When I slid up the door to the five by teen foot space, it contained the usual suspects:
Christmas ornaments, china, kitchen utensils and an Italian desk that we don’t know how to put back together.
But the rest of those duct taped boxes in the storage unit?
My countless diaries.
I’ve been documenting my life since I was eleven, in pink paged diaries with little locks, the margins of college notebooks, fancy journals and lately, on my computer. With markers, an assortment of fountain pens, nibs and occasional crayons, writing down what I vowed never to forget..and lock combinations that I still remember.
As I looked at the leaning tower of journals, I decided what the heck, it’s time to start reading about who I was.
Will I recognize myself? How many of those “I’ll never forget stories” have already been forgotten? How many of the pages could have been written yesterday?
I brought a box back to my small room in Uptown, one I share with a seven foot marlin, wondering if who I am now is half as interesting as who I used to be (don’t worry, I’m journaling about that, too). Each cover brought back a flood of memories, as did the blue-noir ink title page inside:
I found one of my first journals, starting with this TOP SECRET warning:
You’d think if what I was writing about was really top secret, I would have used an alias name. But you can’t question the logic of an eleven year old.
I flipped through the pages, many written with colorful felt tip pens and tweenage cursive, the dots on the “i”s replaced with flowers, reading classified entries contain ingenious ways my sisters would torture me, beyond anything used at Guantanamo. For instance, putting my pajamas in toilet, locking me outside, ruining my tennis shoes with a squish in dog poo. How sad that kids these days would rather bully someone online than taunt them with turds of the neighborhood mutt.
Other pages contained observations of classmates in the midst of puberty (details discovered in PE class), which girls needed to shave their arm pits or use a spritz of deodorant and who hid Camel cigarettes in a Sucrets box in her purse.
Many entrees started with an “I’ll never forge adventure” that I had already forgot. Like when I turned thirty five in England (I took a leave of absence from my advertising job to be a youth pastor in London).
Looks like I ate lamb lasagna on the big day.
I scribbled frantically about another adventure Ihad on a double decker bus through a district known as Elephant Castle. There was this black woman on seated on the top level who had painted herself ghost white like a living breathing George Segal sculpture…
There was this ghost person on the bus. LeRoy from youth group knows who it is. She used to live in his neighborhood. Apparently, when the black woman was younger, she fell in love with a white man. They loved each other desperately but their relatives and friends couldn’t take the color issue. The racial tension caused them to split up, she went mad and now paints herself white. I guess she goes to some psychiatric hospital.
The memory still gave me chills.
Other pages contained thoughts that got me thinking…
“Sometimes, I wish I could leave my emotions at home.”
“If I was a bird, would I have the courage to fly?”
“Kids speak a universal language of honesty. When do we forget how to speak it?”
Then there were gobs of entries that could have been written yesterday:
“If I can’t imagine being dead, how can I imagine what afterlife will be like?”
Since my life is a bit humdrum now, busy re-editing lives of fictional characters while being fueled by caffeine at Dollop , I’ll post pages of my past, the endless string of words making up much of the DNA of who I am now.
Yep, this is was my life and still is.
It was a year ago today that I celebrated my wedding anniversary on a Friday that was anything but good.
I didn’t spend the day with my husband, but a good fiend.
And not at the Cheesecake Factory abut in the middle of nowhere China.
We went to a coffee shop that boasted of an Asian brew known as Copi Luwak. You might know it as butt bean coffee since it’s made from berries secreted from an Asian civet. Whatever you call it, Copi Luwak seemed like the perfect way to drown my sorrows.
That is, until Iwe found out the price.
“Forty dollars a cup?”
As I wiped away my tears, we talked about the irony of my anniversary falling on Good Friday. Maybe, just like Jesus, my marriage would miraculously come back to life after being dead for a bit. But then, we recalled the other not-so-popular Easter story of Judas and forgiveness. Maybe I was being betrayed by a friend and would have to forgive him. Either way, God wasn’t going to take the cup away from me.
While I didn’t get the Copi Luwak , my friend who is fluent in Mandarin, did talk the barista out of a butt bean.
