Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Month in Mumbai - a college essay

I am eight years old and living with my family through a hot summer in the neighborhood of Santa Cruz in Mumbai, India.  We are preparing for my Grandparent's fiftieth wedding anniversary party, and family has flown in from all over the world. So much of Santa Cruz reminds me of our life back home in Florida. I see exotic palm trees and brightly colored sunrises. I hear the sounds of horns honking in the streets and savor the aroma of spices wafting through the humid air. All the windows in Grandma's flat are open, and the early morning breeze tickles the lace curtains until they reveal the sunrise, boldly orange.  I help my Grandmother in the kitchen to make "chapatis" with flour and oil. We roll out the dough and sprinkle flour and bake them in a clay oven. Later we enjoy them with butter and jam.


It is time to go with Grandma to the market I see the women dressed in traditional saris and men in salwar kameses. I hear the sound of dry feet beating the pavement as men run their auto rickshaws. In shop windows we find the saffron and burgundy colored fabrics embroidered with golden thread, and elaborate gem stone jewelry. The smell of fresh mangoes and pomegranates fill the air. Grandma negotiates for some fresh cuts of fish to make fish curry, and we walk back home for some respite from the sun.

As the sweltering sun sinks slowly in the sky, we venture outside again with my parents. We pass the street walls plastered with colorful Indian film advertisements on our way down to the park to play. The willow trees droop down to touch as we walk down the lane. I am amused to see that my father grew up close to the beach, just like I have so many miles away from here.  We walk past Dad's church, Sacred Heart parish and his school of the same name. The next day, Dad walks us through the boys school and they all giggle when they see me and my sister, since girls go to the convent's school.

We return home, and Mom warms some goat milk for us before bed. Grandma comes to pat us on the back until we fall asleep in our beds, and I pretend to be asleep just so she will feel she can rest. Outside I hear the sound of the night watchman walking and slapping his cane on the ground to ward off any criminals. A few hours after that, a devout Hindu can be heard walking through the streets singing his prayers in a lulling, mystifying tone.  Before the break of dawn, we stir once again, to hear the early morning venders calling up from the street with their carts of fruits and vegetables. We come to the window in time to see women with heavy pitchers of water placed precariously on their heads, gliding gracefully with the assurance of generations gone before them.

Grandma is cooking again today, and I hear her giving instructions to the servants in the predominant regional language, Hindi, which I can not understand. My Grandmother's golden bangles make a jingling musical sound when she bustles around. I feel her soft but dry hands on my face, lovingly pinching my cheeks. I marvel at how she maintains her household and fusses over her guests to see that they are well fed and comfortable. The home is busy with preparations and many family members visiting.


While Mom soaks my nails in a bowl of gelatin because I am biting them too much and this is supposed to help them grow again, my brother and sister are down below on the street with Dad enjoying their first pony ride. I am sulking because I want to be riding the pony. Later, Dad takes us all to the beach, and makes it up to me with a camel ride along the seashore. We drink our "thumbs up" soda and giggle at the men with the monkeys who dance and steal coins from our pockets. We watch with awe as men charm cobras from wicker baskets.


We return home, and at night I hear the sounds of fireworks cracking continuously for the Hindu festival "Diwali." My family is Catholic as many families in Santa Cruz are, so we do not honor the festival, but we enjoy the lights from the balcony. Over the din of chattering family and popping of fireworks, we hear the bowl drop and roll on the hard floor. Even above the noise, I hear the whimper of my Grandmother.  Even at the age of eight, I know in my soul that my ailing, sweet Grandfather has just passed. It is two nights before their fiftieth anniversary celebration. My father and his siblings have just returned from a trip to the store, and rush to comfort my Grandmother. We turn off the television and Mom ushers us quickly for bed.

The next day, I see Grandpa lain in his coffin in the middle of the main room of the flat. I am not afraid. I approach the coffin and he looks so peaceful. The breeze blows the lace curtains behind him, and the hum of traffic is the reminder of the world going on. I wish I could have held his hand one last time, or heard him play the piano once more. I remember he was smiling the last time I saw him, sitting on the piano bench. Around us people are expressing their condolences to my Grandmother, she has a faraway look in her eye and never lets go of her little white handkerchief. I see my cousin and my sister running in their puffy dresses, meant for the party, playing hide and go seek, unaware of the significance of the moment.

We attend the funeral in the same parish where my father was an alter server and sang in the choir as a child. He sings the requiem for Grandpa at the back of the church, from the rafters, where no one can see him shed a tear. But I detect a waver in his voice and it makes me feel ill, because my Dad is always strong. After Grandpa's burial, we make a trip to Goa, the island from which my father's family originates. We play on the white shores, picking up shells and splashing around in the surf as Mom and Dad sit watching us and holding hands, being very quiet.

