This post was inspired by Glennon Melton over at Momastery for her reply to a comment on her blog post titled “There Will Be No Eclipse“.  She writes, “This is part of our work, our vocation, our art, and our mission down here. To turn shit holy and then to hold it out to hurting people and say LOOK! MAGIC! HOLY SHIT!!!!”


Note: You will not often see profanity on this blog. I am not a potty mouth. It takes a certain combination of mood and circumstance for me to go there. I hope I don’t traumatize any of you who might think of me as a sweet, mild-mannered girl. I actually have some of the ingredients of a spicy enchilada in me.So here we go.

The other day I went to a parent-teacher meeting for all of the parents of the kids in José’s class. It was an excellent meeting. His teacher was informative, inspiring, and engaging with an obvious love for her students. (There’s an answer to the prayer of my last post.) Maestra Lydia started the meeting by talking individually to each parent about their child’s improvements. Sounds great, right? José’s two accomplishments were identifying his belongings and eating at school.

Sometimes it takes me a while to realize that I’ve reacted to something, especially when events are tightly sequenced and I don’t have time or privacy to process them, like at meetings like this one. Now that I’ve had some time to absorb and process, I realize that the two achievements that la maestra cited were not representative of what José is capable of. He’s understood what belongs to him for a really long time and although he was eating fairly well in the past, he’s recently regressed in that area. The thought that flitted through my mind too quickly to register at that moment was, “That’s all you think he can do?” Of course, that’s not a fair question. I’m pretty sure that la maestra knows that José is capable of more than that, but it’s what first came to mind.

We proceeded to sit in a circle with our children to hear la maestra talk about some of the classroom routine. She also had the kids demonstrate how they participate in this routine like signing the days of the week and chanting a fun rhyme. José was paying attention but not participating so I encouraged him to move his hands like his teacher during the signing demonstration. He sort of made a circular motion with his fist for one of the days of the week. During the chant, José was sitting quietly but a little spacey. My reaction to all of this was disappointment. Not in José himself but in knowing that he’s capable of doing more and wondering if la maestra is challenging him and insisting and encouraging him to do more. And I was also absorbing the fact that many of the students were completely engaged and/or participating. I wasn’t enjoying myself.

The next part of the meeting was helping our kids make christmas cards to exchange with classmates. José dislikes crafts. He used to hate them so it’s definitely an improvement that hate has changed to dislike. But this activity did nothing to encourage my mood. I have no qualms about insisting that José participate in activities, but he doesn’t respond well to me when I’m in teacher mode and even less when I’m in frustrated teacher mode. So we both suffered through the card making activity.

Next came sitting in a circle for the actual card exchange. At this point José was getting antsy and started disbehaving. I was already frustrated and therefore lacking patience. José was one of the first to exchange and was supposed to give a hug to the exchangees, but he was unsettled and la maestra quickly moved on to the next exchange. I saw this as a missed opportunity to encourage him to interact, even if with something other than a hug. After all, he’s not averse to physical contact and does a really good low five-fist bump.

Finally, when it was time to leave, I noticed a paper taped to the wall next to the teacher’s desk titled something like, “Expected Skills.” I don’t remember much of what was written – I think I was already emotionally overloaded – but I remember thinking, “Most of those are skills José doesn’t have. I’m a terrible mother for letting him get so far behind.” (Just so you know, I quickly gave myself a mental slap on the face because guilt like that has no place in a mother’s mind and I know I do the best that I can. But the part about José’s skills is true.) I flashed back to a recent conversation with la maestra about José’s chances of graduating to elementary school or whether he would have to repeat third year kindergarten a second time. She assured me that because of José’s age, he would most likely automatically graduate. Again, it took me some time to process the fact that José hasn’t necessarily demonstrated his readiness for first grade. He’ll most likely graduate whether he’s ready or not.

Sorry for being a downer but there are days like this one when a couple months’ worth of unpleasantness and bad moodness is concentrated into one day and my overwhelming sense is, “Man, this is a shitty situation.” However, I happen to believe in a God who can take shitty situations and make them holy. He’s done it time and time again in my life so I think I have reason to trust that this time will be no different. Now I’d like to list some of the shit that God has made holy in my life.

