Writer’s Notebook

Potato Chip Maker

On our walk to school in the morning, we sometimes take a shortcut through the small barranca that lies just off the center of town. At the bottom of the barranca runs the aguas negras–a small, polluted stream that may or may not be full of sewage. Plastic bottles and styrofoam plates squat in the collection of soap bubbles that collect on the dark water as it snakes through the canyon. This is our reminder that Mexico is still a developing country. Small clay pebbles scatter in front of us we quickly and carefully pick our way down the small dirt path.

At the bottom is small cement footbridge that takes us across the aguas negras and just on the other side of the bridge lies a cement house. Well, it’s a tall cement building. On the top floors are some business that are out of the barranca. But in the bottom floor lives a family with small children and a smattering of hungry looking cats. Our pace quickens here because it feels a little like we’re walking through their living room. The building are constructed closely, and the high walls make the space feel small, almost intimate. There are usually a few plastic toys scattered around and sometimes a few young kids stare at us as we pass. The kitchen is open and wash basin is usually full. I have tried extending a friendly “buenos dias” but have never gotten a reply.

The adults are usually busy when we pass. The man of the house makes a living by frying up potato chips in a giant make-shift fryer. A large oil drum is cut in half and filled with oil, heated by a gas tank that is almost as tall as the man who fries the chips. Potato chips are a common street snack–with chile, limon and sal, of course and you can find a small plastic bag of them nearly everywhere. I wonder if I’ve ever eaten the ones fried here, by this silent man with bed head, a dirty white shirt, and the ganas to wake up and start cooking a mountain of potatoes.

There is always a heavy bag of dusty potato propped up against the house as pass and the man is usually warming up the oil. A few times he’s been peeling potatoes as we pass, and one particularly late morning he was scooping them out of the oil with a giant mesh spoon. The smell is reminds me of county fairs and carnival rides–a memory oddly incongruent in this place.

We hurry past, feeling a little embarrassed..for what? For witnessing his work? His house? The aguas negras? Or for walking through someone’s front yard because we want to hurry to school.

Mi Casa es Su Casa

This month one of my Spanish Lessons was published. This little collection of essays warms my heart and although I’m a long way from being fluent in Spanish I really love the way it makes me look at the world a little differently. This particular essay I wrote many years ago when Lalo was a baby and we were leaving Mexico. I wonder if time has made it too neat of a package now. The original draft wasn’t quite so tidy, but then the editor wanted it to be a little more explicit. So, I’m reminding myself that the meaning in an essay (or any piece of art, really) is a joint effort between the writer and the reader. So, dear Reader, I hope you will help this one come alive. Here it is, in Segullah Magazine: Casa

Berenice and I sat in chairs, facing each other. A girl, who I soon realized was the new mom, sat on her bed. My knees almost touched hers. She had her baby bundled up in several thick blankets and held him with a confidence earned through many, many hours of watching younger siblings. Yet even though she held her chin firm and “shushed” confidently, she didn’t look like a mom. She looked like a child. Her dark hair was slung into a low ponytail that hung down to her waist. She was dressed in sweatpants with grey-stained knees and a sweatshirt with sleeves that weren’t quite long enough.

“Holding Her Hand”

This essay published on Coffee & Crumbs is served up with a little humility. The editor had a lot of suggestions and cuts to the original essay. At first, I bristled. It’s hard to take suggestions, especially from someone you don’t know (self: squirrel that one away for implications in teaching and learning). BUT ultimately, I think she made “Holding Her Hand” stronger.

I love this genre of essay. I’m not sure what it’s called. I think of it as a collection of snapshots–little scenes that are unified around a whole. That’s how memory works for me, anyway. Not a neat and tidy narrative but a smattering of sensory images. I like revisiting them.

When I was a few months away from giving birth to baby number two, we decided we had to get Mae out of our bed. At first, we put the crib beside the bed and I would fall asleep holding Mae’s hand through the bars.

