When fate solves the problem for you

It’s been in the back of my mind, and sometimes overshadows everything else. What do I do? All the work and stress that comes along with trying to please two bosses and two kids has been overwhelming me, but try as I might I couldn’t figure out what to do. I even heeded my own advice and wrote out a Pros and Cons list. But everything was coming up pretty equal. Working for the school I have health insurance and more money for fun this summer. Working for only the PR company gives me more time to be with my kids and less stress.

I felt like the responsible, grown-up, won’t-be-judged-harshly thing to do was work my arse off and let the cards fall where they may. I just wasn’t convinced that it’s what I should do.

That’s when fate stepped in.

student gratitude

Today at work, I found out they were calling each para-educator in, asking if they might be willing to leave our school. The option existed to be transferred to a life skills classroom in a local high school. Of the four of us, two have been there since forever, two of us are newer. One was willing to toy with the idea of moving, but instead I took the leap and volunteered to be the one to go. Not to transfer to another school, but to resign.

So that’s what happened. In a fit of tears in the principal’s office, I raised my hand and said, “I’ll go.” The other three have been there all school year, the kids love them. I have a part-time job to coast us through for a while. My daughter will be happy to not see me in the halls. We won’t argue about how embarrassing it is to have your mom work at your school. I won’t stress about having to wake at 4.30 to get work done before going to work.

I might even start writing again. And running. And my heart will stop skipping beats to make up for the stress. I can stop drinking so much caffeine.

I’ll make it a good thing, but I think tonight, I’ll cry a little––sad to not see the lovely little faces of these kids from kindergarten through high school, the ones who greet me with hugs or high-fives, the teachers who so desperately need more help in the classroom. Tonight I’ll be sad. Maybe tomorrow, too.

Monday, though… Monday will be a new start, again.

Celebrating Solstice

Every year the kids’ school spends the week before Winter Break in a flurry of activities that culminate in what is simply known by the school community as Solstice. Each grade presents a song or a poem or a dance; something to celebrate the lengthening of days and return of the sun. It’s a proud moment for parents at every grade.

This year was even more so… Audrey played in her marimba band to start off the show and I got a front row seat reserved just for the “parent of the Moon.” Stuart had said, three years ago, that when he was a senior and had the chance, he would be the Moon. And this year there seemed to be no question about it. No tryouts. No requests. He was the Moon, the antagonist of the story.

Stuart as the Moon with his minions.
The high schoolers getting ready for the Solstice celebration.
The power animals hanging in the Commons.

Each child and most staff members take part in creating a power animal, from kindergarten through high school. No sketching or scissors allowed. You simply tear your animal out of a folded sheet of construction paper. Inside, everyone writes a goal, hope or dream for the coming year then staples their animal onto the string. The scraps, left from creating the animal are used to write down the bad thoughts, habits and experiences you want to get rid of. Class by class these scraps are compiled into paper bags and on the day of the Solstice celebration, they are burned on the bonfire. A final farewell.

Mine was an octopus, but it never got on a string–the joy of being part of Special Ed and not a classroom. Instead it’s tacked to the wall by my desk. Inside I wrote: Don’t be afraid to accept new opportunities.

It's like a big hippie-fest with all the drumming and dancing.

another chapter down

You’d think I just wouldn’t want to stop writing about our travels in Vietnam, but truth be told it’s been almost a month since I went to task on it. The process is always a tad bittersweet for me. Vietnam was wonderful and it was hard. Some days I miss the place so much I can barely breathe for the ache of returning. But those are the days when life here is especially hard, when the money is scarce and the singleness turns to loneliness.

When I write about our travels, though, it always brings back the ache. I want to be on the train again. I want to eat bun cha at the Thanh Hoa market. I want to sit on the porch breaking open red watermelon seeds with friends.

So sometimes I avoid writing, like I have for all of September (the month I hate). But today I forced it. Did some editing, some writing and made a small amount of progress on a first draft I really must finish.

