Tag Archives: happiness

Walk a mile…

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She said, “Girl,

you need to break out of your comfort zone.”

I was confused.

Comfort zone?
I have NO comfort zone.

She was saying this
in response to my

previous confused look
as she rattled off directions,

in Chinese, of the good store
to buy clothes for my daughter

who is suddenly growing like a weed.

I had only been living in Shanghai a couple of months.

And then I started thinking…

About the first time I went camping around

the state of Arizona,

and then backpacking alone
in Alaska
without a plan,

going to an ashram in the Adirondack Mountains

without a penny in my pocket,

my two years in Peace Corps

sleeping on the floor
in a house I shared

with a 7-foot snake and 2 tarantulas

that didn’t pay rent.

Living with an abusive husband,
and going through chemo, radiation,

no voice, feeding tube,
and not even able to drink a drop of water;

I am a single mother, living in Shanghai

with my two preschool daughters

and this might be the most comfortable time of our lives,

But I wondered how a person’s perception could be so skewed.

And then I thought about Charlie

this guy I met in the ice cream aisle of the store.

We were both buying vanilla ice cream

because we both were recovering from throat cancer

and that was exactly ALL that we had in common.

He said, “I am really good judge of character,”

and then proceeded to tell me how he completely understood

“how I am building walls,”

“How I am cutting myself off from people.”
and “How I am turning away my friends.”

He got the same confused look.

–from me.

I had never been so surrounded by friends.

I had friends paying my insurance bills,

paying my rent,

taking care of my girls,

bringing food and money,

cleaning my house,

and checking up on me

all day, everyday.

George Bailey had nothing on me.

But this man Charlie,
had told the same bad joke 3 times
to 3 different people

and was so negative and off-putting

that I just didn’t want to talk to HIM.

I understand projection.

I understand perspective.

My Mohican friend, Mike, gave me

my third-stage Native name

of “Standing Wave.”

He said it’s that place in the river

where it looks calm as glass on the surface

but below there’s a rapid undertow.  

He always saw me so clearly.

I don’t want to be the one

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I am at this place in my career

My life,

My motherhood,

Where I am at a loss.

I’ve been a teacher for 22 years

And a student my whole life.

I love research.

I love history, anthropology, religions, literature….

I love digging deep into people’s lives

And how they live or lived.

What was it like?

I don’t read —

I DEVOUR books!

Especially history.

I wrote a paper once about how awful it was

That Bloody Queen Mary beheaded Lady Jane.

I mean, everyone knew she was just a teen-aged puppet

And had no interest in the throne.

I sited 10 sources on the injustice.

And my professor wrote,

“You’re too sentimental”

across the top of my paper.

I hated him.

To me, history wasn’t dead and removed.

They were living, breathing people with experiences

I could share,

understand,

empathize…

And I’m home-schooling my girls now

–which I love.

–which I’ve dreamed of

–which I’ve planned for

–in my head –

for years.

But I am at this point

After 22 years, that…

I don’t want to be the one

Who tells them they are different.

That they have a different history than I do.

I find that I avoid certain movies and TV shows

Because I don’t want them

to question why

people don’t like them because

God colored them with a tan crayon.

(That’s what my little one says).

You see, to them,

It’s not black and white,

it’s shades of tan and peach.

I don’t want to explain

Slavery

The underground railroad

The Trail of Tears

Reservations

Jim Crow

segregation

Freedom Riders

Trayvon Martin

Oppression

Suppression

How arbitrary it is that our last name is Womack

Just because it is the last name

of the last white man

Who owned their great-great grandfather

Before the Emancipation Proclamation

And he didn’t bother to change it.

This name,

handed down through years and generations

Means nothing!

We live in Thailand and China

And they are different

Because they have curly hair.

They are different

Because they are foreign.

They get their pictures taken by strangers

20 times a day.

They are like movie stars.