But then we moved her into the next room.

My fingers and wrist fit comfortably through the bars of a crib, but when Mae continued to cry, I had to rub her back or pat her softly. Night after night I held firm: I will sing to you, pat your back, shove both my arms through the bars to encircle you, but I won’t take you out of your bed.

The nights were interminable; after the singing and the patting and many firm Lay down, Maes, each night settled down to this—me, sitting in the dark, humming softly, holding my daughter’s hand as she drifted off and her world slowly shifted underneath her.


Walking next to a preschooler on a sunny day, as her downy blonde hair surrounds her head like a halo, is one of life’s greatest pleasures. She chatters constantly, words and songs trickling out of her mouth as quickly as they enter her head. You need only shorten your stride and slow your pace a little, because she bounces along at a cheerful pace. You hold hands companionably, pausing every now and then to explore a crack in the sidewalk or navigate an oncoming walker. She’s buoyant. She’s bouncy. She’s eager. She’s curious. She’s delightful. And as you look at her upturned face and feel the way her little hand fits so completely in your palm, your heart wells. She’s yours and you love her.

Father’s Day Special

I got the email a month ago about the Father’s Day special on the Moth Radio Hour. My story “The Detour,” would be featured, it said.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to feel.

At first, it brought the heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping, and rubbery-feeling of post performance that I had five years ago when I got up on that Moth Stage. The story slam was incredible. Packed house–they laughed, they gasped, they erupted in applause. I’ve never felt anything like it.

But I also felt the familiar nausea that comes with over-sharing, especially when it comes to my religious beliefs. I will tell you about embarrassing bodily functions all day, but Mormonism–please, don’t ask.

This is also, by far, the worst Father’s Day present for my poor attention-adverse dad. And my ex-boyfriend–well, c’mon. I would be heartless not to worry about him a little, too.

So I am so happy and pleased and feel like my storytelling chops have received a hearty slap on the back. I want to shout it from the rooftops.

AND then go crawl under a rock.


Writer’s Notebook

I found this tucked away on my computer the other morning. I was happy to find an apt metaphor for tomatillos–“they hang on their vines like Chinese lanterns.” I do miss the farm as we move into spring and summer.

The other morning when I drove to the farm, I had to use the heater. I was glad I threw my sweatshirt into the backseat before I drove off that morning because when I got out of the car I was downright chilly. Cool mornings, curling leaves, evenings as crisp as apples—where has the summer gone?

So seasons change–the basil thickens, the dill goes to seed, and our time on the farm draws to a close. But what makes this year different from the rest is I find myself wanting to curl into my thoughts and think what does it all mean?

I leave the farm with more friends and thicker calluses. This I know. I take with me mud stained jeans and an intense desire to own chickens. I search my mind for the scientific facts I have learned about vermiculite and cotyledon, only to find my thoughts clustered around the mystery of a flowering eggplant and the majesty of the tomato blight. I won’t forget the way tomatillos hang on their vines like Chinese lanterns, delicate and airy—but I have forgotten the acute ache in my back that comes from hand planting leeks.

Our friends and family want to know what the next step is. That’s fair. We did set this whole summer up as a “trial period” and I guess we wanted an “if then” statement to come out of the experience as well. I guess I’m learning that if you grow your own food, then it tastes better. If some seedlings don’t make it, then you are still thankful for the ones that did. If you find a turnip riddled by worms, then you cut around and salvage the good parts. And if you want to feel the seasons pass, you gotta get outside.

I found a soup recipe that uses potatoes, kale, basil, dill, and leeks. As I chopped and sautéed and pureed, I felt the kitchen air grow heavy with the humid heat of a good soup. I was cooking for a friend and the excitement of sharing good food with a good friend, made me salivate with anticipation. I dipped my spoon into the thick as pudding, potato leek soup and brought it steaming to my lips. I felt the aroma moisten my nose as I gently blew on it. It tasted like accomplishment with pinch of gratitude.

