Free Write Friday: Train


2015

My son likes Thomas the Train but the newer episodes seem strange to me. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, his voice conjures up 30 Rock or Saturday Night Live. His raspy vocalizations seem misplaced on the Island of Sodor. Thomas is so eager to please, so concerned with being useful. We should all be so diligent with our life trajectories, laser-focused on our purpose. What satisfaction he finds with a job well done, what eagerness he displays to please Sir Topham Hatt. 

My son, too, is eager to please, but also wants what he wants in the typical preschooler way. He likes to link all this toy trains together, crowd them all on the winding wooden tracks. He wears his Thomas overalls, sleeps on his Thomas pillow, reads his Thomas books. I crouch to his low table to help assemble the puzzle-piece-like ends of the tracks, create a circuit for the trains to follow. I too like clicking the trains together, end to end, magnets locking. Each train helpfully pulling its neighbor to the desired destination. 

2009

My lids are heavy; we got up early to take the boat from Naxos back to Athens. Walking up the steep stairs from the port to catch the train, I could’ve sworn a rogue hand reached toward my backpack, fumbling for something of worth. Sealed tightly, I snatched my bag away as the arm disappeared into the swarming crowd. The end of our European tour, we’re heading back to an Athens hotel after several weeks of Swiss Alps, French museums, Italian countryside, Austrian opera, German beer. Our worn bag is full of dirty clothes and camping gear, Rick Steves travel books picked apart. 

I keep our small bag with valuables on my lap as we take precious seats on the packed train. My husband dozes next to me. Suddenly someone taps him, then, in broken English: “Is that your bag?” We both turn to see another man struggling to lug our huge green canvas pack out the open double doors. My husband jumps up, pushes his way through and out of the train, not thinking.

They both stand there on the platform, staring at each other; a stand off. Eventually my husband pushes the perpetrator back, away from the bag and heaves the heavy pack as he slides back through the train doors, just as they close. The train speeds on to the next station. I wonder what we’d have done if he’d been caught at the stop, holding our bag, standing by the thief. No cell phones, no contingency plan. We hadn’t even decided where we were staying that night. I would’ve had all the cash, both our passports. I look at our crumpled bag and all I can think of is how disappointed the thief would have been: all that’s in there is our ratty stinky travel clothes. 

2000

I like looking out the window as the world speeds by. Bright earthy fields of Kerala, the train jolts back and forth hypnotically as the greens all blur. I think it allows an introvert like me to observe so much without getting involved; I can participate in the wonder of the world without expending the energy to interact, to please others, to represent myself. 

We have a six bed cabin, fold down the upper berths for the overnight trip. My mom has sewn me a lightweight sleeping mat made from two soft bedsheets, a pillow case sewn in at the end. I unroll the mat onto the thin mattress and climb in. The train’s to and fro is soothing to the weary traveler, but the early morning hour is punctuated with the pre-dawn calls of “Chai! Chai!” throughout the train car as peddlers distribute the milky drink. 

It’s morning, just barely, and tea time is in order. The spicy sweet scent mixes with the intense body odor of too many people who haven’t showered in too long. I look out the window and take in the grey morning light. I can just make out the shadows of the passing landscape, the new Indian day as it takes form. 

Continue Reading

Free Write Friday: Cabin

They like to take the ferry, run to the front or the back deck as soon as we embark, salty wind whipping their tiny faces. Their small bodies lean up against the kelly green railing, white foam erupting as the boxy boat rips through the murky waters of Puget Sound. We’ll have some Ivar’s clam chowder for lunch, too many saltines or oyster crackers dumped in the compostable bowl. Their dad will douse the fish ‘n’ chips in sour vinegar and the middle child will follow suit. 

Once we arrive to the island we’ll stop for groceries. Just the basics, just the staples of milk and bananas and eggs and coffee, then wind across the narrow strip of land. Leaving pavement, curving down a gravel-lined lane, slender sticks of evergreen trees reach to the pale sky. They look as if they could topple, bend at the whim of a strong gust, but they’re deceptively sturdy, roots diving deep to anchor. Like toothpicks they taper at the top, their branches fanned out, curved upward. Sometimes an eagle will rest on an upturned branch, as we all rush to observe the regal creature before it stretches its wings to take flight.