When we buy groceries,

When we eat out,

When we walk around,

“Stop a minute, this lady wants a picture.”

“Stand next to his daughter there, he wants a picture.”

“The waiters want a picture before we go, girls.”

Mostly, the Asians just want an excuse to touch their hair.

So “different” to my girls, means “Special.”

It means beauty.

It means people love you for how you look.

–Shallow, I know.

But I don’t want to be the one to tell them otherwise.

I don’t even want to put the idea into their head

That there IS an otherwise.

I don’t want to be the one to tell them

That once, they could have been killed for how they looked.

Once, they could have been taken away from me.

That before 1967,

their father and I couldn’t even get married.

That even now,

Especially now,

In this second Civil-War-divided country,

people might think

Or say bad things about them

Even though they don’t know who they are.

That not everyone thinks they are beautiful.

I don’t want them to be naive.

And I have ALWAYS been honest with them.

But, I don’t want

To be the one

To teach them this.

Perspective

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I have been “accused”

Of living in a Utopia

–as if that is a bad thing.

Here’s the thing,

I wake up with dry mouth so severe

That it takes about an hour

of brushing, rinsing, and drinking

Just to begin regulating it for the day.

I can’t eat a snack on the run.

I can’t eat a sandwich, French fries, chocolate…

It takes me about 2 hours to eat a simple meal –even soup

Coughing and choking all the way through it

And drinking an average of three cups of iced milk

–Yes, iced milk to wash it all down.  Because

It hasn’t been a year yet since I was declared “cancer-free.”

It hasn’t been a year yet since I got my feeding tube out.

It hasn’t been a year yet since I got my voice back.

It hasn’t been a year yet since I felt like a holocaust victim

From the intensive chemo and radiation treatments

For tonsil cancer

Yes, tonsil cancer –who knew, right?

It was stage four by the time I got my neck slit in surgery.

I still have nerve damage from my right ear to my shoulder

PLEASE, don’t touch me there!

And then there was the day I did get my feeding tube out

And I thought, this is the moment

The moment true recovery begins

Not a remnant of this hell left

I don’t have to look back, just move on…

“Are you sitting down?”

“Yeah,” I lied.

“That man you were married to,

the one who beat you,

left your children,

stole your credit cards,

Who had the high education and the vocabulary

That put your English Major ass to shame,

Who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or didn’t find a job for over two years,

Yeah, he’s been arrested for two violent felony charges.

He’ll be gone until your girls are grown.

You’ll have sole-custody,

but you won’t get a penny of support.

Happy Mother’s Day!”

And then, “Wait a minute, what?”

Yes, I have taught university students for six years.

Yes, I have created and copyrighted curriculum.

Yes, I have published research.

And yes, I qualify for food stamps and daycare vouchers.

But, wait a minute, what?

You canceled my assistance because

I was on a feeding tube, and couldn’t actually eat.

And since my parents had to take care of me and my girls

And my mom was too honest to use my card for them

You just boot me out of the system, without asking me why?

Because you DO understand that I am bringing in only 50%

Of my previous below-poverty level income?

So let’s do some math.

Now I need to pay $800 a month for daycare

And $750 a month for rent

On my $732 every two week paycheck.

The “check engine” light has been on my car for over a month now

And I still have to feed my children?

Thank you WIC,

because at least we have milk, eggs and cereal.

And so, my angel of a friend lends me the money

To go to the third-world country where I served

In the Peace Corps 12 years ago.

For two painful days, my girls watched

All of their things leave the house.

We left our family and friends,

And our way of life,

Because I was pretty sure I could get a better life for my girls there.

I make half the money I did in the states,

(the same as the oncologist I tutor)

But I can afford a cute little house

And a nanny/housekeeper –which helps A LOT

Because being a single, working, mother of two pre-schoolers

AND recovering

Is crazy hard!

I still feel sick or tired sometimes from the effect of the treatments.

I’m told that can last up to two years.

