it’s morning in Fes

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Written on March 21st

I am perched in a sunny, open window writing and sipping rich coffee that was delivered to our hotel room doorstep in a thermos with two mugs. I hear sounds of early morning in Fes, though all I can see from the window is the interior of the medina’s wall.  So I crane my neck to find a sliver of the street below.

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We arrived in Casablanca and took a train to Fes last night. On the commuter train from the airport to the Casablanca train station, we met an elderly man in a pilot uniform with an impressive moustache, who Mimi took an immediate liking to. She made faces at him, and he made faces back. He put his fingertips to his lips and blew her a kiss while saying “God bless,” a culturally appropriate thing to do, and Mimi responded by blowing him a kiss back, which he thought was the funniest thing. After a few rounds of peek-a-boo, the pilot asked Sheikh in Arabic how old she was. He was pleased to find out we were American and immediately told us how much he loved the American people. The people, he said again, pointing his index finger in the air for emphasis. I acknowledged his meaning and my own distaste for our current leader.

The pilot was from Saudi Arabia and was married to a Moroccan woman. He had traveled all over the world and said that his favorite people were Americans. He had been back to the States many times since his first visit in 1976, and had been on road trips from New York to Florida and from LA to Canada. But after 9/11, he said, it became much more difficult to get a visa as a Saudi Arabian citizen, even though he was a pilot and even though Saudi Arabia had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks. The pilot said he believed he only got his visa because his wife was Moroccan. Our train lurched to a halt at the station, and we had to abruptly end our conversation with the pilot. Sheikh and I both regretted that we weren’t able to talk to him more. We said goodbye and got one more “God bless.”

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A man with a shiny black Mercedes came to pick us up, dropped us at the edge of the medina, the largest pedestrian-only area in the world, and a porter walked us the rest of the way. We are staying in a riad, a building with beautifully tiled rooms surrounding a central seating area and fluidly connecting with the intimate, beautiful outdoor spaces: a terrace off of a library only steps from our room and a garden café with hanging rose vines and a large hammered metal plate where they made a fire every afternoon and kept it burning into the night.

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When we arrived, Sheikh and I had mezze platters for dinner full of tahini dips and salads with beets and tomatoes and baba ganoush and chapatti – a flavor profile I could indulge in forever. We chatted with the manager about Moroccan culture while Mimi happily and methodically moved broken tiles from one flower pot to another.   We bathed Mimi and put her to bed in the duvet-lined hotel-provided crib, plucked some books from the library shelves, had a drink on the balcony while we read more about our surroundings, and planned the next day’s activities.

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On the plane ride over, when Mimi was especially cozy on my lap, we looked out the window together at the cerulean Atlantic Ocean below and I told her that we were going to Morocco, that I had always dreamed of going, and that I couldn’t wait to share the experience with her. Sitting with my coffee this morning, listening to her and Sheikh sleep, writing in a window with sounds of children playing in the medina below, I feel an overwhelming peace that comes with getting away for a while.

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privilege and parenting when people in Syria die of sarin

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Mimi,

As a person who tends to see the world with optimism and empathy, I have long struggled with how to approach the immense, persistent darkness and uncertainty that exists outside of our lives. It is our responsibility to know from travel and news and books that other people experience these harms daily. This is especially the case in war-torn areas, where sudden death and violence become a way of life.

I remember when I traveled with your Auntie Ti to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a tour guide in Sarajevo not much older than us described getting water for his family as a kid during the war there in the early nineties. He had to run a zig-zag pattern to the water source and occasionally heard a sniper’s bullet whiz by him. Even at that time, over a decade before I became your mom, I thought about what that man’s parents must have felt at the near constant threat of losing their child to the war.

The morning of April 4, the people of Khan Sheikhoun in northwest Syria experienced an airstrike exposing hundreds to sarin, a banned chemical substance that left 72 people dead with the death toll likely to rise. Parents lost children, young and grown, and partners and friends lost each other. All at the hands of a government comfortable unleashing chemical warfare on its citizens in violation of humanitarian law but with no recourse from foreign governments, including our own.

