Ian years and years ago, with Asha

Ian years and years ago, with Asha

Ian, our beloved friend, has gone cosmic. I’m jealous, not of him—because I’m not ready to leave this world—but of God, because Ian is our friend and we wanted him here. That’s why I keep looking at pictures of him. He was with us! The pictures say. He was here and he loved us. Now he’s famous. Glorious. Pain free. He’s gone on to heights we can only dream of. And we’re slightly glorified because we got to know him, his glory reflects on us a little, on our upward-turned faces. (Like my friend Ro said the other day, the whole family gets to claim reflected glory when a family member does something cool. Something cool like going cosmic? That too.) But we’re also left behind, on this side of the door, and it sucks. 

Yesterday Leaf guided a meditation on 1 Corinthians 15. I wish you could have seen her, heard her voice as she spoke the holy words, holding her tanpura (an Indian instrument) and singing. She is unearthly. We all are, glowing with something that is not flesh and brain and bone. We have something else. The verse describes these bodies we have as seeds that are sown. What is sown in dishonor is raised in glory.

We held delicate seeds that fly from our nearby trees. Ro can testify that the seeds take root and grow, as she nearly weekly uproots the tiny trees seeded from the flamboyant tree. They want to grow everywhere, in the vegetable gardens, with the flowers, on the road. I held my seed and thought about that seed’s one-dimensional potential. It holds the potential of a tree. It cannot become a piece of sky, or a bird. It can grow straight and tall, it can throw out leaves. It is a small miracle, but it only holds a tree inside, nothing more.

How infinite, then, is Ian’s potential! The Jesus devotee, scuba diver, dancer, philosopher, excellent drink mixer, programmer, father, husband, incredible friend? This is only the seed? This glorious, kind, thoughtful, generous person? (He was our friend, I’d like to point out again. We knew him!) 

We saw more of this incredible seed’s potential when he got sick. Because then we saw his ability to suffer with great love. To endure and trust. To smile and be generous with his humor even when he was in the hospital for 100 days, when he was in pain, when his poor body was withering. His soul became all the brighter for it. 

Infinite. Now Ian’s soul is lit aflame in the light of God, sown into the heavens, and it is unbearable to think of how fantastic, how magical, how mighty a being he is now. I imagine him striding around, thundering through the cosmos, his laugh shaking the rafters of heaven. I imagine him diving into infinite seas, breaking important things with wild dancing. His soul expanding, exploding with all that potential, so narrowly contained in a human body for so long, confined no longer.

And it sucks. All of this is true and is comforting but infuriating. Even as I write this, my heart hurts and hurts and hurts. One of my dearest friends has lost her husband. Much loved little girls have said goodbye to their father. Chinua has lost his best friend. So many of us have said goodbye, are jealous of heaven, are basking in Ian’s reflected glory with deep, deep pain in our hearts. We knew him. He was our friend. We are so, so thankful we got to know him. I am so thankful that he pursued us, that he and Chinua talked for hours every week, that they crammed approximately 20 years of friendship into these past years. I am thankful for every single time Ian turned to me and said, “You’re so gracious,” and I instantly felt like maybe I wasn’t a failure after all. I’m thankful that he spent his life giving others the courage to be, telling us the truth about ourselves.

And I’m thankful that I get to walk longer with Christy, the mighty, fragile woman whose very soul is a poem, who has shown us what grace truly is. I’m humbled by her, reflecting in her own glory a bit. (She’s my friend! She’s so beautiful, and she’s my friend!) I’m thankful for these friends and with a heart full of sorrow and wonder I’m looking to the years ahead of remembering Ian and loving Christy and the girls. 

For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 1 Corinthians 15:53


The chipmunk.

I went for a drive through the jungle and over the hills, toward the river, through the cashew forests. I wanted to see if the jungle air could blow the ache around my heart away. But away from the distractions of kids and chores, community and a very willful three-year-old, the ache grew. And then I realized how sad I really am, and everything beautiful hurt, because it couldn’t climb right inside me, and what if it wasn’t enough? 