1. Post-partum depression and then just plain depression.

I recently connected on a deep level with one of Rogelio’s cousins who is going through anxiety and panic attacks after the death of her husband, who left behind two young children. She has been encouraged by being able to talk freely to someone who identifies with what she’s going through and who has ideas about how to cope other than “suck it up” or “you have to be strong for your kids.” Look, Holy Shit.

2. José was born with a chromosomal abnormality.

I have become friends with some amazing women who I otherwise would not have met. I’ve been trained by skilled therapists in strategies that help my son reach his highest potential and that have made me a better mom. I have looked over the brink and come away seeing that it is an honor and privilege to know José. I have embraced a calling to advance inclusive education for people with disabilities. Look, Holy Shit.

3. Rogelio was denied a visa to the US with a ten year penalty when we applied the first time. We never got the chance to apply for residency in Canada.

My marriage went through some fire in the process of living in and traveling between three different countries. Now that we’ve survived the fire, we have never been more committed to each other than we are now. Look, Holy Shit.

4. We had to leave Canada just as everything seemed to be falling into place in our lives there: great job, great friends, incredible interventions for José and supports for me. We had to leave it all behind.

I no longer confuse blessings with the One who blesses. I am learning to let go of my sense of entitlement to things that are not guaranteed in life, even if I work my butt off to achieve them. I am being freed from the need to hold on to whatever good comes my way. (Except for my iPad. I have trouble with the thought that it will die one day. Unless iPads go to heaven and then I’ll get to see it there.)

There are things that sometimes make me sad these days. The disappointment is real. And yet strangely life still feels satisfying. God has never let disappointment be the end of the story in my life and I trust that he will make something holy out of this, too. Use the comments to share how sh***y situations have turned into blessings in your life.

This will be the first of a couple posts of a very different tone from the others I've written. It's a significant departure from the light-hearted themes I've chosen so far and might be a bit of a shock for some of you. However, I feel it's time to show a deeper side of me. It would probably be more comfortable for some if I eased into this change gradually, and I've tried to figure out a way to do that. But I also need to write about what's in my heart. Please forgive the abrupt change.


Advent

This is the first year that I've decided to talk to José about Advent. He's been steadily growing in his ability to talk to me about the things he cares about and when I reflect his thoughts back to him with more full vocabulary, it's almost like having a conversation. This has encouraged me to talk to him about things that I care about as well, and although he doesn't have as much patience for hearing about the subjects I choose, I nonetheless encourage (force?) him to hear me out sometimes. So I'm talking to him about Advent.

As I struggle to find words to explain this season that have meaning for José, I also find myself contemplating more deeply it's meaning. In researching different ways of drawing children into a time of anticipating Christ's birth, I've been drawn to the song O Come O Come Emmanuel. On the surface, I enjoy the lovely melancholy melody and liturgical feel of the words as I sing them. What surprised me the other day, though, is that as I was singing the refrain, “Rejoice, rejoice. Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel” is that I found myself close to tears. The strange thing was that it actually felt right. Here's why. The refrain calls us to rejoice, but before those words comes a different story. In the first verse we hear of a people who are captive, mourning, in exile, waiting to be ransomed. That's what gets me. But not just because of this song. For a few days before connecting with this song, I was feeling a tension, a disconnect, unsatisfied. I finally pinpointed that, among other things, it was stemming from spending more time at José's school.

At the beginning of the month I was asked to help distribute our government-sponsored breakfasts at José's school. I spent a couple weeks going from classroom to classroom, checking attendance and distributing milk and snacks accordingly. This gave me glimpses into each classroom and the dynamics at play between teachers and students. Being that I'm a teacher, and a highly sensitive* one at that, I was highly tuned to these dynamics. Some of what I saw and heard was encouraging and uplifting for me: rapport, attentiveness, structure, rhythm. But I also saw much more than I wished of disrespect, inattention, physical barriers, and instructional rigidity. I recognize that I don't have the entire picture of what goes on at José's school, but after one week of these observations I felt heavy with sadness.

I long to see José surrounded by teachers who work because of vocation more than salary, who see their students as deserving of the very best they have to give, and who know God's love for them such that it overflows to the kids they see every day. I know that God longs for this as well.

