Seeds in February: the Color of Love

Oh the irony that Valentine’s day falls deep in the heart of winter, especially when we are – as this year would have it – without bright snow to reflect the blue sky.   No, this year in Massachusetts, all is brown and gray.

And yet…amidst the many earth hues, small surprise bursts of the-Color-of-Love abound. Such as winterberry:
red bush 1

And Barberry:

red bush 3

Good ‘ol Holly:

Holy

These brave little berries shout out in brilliant bravado against the grays and browns “To hell with drabness! Birds, eat me! Eyes, admire me!”

And so, I have taken another cue from nature with my Valentine Collection.  I have placed my favorite burnt red saga seed in hearts of silver.

Wide 1

Wide 4

Wide 3

wide 2

Remember it is possible to find small seeds of love even in the brown and seemingly dreary days of February.

 

 

plum jam

Plum Jam and the Harder Parts of Love

The following essay has just been published in the beautiful new anthology filled with courageous women’s words and stories:

Writing Fire: An Anthology Celebrating the Power of Women’s Words

***

You see, some mothers are meant to die. Other peoples’ mothers. But not mine.

When we were young, my mother gave my sister and me a book.   It was called ‘My Mother is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.’ It was Yugoslavian, I think. The mother in the book was ruddy-faced and plumpish in colorful gypsy garb as was her round-cheeked daughter.   My mom and I bear no similarities to the women in the book, but the title has swum in my mind all these years.

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My mother is not meant to die. She is not supposed to become an idea, a character in a book. This is my fifth draft of this piece of writing, and with every draft I have gotten closer to this statement

Because, my mother is real. She is alive; she is flesh and blood. She is here, now, at the end of the phone, answering with her particular and ready ‘Hello.’   She is helping me make plum jam in my kitchen, shocking me with how much sugar is required.

plum jam

She is showing up at my house with a dozen eggs from her chickens, some daffodils, an article clipped from the New York Times. We chat in an as-long-as-I-can-remember-it rhythm – ‘catching up’ – a kind of half-trot, clipping over this and that. I slow us down, wanting to plunge. She moves us forward, towards something ahead. Sometimes, we hit our stride, and it is as it has always been – like running parallel, because we are so similar, and diverging again, because we are so different – and this too is as real as anything I know.   I know her dread of boredom, her need for an agenda, her fear of storms, her weakness with numbers. We laugh about these things, despair sometimes – about the numbers thing – because I’m the same, and why do some things just refuse to stay in our minds? I am awed, frustrated by, in love with her equanimity.  I depend on it when I am sick and need reminding that I will not die from the flu, or when the prospect of global warming becomes too overwhelming, or when I have to ask if it is too early to plant cucumbers, or how, again, do I cook chicken Marbella? It is there in the taste of her apple sauce, the poof of her floral duvet, the veined back of her hands, her stooped figure in the garden, the valentines I find every February in my mailbox: “Secret Admirer” or ‘Will You be Mine?” they say.

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You see, mom, your Valentine is supposed to come next year, and the year after, and every year forever more. You are supposed to be here as you have always been, forever listening as I complain about my cramps from riding horseback, from menstruation, from falling in love, from childbirth, from menopause, from old age.

Oh but I know. I know it does not work that way. I know in fact that you are meant to die, some day, as am I. And that this fear of losing you is mine to mother, to witness, and to calm – not yours. I must hold its hand, remind it that this is just the way of things, settle it softly in the place where the harder parts of love reside.

What do you think mom? Shall we take that drive up to the Clark, have lunch and discuss this draft, and the next, and the next? Or shall we look at paintings, exhale at the pinkness in the trees, fall into our old-as-my-life half-trot rhythm? Shall we stay in today, this day, in this easier part of love that is, still, not yet over.

Little Rafa has just had a swim.  She wears the Leaf Necklace.
Her proud grandmother wears the new Nesting Bowl set.

Mother’s Day. Islamophobia.

My family is, at this moment, living for a short time in Bali, celebrating my husband’s culture, enjoying the community we built here long ago. We have Balinese friends, Javanese friends, Dutch, American, and Australian friends here.

Along comes mother’s day and I decide I want to take pictures of two women I see often -one Balinese, one Javanese -with their delicious irresistible daughters, and to use those photos in a newsletter for Anni Maliki. So I make an appointment and go to their houses. The Balinese grandmother stands with her granddaughter in her arms. I adorn them with Anni Maliki jewelry. I snap some pics. Perfect!

Little Rafa has just had a swim.  She wears the Leaf Necklace. Her proud grandmother wears the new Nesting Bowl set.

Little Rafa has just had a swim. She wears the Leaf Necklace.
Her proud grandmother wears the new Nesting Bowl set.

I then stop by the home of my Javanese friend. She, like all my female Indonesian friends, happens to be beautiful, and I hold out some Anni Maliki jewelry for her to wear in the picture.   She stops, furrows her brow and says ‘Oh, but I need to wear my headscarf for a photograph.” I’m thrown off. I hadn’t thought of this. I rarely see her in her headscarf because we usually meet at her home. This hadn’t been part of my plan, but I do not want to be insensitive, so I tell her it is no problem, and I take the pictures of her with her gorgeous daughter Shakira.

Lucky little Shakira, wearing the Moon Necklace, sits in her mom Rini’s lap.

Lucky little Shakira, wearing the Moon Necklace,
sits in her mom Rini’s lap.