This is my secret fear. Is the Good enough? Enough to make up for the aching world? Since I have arrived in India, two weeks ago, an old friend in America died of an overdose, and our Kenyan friend learned of the murder of his sixteen-year-old brother. It is very sad. My tendency, a fault of mine, is to lean toward sadness, collecting slights and pangs, allowing grief to tip me a little farther, away from hope, toward despair. Allowing shadows to whisper sad things in the dark. I allow my mistakes to bolster my belief that I’m a terrible mother, wife, friend. Over the years, I think I’ve spent more time in depression than in joy. Joy is like a weak muscle that I am always trying to exercise. Chinua reflects this back to me, with his constant, steady optimism. “Talk about the happy things,” he suggests, gently. But he hasn’t been here for a while and meanwhile I am tipping. (He comes back today— I am writing this in the taxi on the way to collect him. Ian is still holding onto life and love and faith in the hospital in San Francisco.)

On top of the hill, before I began driving back down, back into the jungle, surrounded by sky and cactus plants and cashew trees, I nearly hit a chipmunk. It ran into the road in front of my scooter, and I braked hard. In the opposite lane, a truck bore steadily down on us, one of the big ones that carries gravel or rocks. The chipmunk saw the truck and gauged its choices. The truck was a large monster and the chipmunk knew the truck was bad news. But it didn’t know what to do about me, and it waffled in stupid chipmunk style, dodgin back and forth a few times, until I was right on top of it and I had no choice but to drive straight, going too fast to stop entirely, not able to veer left or right. It happened in a matter of seconds. I held my breath and willed the chipmunk to get away with every muscle in my body. I didn’t feel anything; it didn’t seem that I had hit it. And exactly then, the man driving the truck towards me stuck his arm out the window and gave me a thumbs up. He passed and was gone, and the moment was over. I couldn’t see his face through the window, just one brown arm and his thumb pointing at the sky. Tears came to my eyes. We were both hoping the best for the tiny animal. “Good job,” that thumb told me. “It worked out.” Or perhaps he was congratulating me on not veering into his truck, but I choose to think he was glad for the chipmunk. 

God sees every sparrow. He holds both sorrow and joy. Surely I can learn it.

I see all the tiny beautiful things. 

An old man with bowed legs, bald on top of his head, with one jasmine blossom behind each ear. As you do. 

A kestral sitting on a wire. 

Isaac in the waves. Every wave is a personal delight for him, as they toss him around like a toy. He laughs and laughs, disappearing under the water, knocked over, bobbing up again grinning. 

The way my oldest child is growing into a tall, strong man, with kind eyes and a wise soul. 

One gnarled tree against the sky, so beautiful it pierces my heart.

The pines at the sea, bent from the wind. 

The way our voices sound on our rooftop when we sing together, all blending.

Kites (the live ones, the birds) at the river, flying above the bridge. 

The sun rising over misty fields.

Every single leaf. 

I string them like beads, making a necklace, and on good days I can drape it around me and proclaim it all against the darkness always threatening me. 

How did Jesus feel so strongly without descending into hopelessness? I think as God, he knew, he knew the endless love and beauty that are at the center of Creation. All of this is real, his whole life proclaimed, the Kingdom of God is right in front of you. You can reach out and touch it. This love is bigger than darkness. I write this on my hands, on my heart, in this space, when my heart wants to be disbelieving. I will reach for love, again and again, trusting that it will be there. 


There is a lot of sadness in me, these days. I am sad for my friends, Ian and Christy, who are going through such a hard thing. Ian has been told that he has hours to days to live. In doing life without Chinua, I feel the heaviness of every meal, every bedtime, every story. This is a strange, sweet sadness, because I am entering into being with my friends, entering into their suffering in the tiniest possible way. I am so glad Chinua can be with Ian.

