The Nightmare in the Milk Case

Nocih (which means my grandmother in Nahuatl) sometimes takes me to the grocery store with her. Today we needed some mushrooms and chicken so we spent some time going up and down the aisles.

I like to visit Nocih because she loves to read to me.  We have fun reading and sometimes I get to spend the night.  I like spending the night because I am learning to speak Spanish. I am also learning about Mexican food, stories, and customs.  I especially like learning about the cucuy.

That cucuy can be a tricky one.  Sometimes he’s outside with me when I’m supposed to be inside.   Sometimes he comes by the park at the most inconvenient times, like when I’m on the “weeeeee” and Nocih wants me to get off so we can go home.  Sometimes he lurks when I get too adventurous and I wander away from Nocih.

Sometimes he’s not called a cucuy, but a pesadilla. I have a book called There’s a Nightmare in My Closet that actually has pictures of two of them.

Sometimes the only part of him I worry about is la mano peluda which can be found under Nocih’s bed late at night. Although, I’ve never seen his hairy hand….until today.

Nocih and I were minding our own business at the grocery store. All of a sudden she gasped.  I looked at her and she pointed to the milk in the big case along the wall.

All of a sudden the small milk cartons moved. I stared.  Then they moved again. I think my eyes popped out of my head!! Then I saw it.  A HAIRY HAND!

This big blue hand came out of the milk case and was trying to grab the milk.  My heart pounded and I wondered why Nocih was smiling.  She stood there just staring! The milk kept moving! I yelled, “No, no, esa leche es para los bebes! No, no!”

Nocih kept laughing while I just wanted to leave.

After what seemed forever she finally pushed on the cart and said, “Ok, that’s enough. Say bye-bye to la mano peluda.”

I said, “Bye Mano Peluda!” as loudly as I could as I hung over the side trying to see past Nocih.

As we walked away I heard him say, “Bye!!!”

He talks!

Later when we paid for the food in the cart, I told the cashier all about the hairy blue hand that was in the milk case. I don’t think she believed me.

Note: Avi is two and a half. He is bilingual.He is brave. He is funny (and he knows it.)

Siempre Adelante

Posted in Avi, Family Life | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Winter in California

Living in California’s central valley is like living inside your house and never coming out.  Sometimes you get a little chilly so you add a sweater, sometimes its too warm so you open a window or two. There really are few surprises and when they come, far and few between, they are a reason to celebrate, lament, rend garments or lean back in awe.  It’s really quite boring compared to frozen iguanas falling from trees or snow in the Sahara. Often our fall leaves don’t drop until the end of December or do so so slowly that you are constantly raking and bagging the endless chore.

The leaves do inevitably drop and the fake sun, bright but not warm makes you blink and reach for sunglasses.Our eyes are opened to what lies beneath summer’s cover.

At the risk of sounding like a MOTO (Master Of The Obvious) winter bleakness is a necessary ritual not just because it accents the idea of birth and renewal at the return of spring…that would be the obvious…but because we all need to peel down at least once a year and take a look at ourselves.   Yes, yes, you’re thinking of New Year resolutions and the pledge to be better in the New Year.  But I’m not.

Over the last few days, I seem to have been bombarded by images of the soul (mine and others’) bared to their naked truths.

As I walk along the river I see bare trees that silhouetted in the pinkish cantaloupe winter sunset reveal the giant parasitic mistletoe bunches threatening to kill them as they stand in silent memorial to thoughtful engineers who allowed them to thrive when the levees were built.

We too in the winters of our sad experiences are asked to reflect inwardly to see where in fact our parasites live and what to do about them. The death of a friend reminds us that life is short. While we live with the false benefit of hiding or ignoring the parasites that threaten us daily, an untimely death is the sudden, urgent reminder that life is fleeting and pulls off the blanket like a mother tired of telling you to get up for school. We are left looking inwardly wondering if we actually want to cut out the bad stuff or just crawl back under the covers and defy the cosmos.

A drive along a busy avenue lined by rose bushes long stripped of their leaves but blooming in neon red-orange colors. The sad beauty through the leafless branches attacked by wind, rain and car exhaust is not lost on passers-by. But there is nothing to be done except admire their strength and beauty and hope for a quick recovery during future better, sunnier times.

Powerwalking through a light drizzle in the downtown suddenly exposes by sheer emotional shock, all the usually invisible souls living on the streets.  They huddle in doorways of the now less busy pedestrian sidewalks and seem to “pop” out at you as you wonder how they will keep dry. Their shining neon red-orange souls beckon as if to say, I am here. We ask then, why is a flower less valuable if it has not a beautiful pot in which to sit?