Afterwards, I go home, download the photos and choose the two I will use in my newsletter. I send them off to my trusty, business-savvy friend for her input. She responds:

Here is my candid opinion – I think the images of the mothers and kids – albeit very cute and loving – might be saved for your blog. Given the Islamophobic climate in this country, I am concerned that these images (especially the one with the lovely mother in her headscarf) might detract from the quality/design of your Mothers Day Collection.  Isn’t that a sad reflection?   It is not clear where your customer base sits in terms of their cultural biases? We don’t have that information clearly.  As a young company trying to establish itself, this email may become sadly provocative.

I sit back and sigh. I put on my small-business-owner hat. Yes, I think, she is right. I remove those photos from my newsletter and fire it off.

Now, after hitting SEND, I am struck that we are living in a time that has, perhaps, frightening similarities to those early days of the Holocaust – when a silent insidious message of anti-Semitism was present in such small, seemingly innocuous decisions as the one I just made.   Is it unwise to advertise my affiliation with this group? Is it too risky? Who might I alienate?

And so, as my friend suggested, I am taking a moment to write this blog and to clarify a fact for those who may not know. Indonesia has a Muslim population of 205 million people – the largest of any country in the world. But this is a tolerant Islam that was brought to Indonesia’s shores not by the sword, but by sea and fused over centuries with the deeply held beliefs of Animism, Hinduism and Budhism that preceded it. The Indonesian Muslim is overwhelmingly tolerant, pluralistic and non-violent.

My husband is Muslim. And for years I feared his family would require that I convert, which I would not have been willing to do. I feared the conflict this might cause with his family and between us. But this conflict never came to pass. In fact, I would say that my husband’s Javanese Muslim family is by far more tolerant than many ‘liberal’ Americans I know.

In my own small way, I write this piece to say – remember to take care to differentiate between the countries in the vast diaspora that claims itself to be Islamic.

Remember that mothers are mothers, regardless of whether or not they wear a headscarf.

The Filtering Mango Tree

Below is a recent essay I wrote about the time when I was 24 and working as a volunteer in East Java.  I am now in Bali, which has stirred many memories of that time.

garden

By the time I’d decided to rent the house, the kid who’d shown it to me had picked every mango from ‘my’ tree and wedged them between the spokes of his bicycle so that his wheels were a whirr of green when he rode off. I resented that theft, but such was the way of it. Nothing was really mine, except when I shut and locked my door, which no one else did unless they were sleeping. Still, that mango tree pretended to filter the excess of passers-by seeking to “practice my English.” It shaded the door and a small patch of grass as big as its widest branch, under which came, undeterred, the woman in the tight sarong with the basket of bottles on her back – liquid turmeric, cumin, greater galangal and bitter ginger – which she poured into a little glass and handed my way, promising it would help with my dysentery, when really it just brought on another bought.

To that same spot came the she-man with her red lips and orange heels, her thick ankles and 3 string-guitar on which she played the same dissonant Javanese song, day after day, in her baritone, waiting for me to hand her a 100 rupiah nickel coin that equaled 3 cents. Past that tree, my students slapped their way down the path and scattered their red, green and yellow rubber flip flops outside my screen door – a door they marveled at for its novelty. In this city, people killed mosquitos with ‘Bygone’ – a dark green coil that lurked snake-like beneath every bed and table and was lit at dusk to exhale into bedrooms and kitchens their tendrils of pesticide smoke. My students had never known mosquito screen, or dental floss, or night lights, or chewing gum, but they knew how to sing Indonesian pop songs by the hour, smoke cigarettes and seed their guttural Javanese with distorted English idioms like “A silver lining for every cloud,” and ‘Respond your challenge right on the nose.’

In the evenings, the saccades roared a fertility chant over a background canvas of the river’s rush. Then the rain – winner of sounds – hammered down, out-rushing all else, and ensuring me, for a moment, a rare and brief privacy. The night stretched on to the thrum of tropical frogs, punctuated by the occasional honk of a gecko, until morning came, dragged up by the sun from the river gorge, announcing itself with the rooster’s grainy crow. My neighbors’ birds, perched in their bamboo cages along the veranda, sang out a symphony to the day, seeming to defy their owner’s mundane, finger-snapping pretense that he had anything to do with their joy.

During Ramadan, I breakfasted in the dark at my neighbors’ house, before the birds awoke. We ate in silence, pressing rice and chicken, tempeh and steamed spinach into balls and feeding ourselves with our fingers, intent in the knowing that this would be it until dusk. From there, the day unfolded, pleat after slow pleat through the thick of ten, the slur of twelve, the ache of three – until finally dusk came and we broke fast with a glass of young coconut water and floating tapioca. My neighbor’s son pressed play on a boom box, sending tabla beats pulsing through the air and co-mingling with sultry lyrics in Arabic.

Afternoons – the mosquito-less time – came sluggish and heavy, the street dusty-quiet. My neighbors retreated inside and closed their doors, surrendering their curiosity to their need for a nap. The birds grew silent and droopy on their bamboo perches. Sometimes, my black-haired flat-nosed boyfriend profited from this quietude to visit, parking his man-cycle under my mango tree and coming inside, leaving my front door open, screen door latched from inside – our little trick to help my neighbors to turn the other cheek in case they looked, because they wanted to, because they liked us.

anni and mel

My ‘student’ Mel, now my husband.