There is sadness. But there is beauty around me, so much beauty, and beauty is a type of love from God that strengthens and keeps me going. We have reached Arambol, Goa, our old home in India. I am always surprised by the emotions I have, coming back here. At first I was seized by a sense of great loss in not living here anymore, and simultaneously a huge amount of homesickness for my house in Pai. But a nearly a week has passed and I am softening into life here. The Shekina Goa community is beautiful, and I have moved from the rhythms of Shekina Garden in Thailand to the rhythms of the meditation center here. I am on our rooftop again, looking out over the coconut trees and the fields that lead to hills, finding peace in the patterns of leaves and fronds. I am on the beach with Miriam and the kids, playing in the sand and the water.

Everywhere, things are changing. Level after level is added to the houses and guesthouses, until we are in a miniature city of tiled roofs and colorful paint. All the shapes are different, but there are all the same things as well. The neighbors calling hello and brushing their teeth and tongues in the mornings. The bulls being taken for their walks. The scuffle of pigs in the underbrush. Trash everywhere, marring every landscape. The huge eagle’s nest in the tree at our spot on the beach. Yesterday I watched the mother eagle chase crows away as they dove near her babies. I could hear the babies cheeping in the nest. And today I watched as the male eagle plucked a sea snake out of the water and flew up to the nest with it. There are green parrots flying through the coconut grove, and bee catchers sitting on trees, or fluttering from bush to bush. People say their evening prayers, babies cry, and the grandfathers in the village carry them out for an evening walk. Everyone greets us, welcomes us, asks how long we will be here and where Chinua is.

On the beach there are more travelers than I have ever seen. This place only ever seems to grow, and people sell macrame jewelry and silver rings on mats in a long line on the beach. The “standing babies,” as Leafy used to call the little naked Russian toddlers, are all along the beach, their hair bright in the sun. It is a healing extravaganza, incongruent and hopeful. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere like this in the world, so wild and teeming with people and ideas. I am glad to be back. We try to swim when we can, help with the community when we can. We sweep the house of its endless sand and I read aloud to the kids. All five of them sleep in one bedroom, and the oldest kids show patience when they can. I send them to the little nearby shop to get ice cream. I go down to a beach restaurant for an hour in the morning to use the Internet, because I don’t have WIFI or a working phone. I go to the markets to get vegetables, buy yogurt in bags that the kids eat like it’s the last time ever that they will have yogurt. I use curry leaves in everything I cook, radiating with happiness because I love curry leaves and can’t get them in Thailand. Everything in this house brings a memory. The kids were so little here. And now the first Christmas tree we had, a tiny little Charlie Brown tree, is taller than the roof. All the trees have grown in the garden we planted, and we are in a secret wonderland among the rising, towering buildings. 

For years now, the kids sometimes mourn not having known snow. Last night Leafy was saying that we have to go back to North America during winter, while they are kids, so they can play in the snow. 

“Listen,” I told them. “Everyone gets the life they have. Some people will never travel, some people will live where there are only cold oceans and will never swim in a warm sea or see a dolphin. Some people get to snowboard every winter. We all get our own life, and we don’t get everybody’s life. You have a good one, but you won’t have all the lives. You have a traveling life, but that means you don’t have another kind of life. When you are an adult, you can decide what you want to do, and you have all the time in the world.”

What we are given doesn’t seem fair sometimes. When I have struggled with my big family, or felt overwhelmed with trying to make do, or juggle so many things, I have been guilty of self-pity and comparison. And how hard it is that some people have a life where they face losing their husbands, far too young. How hard that some people have a life of not being able to walk. 

It is looking for love and accepting grace that leads us out of self pity and comparison. God loves me in a different way than he loves others. I don’t get all the lives. I still struggle with this mind that betrays me. God loves me with a pile of kids and challenges. And birds in the coconut grove, and the smiles of neighbors, and time to write if I get up early enough. Oh, how he loves me and you.

The only place to be.

Morning and the spotted doves are calling to each other from under the eaves of my house. It’s cold and I can’t bear to go sit in my freezing studio, so I solved the problem by bringing my laptop into my bed, along with my cup of coffee. Still I got no writing done. I’m too busy stewing over other people’s thoughts to do anything useful. Too busy fretting over the long lists I have, reams of paper, to actually get anything done. I’ve let my head get bad again. Surely not everyone is angry with me. 