We return to Mumbai for a few days before our trip home to the states. My father takes us on a train ride to see some sights. We ride "third class" because we arrived too late to buy any other ticket. I see a small moment of distress on Dad's face, but we hop aboard.  As the world starts to blur, I see children naked and abandoned in the streets. In "third class," we see homeless people hobbling around without limbs, begging us for rupees. When we get off the train, we see dirty-faced people without teeth who stare at us and don't look away. A woman came up to us and begged for milk, holding a dead baby in her arms. These are incidents that are considered common place in India, but to us they are beyond comprehension.

Before the last Mass we celebrate in Santa Cruz, my six year old brother brings all the rupees he has saved and tells me he is going to give them to the beggar who we would see there each week. As we walk up to the church, the beggar approaches us, and my brother nervously hands everything he has to the man, so anxious to feel like he could make an impact on India the way India impacted us. After Mass it is time for family farewells and packing suitcases. We say goodbye to Grandma, who holds our faces between her hands so tightly with endearment, and I still see her waving goodbye to our taxi with her white handkerchief which she never lets go.

In those last days, I witnessed all the horrors of a third world country from which I had been so sheltered. Not just in America, but in Santa Cruz too. I knew I couldn't go back to hiding behind lace curtains in my Grandmother's beautiful home after seeing what I had seen in the city. I had spent a month eating mangoes and drinking milk in abundance, playing in parks and on beaches, riding ponies and camels and wearing pretty dresses. Every night I had a clean bed and safe roof over my head. Those experiences changed my childish views of the world because I encountered human suffering that I could not rationalize, and I lived through the first death of a loved one. I returned to my home with a deep love for India and my heritage, and with a profound gratitude for the abundance we enjoy in America, but with a new understanding of the human experience. I would never be the same again.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Way

A few weeks ago, my husband and I pulled "The Way" from the redbox machine at our local grocery store. Just the cover art alone had intrigued me, and I was pleasantly surprised to read the description. Once dishes were put away and children were scrubbed and tucked into bed, we started the movie. Much to our dismay, the dvd skipped and froze all throughout. My husband, who often falls asleep during movies and even just when I talk to him sometimes, drifted off peacefully on the couch and so I finally called it quits on the dvd.

Thankfully, we were able to find "The Way" via a well-known movie rental company and watched it streaming online a few weeks later. Films about journeys are always my favorite type, and this one was no exception. This is a story about relationships, forgiveness, grief, hope and the search for life's meaning.

The story begins with a grown son who has just left graduate school and is talking to his father, an opthamlogist, about going on a pilgrimage called the Camino de Santiago through the Pyrenees mountains. His father is Tom, a lapsed Catholic, who is unsupportive of the idea and thinks his son should be doing more practical things with his life. Nonetheless, he drives his son, Daniel, to the airport and declines a final plea to accompany his son on the trip.  The two are not portrayed to be especially close in their relationship. The father and son are played by Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, who also directed the film.

Tom is contacted a few days after his son's departure and told that Daniel was found dead in the mountains after a terrible storm. Tom immediately catches a flight to Spain to identify Daniel's body and collect his belongings. In an impulsive moment, or perhaps divinely inspired, Tom decides upon cremation for his son in Spain instead of going back to the United States for a burial. He then decides to walk the pilgrimage himself, and finish Daniel's journey for him.

He sets out to do this very matter-of-factly, almost as if he is running a race rather than taking a journey. Along the way he meets a few characters, who are each dealing with their own "vices" in life, similar to the pilgrims in "The Canterbury Tales." Each have chosen to walk "the Way" for various reasons - none of which are specifically religious, but they are each seeking. Tom makes it abundantly clear that he prefers to be alone on his quest, but he eventually acquiesces to his persistent companions. Over time these companions become loyal friends to this stubborn, enigmatic man and they help him grieve his son and look at his life through new eyes.

This group of "peregrinos" (pilgrims) travel from town to town, encountering many new people. My favorite was a gypsy community which teaches them a lesson in forgiveness and honor. Throughout their travels, it is evident that the true joys of life are not material and can not be quantified, but only shared. As they reach the shrine near the northeast coast of Spain, they attend a beautiful Mass at the  Cathedral of Santiago of Compostela for pilgrims who have finished their walk. They decide to join Tom on the last leg of his journey, as he walks to the sea to bring Daniel's remains to the water.

