Back home

-We’re back after a short burst of a trip to the US, which was so chock-full of graduations, my brother’s wedding, dinners and a little jaunt up to Massachusetts for a visit to C’s sister and brother-in-law plus a (phenomenal) LP concert, that we barely recovered from our jetlag before packing right back up and making the return flight.  Still, it was so good to be back in New Jersey with everyone, and we were there when spring had really exploded in greenery everywhere.

-Now that we’re home, Isla’s hearty appetite is back, and I think I can tentatively whisper that she seems to be over her horrible two-month picky-eater stunt.  She gave up on being a vegetarian, returned to her carnivorous ways, and is thankfully happy to branch back out to a larger array of fruits and vegetables.  I’ve noticed that I’ve been happier and more carefree lately, and realized how anxious I’d become over tiny I’s selective eating.  She’s such a pipsqueak and needs all the nutrients she can get.

-The temperature in Antakya rose while we were gone, but the winds are still strong and constant.  By some miracle, we can open all our windows and never admit a single mosquito!  The wind blows through the house and keeps us from needing air conditioning.  We’ve just had to do a better job at securing some of the overhead lighting.

-Liz and Celine arrive tomorrow!  Knowing that they’ll be here for almost the whole month of June has made leaving NJ so much easier.  They’re currently enduring a seven hour layover in Casablanca airport.  Romantic location, grueling wait time.

-Next week I’ll be halfway through this pregnancy.  I’m still trying out various ways to prepare Isla for the new arrival.  I am hoping she’ll love her new sibling, after she makes it through the initial stages of denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance of course!

-We’re almost in the middle of Ramadan right now, which means that there’s a cannon that goes off around sunset to signal the start of Iftar, dates are sold everywhere, and families stay up late eating together while kids play outside for long hours, and then everyone wakes up early to eat before daybreak.  It’s a month when the days are sleepy and the nights are celebratory; everything slows because so many people are fasting from all food and drink during the day and then sleeping less at night.  C says you can tell who’s truly fasting by their breath.  If you haven’t eaten or drank anything–or chewed any gum–your breath will become stale and rank as the day draws on.  Piety equals bad breath.  I haven’t noticed this much, but what I have observed is that a lot more people are stopping to give money to beggars in the street, which is sort of what Ramadan is supposed to be about.

-I wish I had a longer visit in the US, but it’s good to fall back into our regular schedule and feel tethered and grounded again.


Antakya by month

-In January we move into our new home.  It is bright and cheery, and also very cold for a bit until the gas is hooked up.  In the meantime we drag space heaters around with us and wear layers.

We host a Sunday board game afternoon as a housewarming of sorts, and it becomes a tradition.  We alternate between Settlers of Catan and Game of Thrones, with occasional rounds of Jenga.

We drink lots of fresh orange and pomegranate juice, and I buy huge pomegranates every Thursday at the farmer’s market outside our apartment building.  We have a few interesting run-ins with our neighbors, who are all wary of foreigners.  Month by month, we will win them over.  Isla keeps our same-floor neighbors awake one night with her teething, so I appease them with a batch of cookies by way of apology, and it sweetens our relationship.

I turn 30 the day my brother and cousin fly in for a visit.   We have a great time taking them around, eating lots of good food, hiking up steep mountain trails, visiting the archeological museum and playing games at home.  We’re both sad to see them go.

-There is a lot of rain in February.  Still, the views from every side of our home are stunning.  We are on the seventh floor and look out at mountain ranges from every room.  We eat breakfast together in the mornings and head out for a morning walk together; C to work, and me to drop off Isla at her babysitter’s house for a few hours so I can work on my turtle novels.  They are not about turtles, but they move forward as slowly, and probably with more self-doubt.  One stalls and sleeps for awhile.  Sometimes the days stretch out too long, and I feel lost and wonder and scheme about what I want for my life.  There’s a persistent sense that I should be doing something very specific here, and it’s eluding me.  I’ve been feeling this way for a long time now, but I’m a slow learner.