Writing is like breathing, if I don’t do it, I might die. 

What list of things could I tell you? I said goodbye to my husband yesterday. He got on a plane to go back to America. This is the real story, this is the only important thing: Ian is not doing so well. And that is a gentle and massive understatement, but I can’t bring myself to say anything else. He’s not doing so well badly enough that we thought it was best to send Chinua immediately. We scrambled around Chiang Mai doing a thousand necessary things—immigration, prescription refill, re-entry permits, permission for me to travel with the kids by myself— all adrenaline, all triumphant, we got it! We did it! He’s on his way, thanks to a kind person who bought a ticket! Thanks to all the friends -Leaf, and Ro and Neil, and Brendan, who helped us get everything together! Ah, victory! But then coming home in the glaring light of midday, the fields all turning brown again, dust on the road on the van on the sky. I’m so sad I don’t know what to do with myself. I don’t want to see anyone at all. I love Christy and Ian and Asha and Fiona so much it hurts. And we are all helpless. And sometimes you pray for something and God says no. (Though light can break through at the most unexpected moments. This is the nature of miracles. I haven’t lost hope.)

It is not my story, but ripples of grief, as my husband told me, touch everything. 

And this, this is what I also know: this is a holy moment. A moment when we find that all we believe is on the line. Jesus waits to usher us into the ultimate healing, complete unity with him, finally being together after all this time. We can’t know when it will happen. It could happen after years or days for Ian. It could happen unexpectedly for someone else, an accident while hiking. It is holy, tender, beautiful to witness the faith and trust that Ian and Christy have.

And yet this sadness. I wish I could be sad without leaning toward depression, without feeling like buying groceries is a giant undertaking I couldn’t possibly achieve. Someone needs to write a book about being sad without being depressed. Maybe it is in slowing down, listening to doves call to one another. Maybe the dust in the air is radiant in certain lights. I haven’t been writing because I’m angry and sabotaging myself, and because I’m almost certain that everyone I know is angry with me, and I’m going through the motions but I’m deeply anxious, deep in my gut. 

When I cry in the kitchen, people walking by on the street can see me. But I can’t help crying in the kitchen. I would like to lie all the way down on the ground and pound my fists on the floor, like Isaac does, if I peel the orange when he wanted to peel it. “Come on in,” I would say. “You and the whole world can watch this. It’s okay, I had nothing more to give anyway.” I don’t do it, though. I slice tofu and carrots and let the tears run, try to keep my head down so concerned tourists in big hats, barefoot monks, or my own neighbors don’t get too worried. 

Softness, kindness. A loaf of fresh bread from a friend. A bag of milky green tea, the ice rattling in the bag. The morning coffee, all the birds, the seven cats who think they live here and who have utter scorn for Wookie, Chinua arriving in San Francisco to eventually fall into his friend’s arms (eventually because they have to make sure he didn’t catch anything on the plane), a beautiful mug, the way carrots fall in pieces when you slice them, salad from the garden. I’m tired and sad but not overcome. I’ll finish this novel, it may take some time. There are plenty of hugs to be given and received. And Ian and Christy, Asha and Fiona are in God’s hands, the only place to be.

On birth certificates and cross-stitched portraits of dead kings.

Sometimes the well of feeling is unexpected. Hidden in the grass.

I was filling out a form online to order a copy of my birth certificate from the Ontario government, and I got hung up on one of the questions. It's that old guarantor question that always gets me. A guarantor is something the Canadian government wants, a person who vouches for you, who says, "She is who she says she is. She exists."

I was already emotional, filling out the form. Brampton, Ontario, I filled out. 1980. The words are old words, they touch a sore place inside of me that always wants to belong somewhere. I wrote my father's name. My mother's name. I wrote their ages when I was born. My heart hurt.