She put it in my hand.
“Your anniversary is no different than this. A hard experience can be worth nothing, or, be turned into something of value, something that will propel you to change.It’s up to you to decide what you want to do with it.”
That’s when I realized when life gives you butt beans, you can do nothing or make coffee and sell it for forty bucks a cup.
My girlfriend’s words of wisdom still brew in my mind.
And that butt bean is still in my ring box.
But this year, I got something different to mark my beanniversary,
(If my friend Bette can get her first one at 72, I can get mine at 53).
The tattoo is of a snowflake.
I like to believe each snowflake is a recycled tear, each formed by its own gut wrenching story that nothing else can replicate.
The snowflake is for all the tears I cried this past year.
For Forrest, Carolena, Charles. Lucien.
My mom. My marriage.
I cried so many tears this past year that I have none left, which is why I can chop forty pounds of onions a day without wiping my eyes.
The tattoo will also be a reminder of my time as an honorary Hippie at JPUSA.
The guys at Deluxe Tattoo on Irving Park did it. They are responsible for a lot of the ink at the Chelsea Hotel
And it didn’t hurt.
But the tears the snowflake represents still do.
I chop onions.
All day. Every day.
I chopped so many onions,that my first week on the job, I developed a blister.
When I’m not chopping onions, I’m dicing peppers, mincing garlic, peeling carrots or shredding ginger.
And when I get home, I usually covered with splashes of the night’s dinner.
But glam isn’t part of kitchen duty unless you’re on a reality cooking show.
Since I’m as messy as I ever was, I started making aprons these Kitschy Kitchen aprons. They crisscross in the back like an old Playtex bra so they don’t come untied. Along with protecting me from goopy splashes when mixing coleslaw for three hundred people, they also absorb the smell.
Plus, they’re sorta fun.
When I’m not chopping onions, I’m writing, most likely at an uptown coffee shop, like Everyone’s Coffee or Dallop.
If you want an apron, gimme a holler.]]>
This weekend, there was a Tattoo Convention near O’Hare Airport. Twenty bucks admission.
But why pay to go when everyday you see great ink at JPUSA?
I snapped these pics of some of my female friends and heard the stories behind them.
Some were a life changing phrase or word. An image with personal meaning. A wedding ring you can’t take off. A spiritual insect or inspirational rodent from a favorite CS Lewis book.
Just for the record, I don’t have an inspirational rodent.
Bette Thompson got her first tattoo at the age of seventy. Why did she wait? That way, she wouldn’t have to worry about what it looked like when she got old.
As for me, my skin is still virgin. The only ink that has ever touched mine was a kootie shot during the second grade.
But who knows. A tattoo might be a cool memento of my time at the Chelsea Hotel. I could transform those varicose veins into some vines.]]>
So where do you live?
The instant message question that popped up on my phone seemed innocuous enough, but answering it seemed impossible.
Gee, I don’t know.
Physically, I’m in Chicago. Mentally, I’m anywhere but. I’m in Bangkok during yoga, I’m at a Chinese Market while chopping onions. I transport back to our slumpy dumpy house when I’m sleeping and battle Chinese traffic during my daily stroll.
I am anywhere but where the sign says:
Like Monday, an unseasonably warm day for Chicago. I walked down to the lake front, passing through Hobo Village under the Wilson viaduct to get there, smiling at a few prostitutes who have seen a better day, too.
I got on the bike path where cyclists whizzed past me like fireworks, working hard to burn off the muffins they mindlessly ate during stressful client meetings. But between the fitness ninjas, I’d flashback to the bike paths of Kunming, where I’d avoid speeding vendors carrying extra wide loads on their wheels.
My life is a Double Exposure, two worlds colliding. And the projector playing it in my brain is freaking out.
Trying to live in both worlds at once is impossible.
I don’t know which to focus on.
I turned around and walked down Wilson past the Upton Baptist Church (with the infamous CHRIST DIED FOR YOUR SINS sign). But instead of seeing scruffy junkies waiting for a twelve step meeting, I see clean shaven monks dressed in orange shaking their heads.
What would they think of this neighborhood. Do we need their prayers more than they need ours?