My neighbor’s beautiful Chinese Pistache stands naked, shivering but dutifully holding a perfectly shaped bird nest. It too sits empty, pelted by rain and shrouded in early morning fog. It too holds the memory of warmer times and the promise of new life. Inside, we take to the chores of uncluttering, giving away, cleaning and remaking our own nests.We are shoved into action through the inevitable proximity that colder weather brings. Left to stare at the clutter of our daily lives we are moved to act….or achieve catharsis through writing to further postpone and procrastinate.

The occasional frost warning sends me scrambling to rescue my prized navel oranges that by design are best when left on the tree to ripen at their pace, but cannot withstand a hard freeze.  We are then urged by the weather to decide how much of a risk to take.  Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but always we are reminded that decisions must be made based on what we are willing to suffer: drippingly sweet fruit or none at all.

Truly, isn’t that the point of it all anyway…decisions? Winter helps us slow, retreat, evaluate and consider. Most importantly, however, like anything else, we are served only a plate of choice and awareness, the foods most longed for by our truest selves. Without choice and awareness, we are just going through the motions without an appreciation of what we have. The nutrients found in these soul foods cannot be accessed without sound decisions. It requires action to make change happen. And that is what we call spring.

So I will pay attention to this winter’s lessons. I will listen to my own awareness and be open to the choices I have. In deciding to proceed I will honor myself,  and my soul will be glad and show gratitude.

Siempre adelante.

Posted in Gratitude, self awareness | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

I Won’t Back Down

You know, really?! I am for all intents and purposes, 56 years old. Yet today, I was at such a loss for words that all I could say….ok scream…was “asshole” to an old man wearing black spandex biking shorts and a blue and gold shirt. You’d think I would have more to say at my age. Instead, I found myself just yelling profanities at him.

The love of my life woke up from his nap as usual, declaring in the third person that he “is wake up!” We went to the potty and then headed out the door for a walk on the levee. He was very cooperative for some reason and made good time climbing the 15 feet to the paved path where we could watch the pale winter sun bounce off a mirror-like Sacramento River. We walked for almost a mile then felt the need to stop and observe about 30 squirrels chasing one another from walnut tree to pine and back again. The baby thought it hilarious that leaves being displaced by the little fur coated rats rained down on us as we watched them use the trees like a super highway. Nevertheless we plodded on alongside many of the locals also taking advantage of the beautiful weather.

As we walked I decided to walk on the left side of the path for a couple of reasons. First, I was pushing my running stroller and while we traveled at a walker’s pace, I wanted to make sure I could hear bike riders coming at me. The levee tends to get crowded during holidays. Secondly, the baby was looking for ducks on the river and I wanted to accommodate him as we moved along.

As a runner, and being part of a training group we were taught that we should run on the left side of the path in order to see bikes up ahead coming toward us. This is actually proper running etiquette albeit, it seems only runner’s know this. Lastly, I actually walked on the gravel covered side of the “road” so that I wasn’t actually on the path itself lest a bicyclist bear down on us.

The speed bikers on the levee for what ever reason, tend to refuse to ring a bell or otherwise announce that they are coming toward you. So today I thought I would make it a little easier by taking on my own preventative safety measures. As I walked I realized that a gentleman with two small dogs and a cell phone was using my path. I moved onto the levee on the left and continued to walk all the while describing the two dogs to the baby, in Spanish.

I heard a man’s voice say, “Bike in the middle.” I looked up and realized that he was coming toward me and because I was on the left and the levee was crowded, that he was stuck moving onto the middle of the road. I made a face indicating I was sorry, and “oops, that was unintentional.”

As he drew nearer, he used his hand to point to the right side (mine) of the road and said, “You need to be on that side of the road”. As he passed he yelled, “That’s how we do it in this country!”

I stopped dead in my tracks and turned around. In disbelief I yelled, “Oh My God! Asshole.”

He laughed at me.

I immediately regretted my words and felt ashamed.

I immediately heard my inner voice start justifying my presence in this country. I was born here. My daughter was born here, My blue eyed baby grandchild was born here. I realized that he probably thought I was the baby’s nanny. I was speaking Spanish to him because we want him to be bilingual. Then I got really angry.

As I stomped on I saw a woman ahead of me stop and turn around. I realized a that she and her husband were the reason the bicyclist had to go down the middle of the road. They were on the right, I was on the left. She said to me in Spanish,
Its a beautiful day to walk. I see your baby has blue eyes. Where did he get them? I explained and she said, “My husband is white, but none of my kids got blue eyes.” He looked at me and the down to the ground again. He was embarrassed of my behavior. He was embarrassed of the bicyclist’s behavior. He might have even been embarrassed at himself for saying nothing.