I print out tax forms and take them to the post office, where no one speaks English or Arabic.  The woman at the desk asks me a few questions and I stare at her blankly.  She goes outside and steps into neighboring shops to look for someone who speaks Arabic.  We stop a Syrian pedestrian and he comes into the post office to translate.  All the woman wants to know is whether or not I’d like the package express-mailed.  I start laughing, and the three of us laugh at the effort it took to request standard mailing.  Isla cries impatiently in her stroller.

At night people use coal to heat their homes and shops, and the air is gritty and acrid.  It will all be clear again come spring.  Almost every building here is topped with solar panels, and C laughs at the juxtaposition of such archaic and modern energy sources.

I fly out to Ankara to settle residency permits for Isla and me.  I visit the US Embassy, which proves useless, and then talk with the notary public, a translator’s office, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the US consulate in Adana.  It is an ultimately frustrating trip, which I’ll have to repeat again in March before we finally receive our residencies.

C flies to Istanbul for ten days.  Isla and I try to keep busy at home.  We have guests for dinner, make a few visits, and swim in an indoor pool.  I join a yoga group and book club.  I begin language lessons with one of our Syrian friends for two hours a week.  He coaches me in Arabic, and teaches me some Turkish when I’m feeling ambitious, and I work through the TOEFL practice book with him.  As a bonus, he helps me understand the ins and outs and nuances of what’s happening in Syria.

On somewhat of a whim, I take a pregnancy test at the end of the month and I’m floored when it jumps out positive.  C had been saying as much, but I didn’t think it was possible.  In the nausea and exhaustion of the first three months, my emotions swing back and forth from excitement to fear and anxiety.  How will Isla handle it?  How will I handle it?  Where will the baby be born?  How many batches of cookies will I be making for all the nights we’ll keep our neighbors awake?  When I sing to Isla at night before putting her to sleep, I hold her close and kiss her dark little head.  I add more songs than usual.  I worry and struggle to sleep at night.  Months later, when I begin to feel better and regain my energy, I am less afraid and more full of anticipation.

-Jim and his friend come for a visit in March.  They somehow end up on opposite jetlag schedules.  Jim wakes up early and takes morning walks around the small city.  I join him when I can.  It’s good to have him hear.  We eat good food again and take them around.  We visit the first Christian church built into the base of a mountain by St. Peter.  We have a particularly lovely day driving up to Arsuz and Iskandarun with one of our friends here.   We walk by the sea and then eat a spectacular meal prepared at a small family restaurant.  They set a table outside for us on the shore.  We eat shrimp, salad, and grilled fish.

Campaign trucks drive around every few hours blasting songs meant to encourage people to vote yes in the referendum.  They wake Isla from her nap several times until she gets used to it.  Now, the calls to prayer from nearby mosques have become like lullabies for her.  C goes in to check on her one night and comes back to tell me she’s sleeping in the position of prayer.  We laugh when the call to prayer starts, and think she must be becoming devout.

-April weather is perfect.  Everything is green and blooming and breezy.  Lilacs spill out over fences into the streets alongside honeysuckle and gardenia.  I am constantly sniffing the air.  Swallows dip and slide across the sky all day long.  In Isla’s fifteenth month, she learns to walk, becomes a picky vegetable-averse vegetarian eater, and expands her vocabulary to eight nouns, one verb, and one interjection (la2, which is Arabic for no).  She clings to me more than usual.  Luckily for her, Turks are crazy about babies.  When she gets cranky in a restaurant, the waiter takes her around and shows her the trees in the courtyard while we eat.  When I stop in to the small grocery store across the street where everyone knows us, the woman at the register sits Isla on top of the counter with her while I collect the things I come in for.  We learn that Ayla is a Turkish name derived from the word “ay,” which means moon.

We attend an Easter mass at dawn on the day of the referendum vote.  The street is blocked off by security, and our friend meets us to let us into the church.  Armed guards stand on the rooftop.  Candles are lit by a flame carried from Jerusalem through Syria and up into Antakya.  The chanting is in Arabic, Greek and Turkish.  We arrive home and stay in for the day.  The outcome of the vote is no surprise.  The political landscape here and everywhere colors everything, and sometimes I force myself to break from reading the news for a few days.  Too much makes me feel dirty and stale inside.