I looked across the street to McDonald’s. There are gang bangers out front, flashing their signs. But my eyes play tricks on me. They see the Thai Ronald MacDonald with his hands in the”wai” greeting, tangled in Crime Tape.
I ask, Where am I? Where should I be?
So I keep walking to yoga, thankful that I no longer have to mentally translate downward dog from Mandarin to English, or am stared at for the limitations of my large Caucasian frame.
The young instructor guides me through a speed yoga session in a 105 degree room instead of a two hour practice in a Chinese studio with only space heaters. The humidity transports me to the streets of Bangkok, my nose mistaking the smell of sweaty feet with durian.
My mind craving a taste of it all.
Should I be there or here?
I leave yoga and walk past the street where I missed a shooting the day before. A kid fifteen years young killed during gang warfare, his death not worthy of a headline. Meanwhile, my mind travels to California where a friend lost his son , causing more tears than could fill an ocean.
Why isn’t he here, damn it? Where is the “there” that his soul traveled to?
I continue to walk down towards Addison, the view being a series of snapshots of my past and present. A small town girl moving here along in her twenties. My adventurous thirties. Settling down in marriage in my forties. Returning in my fifties, alone, my wedding vows being out of focus.
I make my way back to JPUSA and think of my double exposure accommodations. The Artsy rooming with the Fartsy. The Hairy living with the Scary. The living with the dying. The recovering with the relapsed. Then there’s me, Ms.None of the Above, sharing a small space with a seven foot marlin, struggling to find my identity like a contact lens on the carpet.
I spent the next few moments in prayer, asking my Creator for divine clarity.
Should I be in Asia or Uptown?
Solo or Married?
Work on my next novel or my resume?
Should I be asking God a gazillion questions or should I just be listening?
That requires me to stop worrying about what’s’ next, and just focus on the now.
To not be startled by the mess that I see, but having faith in what I don’t.
I’m still waiting for answers but I don’t think God is like a film processor lab, guaranteeing to deliver them in under an hour.
Instead, I’ll have to start looking at things with my ears.
I’ll have to trust that even when things aren’t clear to me, God has a perfect picture of what’s going on.
A kid just got shot today just down the street.
Shot, not killed, which is why the tape is yellow.
If it was a murder, the tape would be red.
There were about ten shots fired, between kids wearing red and black.
I saw the gold casings glimmering on the grey asphalt.
Last week, the tape was red. The victim was black. Fifteen years young. Two in the afternoon. The tears shed were the same color of every mother’s tears. The blood on the streets was the color of everyone’s blood.
Ironically, the shooting was in the same area where the colorful peacock network, NBC, filmed an episode of CHICAGO PD a few weeks prior.
About two blocks away from the shootings, there’s a church sign that reads, CHRIST DIED FOR YOUR SINS.
It’s black and white during the day but at night, it glows yellow.
Maybe instead of that sign, what Uptown needs is the help of street artist JR. He’s combating violence in high crime areas with super sized portraits and buckets of colorful paint.
It would be a welcome change to all of the yellow and red.
It was sight more rare than tattoo-free forearms at JPUSA.
Twelve perfect long stem roses and a note from my husband.
I placed the velvety buds in a mason jar and let the sweet fragrance filled the room.
But instead of having a Hallmark moment, my mind drifted back to the previous Valentine’s Day. I was in China grieving my mother’s passing, the tragic death of a student, while battling some Chinese respiratory infection.
My husband was stateside. I missed him and I needed him.
So I decided to send him a Valentine’s– China style.
Valentines Day falls around New Years or Xīn Nián Kuài Lè, There are more fireworks in China that time of year than people, or enough firecrackers to blow off all ten billion fingers in the country.
So I purchased a large roll from one of the seasonal vendors on the streets. . Seven thousand large.
It was roughly the size of a tractor wheel.
I unrolled the firecrackers into a shape of a heart, lit the fuse and covered my ears for about three minutes.
The red papers went flying, several still burning, only to leave the shape of an even bigger heart.
It took about three minutes for all seven thousand firecrackers to blow up. I videoed the entire spectacle and emailed it to my spouse.