We talked until we parted ways and I spent the rest of my walk forcing myself to walk where I wanted to walk, not where he told me I needed to walk. Clearly Im still not over it. This is the second time in a week that someone has made a rude comment to me as a result of my speaking Spanish.

I will not stop.

I will walk where I want.

I will not let idiots ruin my day.

I will not be quiet even if all I can pipe out is “asshole.”


Siempre adelante.

Posted in Happiness | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The Day I Lost My Mind

Tomorrow will be one year since the day I lost my mind.

Late the night before (a year ago today) I violently poked at the remote control to the television and tossed/ threw it onto the sofa.  Then amid expletives, tears, and arms flailing, punctuating the air, I marched upstairs to bed. But I couldn’t sleep; I marched myself back down those stairs and into my office.  I shook the mouse to awaken the computer and logged into my Facebook account.

I was tired, raw and angrier than I probably have ever been before; and I have been angry many times before.  I was angrier than when at age 10 my beloved grandmother died, after having a heart attack in my house. She was there because while my cousin and I were spending the night at her house, she fell ill and asked me to call my mom. My cousin and I had been messing around late into the night ignoring her pleas that we go to sleep. Then my mom picked us up and my grandmother came home to rest in our house.  I can’t remember where my cousin went.  Perhaps she was dropped off at her house.  The next morning I awoke to the sounds of rushed whispers and an ambulance in front of my window.  I don’t remember anything in between that scene and the point in time when my mom told me that my Abuelita died.  Time stood still. Forty years later, I am still unable to talk about it without tears.

Back then, though I was mostly angry at myself, I was also angry at the world.  I should have known she was having a heart attack since I had just seen a tv commercial or show (can’t recall which) about the symptoms.  I should have not played with my cousin so late at night, giggling and laughing. I should have called my mom earlier when I did know she was sick. The ambulance should have gotten to my house sooner, and driven faster.  The hospital doctors should have saved her. I felt lots of anger and regret not speaking out.

The experience of losing my grandmother was probably the first time that I responded to an event that while painful and sad, was not something to be angry about.  Since that time I have continued that pattern; morphing a variety of emotions into anger.  I’ve just in the past decade come to realize it and have been working on it.  I’m failing miserably I might add.  Although I often look angry on the outside, it’s more likely that I am hurt on the inside.

A year ago I was mad at the world for allowing someone better suited to be a snake oil salesman to not only run for POTUS but to win.  How could Republicans not see the danger in voting for him?  How could we allow the vote to be split? How could people choose not to vote?  How could we have let this happen?

I wrote a long scathing indictment of his words and those who believe in them. I called out to my FB “friends” to remove themselves from “my friends”  list if they felt so strongly in support of this man because I could not fathom any understanding.  I was furious at them for betraying me and my beliefs; the beliefs I consider the cornerstone of my character, my actions, and my life.  Yet, there were some of my friends telling me that indeed, they are not who I thought they were. I learned that I didn’t know my friends nor what they believe in their hearts.

I lost my mind and I wrote a long post and one very long comment on that post asking people who voted for Trump or against Mrs. Clinton, to remove themselves from my FB account.

I did this on the night of his election. I lost a lot of  “friends” that night and the following day.  My sadness deepened into grief.  How could I have ignored all the signs all these years?  Why did it take this election for me to say, “I don’t like who you are and how you act!” Why did I put up with 8 years of racist comments, terrible jokes, and uninformed complaints from people I rarely saw and barely knew?  Why didn’t I call them out for their hypocrisy when it danced itself in front of me?  Was I being polite or lazy? Why was it so easy for them to attack me back and easily jump out of my life when I finally did speak out?

Some people did contact me and we talked. Some people told me I was spewing hate. Others said I was judging them and that was the bigger problem.  Others said we could remain as friends, just not on FB, which is exactly what I  proposed initially. Others reiterated their complete and blind support for the new president. Some agreed that who you support is a reflection of your own values….which is why we vote in the first place, to make sure that our leaders reflect the majority. (I won’t get into the electoral college argument.)

Since then I have gained some distance from my initial anger and outrage at the voters in this country.  I have learned an incredible amount about the election system as well.  I have learned how to spot “privilege” speaking and on occasion quash it from my own lips. I have learned that the best way to fight despair and hopelessness is action; both in demonstrations of resistance such as joining marches and protests and making phone calls, and helping where needed as often as possible.