So I find myself responding to the call for Israel to rejoice with mourning. I can understand on a small level how they were living in the chasm between reality and possibility. Between hope in God's promise and mourning their present circumstance. I believe that one promise was fulfilled by a baby in a manger. For this I have reason to rejoice and I anticipate the celebration of that birth. But there are promises that God has yet to fulfill – a kingdom on earth where tears will be wiped away. Where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. (Revelation 21:4) And I also pray for God's presence at José's school, even as I mourn how much work he has yet to do there.

*For more information on highly sensitive people click here.

 

Here in Mexico I call my kid names. I insult him and bully him and tell him he's too skinny. When he throws a tantrum I call him a crybaby. Troublemaker. Annoying. Noisemaker. Frog legs. Son of your mother.

But hold on. Don't call the bad mommy police just yet.

It occurred to me the other day just how innappropriate this name-calling is in the culture I grew up in. In fact, it would even seem by some standards that I'm contributing to the bullying epidemic that is hurting so many kids. And that's the last thing I want to do. So it's interesting to me that I've adopted this habit of name-calling with José.

I can't remember when I first started participating in this strangely Mexican habit. I imagine it was sometime after José was born when I was especially attuned to the mannerisms that my fabulous mother-in-law used with him. I vaguely remember feeling surprised and a little uncomfortable about hearing him called “crybaby,” for example, precisely because of how innappropriate this is from my cultural perspective. Over time, however, I also started paying attention to the tone of voice and facial expressions that accompanied these names and realized that the words were actually being said with love and affection. For a while it still seemed a strange way to show a child that you care for him but I came to accept that it was something normal and acceptable in my husband's family. I suppose over time I went from accepting to embracing this custom because now I don't hesitate to call José an annoying kid or a troublemaker.

This phenomenon also carries over to physical attributes. For example, when I'm helping José change his clothes, I'll sometimes call him “frog leggs” or “skinny boy.” The difference between the examples I've given and what we would call bullying is the fact that the names are used between people who obviously care about each other. It would definitely be unacceptable here to use these names with other people's children unless you have long-standing or intimate ties to them. You won't hear me using these names even with my nieces and nephews because I'm a relatively new addition to the family. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, frequently calls my littlest niece (who happens to have big lungs and uses them frequently and for extended periods) a crybaby.

It's hard to describe the feeling I have when I'm using these words. I guess I could say that it feels like a healthy way of coping with some of the qualities in children that make them children by naming those attributes in a loving way. Because let's face it, kids will keep us busy by asking for help with this and that until we realize that it's taken two hours to wash two dinner plates. That could be called annoying. Or when the kid can't seem to keep his hands off all the things he knows he's not supposed to play with. That could be called being a troublemaker. Or when the kid who's usually tough as nails starts crying for no apparent reason. Maybe he's being a crybaby. The great thing about using these names in Mexico is that I've learned to use them only with much affection, smiling, and hugging. Because after all, if I couldn't smile about all the mischief and tantruming that goes on around here, then I'd be a pretty big mess. The closest comparison I can think of in my other culture would be baby talk. Imagine, for example, that you're holding a beautiful little bundle of newbornness and you croon, “You're such a little cutie” in your best baby talk voice. Now substitute cutie for one of my choice names without changing the tone of your voice. That's kind of what this name-calling culture is like.

This name-calling isn't limited just to children. But that's a whole different blog post. For now you can rest assured that when I call José a troublemaker to his face in Spanish, it's because he is the most charming, loveable, squeezy-cheeked troublemaker I know.

And now because I'm a hopeless nerd and because the teacher in me just can't resist, here is a little Spanish vocabulary matching game for you:

Which words go with which picture? (have fun all you fellow nerds)

troublemaker, frog legs, crybaby, skinny, noisemaker, annoying

1.

patas de rana

 

2.

travieso

3.
chillón

 

4.

latoso

 

5.

gritón
6.
flacuchis (or flaco)

 

I love Mexican food.

I know, I know. Who doesn't love Mexican food? But how many of you have eaten Mexican food prepared by a Mexican woman in a Mexican home? I can think of at least a few of you, some of whom went to Yucatan with me all those years ago. But even as I think back on my past travels in Mexico, they simply don't compare with all the tastes I've experienced since living here with my husband. I also love to cook . . . and eat. And except for Italian pesto, there's nothing like cooking Mexican food in Mexico. I don't like to experiment much when I cook here. There's really no way to improve on the recipes that I've learned from my fabulous mother-in-law, Doña Carmen.