We walk everywhere and wander around public parks on the weekends snacking on cups of spiced corn sold at stands.  The produce at the farmer’s market no longer offers pomegranates or oranges.  Now it includes apricots, green plums, fresh green almonds, and heaping buckets of wild thyme.  Chickpeas begin to grow, and people of all ages carry around their green stalks and pop the beans off to eat.  We buy birdseed and fill an empty candle on the window ledge.  It only attracts mourning doves, but Isla loves them and so we do too.

-We spend just two thirds of May in Turkey.  It’s 5:30am here now, quiet and cool.  We’ll head out for the airport at mid-morning and take a domestic flight to Istanbul and then fly straight on to JFK.  I haven’t had a direct flight to the US in years, because it’s not an option when flying out of Beirut.  This will be Isla’s sixth international flight (outside the womb and not counting domestic flights).  It will be the first flight for her sibling in utero.  I haven’t quite packed yet.

Poetry Archives: Mary Karr

I read somewhere
that if   pedestrians didn’t break traffic laws to cross
Times Square whenever and by whatever means possible,
the whole city
would stop, it would stop.
Cars would back up to Rhode Island,
an epic gridlock not even a cat
could thread through. It’s not law but the sprawl
of our separate wills that keeps us all flowing. Today I loved
the unprecedented gall
of the piano movers, shoving a roped-up baby grand
up Ninth Avenue before a thunderstorm.
They were a grim and hefty pair, cynical
as any day laborers. They knew what was coming,
the instrument white lacquered, the sky bulging black
as a bad water balloon and in one pinprick instant
it burst. A downpour like a fire hose.
For a few heartbeats, the whole city stalled,
paused, a heart thump, then it all went staccato.
And it was my pleasure to witness a not
insignificant miracle: in one instant every black
umbrella in Hell’s Kitchen opened on cue, everyone
still moving. It was a scene from an unwritten opera,
the sails of some vast armada.
And four old ladies interrupted their own slow progress
to accompany the piano movers.
each holding what might have once been
lace parasols over the grunting men. I passed next
the crowd of pastel ballerinas huddled
under the corner awning,
in line for an open call — stork-limbed, ankles
zigzagged with ribbon, a few passing a lit cigarette
around. The city feeds on beauty, starves
for it, breeds it. Coming home after midnight,
to my deserted block with its famously high
subway-rat count, I heard a tenor exhale pure
longing down the brick canyons, the steaming moon
opened its mouth to drink from on high …
-“A Perfect Mess”

Day 3, and 2017 is already looking interesting

Dear Apples,

It’s only 11:30am, and so far I have:

-Gone to the grocery store with my shirt on inside-out

-Put fabric softener in the washing machine instead of washing detergent

-Failed to do my writing work

-Thrown a plate into the trash can instead of the banana peel on top of it

-Remembered last night’s dream that involved Donald Trump doing a commercial for Kraft cheese that required him to sit in a tub of boxed macaroni and cheese.  (I was mainly confused as to why Kraft believed that this marketing idea would boost their mac n’ cheese sales.)

How’s your day going?  Happy New Year!

For love of words V

Here are some small selections from books I’ve read recently.  More posts like this can be found here. 

Although much of what I’ve been reading in the past few months has made me laugh, I haven’t totally fallen in love with a book in a while.  Any recommendations??

