Little altars everywhere

For months I have been admiring the beautiful little altars Nichole of California Sister has been making. They are beautiful, and I loved the idea of a spot to gather inspiration, focus my breath, and put forth intentions. I’ve been watching and waiting for juuuuust the right one to come along and resonate with me. Ever a can-doer and also not entirely patient, this week I finally decided to try my had at making my own, and I am so pleased with the results.

For my little altar I scoured FB marketplace and then went thrifting, where I eventually found an inexpensive wood clock I thought I could repurpose for my own ends. I carefully took it apart, peeling away old gobs of glue and disassembling the clock mechanism, and then sanded the whole thing to help my paint adhere. Two coats of spray paint+primer did the trick, and then I hand applied gold leaf to the glass before back-painting it black to make for a decorative background for the top area of my altar. The piece de resistance was the leather-mounted lion’s head I repurposed from a cool old bottle I thrifted. He is my altar figurehead.

For me, the lion represents my fierce loves and fierce protectiveness and loyalty. The way I try to radiate light to the world around me. And the beauty I want to embody, like a big cat’s sensual grace. The items I have placed inside for now include:

  • a small Blockshop printed card, for creativity
  • a tiny handpainted Chinese bottle, to honor my family and my heritage
  • a little photo of my two dogs who have passed on, to keep them close
  • a smooth heart-shaped labradorite stone, for romantic love and also as a reminder to choose myself
  • a sweet-smelling votive, to be a light in the dark
  • a baby disco ball given to me by a dear friend many years ago, for friendship and memories
  • a fairy I’ve had since I was young, to remind me to dream

Thank you, Nichole, for your talent and inspiration. I’m not entirely sure yet what small rituals or practices will grow from this new little space of mine, but for the moment I’m content to focus, breathe, and enjoy. I brought in a single plumeria yesterday, just for the simple tiny joy of it. Right now, that feels like enough.

I love you, Daddy

Daddy and me, circa 1983-84

Yesterday my dad passed away. He was 88 years old. I sat there listening to my half-brother cry on the other end of the line as he delivered the news, stunned and numb for what felt like an eternity. Then I burst into tears.

My dad had the most fascinating, full life anyone could imagine, from growing up in Trinidad and a youthful sojourn in the merchant marines, working as a psychiatric nurse and a double decker bus driver in Scotland, and then emigrating to the U.S. even though he was barred entry here for years due to his Chinese heritage. He worked as a self-employed mechanic, raised two families, and loved his children fiercely. He was generous, loved going to the horse races (where I spent many a happy summer in the infield), was an excellent cook, and entertained us with Charlie-isms like “throosers” for trousers, “DOHg” for dog, and the very British “alumEEnium.” To this day I don’t know how much these quirks of speech were a result of 3 continents’ worth of accents, or how much they were his own little idiosyncrasies. We loved it either way. Most summers he spent a little time “up north” mining for gold with friends, he was a great bowler and miniature golfer, and he left this world on his own terms – independent, living on his own, and old enough see his oldest grandchild start high school, just like he wanted.

I wrote this poem a few years ago for him, when he was having one of his many health scares. I didn’t share it with him at the time, though. He was so very afraid of dying, and I thought the allusions to it in my poem would be troubling for him as he convalesced. I finally gave him a framed copy of it for Father’s Day this year, and I think it may have been his favorite gift I ever gave him. To say he loved it would be an understatement — he held it and read it over and over, mouthing the words and cradling the frame gently in his arthritic hands. He marveled that I had written it “all on my own,” and said I had “brought a tear to his eye,” — but I already knew. I could see the tears shining there. He told me almost shyly that he wanted to try to memorize it, even though his memory had gotten so much worse over the years. I was honored and so, so humbled. That was our last visit, and I am so grateful I was able to convey to him just how loved he was before he died.

father/time

so passes
the golden autumn
of this world
into a dark/light place
made of lengthening shadows
and warm tender moments alike.
poignant relief marks the passing
of each second and season,
pearls on a string slipping away
through fingers
roughened by time,
all the more cherished
for that which has gnarled them.
fear not,
though a shadow passes over your eyes
at the thought
of things unknown.
in the end,
you are loved.