I'm already frustrated with myself because I didn't bring the birth certificates when we last left, and I should have. And I can't locate them, and I need them now. The difficulty and expense of getting them here is dragging me down. And then... a guarantor. A guarantor must be in a certain profession. A lawyer. A doctor. A chiropractor... the list goes on, but I couldn't place anyone. Who do I know like that? I drew a blank. I could think of one or two possibilities, but didn't know their work addresses, and it wasn't such a big deal really, except that I couldn't save the online form, and I'll need to begin all over again and the great distance between me and my homeland gets bigger. I don't know any lawyers. Or any dentists.

Just like that I'm almost crying, because I'm so in-valid, and I want to stick up for myself. I know I haven't lived there in a long time! But I really am Canadian, I am, and I was born somewhere, in a small town hospital, and people were glad to have me, and I come from you, great big country, and I love you and brag about you all across Asia.

Who can be my guarantor? Who can guarantee my existance? Maybe the litchi lady, who delivers litchis from her motorbike each day. She sits in front of the house and calls until we notice her, and we never turn her down because her litchis are the best and the season won't last forever.

On a bus ride to Chiang Mai a few weeks ago, I met an American tourist who told me, "Aw, you're practically American, you've got American kids, an American husband. You're American, I'll buy you a shirt with an American flag on it." And I was all, "No!" And he got insulted, but it's nothing against him, it's nothing against the place that I learned to love. It's about something that never goes away, the first seeds in your garden, the beginning of your life, I don't want to lose it, I don't want it taken from me by a glib tourist who has the bad habit of putting Canada down, like so many other ignorant people I've met. And besides, if you ask my youngest son where he's from, he sometimes says "Bangkok," sometimes, "The India," and sometimes "Sam Francisco," depending on his mood. I'm not sure how "American" that makes him.

That pang in my heart is the same feeling I got in the sewing shop the other day, looking at tape measures and pins and scissors. My heart was going thud thud thud and I got that hot feeling in my face, like I was going to cry. I half grew up in the fabric and sewing shop that my grandparents owned, and who can imagine the feelings you can pull out of a rack of buttons? It's gone, is what I think. And then, she's gone. And that still hurts so much, that my grandmother is gone and I still really really want her. I don't want her to be gone, I want her voice again, her self that doesn't match anyone else's self.

All those Edmonton dark mornings, getting in Grandma and Grandpa's car and going to the store on freezing days, when it was thirty below and we could hear the tired hum of the heaters coming to life. My sister and I counted zippers, buttons, for hours. We were the helpers, taking inventory in January. The store smelled amazing, like cloth everywhere, and my grandma often hummed while she worked, and she made us these sandwiches with thick slices of bread, and Grandpa teased us under the fluorescent lights, and then years later, I disappeared, I moved away.

My kids complain if it's 20 degress (celcius) outside. "It's COooLLLD!" they say. We're so far from there, yet this is what we've become, and still, somehow we're that, but how to keep track of it all? How to keep the threads from fraying?

At the Thai sewing shop, I was able to keep the tears back because I spotted a six foot tall cross-stitched picture of one of Thailand's prior kings. There are humongous pictures of the King and his ancestors everywhere in Thailand, but never have I seen one done by needlepoint.  It literally knocked me speechless and made me realize, no, this isn't Canada, it can never be, but here there are different things, things that revolve around their own memories, and things that carve out stories for everyone to believe and honor. I have my grandmother and her scissors making a snap snap across a bolt of fabric. Here there is the King and the Queen, and I'm sure Thai people love Durian (which people sometimes call stink fruit because of the smell) mostly because it's a smell of their childhoods and it marks something: the child who never goes away, the story that can't die! It can't, it can't.

Even if the telling is as soft as falling leaves, it has to land somewhere in the snow or in the jungle. It sleeps inside me, roused only by birth certificate applications and the smell of bobbins bright as the sun.

But who can be my guarantor? The tomato farmers? The man at the shop where I buy my bread? I'm neither here nor there. I'm somewhere in between.