 While the film presented some very overtly Catholic themes, I found so many elements of this movie to have an appeal that could cast the net wide to reach an even bigger audience. In fact, I think that was what I loved most about it. The beauty of "The Way" was that all were welcome to make this pilgrimage to encounter our Lord, in beautiful churches and quiet moments as well as in friends and strangers alike. This film brings to light the human longing to seek something beyond what our material world can offer us, solidifying the suspicion that most things around us are mere distractions from our true destiny. How we try to see "The Way" in our daily lives is the challenge, I think. We are all pilgrims on a journey, and what matters most is to try our best to follow the Way, the Truth and the Life and lead fellow travelers to Him with love.

The cinematography of the vastness of the Basque region of Spain was captured so beautifully, and the soundtrack naturally flowed between meditative and upbeat. I just didn't want this film to end, it left me satisfied and hungry all at the same time....which brings me to my next thought....I should probably mention that after seeing this film, you may find yourself wanting to book a flight to see what awaits you on your own pilgrimage. Or maybe you don't need to go anywhere to see your path ahead of you. Either way, "Buen Camino" and "Vaya Con Dios" to all my fellow peregrinos.

Read all about the story behind "The Way."

The film contains brief partial rear nudity, drug use, a couple of instances of profanity and of crass language as well as references to abortion and sexuality. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

My Meaning of Life, a Mother's Day reflection

"Breakfast in Bed," Mary Cassatt.

 As a young girl, I was always given the message that I could do anything. With hard work, of course. But I was never told plainly that I must one day grow up, get married, and have babies. Nonetheless, I grew up with sisters and barbies and accessorizing and an endless string of crushes on little boys who were blissfully oblivious. I didn't give much thought about my future back then. But what I do recall is a deep longing to be a mother one day, and the fear that I might not get that chance.

It sounds cliche, but growing up in an academic family, it was just as important to be intelligent and successful as it was to be family-oriented. I grew up in a community where women sought out professions and were not often married before 30, let alone procreating. I grew up around women who "did it all" and figured I would just follow suit.

Then my family moved from Florida to Texas, my senior year in high school. Which will have to be its own story for another day, but suffice it to say that in time I've realized - for me personally - I can't do it "all." At least not well enough for my standards. I am nurturing a career at a pace which revolves around motherhood, but what has changed for me over time is my confidence in saying that "achieving" motherhood and living that calling out to the best of my ability will be my greatest accomplishment, my crowning glory.

Of course there's nothing which is seemingly glorious as I look back on the last 7 years of my motherhood, as I fondly recall how many poopy diapers I have changed, how many sleepless nights I have had, how many storybooks I have read one-hundred times over, how many mornings I've spent at the EXACT SAME PARK, how many times I've broken up a fight and shouted "no handstands on the couch!" or "keep your hands to yourself!" Or, what about the two-trillion times I've nursed a baby to back to sleep or flew a little boy to bed like an airplane, or like superman. I've lost count of how many legos I've picked up (and stepped on, screaming simultaneously), how many times I've missed phone chats with friends, and cleaned up milk spills and dried wet little heads after baths. And tantrums. Dear Lord, the tantrums. I have greatly improved the number of tantrums I have each day as well as the quantity of dark chocolate I keep around the house. :)

Many times I've wondered what I'm missing "out there" and what it would be like for one day to be "at work" instead of hanging out on Sesame Street. These days can be agony. But these days are fleeting, too.

And that's when I remind myself to savor the every day moments I've shared with the best people in the world, to me...my kids! And the unbelievable Mom friends who have sustained me and lifted me up, taught me, encouraged me and strengthened me - the bonds which I hold dear. And I think about how much our children have changed me, and taught me...about patience, forgiveness, trust, compassion, HUMILITY....in only 7 short years, what I have learned about myself and others, about the love of God, about the meaning of life. And I wonder, how much more I have to learn? 

It has taken time for me to "forgive myself" for not fully mastering a professional career at this point in my life but to instead delight in what I have crafted with my own hands, with my prayers, my laughter. My blood, sweat and tears. The years will come when my hands will feel so empty again.

There's a crown all right, even though it may be made out of paper mache and twigs and leaves. It's a symbol of how fragile these days are, and it's splendidly glorious.

Tomorrow we celebrate Mother's Day, and we will honor our two beautiful mothers who have given us life, all of the mothers in our families and amongst our dear friends, our Blessed Mother Mary who brings us to close to the sacred heart of her son Jesus, and all women who give life to the world in so many ways. Thank you God, for my own Mom, who spent many days living patiently on Sesame Street and who taught me how to give my all. Thank you for my sacrificing husband who has made me a mother, teaches me daily, makes me laugh always and who aids me in all that I do. Thank you for my wonderful 3 sons Lord, and for the gift of my vocation, my very highest purpose in life - please help me to be worthy of the name "Mom!" Happy Mother's Day!!!