A year later, I have come to understand that my hurt was not reciprocated.  My disappointment in my friends and family and my despair over the loss of their affection was not felt by them. There have been no efforts to reconcile; not on my part, not on their part. No one has admitted regret at supporting Trump and his hateful, corrupt actions. Well, at least no one has admitted their regret to me.  So, ergo they still support him a year after the election day.  They support him even knowing his rhetoric is bad for this country.

As such, my sense of loss is lessened.  I have twinges of missing some of the people who removed themselves from my life. But then I turn on the news and it goes away. They are happy defending a man simply because they voted for him.  It’s like a clinical denial has taken over this country. Knowing that they voted for him,  they cannot admit that he is destroying the United States because it would be like admitting they are complicit. So they continue to argue that all would be well if someone would just do something about Hillary’s emails.

That day, the day after the election was as eye-opening as the day I discovered that 10-year-old children cannot hold themselves accountable for the death of their grandmother.  One year later I am even more determined to live my life according to my own core values. I will no longer entertain friends who values don’t align with mine and I will not be silently complicit when my friends do or say things that hurt others, including myself.

If you are reading this you may or may not be a friend of mine in the strict sense of the term.  You may be a fellow writer who follows my blog. You may be on my “friends list” on my FB account. You may be a reader looking through your friend’s FB page feed. You may be a related to me or a friend of someone in my family.  As such, this blog entry is not meant to say anything to anyone in particular other than that one year later, I am permanently changed.

I won’t be quiet. I won’t pretend. I won’t listen to anyone’s rhetoric without being able to respond; and if I am not allowed to respond, then I will remove myself from its source. I don’t wish ill will on anyone. I just want to be true to myself.

One year ago, I lost my mind and found my heart.

Siempre adelante.

Posted in Civic Duty, Family, Memories, Regret, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

It’s Official: The CIM That Isn’t For Me


Two days ago I officially requested a deferral of my CIM race entry until 2018.  It was a very difficult decision and one that took over two months to make.  I have been keeping my fingers crossed, praying, rehabilitating, denying, and ignoring my injury and its impact on me since it occurred at the 6.5-mile turnaround on a “long run Sunday” with my CIM training group.

After a glorious August filled with a half on Anacortes island in Washington State and the Bridge of the Gods run in Cascades Lock, Oregon I took on my training group run with not a care in the world.  My previous runs were not great, but uneventful, so when I decided to add a mile to the scheduled 12-miler I thought nothing of it.  At about mile 7 or so I took a step that sent pain shearing down my right leg.  I stopped to stretch and thought, I better take it easy.  A coach rode by and asked if I were doing ok.  I described my pain but told her I would continue on.

It’s funny, but just a few weeks earlier I told my friend, also a runner, that the pain study some of us enrolled into was doomed to be a failure.  I hypothesized that the study would be skewed by the mere fact that runners are trained and seek to be able to run through pain.  So asking people if they stopped running because of pain would be a moot point.  She agreed with me.

I continued to run, and with every step, I felt first my lower back and leg tighten, then ultimately, my middle back and right hip as I fought to return back to the starting location.  The coach rode with me and offered me her bike. I declined and stubbornly continued on at a snail’s pace. She noted I was sweating salt like crazy and wondered if perhaps my fueling and hydration was the culprit since my muscles seemed to be the problem.  I went home and straight to bed.

The next few days I could barely move. I couldn’t turn over or adjust my body position without involuntary gasps and moans.  I felt stupid and defeated. I have a history of back pain so I decided to try a Chiropractor. I received some adjustments and electrical stimulation which aligned the rest of my back (upper) and provided temporary relief of my discomfort.  However, when it didn’t seem to get better, I went in to see my doctor. I was provided with some muscle relaxers and a referral to an MRI and eventually a CT scan to rule out a fracture of the sacrum.  The tests were “negative’ but showed some pretty good swelling at the SI joints.

Ok.  I didn’t know anything about SI joints. I do now.

I made and kept an appointment with a Sports Doc who recommended I undergo a PRP procedure.  Platelet-rich plasma injections from my own blood would be administered directly into the joints at my lower back.  I can tell you that it felt like someone was forcing toothpaste into my back, and down my legs.  I am pretty pain tolerant as evidenced by my stupidly continuing to run when I should have been carried back. Well, this procedure was no fun at all. The goal of the procedure is to stimulate my own bodies response to the injury in such a fashion that recovery would be accelerated.  In my heart, I wanted to get back to running as soon as possible.