Yes, I still lose my hair,

and what I have now is not growing as fast as I would like,

When I go to a store or work,

I cross a 10 lane highway and pay about thirty cents

to ride on a bench on the back of a pick-up truck.

Then I walk about a half mile in 100 degree heat

With my umbrella

Because if the sun touches my radiated neck

It will turn black and burnt and itch

And it takes a lot of Noxema for about a week

To get it back to normal.

And, I get these migraines that incapacitate me

For about 8 days out of every month,

Either from carrying my heavy backpack,

Or sleeping on a rock hard bed.

I can’t find a good school for the girls,

At least one I can afford,

So I home-school them,

Because I am a teacher, right?

And I tutor and edit on the side

For extra money, so we can

Visit family and friends.

We don’t have English TV programs,

Or a car.

Cream of Wheat,

bras in my size,

and gyros

Not available for thousands of miles!

Oh, but wait!

You’ve never heard any of this before,

Because I don’t whine, complain,

Blame others, or

Air my problems in public.

What you hear is:

“Had a great dinner! –Ate every bite!”

because that is such a big accomplishment.

“The girls had a wonderful time swimming with their friends,

while I got to take a nap.”

“I just got a massage, and I feel so much better!”

“We have such generous and helpful

friends and neighbors here.  I am so thankful!”
So yes, I guess I do live in a Utopia

Because I chose to.

I created it.

 

Recreating…

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I’m going to tell you something that I have learned to keep a secret for a very long time now.  In 1997, I was in a college class called, “Personal Transformation.”  (Probably the best class ever invented) and we were talking about our childhoods –specifically overcoming things and letting go.  The question was, “When was the first time you remember someone ‘raining on your parade?”  This was eventually followed with horrible stories of abuse, neglect, pain and problems that made me want to hide under my desk and crawl out of the room.  Even though I was 27 years old, each story seemed unimaginable to me.

The only thing I could think of was in fifth grade when it came time to separate our music class into band, choir and general music, I wanted to play the drums.  I wanted to play them so bad, but my parents wouldn’t let me and I had to chose choir.  This was the worst thing I could think of.  This is when I learned to keep my ideal childhood a secret.  Of course things weren’t perfect.  I’m sure some things were unfair and mistakes were made.  I remember my dad lost his temper with me once.  But my childhood  kind of resembled The Wonderyears.  I had good friends, we played outside a lot, my family took big vacations, and we always ate dinner together at 6pm.

But, the most memorable part of my childhood was our cottage.  We had a little cottage up on the shores of Lake Erie, and it is where we spent practically every day of our summer vacation.  I swam everyday, played in the sand, rowed the rowboat, had lots of kids to play with, climbed trees, explored, had picnics and bon fires, it was just pure fun for a kid.  In the same little cove as us, were aunts and uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles, my grandparents, and neighbors who had been there forever.

My little brother was known for eating breakfast at our house, then going to my grandma’s and eating there, and then going to my great-uncle’s, and then starting all over for lunch.  Sometimes the men would go fishing, the women would make potato salad, corn on the cob and deviled eggs.  Then they would take the picnic tables and actually line them up on the little road between the cottages and we would all eat together.  Sometimes, my dad would get out the ice cream maker.  All the kids would take turns turning until we thought our arms would fall off.

There was no phone.  We never watched TV.  My grandparent’s might have their small black and white on an Indians game but that was the extent of it –background noise to their card playing.  When we slept the adults would gather outside and talk, drink a little, play cards, whatever.  It was soothing to listen to.  If my parents had to go home, they could leave us behind if we begged, because there were 10 other adults around and it was really no big deal.

Now, as Bill Cosby would say, “I told you that story, to tell you this one.”  I had such an amazing day yesterday that I actually got chills.