We unpack, get reacquainted with the comfortable surroundings. Giant windows and a spanning deck overlook the water below. Down a sharply steep path, dozens of stairs treacherously slick in mid-winter mossy dampness lead to the rocky beach. I like to sit above it all, the steely water below is calming; a constant motion that, strangely, evokes stillness. I wonder if the eagle feels the same; looking down from afar details are missed but the larger picture, the grandness of a distant perspective is captured.

Continue Reading

Free Write Friday: Treadmill

Someone just wanted it out of their house, a bargain at $100, less than a month’s membership at the local gym. Her husband had been wary; another contraption in the basement? But she was pregnant with her third baby, knew there would be no escaping once this little one came, no time to leave for exercise or much of anything. With three under five, it would be difficult to even make it around the lake with the jogging stroller anymore. So she took up the space, hoping it would run, it would work, it would fit into her new morning routine. 

It’s old, dusty when she first folds it down. The belt is loud, too loud to hear the TV over the grating whir. She winces, hoping it won’t wake up the children, but down in the basement the sound that rises to the second floor must just be a pleasant buzz, converging with the white noise machines in their bedrooms. 

Nothing fancy, no bells, no whistles, but it runs. She starts slow, a brisk walk, but quickly accelerates to jogging pace; no time to dilly dally. Heavy legs pumping, headphones jammed into her ears. She can just barely make out the words from the morning news, the NPR co-host waxing poetic about immigration, about divisive politics, about the latest breaking headline. It’s turned up too loud, probably not good for her ears, she thinks, but the cardiovascular exercise makes up for the auditory damage, right? 

The baby monitor is perched precariously where the magazine should be set. She never understood this: how could someone read while running? It always seemed foolhardy to turn a magazine page while jogging on a moving floor, always seemed impossible to lean in to decipher the miniscule type while working up an active sweat. 

Sometimes she’ll see the baby stirring on the monitor, she’ll hear a whimper from the floor above, children starting to argue over their morning cereal. So she runs faster, picking up the pace: 6.5 mph, 7.0. Must. Finish. Run. She starts sprinting. Sometimes she makes it, finishes the 3 miles before the children take over the morning. Sometimes her preschooler comes down to watch, cozy blankie and pull-up in hand, eager to get his day going. He might play with his cars for a bit, watch her quizzically, examining the contraption that lets her move so much without going anywhere. “Mama, a pulley!” She smiles, nods. Lately he’s been obsessed with finding pulleys everywhere. 

She misses running outside, rain on her face, dodging puddles, watching the seasons change around the nearby lake’s circumferential path. Fellow runners are motivating and she seems to run so much faster when she’s exercising outside. But this, it gets the job done; it gets the endorphins rising before 6 a.m. She gets her daily exercise, the muscles worked, the healthy fatigue. And, a year later, she thinks: this may be the best $100 I’ve ever spent. 

Continue Reading

Free Write Friday: Current


I was a cautious child, hesitating to do anything that might jeopardize a fragile status quo. But I grew up spending my summers on the beaches of the north shore of Kauai and grew comfortable with the fickle ocean, the swells of the sea, the ebb and flow of the tide.  

In the afternoon sun I could float on my body board for hours, waiting to catch a wave. I got to know the patterns of the ocean; a swell would come and I could predict if and when it would crest, white foam spilling over onto itself. I could anticipate if the swell would falter, just a tease of a wave really, petering out before it reached the sandy shore. 

Sometimes I’d get lost in my own reverie, daydreaming with the hypnotic rise and fall of the waves. I’d look up to realize I was far from my mom on the shore who was pretending to read a book. A worrier, like me, I suspect she was always half watching us rather than lounging, making sure we weren’t caught in a current or by a wave we couldn’t withstand. 

Sometimes her arms would flail back and forth over her head, like windshield wipers, her miniature form signaling from a distance. Maybe it was time to go, head back to the condo to wash off the sand that stuck in nooks and crevices of sunburned skin or was trapped beneath the mesh lining of my Lycra swimsuit. Or maybe she had noticed all the swimmers veering off to her left or to her right, a strong current carrying away her babies in tow. She’d put down her unread novel and signal us to the safety of the shore. 

A momentary flash of panic, my mother’s voice echoed in my head that it was better to swim parallel to the shore, not directly perpendicular, if caught in a riptide or strong current. Not the most direct route, it seems counter intuitive, but it’s the key to safely reaching solid ground. I’d heed her advice, tanned arms pumping overhead, one after the other, slowly carrying me back to white sands. 