Kicking off the group project! Postcards from Motherhood

Last week, I was very excited to have Postcards from Motherhood published. I think it is a lovely way to capture those fleeting heart-melting moments that we don’t want to forget and I’ve been sitting on the idea for a LOOONNNGG time. (That’s the way my ideas work, usually. They incubate.)

If you want to join me, check out the group projects page.



This is why I write

Last week I got to reread “The Dance” as it was republished and this sent me on a reading spree of old essays. There is one called “In the Still of the Night” that tries to illustrate the some “night” moments–moments I revisit in the middle of the night but also moments that happened on nights I won’t forget.

This is the last vignette in the essay and I love it. Not only because it reminds me of one of my favorite places on earth but also because I think it is well-written. The phrase “sun-bleached hay and thickening pond water” is objectively the perfect way to describe the summer night air in Idaho. And I got to write it!

I don’t expect you to love this paragraph like I do. That’s too much to expect, I know. But maybe you’ll think it’s sweet. Or at the very least, you’ll know somewhere in time and space there is a little girl looking out a night window and she is very, very happy.

Before I crawl into bed, I like to sit at the open window of my bedroom upstairs—the one that faces West. The horizon is still a little blue from where the sun set not long ago. But the sky is darkening quickly and stars begin to dot the blackness. The wind blows haphazardly through the big poplars—sometimes with force, mostly with a soft push and pull on the leaves. It reminds me of waves rolling in although at that time I had never seen the ocean. My contact lens are out so my eyes can relax into the fuzzy images of the barn, the arena lights, the fences, the bulk of the trees. I like to breath in the night air—it’s moist and warm with just a hint of chill of night. It smells like sun-bleached hay and thickening pond water.  And this, this is my favorite part: the metronome of the pipe sprinklers. As the wind is erratic and rolling, they are steady and small. Tick, tick, tick, tick. They are the passing of time and the rightness of the world. They are order in chaotic night. They are saying, “Time for sleep. Time for sleep. Stop your thinking. Go to sleep.”

The Dance

The reason I like to write personal essays is because like a fine wine, they just get better with time.

Actually I don’t know anything about a fine wine. Let me use a better metaphor.

You know when you have an old container of cream cheese in the freezer? And you leave it there, because you kinda forget about it.  And then, weeks later, you open it up and discover it has gone moldy.

But you don’t throw it out because you don’t have time, right at that second, to thoroughly clean it out. So you let it sit a bit longer. I mean, it’s already moldy. What’s the harm?

Maybe another week goes by.

And then you open it again and holy cow, has it gone moldy! Not just green and pink but furry, too! And that point you are kinda curious. Just how moldy will this get? So you close it up and put it back. Just to see.

Reading old personal essays is to me like finding the old container of cream cheese. Every time I reread them, I feel like I have found an unexpected surprise. And the feeling just grows with time. The further I get from the moment I was trying to capture, the more delight I find in opening it up and saying–Oh, yeah, that time. I remember that time!

The Dance was the first personal essay I published and today it was republished. It captured a feeling that I knew was fleeting but can still close my eyes and remember. It’s true. I don’t walk babies at night anymore. And even though every sleep deprived mother on the planet will want to punch for saying so, I DO miss those quiet, dark moments when it was just me and my baby and there was nothing to do but walk and rock and nurse and smell that little, peach-fuzz covered head.

Then your eyelids begin to droop. Your breathing becomes shallow, almost silent, and your head becomes heavy and begins to melt into my arm or my shoulder or my breast. Your arms become floppy and your legs rubbery. Sleep has almost enveloped you.

This is my favorite part.

I look down at your face, so calm. Any frustration or fear of the day has drained. Your skin is porcelain; your round, relaxed cheeks like peaches, and your little lips form a perfect triangle. Sometimes they quiver and the corners jerk into an unconscious smile that quickly plays across your face and disappears. Then you sigh in gratitude, in trust, in complete comfort.