Speaking of recipes from my mother-in-law, the other day as I was preparing José's chocolate ice cream on the stove (no, it's not Mexican food but hear me out), I commented to Doña Carmen that the process was similar to making rompope. Rompope is basically spiked egg nog that's traditionally poured atop cups of jello. Doña Carmen said to me, “I don't remember how to make rompope.” I replied, “Well, you were the one who taught me and now I can teach you if you want.” (We have a rompope date coming up.)

Anyway, back to the point. Mexican food prepared in a Mexican kitchen is an experience that's unequalled in my mouth . . . I mean, mind. I think this has to do in part with the freshness of the food, the many varieties of chile combinations, the unapologetic use of frying pans, super thin slices of meat, and a culture that applauds great tasting food. It's gotten to the point for me that I have no desire to go to Mexican resataurants in the US and I would rather eat food prepared in mine or someone else's home than eat tacos on the street (at least until I get sick of washing dishes without a dishwasher). Some of the foods I especially love are chiles rellenos, beef in three three chile sauce with potatoes and something that we call alambre (beef, chorizo, bell peppers and mozzarella). But my absolute favorite is Pollo a la poblana. (For vegetarians, just omit the chicken. The whole point is a la poblana.)

I wanted to post a picture here but all the images I found actually look kind of nasty. Instead you get pictures of each step. If I ever get a mobile device with a camera I'll try to take a tasty-looking picture for all of you. For now just close your eyes and imagine your tase buds having a party.

Here's the recipe:

  • 4-6 pieces of bone-in, skinless chicken, dark or white meat
  • 6 poblano chiles, choose ones that are not too tough and not too squishy
  • 1 large white onion
  • 1 can corn
  • 16 oz. container Mexican-style sour cream, Dairygold makes this (if it comes in 8 oz. containers, get one of those instead) or go to your local Mexican goods store
  • cooking oil
  • salt

Instruccions:

1. Roast the poblano chiles until all the outer skin is blackened. I prefer to do this over a gas flame because the chiles hold their texture better, but this can also be done about five inches from a broiler for about five minutes on each side. Place the blackened chiles in an airtight bag or container for at least half an hour. This causes the chiles to “sweat,” thus allowing the blackened skin to loosen and further softening the flesh.

 

 

2. While the chiles “sweat,” place the chicken in a stockpot and barely cover with water. Add a sizeable chunk of onion, a clove of garlic, and salt. If you like to add other stuff like pepper or celery or cilantro, go ahead. I always go basic with just the first three. Cover. Boil/simmer the chicken until soft. It's interesting to me that in Mexico, the desired softness in chicken requires about an hour of boiling but in the States it's more like 20-30 minutes.

 

3. When the chiles are done “sweating,” remove the blackened skin and discard. The skin should come off easily by gently rubbing it off with your fingers. Sometimes, though, especially if you're not careful over the gas flame, there may be dimples where the skin wasn't blackened enough and you have to pick at it a little more, or where the flesh was blackened along with the skin and the skin doesn't separate. You may need to discard these sections to preserve the taste of the chiles. The skin will stick to your fingers as it rubs off so I frequently rinse with water. However, avoid running water directly over the chiles as this will dilute their flavor.

 

4. Cut a slit into one side of the skinned chiles and remove the seeds and veins. Rip off the stems. Unlike with chiles rellenos, you don't have to be especially careful about removing veins and seeds. The veins are the super spicy part so make sure to remove as much of them as possible, but do try to do it without taking too much flesh off in the process. And don't rub your eyes after. Ouch.

 

5. Slice the chiles into 1/4 inch strips. Finely slice at least half the onion.

 

6. Heat a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add 1-2 tablespoons cooking oil and when a drop of water sizzles sharply, add the onion and chile slices. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the chiles are really soft, add salt to taste. You might be surprised by how much salt is needed to create a nice flavor.