Now mind you, I couldn’t even get into my car without severe pain, but somehow I hoped I would still be able to run the 2017 CIM. I felt so sad, and that’s putting it mildly.

I follow the Fleet Feet CIM training group on Facebook. It is usually a source of camaraderie and a way to share our experiences. I felt myself being left behind. I have over the last three years made friends with people I met in training my first time around, in 2015. Now, I felt even more alone because I wanted to be with them as they talked about their increase in mileage, the changing weather, and their training progress.

Sometimes, and seemingly more often than in other years, people posted about their own injuries and frustrations.  I felt their pain and wondered if they were sad too.

I gave my Urban Cow Half marathon race bib to a lovely friend of mine so that it would not go to waste, and instead volunteered. By the end of the event, I could barely walk and spent the next couple days nursing my back.

Three weeks after the PRP procedure I enrolled and attended physical therapy at the same location where I was assessed and accepted into the pain study.  When I wobbled in and turned in my barely started chron they all sighed, knowing they had one less subject to follow.  The goal now is to stabilize the SI joints by strengthening my core muscles.

I love the people helping me get better.  They understand when I cry because I have terrible balance; balance I worked so hard to improve through three years of my yoga practice, a yoga practice I can no longer attend. They laugh with me when I break out in a heavy sweat after just a few squats and walk out on shaky legs.  They support my efforts and keep my hopes up that I might return to running if I just work hard enough.

I am planking, squatting, bridging, superman-ing, rubber banding, etc, etc.   I have to. My goal of running a half in each of the 50 States has been placed on hold after 18 states. Everything seems to have stopped. My routine is altered. The dog is getting fat. I’ve placed myself on a strict diet since I’m not exercising except for physical therapy sessions. Everything is screwy.

I am still sad. I’m a little scared. Imagine if someone told you to stop doing something that you not only love doing but makes you feel good because you do it. It’s a double whammy.

I miss my runs. I miss the meditation they brought to me.  I miss my friends. I miss the flopping ears of my dog when she ran with me. I miss it all, even the tired muscles and the stinky clothes. I miss it enough to do my best to get it back. Only this time, I won’t complain about planks, or Goddess pose, or getting up early, or that the dog pulls on the leash.

Sounds like I’m bargaining with God, doesn’t it? Well maybe, but mostly I’m putting all my faith in Him and asking, no demanding, that my faith is rewarded with results. Afterall, what else can I do? I’ve got a race in December 2018.

Thanks for listening.


Posted in Injury, Running | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

You Best Don’t call Jesus’ Butt


~This is the 8th blog entry chronicling my experience as a volunteer at a school for homeless children.  I will not identify the children by their given name and in general, I write of composite personalities so that I can best illustrate common experiences among the children without violating their confidentiality and as importantly, the trust of the people who allow me to volunteer at the school.  

This is a very late post as I have been busy with life and haven’t been able to find quiet time to reflect and write about these brilliantly funny and wise children.

Last month we were able to take the younger children (5-7 years old) to a hands on private play place. As usual, we loaded up a van and went on our merry way.

As anyone who has ever transported kids of any age anywhere knows, turn up the music and sit back.  It took all of about 5 minutes before their absolute favorite song in the world came on the radio and they were singing away…. in Spanish, a language they don’t speak.

Yep, you guessed it.  They were in love from beginning to end with the song of the summer, Despacito.  We watched through rear view mirrors and reverse facing iPhone cameras as the kids bopped, danced, yelled and clapped together.  I can’t find the words to tell you how it makes me feel when they are having so much fun. It’s literally the goal of the program to let these babies find worry free time in their little lives.

Eventually, their singing turned to discussions about their lives and situations.  they shared information on the hotels they have lived in, why they liked them, and who else from school (not in the van) also lives/d there.  They laughed and cracked jokes and poked fun at each other. It’s probably the most fun part of the trip, for the adults.

Given that it has taken me so long to write this, I have given this day more thought than normal.  In fact, school is back in session and because of a running injury, I am unable to volunteer quite yet. But as soon as I’m better you can count on me in one of those classrooms.

Anyway, as we are going back to the school, as often happens, kids have disagreements and arguments, usually much ado about nothing.  As we traveled, I heard a change in the tone of the discussion. I turned ever so slightly to see who was talking so assertively, and about what.  Just as I turned, one of the younger little girls’ eyes grew wide and she shot me a panicked look as she said, “Oh, teacher, she said something baaaadddd!”