“‘Never trust folks,’ Olive’s mother told her years ago, after someone left a basket of cow flaps by their front door.  Henry got irritated by that way of thinking.  But Henry was pretty irritating himself, with his steadfast way of remaining naive, as though life were just what a Sears catalogue told you it was: everyone standing around smiling.” -Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge

“Angie, leaning her head now against the hallway wall, fingering her black skirt, felt she had figured out something too late, and that must be the way of life, to get something figured out when it was too late.” -Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge

“That was the morning I committed the first sin of love, which was to confuse beauty and a good soundtrack with knowledge.” -Stephanie Danler, Sweetbitter

-“There is never nothing beneath something that is covered.  As a child, I used to cover my face with my hands so that no one would know I was there.  And then I discovered that covering my face made me more visible because everyone was curious to see what it was I wanted to hide in the first place.” -Deborah Levy, Hot Milk

“But smart as the conversation is, it has a strangely repetitive quality.  You never know anybody better–the talk never deepens, but neither does it show the slightest strain, and I’m nothing if not strained to the gills virtually every second.  You enter that place and live suspended in amber like characters in a Victorian novel.” -Mary Karr, Lit

“The bed was warm and ordinary and perfect, and it had been such a long, long day.” -Carol Rifka Brunt, Tell the Wolves I’m Home


Antakya, Turkey: First Impressions

Dear Apples,

We’ve moved! (From Lebanon to Turkey). We’re not quite settled; we’re still staying in a temporary guest house because frankly we’ve just been too busy to move into our new apartment, which is only a ten minute walk away.  We’ll use the New Year holiday to continue assembling our mountain of two-dimensional Ikea pieces into the objects the online catalogue promised they were.

I’m surprised by how much I love it here.  The thing about having perpetually low expectations for everything means that I’m almost always startled by my own happiness.  Here are some first impressions and recent happenings.

-We arrive in Hatay (Antakya’s province) at night after a long layover in Istanbul.  I have been breastfeeding Isla the entire second flight without eating enough, so I have a migraine and I’m too exhausted to notice our new surroundings through the taxi window.  C holds Isla, we arrive at the guest house, and he goes out to bring us food.  All I am aware of is the fact that we still have to put Isla’s crib together, which in the moment feels like knowing we need to run a marathon up a steep mountain range without sleeping first.  To C’s amusement, I start crying with joy when he comes home with a huge steak and puts the crib together by himself. (Me through my tears:  “I thought you meant you were bringing a raw steak that we’d have to cook!  But I can eat this right now!”)

-I wake up in the sun and look out the living room window to a view of the bustling center of the tiny city.  The red flapping of a Turkish flag, a mosque’s spire jutting up against the mountain, cars and pedestrians circling a roundabout with Ataturk’s statue in the center.  We go out for a walk and there are so many young people and the sidewalks are crammed with baby strollers vying for space.  You’d think babies would attract as little attention as the squirrels in NJ; they are so commonplace, but no, Isla receives more waves and smiles and admiring words than a celebrity would. We hear as much Arabic in passing conversation as we do Turkish.  We sit down in a restaurant, guess at the menu, and make the happy accident of ordering a breakfast that could feed about five people.

-We find a babysitter for Isla; a Syrian woman from Hasakeh who has one home in Aleppo and another in Damascus.  She doesn’t speak English and sings the Arabic songs that Isla has grown up with.  Isla loves her right away, and we walk to her house every morning where I drop her off, write for a couple hours, and pick her up.  Before I take Isla home, we have coffee or tea and watch the news together and learn the updates on Syria.

-C’s work is urgent and stressful: truckloads of food and winter supplies need to make it over the border into Syria, and war tends to throw everything off course all too often.  There is little predictability.  His office is across the street from where we are staying, and we have lunch together every day.  C and I haven’t done too much cooking for each other since we’ve been together, (I made my own meals and we ate a lot of C’s mother’s dishes before we had our own kitchen) but I have always loved real food and loved to cook.  Now once I day I make a meal for our lunch.  I haven’t found a good volunteering fit yet, so feeding him is my contribution to relief efforts for now.

-I am always homesick around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and so I call my family almost daily.  We celebrate Thanksgiving with a big group of American expats and we eat all the beloved signature dishes of the day including two large turkeys.

-Isla turns one year old.  She is happy here and sings a lot.  We laugh when she starts singing along with all the calls to prayer from the mosques.  She prefers tearing sheets of tin foil into tiny shreds over playing with her toys. She is stubborn and emotive and wonderful.  I think back to last year when her early arrival caught us off guard.  She was so incredibly tiny that we were scared for her, but she’s been a tough little girl from the get go.

