strong brain! Strong lungs, strong, strong!!”—was so loud, I was sure the staff would ask me—s’il vous plait!—to keep my thoughts down.
From that weeklong coma Little Parker did miraculously return to life. But it was not a strong life.

Cerebral meningitis had ravaged his system leaving him deaf, hydrocephalic, convulsive, shunted, and cut and sewn so many times his head looked like a Spirograph drawing. He was gravely compromised neurologically, his gravitational vector was shot, he was droopy and unresponsive, and he had to be fit with cochlear implants in order to retrieve – 10%? 5% of his hearing? – if any hearing at all.

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John and Renée and their four girls began teaching themselves sign language—both in English and in French. They also began a family journey of fortitude and despair, faith and disappointment, a journey whose description I dare not even touch. I’d do it injustice, get the essentials all wrong, flatten it to a cheap little subtitle. Who am I to tread on such hallowed ground? So, for firsthand descriptions of their ongoing challenges, you’ll want to go here.

Renée, like Melissa, writes full-bodied e-mails. Over these past years, we’ve tracked one another’s experience with loss, amassing volumes that describe heaven’s severe but benevolent teaching methods, the wonder of small joys, the isolation and irony that come with the most defining trials in life, the sharp and bruising contours of grief’s landscape, the deepening spiritual experiences hardly transferable by written word, and our love and hope and yearning and passion for our two Parkers.

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With Renée I am confident I can unload my private pain liberally, and she’ll scoop it up and hold it right there, against her gut. As a matter of fact, I think she holds it within her gut, because her own burden has carved out room for feeling something of its weight. She’ll weigh my burden there, absorbing it within her own. This is how I envision it.

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There, in her gut, when she carries all she can of my burden, does she feel its entire weight? She’d be the first to say, no.

And, no, I cannot feel or understand the entirety of the weight of her burden, either.

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We’re both sensitive and sympathetic people. And we share a common, eternal bond. But we sister-friends cannot fully feel the weight of one another’s hardship.

Or “heartchip”, as my Luc once called it.

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And there’s something more, some thing vitally wise about how Renée weighs my heartchip. She doesn’t deposit my heartchip on one side of a scale and deposit her heartchip on the other side, waiting with Dickinson’s “narrow, probing eyes”, sizing up whose – Renée’s? Or Mélissa’s? – is the heavier of the two.

Whose scale sinks lower.

Who of the two of us deserves more sympathy.

Who wins at Sufferier Than Thou.

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While every bit as analytical as mine, Renée’s eyes don’t seem focused on tit for tat, ledger-keeping competition, on who wins in this ponderous loss lottery. She only wants to understand, I know this fabulous thing about her, and in that focus outward, she accepts that both our burdens of loss are simply unique and therefore the losses weigh differently.

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Heavily.

Constantly.

But differently.

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She also knows that what we two sister-friends have lost imposes a tonnage that changes life forever. Knowing that seems to be more than enough for her to bear.

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By choosing to hold my heartchip next to her own heartchip instead of pitting them against each other, she frees herself from a few things.

First, she frees herself from the corrosive effects of self-pity. If you were to meet Renée on the street, you’d call her the joie de vivre lady, as the policeman in her Parisian neighborhood does. Blondely buoyant with a vibrant red-lipped smile, neon lime green rubber boots, all her kids piled willy-nilly on a doggoned circus act of a double stroller, her life percolates with merriment as if painted, carpeted, wall-papered and wardrobed all in Merimekko.

parker H on stairsRenée also frees her heart from the weight of harsh judgement. Sure, she gets impatient (as do I) when folks call petty things tragique! and when mere inconvenience – a basic blip – makes some people rage, stamp and whine.

(Confession time, everybody? I get more than impatient. I get rabid. But I realize, too, that that was once me.)

But Renée’s heart remains supple, juicy. Hers is the kind of heart the Arapahoe Indians call the moist heart, which, in their tradition, is the sign of a fully developed heart. Pardon the cuteness, but her own heartchip has not made her heart into a chip.

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And she frees herself from carrying resentment towards others. (You are right if you sense more cuteness coming.) There might be substantial, ongoing, cumulative heartchip, but look here: Do you see a chip on this lovely shoulder?