Here’s a blip from today’s output about how it really felt:

Through the dust-stained window of our train compartment, I watch as the sun breaks over the horizon. It casts a blue tint across the sodden rice fields that stretch as far as I can see. The bunk above me creaks with Stuart’s shifting weight. Audrey is still asleep in the bunk across from him, her bare feet poking out from under the woolen blanket. She faces the wall, hiding from the light as it floods in through our eastern-facing window.

We are due to arrive in Hanoi in only an hour, with sixteen hours and a handful of bunkmates already passed. The bottom bunk, across from mine, is empty again. When I’d fallen asleep it had been occupied by a grandfatherly fellow, white hair and sporadic beard, reading a local paper. Sometime during the night, as we’d tossed and swayed alongside Highway 1, I’d awoken to find a woman sleeping there; slack-jawed and breathing loudly. But as the sun rises, the bunk is empty and the blankets are tossed aside under the bed lamp.

It’s just the three of us here, bumping along the train tracks into Hanoi. We are truly on our own; no one to house us, feed us, drive us where we need to go. No one to set a schedule or make hotel reservations. It’s all up to me from here on out. And I can’t confess to anyone just how utterly overwhelmed I am by this.

I spent countless hours at the Internet cafe searching for houses and jobs and still couldn’t find anything that would work for us. Nothing. So here I am dragging my children northward to be homeless and unemployed with me in the overcrowded capitol city of this Third World Country because I’m too bullheaded to admit defeat. This move will surely seal my win for the 2007 Mother of the Year award.

Sometimes I don’t know why I’m doing this or why I’m so hellbent on staying here. I don’t even truly understand my determination to get here in the first place, besides the obvious win-him-back and show-the-kids-the-world reasons. But, really, what kind of mother makes her kids sell all their toys then moves them halfway around the world without any sort of back-up plan in place? A lousy one, like me.

It’s taken me eight weeks in-country to realize the magnitude of what we’re doing and it isn’t going to get any easier. We’ve managed to give up all we knew to experience this and I’m sure I could take the kids back to the States, fully satisfied with all they’ve done over the last two months. They’ve seen more of this big blue marble than most kids and the time with the orphans in Tam Ky has truly been priceless. It wouldn’t be a shame to go home. But it would feel like giving up.

I’ll give it a month. I have enough money in the bank from the recent tax refund to get us tickets back. If I haven’t found a job by the end of March, I promise to swallow my pride and take the kids home.

Catching a Sneak Peek

Since it’s just down the block from their school and I needed to go anyway, I asked the kids to meet me at the grocery. The timing was perfect and I drove by them unnoticed. But I saw them–laughing and teasing with each other as they strolled down the block. It was a proud mother moment.

Things have been tough with the pre-teen and I was afraid the obstinacy and anger were permanent, but maybe they are just reserved for me. Whatever. It delights me to see them happy, together.

it’s just a number

September is always a difficult month for me. When I was in university, I never had any money until the financial aid check came at the end of the month. Working for the school system isn’t any better; they send checks on the very last day of the month. But of course, the kids’ school needs money for field trips and photos and school supplies–this year alone they are asking for nearly $500 this month.

Our Trio in 2006

There are six birthdays of friends and family that I can’t afford to buy gifts for and both of my kids’ birthdays are barely more than a month away. Add in the bittersweet anniversaries of both the day I struck out on my own with the kids and the day the divorce was final (a year later) and you’ve got a month that adds up to not a whole heckuva lot of fun.

Last year, we managed to enjoy our Trio Anniversary (being in Thailand for most of the month on our way back from Vietnam), but this year the anniversary struck me particularly hard. I tried to fake my way through it, pretend I was happy, but in reality when I say “It’s our eleventh anniversary as a trio!” what I’m really thinking is “Eleven years of being unloved.” Melodramatic? Silly? Sure is.

Continue reading “it’s just a number”

Travel is for the Wealthy

And the definition of wealthy changes wherever you go. In Vietnam, I make enough money to afford us to spend our weekends in Ha Noi, traipsing around the city eating expensive Western food and taking taxis to museums. I come back to Thanh Hoa and gripe about the insanity of prices in the northern capitol, glad to be back in a small city with prices I’m more than happy to pay. Less than a dollar for three bowls of ice cream. Dinner for four costs less than four dollars. I am happy to drop a few thousand VND in the upturned cone hat of the beggar woman at the market; she clearly can use the help as she scoots across the wet fish market floor. I feel like I’m spending my money wisely; I’m thrifty like that.