He never viewed it.
The painful memories were thorns, big sharp ones, right out of a Grimm’s Fairy tale or lofty quotes I had to memorize in the fifth grade . Thorns kept one’s eyes off of life’s roses, or on that day, the beautiful bouquet I unexpectedly received. So of course, I kept repricking myself with those sharp spikes, like wolf’s claws, not allowing the wounds of the previous year to heal.
That’s when I had to ask myself what I really wanted for Valentines, to hang onto the memories or to hang onto my marriage?
God was holding my marriage together with divine duct tape. But if I wanted it to stay together, I had to focus on what He could do with it in the future, not rehash the gunpowder of the past. I had to focus on the flowers, not the thorns.
I decided to turnoff the projector in my brain, not just of the Valentine’s episode, but of several sequels.
I looked at the velvety roses and smiled.
My nose smiled, too.
The sweet scent squelched the gunpowder of the smoldering memories…at least for that day.
I got an email from one of my students from China who recently moved to the Arizona. She is missing the rice, her friends and the cheap price of haircuts.
So I wanted to mail her a gift.
Yeah, I know. A bit impossible.
She has never seen it, tasted it, or experienced getting hit in the face with a ball of it while waiting for the bus.
So I found an end of the season pile of snow, one that was white, not soot covered. Which, in Chicago, is hard to do.
I picked up a handful and took a look.
I could never wrap the limited amount of brain cells that there is an infinite amount of snowflake designs, each one a unique creation. There has to be some reason behind that.
Snow flakes must be recycled tears.
Each one has a tear jerking story behind it.
According to the Psalms, God keeps our tears. He knows the reason behind each one and saves it in a jar. The one from falling off your bike as a kid. When you had the family dog put to sleep. Finding a note in your locker from your 8th grade boyfriend that he wanted to break up.
But just maybe, God doesn’t store our tears forever in heaven. Being the environmentalist that He is, maybe God turns our tears into snowflakes, allowing our sorrow to melt away and give birth to spring.
It makes sense in a Hallmark card sort of way.
Think about it.
Blizzards are tears shed by mothers who have lost their sons to war. Slight flurries are from fighting friends turned enemies. Super-sized flakes that land on your eyelashes are tears from farewells. For the fifty words Eskimos have for snow, there are tears from bee stings, malignant tumors, onions, bullying, bad grades, spilled milk, root canals and the end of the movie ET. And lake effect snow from now where? Tears from PMS mood swings, of course.
I thought about all of my tears from last year, the downpour beginning in March. A massacre at the Kunming train station. The disappearance of Malaysian flight number 370. The spilling of my husband’s heart. By May, it was a full blown monsoon.
And the pain of those events can still grip me like winter.
But if God recycles each tear into snow, I have hope my pain will one day bloom into daffodils.
You might question my theory.
But if we believe a ground hog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania can predict the arrival of spring, why can’t we believe that each snowflake has a unique story behind it?
That’s what I choose to believe.
The handful of tears melted before I got it them into the envelope. I took a picture and sent it to my student instead along with the verse:
You keep track of all my sorrows.
You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
You have recorded each one in your book.
It was the ultimate oxymoron.
A cool funeral.
One that honored life, not death.
One for a man who lived a life of rich poverty as part of the JPUSA community since 1988.
Don was a living reminder that life is fleeting, that every day is burning a hole in your pocket and to think twice of how you invest it. He had the courage to share his last days with all of us, not keeping his struggle with cancer locked up in his room.
I didn’t know Don well, but he’d come down to the dining hall during those last weeks, making conversation with anyone, including me.
I pulled up a chair and said, “I love your sons.” Which I did. His oldest made me think; his youngest made me laugh.
Don smiled. “The oldest is a Buddhist.”
“No, he just thinks he’s a Buddhist.” I winked.
The ceremony wasn’t at a cold church or creepy funeral home but at the Wilson Abbey. Fresh brewed creativity seeped out from it’s coffee shop, transforming what could have been a room of gloom into a hub of inspiration, from the industrial rhythms playing to the glowing candelabras on each side of his coffin, or as one child called it, Don’s memory box. There was standing room only for the eclectic blend of attendees.