Now I actually heard what was said, and mark my words, there was nothing inappropriate about it. Nevertheless, Mari was convinced that they not only were being rude, but they were insulting her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“They said, ‘You best don’t call Jesus’ buttttttt!!!!'” she yelled as she pointed at the offenders. 

The two girls in the seat furthest back stared at me, mouths agape waiting to see what I would say.  Then their mouths started to form their response as I started to understand what had occurred.

So much has happened in August in this country that I think yet again, that children are the only wise ones among us, true to their hearts.  The two girls were discussing Jesus, his teachings according to their parents, and how people forget to pay him respect and show deference. They were talking about instances when people were mean to each other.  They were in agreement that this is wrong.  One of the girls said, “My momma told me, ‘You best don’t call Jesus’ bluff!'”

My fellow chaperone and I laughed heartily as we explained to Mari what she misheard. She cracked a shy smile and dropped her shoulders and said, “Oh.” They all went back to singing.

These babies have more compassion and love in their little hearts than many of the grown ups in this country.  I’ll leave it at that.

Thanks for reading.

Posted in Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , ,

Bridges and Waterfalls. 

There’s something to be said about taking a chance on people and doing something new with them. 
I have been very busy the past few weeks and particularly the last two. I have been coordinating a huge home project, helping my daughter at her new home, traveling, running, training and trying to keep my own home somewhat clean. 

Thursday night in an effort to pretend I’m in control I stayed up until about 230 AM to wash, clean, pack, and prepare my home for out of town guests since I in fact wouldn’t be there. I am in Oregon for the Bridge of the Gods half marathon. 

This run is a make up run for “State Run” which proved a miserable time in Portland a year ago. It is also a bucket list run in that getting to run across this bridge will be awesome. 

I was already signed up when I realized that a couple of ladies I know from a runner’s training group would also be there. So I reached out, and we ended up traveling together for the race. 

Last night we agreed to meet at 6 AM to hike to see a few waterfalls.  I don’t recall what time we said goodnight, whether it was 4 PM or 6 PM but I retreated to my room and put on PJs. I don’t mind telling you I set my alarm and went straight to bed. 

This morning I awoke to a knock on my door at 622 AM!! I slept at minimum 12 hours and possibly as much as 14! 

I was shocked, embarrassed and annoyed with myself. I dressed as fast as I could and eventually off we went to breakfast and a wonderful hike. 

They ribbed me for being late; not something I want them to think about me on our first date. But oh well. 

We had a great time and laughed a lot. I’m so glad to have asked to join them and that I now have two more “real” friends that started off as Facebook pals. 

Let’s see what tomorrow’s race brings. For now, I need to set multiple alarms for an early wake up!  

Posted in Hiking, Running | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Through the Looking Glass

~This is the 7th blog entry chronicling my experience as a volunteer at a school for homeless children.  I will not identify the children by their given name and in general, I write of composite personalities so that I can best illustrate common experiences among the children without violating their confidentiality and as importantly, the trust of the people who allow me to volunteer at the school.  

I don’t normally volunteer on a Monday but since the preschool is short on assistance and seems to have more tiny tots lately, I went in on a day less likely to be fully staffed.  I arrived at the school knowing that I would work directly with the preschoolers and their very amazing summer school teacher.  Clear about the big picture, I resigned myself to being a silly referee over toys and perhaps, being a story time reader.  I fully expected to be hot, and uncomfortable supervising playground antics but I didn’t expect to get the emotional jolt I was given today.  Afterall, I have been volunteering for some time now, and well I guess I thought I was used to the reality of it all.

As I walked in, I recognized some of the more regular little faces.  Today there were also a set of twin blond-haired beauties, so close in looks, that I couldn’t tell them apart.  I looked over at Marvin. He dropped his gaze to the ground.  He said not one word.  In fact, I have never heard him speak.  I thought, “Today, he and I will be friends.”

After morning circle we were instructed that it was JOB TIME.  Everyone immediately grabbed a rug and a “job” and found a spot to sit and work.  My friend, Monique quickly grabbed a spot at the painting table.  She handed me a pick plastic bowl and while she opened up her water color palette said, “Can I have some water please?”  And “be careful,” she warned, “don’t spill it.”

Eventually, I got around to sitting next to another 3-year-old, only one with a lot less to say than Monique.  In fact, he had nothing to say.  He nodded in response to my questions and if I pressed, he averted his eyes and shrugged.  As we sat to play, he decided to grab a magnifying glass from the table at the rear of the room.  We took turns looking at the variety of rocks and glass marbles set out for a child’s exploration.  Marvin quickly separated all of the marbles and glass and focused on showing me the rocks.  We moved on to Lincoln Logs where to his delight he learned to stack the pieces expertly and created a building.  Of course, he does not know who Lincoln is nor has he an understanding of a log cabin, but he nevertheless maintained his focus until it was time to choose a book to read.