You will not have exposure to news like this for a long time. Your dad and I have the privilege of protecting you from harm as best we can and following the common Western parenting advice that kids should avoid violent media until at least age six, and then only in small doses. But other parents do not have that privilege and you have age peers who have already been exposed to the type of violence most Americans only see in movies or on the news.

That discrepancy shapes people and paths and lives. Yet I know that perhaps especially where it is most difficult, parents often do what they believe is best for their children. As I watch from the safe perch of thousands of miles away Syrian parents boarding boats, leaving their belongings and wealth, being split apart, considered lucky if they arrive to the cold greeting of countries reluctant to accept them, I think of this poem and this image and these words from a brave little girl (if you haven’t read through Bana Alabed’s tweets, now is the time). And I wonder what I would do as your mom, what level of strength I would muster, what I would tell you, were we to experience such extreme harm.

While I hope I can do everything in my power to protect you from every kind of exposure to violence for a long time, there are steps I can take with you now so that you have perspective later. Never has it been more important to sit down together after daycare and call our senators about issues that shape your future. Never has it been more important to teach you kindness and empathy. Never has it been more important to teach you about bodily integrity and autonomy and the importance of individual life. Never has it been more important to help you understand the Catholic and Muslim faith traditions you come from. As you grow and have questions about how the world works, never has it been more important to answer you respectfully and honestly.

Your Mom

family adventuring: Lisbon

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Sheikh and I each loved to travel when we met – he had just gotten back from a year in Patagonia and I had lived in Ukraine only two years earlier while volunteering with the Peace Corps. After I finished law school, we spent nine months living in Delhi for his job, learning how to travel together to places I had always dreamed of going: Kathmandu, Mumbai, Rajasthan. We honeymooned in Athens and Santorini six months later.

Our experiences getting tea from a particular chaiwalla in Varanasi or sharing French wine and baguette in Jardins de Luxembourg or getting sick after reaching Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayas are memories woven into the fabric of our relationship. Part of our contract is that we will continue to build those memories together. And that we would continue to do so when we had a baby.

And so, Mimi in tow, we took advantage of cheap tickets and some work travel Sheikh has in Germany and flew to Lisbon for the first leg of our family adventure overseas. While the flight wasn’t perfect – halfway through the flight Mimi vomited while nursing so you can imagine the mess and hours of residual stench – we had it way easier than the brave couple traveling with six (yes, SIX) young children. Mimi made lots of friends and we read her “My First Words” book and so that she could point out the cats and dogs and buses and make all the corresponding noises, and she even slept for a couple of hours. We arrived at our Airbnb, climbing the five stories just in time to soak in the view of Lisbon’s rooftops and the river before the sun went down.

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In Lisbon Sheikh and I fell into old travel habits that we soon discovered would require some adjustments to accommodate Mimi’s naptime, bedtime, and jet-lagged wakefulness between the hours of midnight and four a.m. We began with one or two modest goals for the day – see Sao Jorge Castle or eat a traditional Portugese seafood meal – and then we would find coffee and wander and eventually reach our destination. As we navigated the narrow cobblestone streets Mimi pointed at the dogs and trams from her stroller as Sheikh and I marveled at the tile work on nearly every residential building exterior and practiced a lilting “bom dia” as we passed a friendly face. We frequently got Mimi out of her stroller to climb the steps to a cathedral or to chase pigeons in one of many sprawling, quiet city squares. We enjoyed a family espresso date at a café-kiosk full of hip Lisbon couples. This travel-while-parenting thing is definitely for us.

But when Mimi started to show signs of complete exhaustion, it would take hours to get her to sleep. Sheikh and I had decided that we were going to have her nap in her stroller so that we could have some time in the city together while she slept. Our dates café-sitting while Mimi slept in the fresh air proved worth the effort, but not before hours of strolling and bouncing and one particularly desperate moment nursing her on a random stoop.