 

7. Reduce heat and add about half a 16 oz. container of Mexican-style sour cream. Drain the corn and add to the chile mixture. You can also add a little of the corn juice for another hint of flavor. Add about 1/2 cup of broth from the cooked chicken to the mixture. Use less or more broth according to the consistency you desire. When everything is nice and hot, add the chicken.

8. Serve with white or red rice and corn tortillas.

Alternately, you could grill or sautee some chicken breasts and serve it with the creamy poblano-onion mixture.

Eat your hearts out.

 

Ok. So I've been thinking about starting a blog for a while now, but it wasn't until my experience with el tinaco that I was pushed over the edge.

Here is a picture of el tinaco.

I've seen and experienced many surprising things in the five total years that I've lived in Mexico, but for some reason this one has me fixated. Maybe because it's a fitting example of how different I am from the person I was when I first moved here with my husband. That person was not only unfamiliar with many housewifeyish activities but rather loathed such things. I quickly realized after moving to this wonderful country that I was totally out of my league when it came to a Mexican housewife's duties. I usually pride myself on working to do my best at whatever I do, but when it comes to housework, I'd rather just go to a different room of the house that's a little bit cleaner than deal with toilets and dishes and beds and floors. So the fact that I actually felt the urge to take on el tinaco is close to a mountain moving-type miracle.

You might be thinking, “What's the big deal about cleaning that thing?” Let me explain.

First of all, I have to wonder how long el tinaco has been collecting filthyness since it's last cleaning. All I know is that every time I had to turn on our water pump and stick a hose in el tinaco I was grossed out by what I saw. Even for someone like me, who will go to many lengths of denial to avoid dealing with icky or bothersome cleaning projects, this was an unacceptable situation. So one day I said to myself, “I am going to clean el tinaco because I am a decent human being and that's what any self-respecting gringa-pretending-to-be-a-Mexican-housewife would do.”

I'm going to back up and explain a little bit about our household plumbing. A tinaco is basically just a water holding tank. They are positioned on rooftops and many rooftop dwelling views in Mexico will look something like this, often with many more tinacos.

 

Unfortunately, the tinaco that I use is not connected in such a way that it automatically fills with water. What this means for me is that every 24 to 48 hours I lug a hose that's connected to our cistern up two flights of stairs and plug in a water pump to fill up el tinaco. I always check to see exactly how low the water level is and that's how I came to be grossed out by what had collected in the bottom of el tinaco. I know that los tinacos come with a filtration system, but nobody should be using water with UFO's (Unidentified Floating Objects) in it no matter how filtered it is. So I set out to clean el tinaco and do a darn good job of it. What that required was a little bit of this

and a little bit of this

 

plus a bucket on a string, a disinfected plastic broom, an empty sour cream container, two bath towels, more old rags than I want to think about, and very cold and wet feet.

When all was said and done (with more than a few mild curses and thoughts of, “What was I thinking?”) the darn thing was as clean as it was gonna get. And the best part of all: I felt proud to be a Mexican housewife.

Sometimes I feel so proud of accomplishing new things in Mexico that I just have to brag about it to someone close to me. It's taken all of these five years to somewhat accept the hard physical labor that's required to achieve a semblance of cleanliness in the houses where I've lived. So I like to celebrate the milestones in my journey, milestones like getting inside a gross tinaco to do a great job. Usually I brag to my fabulous mother-in-law because she's witnessed and understood my transformation in Mexico better than anyone. But when I told her what I'd done and how I did it, she was incredulous and only exclaimed, “¿¡Te metiste?!” (“You got inside it?!”) I kind of expected this reaction because I've never seen or heard of anyone going to acrobatic lengths to clean a tinaco. Nonetheless, I had hoped maybe for more recognition of my gargantuan efforts and was surprised by my disappointment in feeling less Mexican for having gone to such lengths to do a good job. After all, my mother-in-law is rather famous in her community for keeping a spotlessly clean house in her time so I figured she would be especially impressed by my accomplishment. Oh well. Now that I look back on it, I'm still satisfied with a job well done, relieved that I don't have to think about UFO's every time I turn on the tap, and proud to be a gringa Mexican housewife.

If you're nerdy like that and want to know more about plumbing in Mexico, here's a good link: http://www.yucatanliving.com/yucatan-survivor/yucatan-plumbing.htm (No I don't live in Yucatan, but it's still a helpful explanation.)