Then a student tells me how if life had a do-over, she’d be a doctor. She could make a lot of money. She could be rich. She could make, she paused for effect, more than 5million VND a month. She’d be rich!

I made that much in the first few days of the month.

She imagines being so rich and I complain that it cost me 300,000VND for a pizza dinner in Ha Noi. Or that it will cost me more than 3million VND to get to Tam Ky so I can deliver these clothes for the orphanages, help Me Ba get a new ao dai, visit orphans who’ve no doubt forgotten us in the repeated comings-and-goings of volunteers.

But I can. If I want, I can spend those millions. And I will spend that and more, taking the kids down south…to Nha Trang, Da Lat, Hue? I don’t know, but our biggest constraint is time, not money.

In this life of juxtaposed wealth, I forget how lucky we truly are. And I’m afraid the kids will never know. In a month, we’ll be back in America, scraping by month to month on a salary that puts us a few grand below the poverty level. I’ll continue making rice dishes and eating little meat simply because I can’t afford it if I have to buy milk and fresh fruit, too.

It’s a strange place to be–this temporary wealth, where I look for hotels at the beach and far-away attractions knowing that I’ll be there before long. We’ll be off to Bangkok soon, then through Thailand and Malaysia before heading home. I’m researching budget hotels and how to buy train tickets online. Thrift is in my nature. But the realization that this life of extra is something that those I care for most here in Viet Nam can never have and it stings. It fights with my maternal drive. I want to show my kids all that I possibly can, yet in my rush to give my family a wider vantage of the world, we remain blind to so much.


How is it that no matter where you are life does not go according to plans?

Our time has been cut short by more than a week; a week that we were going to spend traveling around the country. Unfortunately when our visas were renewed, they only gave us until the 12th. I will finish work on the 1oth, head to Hanoi, then leave the country. I’m so frustrated I could scream. Not only for the limited time, but for the lack of travel we’ve been able to do. Each time we’ve planned to go to Ha Long bay, a storm has rolled in, cancelling our plans. Then there’s the surprise vacation, mid-week. I will have Tuesday-Thursday off this week, just enough to not really go anywhere. We’ll head to the beach and hope for some fun, but I’m fighting a cold and grumpy as all get out.

I was given no warning of the days off, the money lost. And I’ve got three kids who’ve seen more of the inside of a dorm building that they’ve seen of Vietnam. Quite frustrating.

Hopefully on Saturday we will be able to get to Tam Coc, but I’m afraid that Ha Long Bay and Sa Pa will not be seen this time. And my plans for Da Lat are sinking fast. I have obligations to get to Tam Ky and we may just have to do that instead.

Joining Forces

A month or so ago, the organization that is handling the logistics of our volunteer trip got me in contact with another single mom who was contemplating spending some time in Viet Nam orphanages, as well. She lives in New Zealand and has a daughter a few years younger than mine. So, we’ve been chatting and she decided that she is going to go and will be heading there at the same time. -doing a happy dance- There are tentative plans to meet up in Ha Noi on 29 December and take the overnight train to Da Nang together. We don’t know, and won’t until December, whether we will be at the same orphanage/school, but just having another person there that we know (even if it is over the Internet until then) should prove comforting.

There are only two weeks left in the Spring term, that much closer to finally graduating. I was hoping to take what my university calls a Capstone course this summer that has participants volunteering in the Hmong community, but since I have to take another class on Marxist theory in English Lit criticism (doesn’t that sound thrilling, boys and girls?) and work almost full time, there is no way to fit it in and ever spend time with my kids (which will, in turn, make them angry and no fun to be around when I do find the time). So, I’ll take the theory class, possibly one American Sign Language course, too, then there will only be two more classes that I must take in the Fall. It’s so close I can almost see the diploma.