When I reached the shore, my feet on solid ground, and looked back at the water it all looked so innocuous, so unassuming. But the metal warning signs posted on sturdy rods stuck deep in the sand and my mother’s furrowed brow admonished: don’t underestimate its power, be careful. If you’re not, it might just carry you away.

Continue Reading

Free Write Friday: Spoon


He carries the spoon everywhere, has for the last few weeks. It’s a wooden spoon, sturdy and stick-like, good for digging and rapping along a concrete wall on the way to preschool. His constant companion, the spoon is good for a lot of things.

He has an affection for the spoon, like he does his cozy blankets or baby sister. The spoon can’t be left at home without an uproar. It accompanies him to bed for naps and nighttime, it rests on his lap for episodes of Octonauts, it’s enclosed in his hand when he’s having his diaper changed or in his car seat, it lays in front of him when he’s brushing his teeth or eating his yogurt.

He knows never to use it to hit others but he brandishes it enthusiastically, swinging this way and that as he gestures emphatically telling animated stories. It’s become an extension of his upper appendage. I have to remind him to not accidentally knock his baby sister on the head. It’s been a magic wand, a shovel at the beach, a fishing pole, a drumstick, a golf club. 

He’s had obsessions before: rope, treasure maps, kites. But the spoon in its simplicity, its practicality, has staying power. It stirs, it points, it protects. It’s a tool, it’s a weapon, it’s a musical instrument.

The spoon is a steady, sturdy companion to rely on; I can see why he keeps it by his side. I know at some point he’ll move on to his next obsession, the next important thing in his singularly focused world. But I suspect he’ll always remember this ratty spoon fondly, and treasure it as so much more than it seems to be. 

Continue Reading

Free Write Friday: Band


We played musical chairs in the high school band, every few weeks had the opportunity to challenge the seat in front for a better position in the concert band hierarchy. The director limited the frequency of a challenge so it wasn’t an incessant churn. It was a matter of pride, a source of anxiety. On the designated day we’d draw slips of paper to tell us who would perform first. The challenged and the challenger would retreat to the hallway behind the band room for the sake of fairness, ensuring anonymity, playing the chosen piece, notes echoing across the linoleum floor. 

I played the clarinet because my older brother played the clarinet and I suspect my parents didn’t want to buy another instrument. So I was convinced that the clarinet was the only instrument I wanted to play. A practical choice, a safe choice, a non-choice. Easy to lug home as a fifth grader, enough compatriots to sink into a sea of black woodwinds. Disappearing was the thing you wanted as a preteen anyway. Some brave souls chose the French horn or the tuba, the cello or the oboe. The coolest kids played the drums or saxophone.

I did practice, was decent enough. No real musical talent but I could play with feeling. It got me far enough to be one of the first few chairs. I was challenged or challenging all the time. Sweaty palms, I’d retreat behind the heavy classroom door with my opponent, often a friend. Fingers slipping off the silver rings, compressing and popping in cadence. I liked to go first because I got it over with. I liked to go second because I could tailor my performance to the weaknesses of my opposition. I liked to win first chair; felt full of myself, a boost to my fragile teen self esteem. I liked to be second chair so I didn’t suffer the angst of playing solos in the heavily attended concerts. 

Now, decades later, I have nightmares that I’m supposed to play in a band concert and haven’t practiced at all, can’t read the music, don’t remember how to play a single note. I’m embarrassed, mortified I arrived so unprepared. I try to disappear into the sea of instruments, remain undetected. Instead I realize that not contributing to the wave of melody is just as problematic as inserting an errant note. 

Continue Reading

Free Write Friday: Chair

I found the chair on sale at a furniture store on the Eastside. Strolling past birch bunk beds and white washed dressers, I pause to consider the price and design of each rocking chair. Tucked in a corner in the back of the large display room, I sink down in the buttery striped cushions, rocking gently in a natural way. A bonus! Pulling a concealed lever reclines the entire contraption; head back I can snooze, envision holding my first baby in my tired arms. 

*

A carefully orchestrated nursery in my parents’ basement bedroom, painted a gender neutral green. Mid-winter in a chilly basement, as a new mom I dutifully get up every couple of hours to feed my newborn, wearily lower myself into the reclining chair, sturdy in the corner. Freezing, chest uncovered, I shiver uncontrollably in the black hours of the night, hormones swinging hot and cold. I lash out tearfully at my unsuspecting husband, begging for space heaters to warm my weary body.