Marvin did not want to read.  He did not want to pretend to read.  He couldn’t decide on a book and pointed instead to the Lincoln Logs.  I spied with my little eye, the Brown Bear Book.  AHA!  I showed it to him and his eyes lit up.  We sat together and I probed, “Do you know this book?”  He smiled and nodded excitedly.  He opened to the first page.  He said, “BBBBBBB   BBBBBB Brown BBBBBB BBBBear.”  I realized he was very nervous and was stuttering. I literally bit my tongue and let him continue without my help or interruption.  He repeated the words.

He got to, ” I sssssee sseee seee a” and he turned the page.  “Bird!” he shouted.

I said, “red bird!” and he repeated, “rrrr rrrr red bbbbird!”  He continued reading.

I joined him and sing-songed the next page. “Red bird, red bird what do you see? I see a yellow duck looking at me!

He looked at me and repeated the rythmic lyric. And we were off.  He stopped stuttering and simply sang the book.  Some of his colors were off, but we corrected and moved forward. Marvin read the book three times until we heard the cleanup bells telling us it was time for a short recess.

Like Marvin and his rocks, and Monique and her care not to spill her water for painting, I too had to learn to look carefully and be extra gentle. I recalled the instruction on my first day of orientation when we were told that our role was to help the children be children, that’s all.

Marvin and Monique taught me that they know what they are doing, I just had to learn to let them tell me what they might need me for.  Anything above that was outside the scope of my magnifying glass and really more for me than for them; which is not why I volunteer.

A week later, I was greeted by a smiling Marvin. Guess which book he told me he wanted to read?

Thanks for reading.

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Who was the first man on the moon?

~This is the 6th blog entry chronicling my experience as a volunteer at a school for homeless children.  I will not identify the children by name and in general write of composite personalities so that I can best illustrate common experiences among the children without violating their confidentiality and as importantly, the trust of the people who allow me to volunteer at the school.  

The hot summer days in Sacramento have proven brutal this week.  Imagine if you will that you are homeless.  It’s difficult to find relief from the heat both during the day and the night.  If you’re lucky, your motel room has a good cooling system.  If you’re unlucky, you are living in a car or tent and it’s difficult to sleep at all.

The children at Mustard Seed were, as usual, treated to another field trip yesterday.  Having arrived just minutes after they left the school, I chased after them to arrive at the Discovery Museum.

As I walked up, the staff waved to me and I was assigned one child to monitor.  He looked at me and immediately started crying. Trying not to let my feelings get hurt, I asked him, “What’s the matter? Don’t you like me?”

He looked up at me with big tear filled brown eyes and said, “I wanted to go with Mr. Paul.” I know that what he was really saying is that he wanted to be with his best and closest buddy, Miguel.

I assured him that we would walk with Mr. Paul’s group and that it would be ok.

As we progressed through the museum the boys took turns playing a video game where their body movements controlled a salmon swimming upstream, navigating a series of obstacles. I was surprised at how cooperative they were with each other and how once they either completed the run or failed (eaten by a bear) they simply stepped aside and allowed the other his or her turn.  There was no whining or requests to do over.  They had a great time and this pattern of cooperation transferred to other games as well.

The group learned to create healthy balanced meals, measure their heart rates, view X-rays of broken bones, play doctor, balance on a timed disk so that they, in fact, were in competition with each other. There was only one instance of upset.

James grew tired of watching Miguel playing with a stethoscope and demanding he turn it over to him.  Miguel kept saying, “But I’m still playing with it. I got it first.” James persisted until Miguel having had quite enough, pulled the earpieces off his head and looking directly into James’ eyes said, “Look, I am still using this. I’m not ready to give it to you. It’s my turn. You need to stop yelling at me. It’s not nice and you need to stop!”

James is used to being the more aggressive of the two so Miguel’s statement stopped him in his tracks.   I fully expected whining, tears or a plea from James.  Instead, he said ok and went on to a different activity. Yay for Miguel! Yay, I didn’t have to intervene!

Eventually, we instructed all of the children to try to go to the bathroom because the next phase of the trip would be in the planetarium where no one would be allowed to leave or enter once the presentation started.  The children understood that this rule is based on the need for participants’ eyes to adjust to the darkness and that opening the door would hinder the process.