— Charla M. DelaCuadra

I love you, Daddy, and I miss you already. I’ll always be grateful for your love. I know you were proud of me. I share your name, and you’ll always be in my heart. Thank you — for everything.

The scent of summer

With my dad at Del Mar racetrack, mid 1980s

This morning I took a long walk around the neighbor with my dogs. I overheard a fellow dog walker across the street ask, “what time’s the party?” and when I rounded the corner, a little girl was twirling around in her front yard with a big bouquet of pink balloons, a shiny pink “5” floating proudly in the middle. Her mother was puttering in the yard as she twirled, and just past her in the driveway was a big inflatable slide, surely huge and and shining with promise to her little birthday girl self.

As I continued past the house, all of a sudden I caught a whiff of kids’ sunscreen, and I was instantly transported. I couldn’t help but grin, a huge ear-to-ear smile that took me totally off-guard. It was one of those olfactory memories that comes out of nowhere and takes your breath away. That smell was pure childhood summer to me — vacations up the CA coast, beach trips and running around the infield at the racetrack. Sunshine and swimming in a lake. Sandwiches, sodas, and giggles. I could practically smell the Italian bread we’d buy on our way to the races, a scent that mingled with sunscreen as my sister and I squirmed away from my mom, much more interested in lunch and the cookies that would follow than whatever hypothetical sunburn might befall us. In my mind’s eye I could see the geese that would honk and hiss at us despite our well-meaning offerings of bread (it was too good for them anyway… oh, that bread!). The grass under our feet as we ran from the far end of the infield to the other, determined to try to get a glimpse of those beautiful horses twice in one race. The feel of a cold can of black cherry Shasta I’d eagerly fish out of the cooler. Or the feel of the warm lake water of Havasu as we splashed outside the houseboat, life vests bright in the sun, and my dad eternally tidying and hanging up soggy towels. The games of Acey Deucey we’d play those evenings, betting with piles of little river stones, our foreheads slightly pink from the day despite repeated applications of sunscreen.

I had a happy childhood. Summers felt like a golden time, and that unexpected waft of sunblock on the breeze this morning made me remember just how beautiful summers can be. This year, as we stretch our wings and rediscover the world outside our front doors, I’d like to try to hold onto that golden, joyful summer spirit. We didn’t care if we were sweaty and tired. It was all about the joy of the moment… and those moments smelled like sunscreen.

Friday thoughts

This weekend is Mother’s Day. It is a time to celebrate motherhood, yes. But it is also a very complicated holiday. Mother’s Day celebrates a huge lie about the value of women: that mothers are superior beings, that they have done more with their lives and chosen a more difficult path. The lovely Ann Lamott expresses this complexity with beautiful candor, and her words got me thinking:
I love my mom dearly. She is still alive to celebrate with, and I am lucky to have had a happy childhood. Also I have chosen to remain childfree. I feel like Mother’s Day is a holiday that is about my mother and not me, but maybe there is room for the aunt-ing and pet parenting and mother-hen-ing of friends I do, too? Regardless of how I eventually answer that question, I have enormous compassion for the day’s complications, and the women who bear them gracefully, silently, and with a certain amount of internal rage or sadness. I see you if you’ve lost your mother. If you are estranged from your mother or your children. If you have a difficult parent/child relationship. If you’ve lost a child. If you’ve yearned for children and cannot have them. If you have children and yearn some days for something different. There is nothing wrong with perhaps wishing for a solo glass of champagne instead of shepherding a crowd of kids and moms-in-law et. al. to IHOP when you don’t even like pancakes. I see you all, and I’m sending you love.

For a little enjoyment this weekend, here are a few things to make/buy/watch/savor:

This delightful tote is perfectly French and effortless. Wear it all spring and summer on your breeziest of weekends.

For some light and easy sweetness, may I recommend Julia Turshen’s Afternoon Cake? I make this regularly and it could not be simpler or more satisfying. Just use the nut flour of your choice (I like almond flour) instead of finely grinding your own nuts to make it even quicker. Makes one perfect olive oil cake, citrusy and not too sweet, to enjoy for any reason — or no reason at all.