Yesterday, I asked my neighbor Fred if he happened to go to the store any time this whole weekend, could he take us.  I didn’t realize I was out of bread and jelly.  I had just been to the store, but didn’t know.  I had read Rumi and Raine a Frances book about bread and jam and I guess Rumi took it seriously all week, because I had two loaves of bread on Monday.  Anyway, I thought if he were free at anytime, just let me know.  He IMed back, “I’ll be there in 5 minutes.”

Then, when he gets there his friend Pierre (also from Norway) comes out of the car.  He says, “I’m back!  –For good.  I’m going to be your neighbor!”  Yeah!  Then we go do a little shopping.  We go out for pizza, and since we had just had pizza, the girls and I decide to split some spaghetti and salad.  Well, they were out of meatballs so Fred talks us into Carbonara.  I had never had it before –he has a way of getting me to try new things that I end up loving and craving –this is definitely on the list.  Then we talk about all these things, having barbeques, hanging out, they’ll watch the girls if I want “me time.”  My head starts swimming with possibilities.

After dinner, we all had a few groceries to pick up, and let me tell you, 5 adults to 2 children is the most amazing ratio!  I never had it so easy in a grocery store!  Both men pushed the carts, so the girls just thought that was awesome, because they knew how to play and make them giggle, and race around.  Fred’s girlfriend Boo is the one who takes the girls swimming everyday, and she did my laundry when my nanny was gone.  Well she’s also a masseuse, and when I was getting the beginnings of a migraine last night, she came over with Pierre’s girlfriend and they gave me a massage, during which, I seriously began to wonder and question how did my life get so good?

And then this morning I realized, this is kind of like my cottage summers, except my house is the a supreme cottage, but the sense of community, exploration, comfortableness, perpetual summer…I’m kind of reliving it as an adult, and giving such an amazing gift to my girls.

Identity Crisis

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–Not one of those

when you look in the mirror

and see your mother looking back,

No.

It’s when you look in the mirror

and don’t recognize that person

at all.

This is not the person I grew up with

When My four year-old says,

“Mommy, I don’t like your hair.

I miss your Rapunzel hair.

When will it grow back?

My wedding dress,

My claddagh ring,

my favorite shirt,

my underwear

are all way to big

to even be passable as baggy.

My cheeks aren’t full like a 20 year-old’s

but sunk-in like a 60 year-old with botox.

“Mommy when are your scars going to go away?”

“These don’t go away.

They were made by a doctor’s knife.”

I’m healthy.

I’m tired.

I’m recovering.

I’m cancer-free.

But who the hell is that in the mirror?

Some thoughts about immigration

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I have taught about the Immigration Period in America for several years now. I know what the push and pull factors are as to why people immigrate, and I know the various stages that they and their later generations experience after immigration. In fact, I have not only taught this, I have researched this. Last month, however, was the beginning of my first-hand experience. I mean I lived in Thailand before, but it was temporary, and I was only responsible for myself. This is a HUGE jump from that.

Exactly one hundred years ago, from the same month I immigrated, my then seventeen year-old Great-grandmother and her mother boarded the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse with a hundreds of other Bohemians fleeing ethnic cleansing, and took the14 day trip from Bremen, Germany to Ellis Island. She moved to Cleveland because her step-father was here, as was a very large Slovak-Catholic community. She knew eight languages, but English wasn’t one of them. One-hundred years later, I boarded a plane with my two very young daughters, and flew 26 hours to Bangkok and then moved on to Khon Kaen, because I had a teaching position at a university waiting, and friends all around –even in the same city.

I find it so interesting what Americans think of immigration, and how they truly don’t understand it. I find it interesting that they get mad that immigrants are there, that they don’t speak English, that they “take our jobs” (that one always makes me laugh), that they aren’t Christian, and that they wear their clothes and eat their food. I think so many forget that they are products of immigrants.

I had always read that immigrants are the brave risk-takers. That is who almost all of us are descendants of –brave risk-takers. What happened to that? When did we not become accepting of that, and why? It’s not easy to learn another language. Most second generation and third generations Americans don’t know more than one language. Studying 2 years in high school doesn’t count, because you don’t use it daily; you don’t dream in it; it’s not the same.

I picked Thailand because I used to be fluent in Thai. Notice, I said “used to be.” I used to have entire 3-day workshops, in Thai. But after ten years, I find myself asking students, “What the word for ‘see’ again?” No one here gets mad or frustrated with me when I can’t speak Thai. No one says, “Wait, you live and work here, why don’t you speak Thai?” In fact, if I say “hello” or some other phrase, I get praised for what I know. When I taught in America, a lot of my students, who were studying English full-time, would get bothered and harassed for not knowing English.

As far as taking jobs, I can guarantee that no Mexican fruit picker, no Chinese scientist and no Indian doctor is taking any jobs from any Americans. In fact, in the professional world, they have to jump through hoops to have the privilege of working in the U.S. On the other hand, in Asia, being a native-speaker, almost assures you of a teaching position. I don’t know any Americans who come to Asia to be doctors, scientist, or manual laborers. If they did, they would probably get that position easily too. Accountants –maybe not.

Which leads me to an even bigger point. So many Americans want to put these big walls up. Place military and police around our borders to stop people from coming in, and yet, they have become blind to people who are leaving. Foreigners know about the “brain drain.” I had never heard of it. I thought I had this brilliant idea on how to take care of my family. Turns out, 16 of my friends had this idea first. They are all teachers.

So why are so many teachers fleeing to Asia and the Middle-East for jobs? Well, you can live on what you make. As a single mother, and as a highly-evaluated teacher with 20 years experience, I still qualified for government assistance. It’s understood that teachers certainly don’t get into to the field for the money. They don’t expect to drive BMWs, or eat steak everyday. They do expect, and should expect to be able to feed their families and own a car. They shouldn’t have to make a choice between paying for that used car or buying groceries. I’ve had friends with higher qualifications than me, working part time so they could stay in the system, because if they got out of the system, they would have to make those choices. When you need daycare until a child is 12, and 50% of your income goes to that, how do you survive? By the way, contrary to popular belief, it is most often not the single mother’s fault she is a single mother. She is the responsible one trying to take care of her kids and doing what she has to do. Just a reminder there.

But also, in the rest of the world, teachers are highly-respected. I don’t know how or when teachers became the bad guys in America in the past few decades, and specifically in the past year, but that alone is not worth the very little pay you receive. Yes, there are bad teachers. There are bad EVERYTHING. People often forget that. There are bad doctors, engineers, mothers, politicians. There are amazing teachers too. If you close your eyes right now, you can think of that one teacher who just really changed your life. Maybe they showed you something you didn’t think was possible, maybe they explained things in a way you could finally understand, maybe they prompted an epiphany, maybe they inspired you to do something you hadn’t even thought of. You know right now who that teacher is. In fact, you might have more than one. What other profession has that effect on people –that is why the rest of the world respects them so much, as they would their own parents. Oh, wait, we have a problem with that too. Ahh, now I see the connection.

But as for immigrants not “Becoming American,” eating our food, dressing the same, and all of that, many first-generations do. And to a much greater extent than an American would. If I want to find an American here, all I have to do is go to the nearest KFC. They are the ones who ordered mashed potatoes with their chicken. I won’t find them at the corner noodle stand. If I go to their house, I might find soy sauce, but probably not fish sauce. Their eggs will be in the refrigerator with the bread, and the rice cooker will be put away in a cupboard to be used once in a while. (I say this because in Asia, people leave their eggs out, they don’t often eat bread, and the rice cooker is always out and on). And yet the host country residents are usually very interested in what we are eating, how we made it, and can they try.

Nor will I find foreigners wearing silk on Tuesday, denim on Friday, or padded bras on any day. Children will wear uniforms, but foreign children are not expected to have uniform hair cuts like the nationals. In fact, there are a lot of “rules” we just don’t have to follow. There are other “rules” we have to be constantly aware of, so I guess it balances out.