Once inside the wonderfully cool room (it was about 104 outside where we were waiting in line), I was a very impressed at the amount of knowledge many of the kids had about space.  They were eager participants in the discussion about planets, stars, asteroids, comets, etc.   As the lights were dimmed to darkness in incremental stages to allow our eyes to adjust I heard heavy breathing. Only three minutes had passed since the lights went to the red stage so I thought someone was pretending to sleep.

As the presentation continued, the heaving breathing turned into outright snoring. I turned to see who was making the noise and saw a 6 or 7-year-old little girl, head relaxed backward in her seat, sound asleep.

When I first started volunteering I was reminded that sometimes kids come to school to sleep. We make them comfortable and don’t wake them because sleep and rest are a priority. So it was with this darling little girl. She slept in the cool, dark room.

The presenter continued without flinching. She expertly engaged all of the children by asking them to count down with her as she changed lighting, or moved to a powerpoint video in the dark. She asked them to point to N, W, E, and S, on the dome so that they could orient themselves to the night sky as it would be last night, on the summer solstice. The children were fully engaged and enjoyed the praise she showered on those naming planets or providing correct answers to a variety of questions she posed.

She transitioned from planets to a discussion of our moon. She asked, “can anyone tell me the name of the first man on the moon?”

From the darkness, a small voice said confidently, “Jason Bourne.”

The adult chaperones snickered.  The child was referring to Matt Damon, from his role in 2015 film, The Martian, but got his name wrong.

The presenter kept talking, then as if she finally got the reference, she started to laugh. She couldn’t regain her composure for a couple minutes. We all laughed, but now because she couldn’t help herself.  It was a silly, special moment. A moment that caused our sleeping child to wake and stop snoring. Everyone was present, engaged, and carefree for a little while.

I would say, mission accomplished!

Thanks for reading.

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Parks Make Life Better

parks matter

~This is the fifth blog entry chronicling my experience as a volunteer at a school for homeless children.  I will not identify the children by name and in general write of composite personalities so that I can best illustrate common experiences among the children without violating their confidentiality and as importantly, the trust of the people who allow me to volunteer at the school.  

Summer has arrived and with it, summer school.  Only this is different.  There are no teachers….just the managers of the summer program.  This can only mean one thing.  Nothing to worry about folks….just fun stuff.

I missed my first volunteer opportunity because I was sick so I didn’t know what to expect yesterday. As I arrived at the school playground, I was met with a bright smile and the happy word, “HOLA!”  There he was, my ready-to-learn-Spanish-pal.  We shook hands, said good morning and went directly to the basketball court.  Really, it’s just a basketball hoop between the play structure and the building where all the playground equipment is kept, but it provides for some of the loudest laughter and deepest discussions nonetheless.

We played until the ‘bell rang’ and off we went, all twenty of us, into the largest classroom.  We went over the prerequisite ritual of voicing the day and date then introducing ourselves by name and favorite animal.  After playing games, eating snacks, playing ping pong and eating lunch, the kids were provided with swimsuits and flip-flops and loaded into vans for a trip to a splash pad at a nearby park.

Upon arrival, kids were sprayed down with sunblock and reminded of the rules. As I stood and watched the youngest and bravest of the kids bolt onto the pad, and into the fountain streams screaming their surprise at the water’s temperature, I was joined by one of our three teens.  James (my ping-pong partner) walked up to me and said, “So. Do you think that parks make life better?   I turned and looked at him.  He smiled widely.

I said, actually, I do.  Parks help people relax and have fun.  Why do you ask?

He pointed to banners on poles around the splash pad.  The banners said, “Parks make life better.” He turned to join the other boys who just discovered the water cannons.

We spent a total of about 2 hours at the park.  We played on the playground equipment, in the water, with frisbees and a whiffle ball. They had a grand time. One of the boys yelled out, “This is the best day ever!”

Twenty children had a wonderful time. Teens gave in to their inner little kid and played like they used to. The littler ones found thrills in unexpected buckets of water pouring down on them.  The girls flaunted their new swimsuits with ruffles. A couple of the children found great delight the false protests of volunteers being threatened with their cold, wet hugs.

It had been only two hours, but no one complained when it was time to go back to school. They had played themselves into a calm exhaustion and were ready to go.

Knowing it is sometimes hard to sleep at night when you don’t feel completely safe, I hoped that this good, tired feeling would continue to help them relax through the rest of the day and into their night.  I hoped that their little spirits were renewed and that they would look forward to their next day at summer school. I hoped that there will be more trips to parks this summer.

And… I thought, yes, James, parks make lives better.

Thanks for reading.

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