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The most important things are to have realistic expectations and to be flexible. One night illustrated this perfectly. Mimi had napped late and was in her characteristic high spirits, so we decided to go out for an early family dinner at a market across town and have that Lisbon seafood experience. After hopping out of the cab, we were wandering over to a cathedral to take a look before eating, and I realized Mimi was missing a shoe. Keeping this active toddler in our arms all night was not an option, but as she played (sweetly, happily) in the cathedral square in her socks, it soon became apparent that we needed to get her some proper footwear. So we asked around and fortunately we just so happened to be in a district with lots of kids shops. Unfortunately, we did not find one that carried shoes for another hour. And the shoes we got her were the only pair in the store in her size: white Converse sneakers. When we got back to the market to eat, it was closed.

Hungry and disappointed and feeling the stark contrast between traveling as a couple and traveling with a toddler, I took Mimi back to the cathedral square to run around in her new kicks while Sheikh looked up another place for us to eat.

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A boy about three and his father were kicking a soccer ball impressive distances under the lights in the square, and when I put Mimi down she stopped and stared at them for a minute. She reached for my hand and walked closer, stopping to watch, and then got closer again. The little boy, sweet-faced with a mop of dark curls, stopped and noticed her, walked up to her with the ball and handed it to her. Mimi took it, held it, dropped it, and in quick Portugese the boy explained that she needed to kick the ball, miming the motion. He gave the ball back for her to try. I exchanged an “isn’t this sweet” smile with his dad, and then with several relatives spanning at least three generations I saw were also watching on the sidelines. Mimi tried to kick the ball, it rolled a short distance, and she picked it back up. She stared at the boy who instructed her to drop it and kick it.

She held it until I went over and asked her to let go. The boy kicked the ball to his dad and then looked back at Mimi, who was then in my arms. “Obrigado” I said to the boy and his family. Thank you, and “tchao!” Then Mimi waved to the boy and smiled and the boy, pleased, smiled and waved back. I kissed Mimi’s forehead as we left, quietly thankful for the reminder that for all of the change she has ushered into our lives, she certainly brings me immense amounts of joy.  Sometimes when I least expect it.

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Poems on International Women’s Day

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Dear Mimi,

Poetry has immense power as we read it aloud, let it stray in our mind, hold on to a metaphor or a word or the entire piece.  In honor of feminist solidarity, here are a few written by women, for women.

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Be Nobody’s Darling
by Alice Walker
“Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.
Watch the people succumb
To madness
With ample cheer;
Let them look askance at you
And you askance reply.
Be an outcast;
Be pleased to walk alone
(Uncool)
Or line the crowded
River beds
With other impetuous
Fools.

Make a merry gathering
On the bank
Where thousands perished
For brave hurt words
They said.

But be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Qualified to live
Among your dead.”

The Journey
by Mary Oliver

“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.”

Happy Birthday, Mom!

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Today my mom turns 60.  She approaches this milestone age, one where many attempt to redefine who they are and question things they previously hadn’t, with grace and confidence in where she is and unafraid of what lies ahead.

As we come of age we spend so much energy defining ourselves as individuals in an attempt to discover our own truths.  In adulthood, as we become closer to knowing ourselves, we have a clearer view of the forces that have gotten us to where we are and a deeper gratitude for them.  My mom is one such force in my life.

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Here are just a few things I love about her:

I can’t think of anything my mom hasn’t accomplished when she’s decided it was important.  During the 80’s when our family lived in Tokyo, my mom took my sister and I – two toddlers – all over the city.  She started groups and taught a workout class at the Tokyo American Club and entertained with my dad and exposed us to botanical gardens and temples and cemetaries during cherry blossom season.  I remember helping her pass out rice cakes to homeless people living in the subway.  Back in the States, she decided to get her teacher’s certification and excelled in a top-rated program.  As a second grade teacher she raises ducklings with her students and has them put on a play about a fictional child who escaped American slavery.  She spearheaded a district-wide creative writing program and mentored the school’s student council.   She has been active in political campains and PTA and Junior Garden Club and charity work and historic commissions, engaging in her surroundings and getting things done.


Mom is artful at making people feel special.  I grew up with parties and homemade cakes and thoughtful presents on birthdays, and lots of mother-daughter dates no matter the occasion.   She has made a point to visit every place I’ve ever lived for the purpose of learning about my life and pampering me.  This includes trips to rural Ukraine (with Dad) and to tight quarters in Brooklyn (several times).  She talks with people in elevators and on airplanes, engaging people in a way that makes them confortable sharing their life’s histories.  She remembers details and writes handwritten notes.  She hugs easily and compliments quickly.