The Guardians of Time

 The Guardians of Time
by Julia Motekaitis

It is possible that I am delusional enough that I see myself as a superhero, who is shielding her family from a gigantic unstoppable time-eating Monster on a daily basis. If you're picturing it, I'm wearing red, since red is my power color. Also, you can imagine some jewel encrusted arm cuffs and boots. Fierce and fabulous, right?

The greedy time-eating Monster doesn't realize he is my adversary, because it's just who he is by nature. It's just that I made an oath years ago to guard my family from him while time is still on my side.

When I was growing up, Saturdays were family days since we all went to school during the week and Dad traveled often. We typically were not allowed to run off to neighbor's homes, our parents kept a pretty close watch on us. After practicing the piano and doing a chore or two, it was time to go play tennis together or go to the library. Often Dad would take us to a cool festival, or performance. And occasionally someone's friend who couldn't be shaken off the door step would tag along and be the unwilling recipient of a cultural experience. We can look back and laugh about memories of friends who would come over and knock on the door, and ask "what's going on in there? why can't you come out and play?" Typically we'd respond "Can't yet," because it was easier than explaining that we were taking dictation, reading the newspaper or playing "spin the globe and spell that country by memory." Is that a real game? Please lie to me if it's not. 

Yes, Nintendo was probably more fun. But 30 years later I can thank my parents for teaching me the value of contentedness at home, with learning how to occupy myself if I felt bored, and not feeling lost in the presence of a quiet moment. Even though we were each involved in music and at least one sport, my memories of weekends revolve around being at home, or out with family. Sunday Mass was the culmination of our time together. As we got older of course, this was not always the case as activities inevitably kicked up the pace of life. We weren't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but our parents somehow figured out (even if by trial and error) how to teach us the value of our faith and family life.

We weren't deprived. We played four square, rode bikes in aimless circles, watched our share of Disney movies and had sleep overs with the neighborhood kids. Dad was able to fly us to Europe multiple times because of frequent flyer miles. But our identity came from our home life. I look back and realize this was their way of keeping us all together in a world that can easily, and unintentionally, pull families apart with things that distract from our ultimate purpose. 

Community is so important, but our children need us just as much. It is empowering for us as parents to realize our children love us just as we are, they just want our time. We are enough for them! As my husband and I raise our children, we feel ourselves being pulled off the ground by so many worthy invitations to be involved in activities. But somewhere deep inside there is this persistent truth that wells up and grounds me, reminding me that our time together is the most precious commodity we have. What we teach our children today about cultivating an inner life and owning their family identity will remain with them always. And if they grow up and willingly come back to see us at Thanksgiving, we can congratulate ourselves then on a job well done.

I may never defeat the time-eating Monster, nor perhaps should I. What I hope to do instead is keep him at bay and in the process, teach our kids how to be their own time guardians one day.

Our own people

 As we set off on the open road, we sat in an awkward silence, still in disbelief that we had actually left home. We kept looking over our shoulders, as if any moment the police would discover us and pull us over for abandoning our children. For one night, that is, with their grandmother, while we took our very first overnight anniversary trip. It felt criminal. Both of us were trying to silence the voices in our heads saying "you know, you could just stay home, rent a movie, get take out....think of the money we could save...besides, we don't really need a break from the kids, we live for the kids."

Feeling ambivalent and mostly forced to do this by one another, we had a hard time convincing ourselves we were really GOING. 5 miles away from home already felt like Timbuktu. But yet we were compelled to press forward, continuing to feel so strange in this car with the absence of little feet tapping the backs of our seats and the intermittent high pitched squeak- sequence for no apparent reason. We still had the vestiges of crushed cheerios on the floorboards and the happy ballads of Laurie Berkner to remind us of who we really were, just in case we forgot.

The strangely quiet country drive carried on, and thirty cow pastures later it occurred to us that we could listen to our OWN music for a change. We indecisively bounced back and forth between Joao Gilberto and Michael Jackson and the Pretenders and Pink Floyd. As the miles mounted on the odometer and we got lost in the music that we once knew, we quickly stepped back in time and become two totally different people. People who could make a spontaneous stop to take pictures of oddly fascinating outdoor sculptures. People who could afford to deliberate for twenty minutes about what they wanted to order at gorgeous, gourmet restaurants, where reading the menu descriptions was almost more fun than consuming the food. People who could explore a historic bed and breakfast for as long as their curiosity desired. People who could swim in a natural, spring-fed pool which seemed bottomless, until we were freezing and pruney and starved. People who could stay up all night drinking champagne at a piano lounge and not worry about waking up at 6 am. People who gaze into each other's eyes and finish a profound thought or a sentence without being interrupted five times. People who could be decadently aimless and not have a care in the world. It was almost like being in Never Neverland, being able to forget a world of responsibilities and schedules, of dishes and laundry, of mowing the lawn and taking out the trash.