**

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The very attempt we often make in quantifying losses only exacerbates the loss by driving us to two unhealthy extremes. On the one hand, those coming out on the losing end of the comparison are deprived of the validation they need to identify and experience the loss for the bad thing it is. He sometimes feels like the little boy who just scratched his finger but cried too hard to receive much sympathy. Their loss is dismissed as unworthy of attention or recognition. On the other hand, those coming out on the winning end convince themselves that no one has suffered as much as they have, that no one will ever understand them, and that no one can offer lasting help. They are the ultimate victims. So they indulge themselves with their pain and gain a strange kind of pleasure in their misery.”—Gerald Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 32-33

Big Parker, age 10, at a Parisian amusement park with his Mom.

Big Parker, age 10, on a Parisian amusement park ride with his Mom.

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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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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Annie Dillard: Frayed & Nibbled

The following text comes from the 13th chapter of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, a singular poetic/scientific meditation on heaven and earth, a Pulitzer Prize-winning walk through the world.  These photographs were taken in the vast and lush English Gardens by our gifted friend Rob Inderrieden the day before we moved from Munich to Singapore.

Is our birthright and heritage to be, like Jacob’s cattle on which the life of a nation was founded, “ring-streaked, speckled, and spotted” not with the spangling marks of grace like beauty rained down from eternity, but with the blotched assaults and quarryings of time?

“We are all of us clocks,” says Eddington, “whose faces tell the passing years.” The young man proudly names his scars for his lover; the old man alone before a mirror erases his scars with his eyes and sees himself whole.

“In nature,” wrote Huston Smith, “the emphasis is in what is rather than what ought to be.” I learn this lesson in a new way everyday. It must be, I think tonight, that in a certain sense only the newborn in this world are whole, that as adults we are expected to be, and necessarily, somewhat nibbled. It’s par for the course. Physical wholeness is not something we have barring accident; it itself is accidental, an accident of infancy, like a baby’s fontanel or the egg-tooth on a hatchling. Are the five-foot silver eels that migrate as adults across meadows by night actually scarred with the bill marks of herons, flayed by the sharp teeth of bass? I think of the beautiful sharks I saw from the shore, hefted and held aloft in a light-shot wave. Were those sharks sliced with scars, were there mites in their hides and worms in their hearts? Did the mockingbird that plunged from the rooftop, folding its wings, bear in its buoyant quills a host of sucking lice?

The summer is old. A gritty, colorless dust cakes the melons and squashes, and worms fatten within on the bright, sweet flesh. The world is festering with suppurating sores. . .Have I walked too much, aged beyond my years?. . .There are the flies that make a wound, the flies that find a wound, and a hungry world that won’t wait till I’m decently dead.

I think of the green insect shaking the web from its wings, and of the whale-scarred crab-eater seals. They demand a certain respect. The only way I can reasonably talk about all this is to address you directly and frankly as a fellow survivor. Here we so incontrovertibly are.

That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is, such a surprise that I find myself referring all subsequent kinds of knowledge to it. . .But knowledge does not vanquish mystery, or obscure its distant lights. I still now and will tomorrow steer by what happened that day when some undeniably new spirit roared down the air, bowled me over, and turned on the lights.

Can I say then that corruption is one of beauty’s deep-blue speckles, that the frayed and nibbled fringe of the world is a tallith, a prayer shawl, the intricate garment of beauty?

It is very tempting, but I honestly cannot. But I can, however, affirm that corruption is not beauty’s very heart.

And I can I think call the vision of the cedar and the knowledge of these wormy quarryings twin fiords cutting in the granite cliffs of mystery, and say that the new is always present simultaneously with the old, however hidden. The tree with the lights in it does not go out; that light still shines on an old world, now feebly, now bright.




I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating, too. I am not washed and beautiful,in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty beats and shines not in its imperfections, but overwhelmingly in spite of them, under the wind-rent clouds, upstream and down.


Simone Weil says simply, “Let us love the country of here below. It is real; it offers resistance to love.”

“The fact is, ” said Van Gogh, “the fact is that we are painters in real life,and the important thing is to breathe as hard as ever we can breathe.”

Thank you, Rob and Tasha Inderrieden, for the beautiful photographs, but even more, for the indelible memories

I am a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the world’s rock altar, waiting for worms. I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like live maggots in amber, there are shells of worms in the rock and moths flapping at my eyes. A wind from noplace rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loose; I walk on my way.