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She is an awesome Grammy to Mimi.  One recent source of joy is watching my parents become grandparents.  As a grandma, my mom is playful and creative and open-minded.  She was one of the few people to get consistent smiles from Mimi, who loves her Grammy and spontaneously kisses the phone when we Facetime.

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Mom values quality experiences with those she loves and creates traditions that encourage relationship-building.  As a kid her and my dad would take us on “mystery trips” — adventures that included trips to a ball game or a musical or even Disney Land.  Mom always created a sense of importance around our togetherness, whether we were making weekend breakfasts at the cottage or hosting Christmas Eve dinners or taking our anual road trip to Panama City Beach for a family spring break.

Mom and my dad have been in love for nearly four decades.  While her life and his are inextricably linked, she is decidedly her own, very strong-willed, very opinionated person.  Which I almost always love about her.

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She beautifies spaces and appreciates beauty.  She notoriously adds flowers to hotel rooms.  Homecoming after a long flight often includes candlelight and hors d’oeuvres and a fire in the fireplace.  She just designed and decorated a cottage that is straight out of a home design blog.  She loves gorgeous views and historic buildings and beautiful cities.

She asks for what she wants.  A table by the window.  Emotional presence.  Time with her granddaughter.

She seeks adventure and has talked at times of moving to a (well-appointed) mud hut in a temperate climate or to an Airstream on the open road (good luck, Dad!).  She is a wonderful travel partner and we have had lots of memorable trips together to Chicago when I was 13, to Paris ten years ago, to Boston and Martha’s Vineyard, to Whidbey Island.

Mom is curious.  She loves stories and history and music and theater and books and travel.

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In the coming decades I expect Mom will face decisions and change that come with age.  I know that she will embrace this change with the same positive spirit that has always driven her and that has allowed her to build strong relationships, have fun, and stay true to who she is.

I love you, Mom.  Happy 60th!

 

 

 

Persist.

Dear Mimi,

You have this book that you like, Rad American Women A-Z, that introduces you to women who found a place in history:  “A is for Angela Davis,” and so on.  We can learn so much from other people’s struggles and triumphs, ones that may directly speak to our own journey or ones we may never know.   In the tradition of looking to strong women for inspiration, I want to share with you on this blog stories of women who lead.

Last week, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren opposed Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination to U.S. Attorney General on the senate floor.  Warren is smart with a humble background and a career devoted to supporting middle- and low-income Americans.  She founded the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  She reminds us that our social contract requires that when we accumulate wealth, we “pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Sessions, however, has been a loyal Trump supporter, is skeptical about climate change, and has a racist track record that prevented his confirmation to the federal bench in 1986.   He is staunchly anti-immigrant, with the Southern Poverty Law Center opposing his AG nomination because “Senator Sessions not only has been a leading opponent of sensible, comprehensive immigration reform, he has associated with anti-immigrant groups we consider to be deeply racist.”

It was Sessions’ racist record that Warren confronted last Tuesday on the Senate floor, indicting Sessions with a letter written by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s widow Coretta Scott King opposing his bench confirmation thirty years ago.   King wrote, “Civil rights leaders . . . have fought long and hard to achieve free and unfettered access to the ballot box.  Mr. Sessions has used the awsome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.  This simply cannot be allowed to happen.  Mr. Sessions’ conduct as U.S. Attorney, from his politically motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights laws, indicates that he lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge.”

But before Warren could finish reading King’s letter, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell invoked a Senate rule, claiming that she improperly impugned the character of fellow senator Sessions.  McConnell explained his selective muzzling of Warren in neutral terms, “She was warned.  She was given an explanation.  Nevertheless, she persisted.”

In response, Warren stepped outside the Senate door and read King’s letter on Facebook to six million viewers while the debate continued without her.  The Senate later confirmed Sessions.  Warren voted no.