I am deeply inspired by this “secret” antique revival trend spotted by Caitlin over on stylebyemilyhenderson. Mixing old and new is right up my alley, and the color and pattern combinations are swoon-worthy. It makes me extra-happy to have my childhood wood dresser mixed into our living room decor! Also I may or may not have my eye on some vintage nightstands…

And finally, I’ll leave you with the cutest video I saw all week, a stealthy otter worthy of his own spy film franchise. Because otters! Happy weekend, friends.

Kintsugi

Kintsugi : (金継ぎ, “golden joinery”), also known as Kintsukuroi (金繕い, “golden repair”), is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

This week we lost our oldest dog, Bailey, rather unexpectedly. He was 17 years old, so we knew our days were growing short, but it was heart-wrenching to have to suddenly say goodbye all the same. He and I had a deep bond — he was a mama’s boy in the best, sweetest sense. He saw me through many highs and lows over the pat 15 years, always patient and sweet, loving and attentive. When our other dog would run to the door to bark at a potential intruder, Bailey would head straight to my lap to protect me, his low warning woofs reverberating through his soft little body. He loved to play fetch, unceasingly bringing back his toys for yet another throw, excitement lighting up his whole face. He would sleep in the crook of my knee every night, a warm and solid assurance, until arthritis and age prevented him from getting up and down from the bed safely. Even then he slept next to my side of the bed most nights, ever devoted. He’d lick my ankles and keep me company. He loved food and treats with a zeal that matched my own, the little foodie, and ever the optimist, he’d lay on the floor near us whenever we were cooking, earning him the nickname “lil’ chef.” Family and his pack were deeply important to him — for years he’d balk at going for walks unless all of us came along. When he scratched at the grass with his hind paws, he’d leave each leg stretched back for a beat or two, like the smallest dramatic ice skater. And in his last days, his intuitive attentiveness never wavered. He was clear-eyed and trusting to the very end, showing me love even as his little body was failing him.

My heart broke on Wednesday. But I am honoring Bailey as best I can, filling the cracks with golden memories. He would want me to feel safe and loved, the way he always worked so hard to do. He will always be in my heart, and I am forever grateful to this little dog for a lifetime’s worth of trust, care, and love. Rest well, my little bear. We will be together again. I love you.

nap time, winter 2020

Gravity shifted: a woman on her father’s suicide

Almost 2 years ago, my very dear friend Catherine lost her father to suicide. Ever since then she has been adjusting to her new normal with a quiet strength that has left me in awe. Recently she reached out with some reflections and insights she’s gained in the months since his passing, and has kindly consented to me sharing her story here. I hope you find her grace in the face of trauma as inspiring as I do, and perhaps some of you can find solace in knowing you are not alone. Thank you, Catherine, for your courage and generosity.

My life ended on Wednesday, August 22, 2018 at approximately 8 PM.

At that moment, I was born as a version of my prior self, forever living in a world where I now say, “My father put a gun in his mouth and ended his life.”

One of my first reactions was hating him for making this part of MY story, part of who I would be, forever a person whose father killed himself. I fought my new life and my new narrative for so long. I wasn’t ready for my former life to be over and my new one to begin. I survived trauma in the past and never felt as I did at that moment; I previously went to therapy, learned from my trauma, and moved on. But the suicide of a parent is different. It is described as “a personal and interpersonal disaster.”1 The word “disaster” is a strong one. It conjures up images of earthquakes and fires, chaos, destruction, and ruins.

Now, almost two years later, I know that my father’s suicide fundamentally changed me. My center of gravity shifted in a big way. What I thought I knew, I realized I didn’t. My whole life now feels like one confusing reality of “did that really happen?” I will be forever asking, “Why?” “Why did he do this?” And who was he, really? Did I ever really know him? 

I can’t watch a suicide by gunshot on TV or in a movie anymore. I have to look away. It’s unfortunate that it took this experience for me to realize that far too many suicides are shown in the media. They hurtle me back to that moment when my mother called me and said, “He’s dead. He shot himself.” 