I feel like crying. I flash forward to ten years from now, eight months from now, two weeks from now, even ten minutes from now when you will no longer need me to walk you, to comfort you. Soon you’ll be able to put yourself back to sleep, and later I will no longer be able to give you all the peace you need.



What I’ve Learned from Making 10,000 Meals for My Family

I was recently inspired by this excellent article in Bon Appetit, I wrote a list of things I’ve learned from feeding my kids.

“I sat down and calculated this morning. Counting breastfeeding–which I think counts–my husband and I have fed our children well over 10,000 meals.

Let that number sink in a little. And I bet, if you sat down with a calculator, your number wouldn’t be far behind and maybe way ahead. (My oldest is 11).

Have you heard the theory you need at least 10,000 hours of practice to become really good at something? Well, surely this can apply to these 10,000 meals. And although I’m no cooking expert, I have learned a thing or two. Well, 20 things, actually. Here they are–in random order.”

La Temporada

It’s mango season again. Have you tasted a perfectly ripe mango? There might not be a more delicious thing in the world.

The first mango I ate was the first time that Dave and I went to Mexico. We went to Cabo San Lucas, in June. It was hot. Very hot. We spent a day or so on the popular, touristy beach and got our fill of margarita soaked, sun-burned, belligerently-English-speaking tourists and decided to rent a car and go to a smaller beach. The only car we could rent was a stick shift, so I got to drive. The road was winding, hugging the coast, and providing lots of blind turns. We didn’t really know where we were going but passed several small coves with beaches in them. Finally we settled on a small, white-sanded beach and for a few hours we were the only ones there.

Then, out of nowhere, like a mirage, or a miracle, a fully-dressed man came walking down the beach. We saw him from a long way off and watched as he walked toward us. What could he have? He was carrying a cooler. He stopped and offered us cold mangoes on a stick. For 20 pesos. We looked at each other–mangoes? Do you like mangoes? Are you hungry? Well, I could go for a little snack…it’s safe to eat this, right? That seems a little steep but, let’s do it.

The mangoes were bright orange and cut so that they bloomed, like a flower. They were cold and juicy and the absolute perfect snack to have while sitting on a hot beach in Mexico. If I could go back in time and hug that man, I would. He introduced me to happiness.

Yes, I’m talking in superlatives here. It’s true. And usually superlatives are the sign of lazy thinking or dishonesty. But in this case, I cannot say it any other way. A perfect mango is perfect.

I used my love of mangoes as the basis for an essay many years later. My first “Spanish Lesson.” It’s called La Temporada.

And since then, this little essay has been rejected by three different publications. So I thought I might as well give it a home here. It takes me back to a very sweet temporada indeed.

It turns out I love ataulfo mangoes. They are small enough to comfortably fit into my hand and have a bit of a hooknose. They are the color of a late afternoon sun and when they are at the peak of ripeness they ooze a little from the stem. They are heavy, full, with skin stretched tight. And inside the flesh is smooth and slippery and sweet. A big parrot mango, so called for its red and green skin, the most common kind around here, can be stringy, watery, and a bit sour, even at its peak ripeness. Not so with ataulfos. They are the perfect blend of texture and taste, sweet without being overly saccharine tasting. All this would make them treasure enough but ataulfos are also rare. They have a temporada within the temporada.

So we overdose on them. We have them at breakfast with corn flakes, mid-morning with yogurt. Then Michelle will make a mango salad with rice and beans and cilantro and vinegar for lunch. They are stir-fried into dinner and for dessert—a marvelously unadorned mango. Any time I think, really that’s enough, I remember they’ll be gone before the rainy season begins and I stuff in one more.

Consequently when the temporada is over, we have made ourselves sick of mango. I think if I ever eat another mango again I’ll throw up. And slowly, slowly the months will pass and I’ll find myself asking my fruit guy again, “Por favor, donde estan los mangos?” It’s a roller coaster of longing and loathing.

Like motherhood.