*

The chair fits two: a toddler and a newborn baby boy, story time for extra cuddles. It sits comfortably in the newly remodeled bedroom corner, flanked by a large window and floor lamp. We know better now, use it mostly for reading and rocking, not for middle of the night feeds. It’s still the most comfortable place to nurse, cocooned by cushy armrests, a gentle flex of my toes provides the soothing back and forth. I look out the window at our backyard, a hill of our city beyond; I look down and find my two arms full.

*

It’s wedged at the edge of the baby’s crib, a twin Jenny Lind bed frame lodged against the opposite wall. The two girls share now, eventually the oldest will turn preteen and retreat to the basement bedroom but for now she savors sharing space with her little sister. My youngest baby is almost a baby no more, a few short months and a toddler she’ll be. I savor the early morning and bedtime nursing, rocking gently in the dark quiet room. Occasionally the door bursts open with exclamations from my three year old about treasure maps, from my six year old brandishing school artwork to admire. My baby and I pause for a second, then resume the rocking, suckling. She gazes up at me through long lashes, wrapped in a patterned throw my grandmother crocheted of flowers and hexagons decades ago.

Continue Reading

Free Write Friday: Baby Food


She starts kicking her legs vigorously as I place her in the high chair, a physical exclamation at the excitement of an anticipated meal. I can’t get the candy-colored bib fastened to her neck soon enough, can’t assemble the tiny coated spoon or stout glass jars fast enough. She’s impatient for nourishment. 

There’s a pop as I twist open the jar of apples and blueberries, banana cinnamon oatmeal, sweet potatoes and chicken. Her legs kick again, pistons pumping. Her tiny mouth opens mechanically, a trap door to her gustatory system: open, shut, open, shut. She knows the loaded spoon is coming and the hatch complies. I know when she’s eager like this she’ll complain if I don’t shovel fast enough, if I don’t keep up with her hunger for more. 

If I feed her a taste she disapproves of there’s a pause in the rhythm, she considers for a moment and gives a tiny grunt. She might accept another small bite of the spinach and peas or grainy carrots. I imagine her letting it roll on her tongue but the texture or consistency or substance just doesn’t agree. So she’ll shove out her lower lip in defiance and reject the offensive flavor, sealing her mouth tight to reject the advances of my spoon. 

I quickly switch to an alternative option, a fruit I know she’ll accept: the old reliable apples or pears. A little dribble of saucy food on her chin, I scoop it up and into her mouth. This is a dance between us two, coordinated and practiced, we each anticipate the next step. It takes effort, these three meals a day. It’s messy and repetitive. I’m still nursing in between the solid food servings and the combination makes some days feel like my only job is to provide her sustenance.

I look at my two older children who shovel their own food, who can make their own pb&j sandwiches, who can take their own dishes to the sink and help unload the dishwasher. It won’t be long before this baby won’t need me; she’ll be able to feed herself.

I know when she slows her tempo, I can follow suit. Her legs stop pumping so frantically, her squeal of impatience subsides. She looks around the room, turns her head to the side, regards her siblings. I imagine her savoring the food a bit more carefully, considering what this mama of hers is providing, developing her own tastes, her own preferences, becoming the person she is.

Continue Reading

Free Write Friday: Santiago


I have had a week where much as been out of my control, where the bigger questions of life are asked and the daily answer is in the mundane tasks of doing the laundry, reading stories at bedtime and making sure there’s enough milk in the fridge for breakfast.

Perhaps because of this, I started cleaning out my desk at work with vigor, a task I could complete with a level of control and subsequent satisfaction, sorting through papers sitting dormant for months, maybe years. I came across a clipping of a poem, David Whyte’s “Santiago”. I don’t remember where it came from, if it was given to me by a patient or by a now-retired colleague who used to share poetry with me on Fridays when we both needed it most or if I clipped it myself at some point. Whatever the origin, it spoke to me this week, thinking about the road seen and not seen, the way forward and finding a way, and my own reflection, wondering at the “clear revelation beneath the face looking back”. Let it speak to you this week and may you always be more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way.

 

Continue Reading

KevinMD

Excited to share my post on the importance of narrative was published on KevinMD.com this week. KevinMD is a widely read blog that shares “the stories and insight of the many who intersect with our health care system, but are rarely heard from.” Grateful for the work done by KevinMD to give voice to those who work within and are cared for by the health care system, as well as serve as a platform for discussing important current issues. 

Continue Reading