I now have an utter loathing for anyone who carries a gun or believes in his or her inalienable right to own one. My depressed and disturbed father walked himself into a store and bought one. He kept it in the glove compartment of his car, took it out to the desert and just… spent time with it. Like bonding with a dear friend. And I never knew.

I’m suddenly more preoccupied with death and have an intense need to identify what happened to my father after his heart stopped beating. I want to know if he suddenly became nothing, a complete ceasing of his mind, body, and soul. Did he wake up in another place, a lit world where that light engenders an astounding happiness that we cannot even begin to fathom?

I’ve retreated into myself because no one close to me has lost a parent to suicide. My shell is my usual friendly, contented self… and I am content with most things. I have a wonderful husband and friends, a roof over my head, and a paycheck that allows me to travel. 

But underneath, I am an intrinsically different person. I am a human being no longer standing upright, but forever slightly lop-sided, slightly off balance. I view people differently, tolerate less bullshit, and find it difficult to forgive and forget. My frequent anger and frustration have developed into something not wholly like everyone else’s. It’s more introspective and has a certain degree of beauty, because it’s filled with a love towards my father that can’t go anywhere. My love is trapped inside me where it fuses with anger and grief to produce something new that will never quite be familiar to me.

With this second life comes the necessity to familiarize myself with the unfamiliar, find balance in my off-balanced reality, and engineer something brand new from the ruins of a disaster. Dad, whoever you were, wherever you are, I hope you’ll be proud.

1 Shneidman, E.S. Foreword. In: Survivors of Suicide (Cain, A., editor. , ed.). Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1972.

You can follow more of Catherine’s journey at Memories of Dad.

Everything I Never Told You

ng_everything_coverIn Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You, the story of the Lee family unfolds like the petals of a flower.  Lydia is dead, that we know, and the story of her family, their grief, and their undoing unfurls slowly, with pathos and grit alike.  Chapters from Lydia’s own childhood, her parents as young people, her siblings and their own lives — all of these are twined inexorably together, as all families’ are.  Ng pulls together the experience of being an outsider deftly with a multi-layered coming-of-age story that resonated with me deeply.  There was not a single character I wasn’t rooting for by the end.

We all have inner lives, and we all carry wounds that make us fragile, even if they are invisible to the naked eye.  The saga of the Lee family brings that home with quiet power, drawing us through a gripping page-turner of a story that sears, comforts, and ultimately shows how even the darkest hours can led us to a semblance of redemption.  Highly recommend.

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The Last Romantics

“We believe in love because we want to believe in it.  Because really what else is there, amid all our glorious follies and urges and weaknesses and stumbles?  The magic, the hope, the gorgeous idea of it.”

–Tara Conklin, The Last Romantics

last_romatics_cover

This past weekend I devoured the new novel The Last Romantics from Friday night until late Sunday.  Quite frankly, I didn’t want to put it down.  Tara Conklin does a masterful job of drawing us into the lives of four siblings, weaving a story I found both arresting and vividly meaningful.

Spanning from their childhood in the early 1980s through to a slightly dystopian 2079, the Skinner siblings deal with the sudden death of their father, their mother’s depression that follows they call only “the Pause,” and the lives they lead in the years that follow.  Conklin deftly explores what love means, and loyalty — how family ties bind and break, pull and twist us into the people we become.  Romantic love is peppered into the narrative, but the overarching theme is familial love, how it shapes us, and the heaviness and the light which it carries.

Conklin’s writing reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver by way of Lauren Groff, yet with her own voice and style that make for a deeply engaging novel, one that resonated with me long after I turned the last page.  A rich, rewarding read.

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Thankful

Pieces
Kristina Akers, Pieces

On this odd in-between day between Thanksgiving with friends and Thanksgiving with family, I am simply grateful.  Grateful for good friends and warm hearts, for my loving family and sweet furry companions, and for my own little spark of optimism that helps me get through the days that seem too hard.  In my heart, I am taking a moment to be still and give thanks.