I want you to know about this moment in history, Mimi.  This was a moment when Warren showed her leadership, her resilience.  She gave a voice to King’s words, a white woman using her privilege and position to elevate the writings of a black female civil rights leader.  She was measured and strategic and creative, using McConnell’s power play to her advantage.  She was true to her values, pursuing her criticism of Sessions not necessarily because she thought she could block his confirmation, but because it was her duty to try to stop an overtly racist man from holding the position of our nation’s top attorney.  And finally, she persisted despite being punished for, well, persisting.  One day we will stop using the very compelling hashtag #neverthelessshepersisted.  I want you to remember to persist when you know that what you are fighting for is true to your beliefs and benefits the greater good.  Persist.

Love,

Mom

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on the road: Montana

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There is nothing like processing a really difficult news cycle to make me dream of lighter days.

This past fall our family of three took an impromptu road trip from Seattle to Montana.  Mimi was ten months old, and we were ready for a family adventure.  We packed up the car and hit the road, relieved to arrive in Missoula twelve hours later (we stopped many, many times to attend to baby needs).  All the elements of a true adventure were present – new landscapes, sweeping beauty, a certain level of risk, lots of good conversation and delicious food, and the ability to be spontaneous.  That we got to share it with Mimi made the experience that much richer.

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Missoula is my kind of town, with its mountain views, historic buildings, good coffee, delicious-but-no-fuss food, locally owned boutiques and shops, a weekend farmer’s market, riverside trails, and a state university.  The school gives the city a liberal vibe, a welcome change after all of the conservative political signs peppering the open expanses east of Seattle – not the most welcoming to this multiracial family.

Missoula was full of exceptionally nice people.  We met up with friends who insisted on treating us to brunch and who offered to babysit Mimi for us, though they had just moved houses that week (we did not take them up on this).  Our Airbnb host left Mimi puzzles and gifted her a hat and adorable Smartwool socks.  We loved the crew of bakers and baristas at the French bakery across the street from our place.  And the woman who owned this knitting shop made Mimi some mittens on the fly so she’d be warm on our camping trip.

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We then drove to Glacier National Park to hit the trails, where one in three people we passed joked about how easy Mimi had it, limbs dangling from the backpack carrier (we borrowed something like this and recommend it).  We stayed in a “kabin” at the Kampground of America, where we caught the end-of-season retirees who had hitched up their rigs for the week.  And on our first night in Glacier we watched the sun set at Lake McDonald, a stunning welcome.

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Our favorite hike was to Virginia Falls.  We started from the park’s west entrance early in the morning, stopping at Lake McDonald to rent bear spray.  We drove on Going to the Sun Road for two hours, winding up into the mountains and getting some incredible views of the valleys and the ever-receding glaciers.  From the trailhead we hiked into rich forest, bumping into a fawn on the trail and passing the double cascade of St. Mary Falls.

We hiked another half mile and emerged from forest’s cover at Virginia Falls, a gorgeous 50-foot cascade not visible until you are standing at its base.  Only one couple was there, and after we exchanged greetings and took photos for each other, we had the place to ourselves.  Mimi giggled at the refreshing spray on her face, and Sheikh and I marveled at the peace created by the waterfall’s raging descent.  (Great information about all hikes in Glacier, including Virginia Falls, is here.)

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Despite the immense beauty we had already seen, we experienced the most impressive landscapes from the car on the drive back to Missoula.  We took a spontaneous detour onto 28, cutting west and then south to drive through endless expanses of prairie as we crossed the Flathead Reservation.  The midday sun created miles and miles and miles of golden landscape, highlighted by its shadowy contours and the beautiful, big, open sky.  I had never seen anything like it.  We found a lovely play structure for Mimi in Hot Springs, where we stretched and snacked and did not look for hot springs.

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A little research about our surroundings revealed that we were not far from the National Bison Range, which boasted bison, antelope, deer, ramhorn sheep – it promised to be a pastoral American dreamland.  And it was.  We looped around the reserve during the final hours of the day, Mimi sleeping in the back seat, and happened upon a herd of bison sauntering toward us.  Sheikh and I watched the prehistoric-looking creatures approach us and cross the road in front of our car, mesmerized by their size and quiet power.

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This was such a formative trip for our family, and we haven’t stopped talking about it.  We’ll be back, Montana.

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