-C travels to the US and Isla and I stay and prepare for Christmas by setting up a nativity scene, playing holiday music, making cookies and buying two small cypress trees.  Christmas involves cinnamon rolls, gifts, whiskey, games, and a Christmas Day lunch celebrated with a small group of (mostly Muslim) Syrians.  The evacuations from Aleppo have finished and peace talks are underway.  For now, things seem hopeful.

-I’m homesick for both New Jersey and Lebanon, but I do love it here.  Turkey is less accessible to me than Lebanon; the people seem more guarded.  It might just be my interpretation and the fact that I don’t speak Turkish, or it might be the result of all the attacks that Turkey has undergone lately.

For now it’s so right for us to be here and we’re soaking it up.  We’re in close proximity to a whole lot of suffering and terror, but we’re also amongst brave people and witnessing incredible resilience and humanity and ordinary life in the midst of it.  (I need to expand on what I mean by that in another post.) I know 2016 was a bruiser, but here we are at the end of it, and here’s to seeing what 2017 will bring.

Poetry Archives: Naomi Shihab Nye

“Since no one else is mentioning you enough.

The Arab who extends his hand.
The Arab who will not let you pass
his tiny shop without a welcoming word.
The refugee inviting us in for a Coke.
Clean glasses on a table in a ramshackle hut.
Those who don’t drink Coke would drink it now.
We drink from the silver flask of hospitality.
We drink and you bow your head.

Please forgive everyone who has not honored your name.

You who would not kill a mouse, a bird.
Who feels sad sometimes even cracking an egg.
Who places two stones on top of one another
for a monument. Who packed the pieces,
carried them to a new corner. For whom the words
rubble and blast are constants. Who never wanted
those words. To be able to say,
this is a day and I live in it safely,
with those I love, was all. Who has been hurt
but never hurt in return. Fathers and grandmothers,
uncles, the little lost cousin who wanted only
to see a Ferris wheel in his lifetime, ride it
high into the air. And all the gaping days
they bought no tickets
for spinning them around.”

-“The Sweet Arab, The Generous Arab”

Poetry Archives: Mary Oliver

“Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them. I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them.

Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness.

Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful.

May I stay forever in the stream,” – Mary Oliver, Blue Iris.

Middle Grade Fiction Favorites

Dear Apples,

Remember when we used to read out loud to each other?  Wasn’t that just the best?  Now I still miss it so much that I’m always trying to replicate it, and I read out loud to Isla all the time, whether it’s Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See? or a re-read of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.  I read to C too, regardless of whether he’s paying attention or not.

I’ve started so many posts about all of the books that I loved growing up–and that I still remember and sometimes reread–and I’ve left them half-done because the volume is just too overwhelming.  There are children’s books that I loved when I was a kid and now there are a whole army of new ones that have grabbed my attention.  The same goes for every category and subcategory of literature.  But since I could talk about books forever and never get bored of it, I’ll try to start slow and see how far I get with listing at least some of the books that have shaped me and been my most constant solace through every stage of life.

Today I’ll start with some of my favorite Middle Grade fiction.  Some were written for that age group, and some I just happened to read when I was in 6th, 7th and 8th grade.  This is by far one of the best categories in literature, and I think it’s because it’s just such an awesome age.  I know a lot of people would disagree with me, but adolescents have all that incredible curiosity and enthusiasm and awkwardness and budding maturity that hasn’t yet turned cynical.  Although I love a lot of Young Adult fiction as well, I usually don’t find the same depth and variety and scope there that I can usually count on in Middle Grade fiction.   This is certainly not a comprehensive list, and some of them feel younger than middle grade while others feel slightly older, but I’m trying to pull out the heavy hitters of the adolescence-ish age that I can recall at the moment.