 But it was the memory of those little, sweet faces that put our feet back on the earth, those little beings for whom we gladly pour out our lives. Our most precious investments not only in our future, but the world's future. Our greatest contributions to the human race. Our meaning of life. Our purpose in life. Suddenly the transition back to real life was not as abrupt as we had expected. We may not be the free agents we once were, our identities are much more complex now. But we do know that beneath the layers of who we are now, we are still our own people, and it feels sublime to remember that when we have the chance.

White flag day

The other night, my husband took the boys to karate and I stayed home with our toddler to get a head start on dinner so it would be hot and ready when they returned. This is our normal procedure and works beautifully normally.

Realizing that hot dogs were on the menu by special request and our toddler was occupied, I thought I'd try to send out some writing samples while the house was relatively quiet.

We all know how difficult it is to maintain a train of thought and form a complete sentence with children around, so I'm not exactly sure why I thought this was a good idea. But I stubbornly persisted. Several times I stood up to rescue our 22 month old from rifling through cupboards and standing precariously on stools, and then I would sit back down to piece together my thoughts.

When I heard the sound of water pouring, I tuned it out. When I connected that it would have to be the science experiment our eldest son had left out, I jumped up to take care of it and returned to resuscitate my fledgling paragraph. 

Shortly after that was when the miniature fall gourds started to be thrown at me from some undisclosed location. Stubbornly, I persisted. But the breaking point was inevitable. I calmly sat our toddler down with some books in his room, finished my paragraph, picked up the placemats from the table that he had scattered on the floor, and broke down in to tears.

I proceeded into my litany of mumbling self pity/prayer...."why.....why....whhhyyyy!!! I never ask for anything for myself. All I want to do is write a few paragraphs that might help someone else! Why is it so hard? " and I allowed myself to come completely unglued, a luxury I rarely afford myself.

And softly as always, God's patient wisdom answered me in silence. The way only He can hold a mirror to my face so that I can reveal the answer to my own questions. "Yes," He said. "Why, why, why. So that you would come to Me. You can not do this on your own."  I knew this to be true, and my sniveling was quieted. Only You can bless and multiply my efforts, my sweet Lord. Please forgive me for my foolishness and pride. I know I can do nothing good without You.

I surrender to Your perfect wisdom.

(But did it have to be gourds?)

What happens to a dream deferred?

Writing has been a dream of mine since I first graffitied the walls of my sister's bedroom with a green crayon. In any group of which I've been a part, any position I've held, any event I've organized....I have gravitated to the aspect of that role which allows me to write. If I could rewind time, I'd ignore every person who told me I'd never make any money and instead focus on those people who told me it was most important to do what you love. 

A few years ago, I pressed pause on a promising Master's degree in Counseling and took an interview to write features for a local publication. After writing for three years, I still stumble over the admission that I am a writer. At first I thought I'd only feel comfortable admitting it once I was published.  Then I thought I'd only feel comfortable once I was paid. As it turns out, I'd probably feel more comfortable sky-diving in a tornado while holding five rattlesnakes than admit that I am "writer." No, I am far more comfortable saying I'm writer in the works.

Writing is a bit tricky in our world today when every goldfish swimming in a fish bowl has their own blog and the definition of "published" is a moving, ever-changing target. The pressure to stand out as creative and strong, authentic and not cliche is more than ever, to me. Just gathering my writing samples, updating my resume and trying to understand what a "media specialist" means is almost enough to make me reconsider. Recently I decided not to approach my writing so formally as a career, but to "find where your gifts and your passions intersect" as my wise mother told me years ago.  I realized that if I have anything to offer the world, if God truly did give me the gift of writing, then I must only write what He finds useful for me to say. Additionally, it may behoove me to reign in my run-on sentence habit. *

My recent decision to begin writing in my own voice has taught me something critical already....  creativity can not be commanded, only inspired. I am grappling with this, since my insights have a tendency to show up unannounced and only when I have a half-melted crayon and a children's bulletin within arm's reach.

Thank you for following me in this dream. I am not sure where it might lead but I hope to make it worth your while.

*Note to self: find some editor friends willing to work pro-bono. Supply plenty of wine so they will be totally honest.