Ninety nine percent of everyone was dressed in black, their dreadlocks pulled back, beards braided, boots polished.
Colorful tattoos stood out like neon lights.
Glen Kaiser was dressed in his best crocs, with his old hippy pony tail pulled back. He played a Tom Waits tune on his cigar box guitar, held together with bottle caps.
More musicians performed during a bittersweet photo montage. Young Don with a Mohawk. Married Don with long hair. Tattooed Don holding baby son.
Departing Don with timeless Don smile.
His oldest son was asked to speak.
He shared a story about his dad’s love for his sons and for super heroes.
It made us all wonder if there was a difference between the two, thinking of the hard passage that awaits them.
I left the funeral feeling blessed, not sad. Blessed to have known someone who realized what true wealth is.
After all, faith is the only thing you can take with you.
The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity.
There is a running joke in the kitchen.
It’s a local restaurant that donates meat scraps to our kitchens that many believe should have been scrapped.
But others feel it’s a gift from God, or McManna.
Let me try to explain Portello’s.
The texture is particle board meets grizzle.
The color is fifty shades of non-tempting grey.
The smell? I’ll get to that later.
Even at the shelter, patrons in tattered coats will put up their purple noses when they smell it. “Let’s go dumpster diving,” they’ll say.
On my first day as head cook, Portello’s was on the menu, which put my head on the chopping block.
I looked at the recipe in the menu book and shook my head:
Forty pounds of Portello’s, forty onions, cumin and one gallon of Worcestershire.
Is that it?
I looked on the shelves for a secret ingredient, to make it taste better.
So I threw the meat in the brazier (a grill meets bathtub) then poked it with a paddle similar to what is used in a canoe.
I was afraid that I’d find a pinky ring or a finger among the shavings.
After all, this is Chicago.
I poured in the Worcestershire and listened to it sizzle.
For about ten minutes, the herbs and spices covered up the smell of the Portello’s. But then, the aroma of the Portello’s came back with a vengeance, sucking up the Worcestershire scent like a Hoover.
I fanned the vapors, trying to identify the smell of the meat.
Was it barrel aged grease trap?
High school locker room?
Burrito left in the back of a van?
As the steam subsided, I got a good look at the cardboard meat. I wish I had a bottle of Kitchen Bouquet food polish to dump in to make it browner or meatier, a trick I learned from food stylists.
So for two hours I stirred the Portello’s with a food oar, hoping it would transform into something magical or at least edible.
That’s when I found the secret ingredient to change it’s taste.
A small white lie.
I thought of a study I read, on how perceived ingredients impact taste. Simply adding a flavor to the list of ingredients can actually make the food taste better.
And in this case, removing the name of an ingredient.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. “What’s for dinner?” The hungry kitchen invader looked at the scraps and frowned. “Is it Portello’s?”
“No,” my nose grew an inch. “Actually, it’s a donation from Michael Jordan’s restaurant.”
“Really?” her eyebrows arched. “I’ll spread the word.”
Another guest came into the kitchen, this time, a hairy and scary. He was a big guy with a big smell and no hair brush.
“What’s for dinner?” he grunted.
“Uh, sandwiches made from donations from Michael Jordan’s restaurant.”
“I’ll be on time!”
And as I scooped the meat into cafeteria style pans, a line of Disney World proportions formed outside the dining hall.
The first compliment came from a thin blonde version of Jesus. “Thank you for the meal, Ginger. It was fantastic!”
“Yeah,” a tattooed Mary Magdalene chimed in, “We heard the meat came from a new place.”
“Why yes,” I crossed my fingers. “Jordan’s.”
The undercover Portello’s received raved reviews.
After dinner, I had to shampoo twice to get out the smell out of my hair.
I should have washed my mouth out too, for telling that white lie.
I don’t know.
American Physicist Austin O’Malley once said, Those who think it is permissible to tell white lies soon grow color-blind.
Well if that makes it easier to digest grey meat, so be it.
Have you ever told a little white lie that you regretted?