And then Christmas comes around, and you think, “What do you mean I have to work on Christmas?” Christmas is not a holiday in a Buddhist country, just like Eid and Chinese New Years are not holidays in our country. It was a process for our forefathers to create our holidays, and an even bigger process for our mass media outlets to blow them completely out of proportion. America is made up of Eastern Europeans, who, as a culture, think 3 Kings Day is just as important as Christmas, and people from the UK who like Boxing day even more than Christmas. How did those two days get left out? And then when you think that there are more Irish in America than in Ireland, why do they not know that Saint Patrick’s day is quiet saints day that involves going to church and having dinner with your family, not drinking green beer at 5am?

I think the biggest difference is communication. Yes, the world is becoming more globalized and therefore much smaller. But also, with the internet, skype, and cell phones, we can talk to our loved ones anytime. There are no letters that take weeks anymore, there are no final good-byes. My great-grandmother got to go back and visit her home village 62 years after she immigrated. Who was even left? The whole world is becoming Western. Maybe it’s not so bad to try to hold on to your culture a bit before the KFCs take over the world. And maybe it’s not so bad if I try to have the most American house in Khon Kaen.

Emergency Exit

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Kelly needed a quick excuse to get out of there.  She couldn’t breathe.  She couldn’t understand how balloons and crepe paper could be so stifling.  She thought it would all be ok, but she wasn’t ready after all.  She found an emergency exit door at the back of the reception hall, and the fresh air and sunlight hit her like smelling salts, waking her up and allowing her to breathe again.  The heavy bass of the music was smothered behind her. There were two people standing by the wall smoking, so she flashed a quick smile at them.

Pacing back and forth, she tried to decide what to do.  Could she go back in there or should she just stay outside in the bright sunlight?  She could see Joey coming out of the back doors.  He shielded his eyes from the sun to look around the parking lot.  As soon as his eyes spotted her, he walked briskly in her direction.

He looked so good dressed up like that.  They had never been to anything formal like this before.  Mostly he wore t-shirts and jeans, but he looked really nice in his dark suit.  His hair was combed and he was shaved nicely.  He could have been going to work in an office.  The idea of it almost made her laugh out loud.

“Hi, Joey.”  She said almost shyly.

“Hey babe.  Whadda doin’ out here?”  He asked.

“It was just so hot and crowded in there, I couldn’t breathe.  I barely know anybody, so I came out for some air.”

Yeah, it’s not my kind of scene either, but we should get back before anyone asks for us.”  Joey said grabbing her hand.

“You go ahead, I’ll be there in a minute or two.  Cover for me.”  She smiled.

He turned around and headed back.  One of his friends handed him a can of beer on the way in, and they started laughing.

She liked the way her dress sounded like cellophane when she walked.  She liked feeling like Cinderella.  But walking in those shoes in the gravel parking lot was hard.  Her ankle kept twisting if she stepped wrong, so she walked up to the sidewalk and pretended like she was a model.  Cars honked as she passed, and she waved like a princess out on a stroll.

She had almost forgotten that she had tucked the money her mother had given her inside her bra since her dress didn’t have any pockets.

She saw a taxi parked across the street at the bowling alley, so she walked in to find the driver.  She found a man sitting at the food counter drinking a Coke.

“Sir, is that your taxi?”  She asked pointing towards the door.

“Yes.  Why?”

“Well, I was just thinking that the freshest air is by the ocean.  How much would it cost to have you drive me there?”

“That’s at least 130 miles away.  It would take over 2 hours.  I’d have to charge you about $250.”

“Ok, then, I’m ready to go,” she said pulling a few bills out of her bra.

He got up and grabbed his hat off of the counter just as she realized she didn’t have to hold the bouquet anymore.

Maybe she would call Joey later.