Harry Potter Series- J. K. Rowling 

I started reading these in high school, and they finished coming out when I was in college, but I would have loved starting them a little younger too.  It was great to have the experience of waiting desperately for her to complete the next one and the next one, and checking for your turn to come to borrow it at the library or waiting for a friend’s copy.  I’m so glad I had the chance to love those books as she was writing them.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh-Robert C. O’Brien

My 6th grade teacher read this book out loud to my class, and we weren’t supposed to skip ahead, but I couldn’t wait and definitely checked this one out at the library and read the whole thing while the class was in the first few chapters.  It didn’t stop me from loving it while the teacher read it.

The Wednesday Wars-Gary D. Schmidt

This one is a Newberry honor, and totally deserves it.  Holling Hoodhood is a hilarious boy who is forced to spend Wednesdays with a teacher he hates while everyone else is in religion class.  The story takes place during the Vietnam war, and the backstory of his family is woven in so well.  I really need to go back and re-read this one.

Up a Road Slowly-Irene Hunt

I’ve read this book many times.  The characters are fascinating and funny and compelling, and it’s a coming of age story in a reality very different from mine, but so relatable at the same time.  I learned a lot from this book.  I just looked at the Amazon page, and it has a pretty unappealing cover that shows a dreamy girl peering wistfully out into space, and that image does not do a great job at conveying the content of this book.

To Kill A Mockingbird-Harper Lee

I started this after I was riding home from school on the bus one day and saw a girl in high school finish it and say “What a book!”  I’ve re-read it many times since then, and it always makes me cry.

The Great Brain series

Ohmygosh these are the best.  Told through the voice of a young boy recounting the adventures of growing up with his older brother, they are perfectly hilarious and honest.

Dear Mr. Henshaw-Beverly Cleary

This is another Newberry Medal winner, but surprisingly, I doubt it’s Cleary’s best known book.  I absolutely loved all the Ramona books and the Henry Huggins books, and this one was quite different from her younger books but such a pleasant surprise.  It’s a poignant conversation in letters between a growing boy and his favorite author as the boy navigates everything happening around him through adolescence and his teenage years.

The Narnia Series- C.S. Lewis 

I didn’t read all of these, (probably because we owned those really weird but good movies that BBC did, and so I knew most of the stories very well) but I loved The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle.

His Dark Materials series-Philip Pullman

I read these in grad school and finished all three in a few days.  Pullman is such an incredible storyteller, and I think I would have loved reading them when I was younger.

I don’t have time to give descriptions of all the books that are on this very incomplete list, but I absolutely loved all the following books as well and I promise that they deserve emphatic recommendations:

Homer Price books-Robert McCloskey

Lily’s Crossing- Patricia Reilly Giff

A Wrinkle in Time-Madeleine L’Engle

Emily of New Moon series

Peter Pan- J.M. Barrie

The Giver-Lois Lowry (Just found out now that this is a series!! I only ever knew about the first one)

What are some of your favorites?

For love of words IV

Below are small excerpts and clippings that I’ve extracted from things I’ve read or re-read recently.

(Posts one, two and three)

“I opened the tattered book.  Its onion-skin pages were stained with grease from his fingers.  On one page, I covered his thumbprint with my thumb and considered for the first time that Papa might have been more than just old pictures-0ld, repeated stories.” -Wally Lamb, I know this much is true

“Finally, by the sea, where God is everywhere, I gradually calmed.” -Patti Smith, Just Kids

“He was whittled down now, either to banalities or to simple truths.  Either way, they would have to do.” -Sharon Guskin, The Forgetting Time

“Later I will look at video made close to that day of the children watching the rapacious hawk, and hear the light tinkling bells in Simon’s voice and think, he was so young that April.” -Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World

“When the truth would be unbearable the mind often just blanks it out. But some ghost of an event may stay in your head. Then, like the smudge of a bad word quickly wiped off a school blackboard, this ghost can call undue attention to itself by its very vagueness. You keep studying the dim shape of it, as if the original form will magically emerge. This blank spot in my past, then, spoke most loudly to me by being blank. It was a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn’t quite fill it in.” –Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club

“So the challenge I face with children is the redemption of adulthood.  We must make it evident that maturity is the fulfillment of childhood and adolescence, not a diminishing; that it is an affirmation of life, not a denial; that it is entering fully into our essential selves.” -Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet