Pep Talk #15: The Caged Bird Sings (and Other Creative Coping Mechanisms)

Cartagena

“Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.” –Elizabeth Gilbert (in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear)

Humans create things because we can’t not create. The cave paintings of Lascaux bear witness: even those hunter-gatherers whose lives were defined by the eat-or-be-eaten struggle still found energy to create beautiful images by firelight with materials they had on hand. Whether rich or poor, free or slave, homo sapiens write, draw, sing, paint, dance, cook, design, play instruments, sew, tell stories, take photographs, make up games, and decorate themselves and their living spaces. Creativity is universal, and not dependent on circumstances.

Tiny tapestry by Ray Materson: "Prison Musician"
Prison Musician, a miniature tapestry by Ray Materson,
housed at the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore

Hardship, in its many guises, cannot quash creativity: I once saw an exhibition of tiny embroidered tapestries by Ray Materson, a man serving time in a state penitentiary who got ahold of a needle and unraveled socks to make art. Similarly, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum houses a collection of “illegal art” made by concentration camp victims, demonstrating that even in a seemingly hopeless situation, hope finds a way, and that way is marked with beauty. America owes much of its musical heritage to African slaves—who brought rhythms and styles from another continent and who made up songs as they labored under compulsion. Maya Angelou nails it in her poem, “Caged Bird”:

The caged bird sings/with a fearful trill/of things unknown/but longed for still/and his tune is heard/on the distant hill/for the caged bird/sings of freedom.

Cages take many forms. There are the bars and chains you can see, and the ones inside the mind, which may be invisible but no less limiting. There are cages made for us, and barred doors we lock ourselves. Slavery and persecution are cages, but so are the greed and hatred that cause them. Poverty is a kind of cage, and so are fear and depression. Childhood abuse can keep people locked up long after they’ve grown into adults, and mental illness can be a cruel and unusual punishment that leaves both body and mind imprisoned.

Even a quarantine is a kind of cage—though we can justify its necessity and though it may be temporary, it chafes just the same. Talking with a fellow sailor who finds himself in geographical limbo because of the pandemic, country closures, and the impending hurricane season, we agreed that though we are grateful for our relative comfort, the restrictions on movement and social interaction and the inability to plan for an uncertain future leave us feeling trapped. It’s a gilded cage, for sure, compared with nursing homes, shoebox-sized apartments in big cities, prisons, and hospitals, but a cage nonetheless.

One of the deepest longings of the human psyche is freedom—not just the ability to physically move without restriction, or to make our own decisions, but to be liberated in our thinking, to be unchained in our hearts. And when we can’t get out of a restrictive situation, creativity can breathe freedom into our souls. While it’s easy to focus on the negative because bad news sells, I have also been so amazed by the positive responses of the human race in the last couple of months.

Despite suffering from ALS and nearly complete paralysis, my friend Lisa’s grandmother was smiling and singing from her chair in a locked-down California nursing home. A college friend wrote a song with his suddenly-homeschooled kids and posted the music video. My daughter Rachel and her friend Zoe on S/V Rothim began an exchange of letters and art projects—each one more fantastic and creative than the last.

Practice with a quill pen

Projects people put off for years are getting done, murals are popping up on walls, and photographs are getting shared. People are making music and not just downloading it. People are learning to grow vegetables and cooking homemade meals and not just consuming convenient calories. Despite cages of illness, fear, sadness, and anger, creative humans are responding with love, light, color, sound, and joy.

Our creativity can be fed, and not choked, by our circumstances. We can take our mixed emotions, our limitations, our pain, our frustration, and make something. It is always within our power to make or destroy, to raise or raze. While it is arguably easier to destroy—to give in to rage or apathy—the hard work of making something beautiful brings us a sense of accomplishment and joy that frees our minds even though our circumstances may remain unchanged.

To do this fearlessly, without self-criticism and without worrying about what someone else will think, is to engage in something magical, miraculous, and transformative. I leave you with a quote from Rachel Hollis (in Girl Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are so You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be):

“Creating is the greatest expression of reverence that I can think of because I recognize that the desire to make something is a gift from God…if you’re unconcerned about other people’s interpretations, then everything you make is fantastic.”

Go make something fantastic.

Laundry Day Uke Practice
Uke practice in the community garden, photo by Erica S/V Tulsi

Caribbean Coleslaw Recipe

Not your average coleslaw: this zingy recipe will take your taste buds on vacation to an island rimmed with white sand beaches and coconut palms. I can almost hear the steel drums…

Caribbean Slaw

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

3 tablespoons Turbinado sugar

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon favorite hot sauce

1/4 cup extra-virgin coconut oil

1/4 cup water

Salt and pepper to taste (start with 1/2 teaspoon each)

1 head of green cabbage, thin sliced or shredded

1 large ripe-but-firm mango, peeled and julienned OR

         1/2 pineapple, cut into small chunks

1 cup shredded or julienned carrots

1 cup thin-sliced red or green bell pepper

1/2 cup thin-sliced red onion

1/2 cup sliced almonds or sunflower seeds

Combine the Dijon, sugar, red wine vinegar, lime juice, garlic, hot sauce, coconut oil, water, salt, and pepper in a jar and shake for about two minutes to emulsify (or use a blender). In a large bowl, place cabbage, carrots, pepper, onion, and mango; toss to combine. Add dressing and toss again. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve chilled and sprinkled with almonds. 

Pep Talk #14: You Never Know What You’ve Got Until It’s Gone

Mom's Night Out

I was accosted in the grocery store parking lot…by a friend who ran up to my car window, hugged my neck, kissed my cheek and then promptly stepped back a foot or six and apologized. Though we live in the same small town, I hadn’t seen her in person since early March. A few months ago, this would have been bizarre behavior on two fronts: I would neither have thought twice about a hug-and-kiss, nor would she have felt the need to recoil after realizing her impulsive behavior might offend me.

It is hard to know how to behave right now—that’s what’s got all of us on edge, and some of us at each other’s throats. I’m married to a self-employed introvert who doesn’t mind retreating for a couple of months while the rest of humanity learns about this novel virus through trial-and-error, but I am an incautious extrovert, unhappy with the sacrifice of three-dimensional friends for anything short of the plague (which this is not). As a result, we’ve met somewhere in the middle—doing risk-benefit analysis on everything from grocery shopping procedures to allowing our boys to go to work to going for a walk with a friend outside. I have resorted to asking Jay before I do anything, except for maybe stopping by a friend’s boat in the dinghy, where “social distancing” is the norm based on the size of our dinghy and the height of the deck of a boat.

Because we really don’t know what the risks of this new illness are or how easily it spreads, because there’s so much conflicting information, it takes time to sift through possible responses and come up with a reasonable approach. I have tried to remain humble and non-judgmental—any posturing from either end of the spectrum (“Fear nothing!”  Or, “Fear everything!”) looks like arrogance to me. Solomon, in his wisdom, said that the man who fears God avoids the extremes of foolishness and self-righteousness (paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 7:18).

So as we begin the slow process of opening up, coming out of our collective quarantine, returning to work, school, and social lives, our family will continue to govern itself by this middle path: we will neither shut ourselves up indefinitely to “stay safe” waiting for a medical miracle, nor will we behave flippantly during a pandemic—our behavior can and does affect others, and we ought to be governed by compassion.

And we will never, never, never take relationships for granted.

They say you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. There’s some truth in that—ask anyone who’s ever lost someone they loved. Or ask a New Englander how he feels about summer sunshine during the middle of a hard winter. Or ask a traveler how she feels about home a few months into a long journey. Living on the boat has taught us something about deprivation and appreciation, too. Until we lived without an endless supply of hot water or without air conditioning on a hot, still night, we didn’t properly enjoy a long, hot shower, or a cool night’s sleep.

Gratitude is magnified when we experience abundance after scarcity.

A few things have made this apparent to me. My Bible study group here in the Keys consists of praying women in different stages of life; it has continued to meet at our normal time during quarantine. Every Wednesday morning, we grab our coffee and log into Zoom, our faces popping onto the screen like the intro to The Brady Bunch. Last week, we met at the beach, which had recently re-opened, spreading out in a wide circle, but in person. It was a night-and-day difference. Their love, faith, and encouragement have been wonderful during this strange time—and I’m grateful we have the technology to stay connected, but I didn’t really grasp the metaphysical difference between 2-D and 3-D until I saw them again in living color.

Phone calls/video chats with family, virtual “tea parties” with friends, and keeping tabs on people via Facebook or Instagram are better than nothing, but a poor substitute for the real thing. Going for a walk with a friend, celebrating a birthday (outdoors, just to be on the safe side), and sharing a happy hour wine-and-cheese with neighbors in their cockpit—these simple joys from the last couple of weeks have reminded me how much we need real people in our lives. And, how much they need us.

Last weekend, we helped some friends whose house is finally getting repaired after hurricane Irma damaged it in 2017. They needed some extra muscle to remove the furniture from the second-story living space and to finish a chicken coop to protect their birds while they are away living in a rental house so that the construction crew can demolish and rebuild part of their home. This work couldn’t wait until we have decided it’s “safe” to come out, so we took the risk of offering assistance. We had a literal barn-raising—a true community effort. I had forgotten what a joy it is to be with a group of people, working together, sharing a meal, seeing teenagers chip in cheerfully—lugging couches downstairs, preparing lunch for others, painting the chicken coop. This is what life in a community should look like.

And what is life without community? We need each other; our very survival depends on cooperative behavior. It is essential to our well-being as social creatures. I am reminded of a quote from a favorite animated movie, The Croods, about a family of cavemen who venture out into the dangerous unknown. Commenting on their “safe” life inside the cave, the teenage daughter Eep says, “That wasn’t living! That was just…‘not dying!’”

The message, “stay safe,” that we see on billboards, that flashes across our screens, and that we hear on the intercom at the grocery store, contains an inherent fallacy. Life, love, the pursuit of our dreams—these things were never safe. Everything we do requires a risk of one kind or another. How long can we live inside a cave, simply not dying? Every person will have to do this risk-benefit analysis going forward, and when we reach different conclusions than our loved ones, only compassion and humility will smooth out the wrinkles.

My heart is full of love and longing: for our parents, who we haven’t seen in months and who face a much higher risk of life-threatening infection if they go out in public or visit in person, for my siblings and the close-knit group of friends who have supported us for years in our homeschool journey, for our friends old and new in far-flung places, now that travel has become difficult-to-impossible. I remain hopeful that we will be able to normalize our interactions someday, but until then, I can see already how much more I appreciate these relationships.

Friday Night Pizza

pizza pepperoni

Friday Night Pizza is a long-standing tradition on Take Two, but it dates from my childhood. I remember my mom making homemade pizza on Friday evenings, or sometimes Dad would “cook” and we’d have Pizza Hut or Domino’s, and later, Papa John’s. It’s an easy meal to make for a crowd, and we have often invited friends and neighbors to join us for pizza night. I’m missing that right now–and missing all of you who have sat around our table and shared our Friday night tradition. If you want to try it on your own, look below to find the recipes for my pizza crust and homemade sauce!

pizza dough

Pizza Crust for Four 15-inch Pizzas

2 cups white whole wheat flour

2 cups unbleached white flour

2 teaspoons salt

3 1/2 cups lukewarm water

1/2 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons yeast                   

3 tablespoons sugar

4+ cups unbleached white flour

  1. Mix flours and salt in a large bowl.
  2. Mix water, oil, yeast, and sugar in a separate bowl, stirring until yeast is dissolved. Allow to rest for a few minutes; yeast will begin to bubble.
  3. Add liquid mixture to the flour mixture and stir well with a wooden spoon. The dough will be very soft and sticky.
  4. Begin to add flour, one cup at a time, stirring after each addition, until the dough begins to form a ball and becomes too thick to stir.
  5. Turn dough out onto a clean, floured surface and begin to knead.* The dough will stick to your hands initially. Keep adding flour, folding it in as you knead. Eventually, the dough will be less sticky, but be careful not to add too much flour or the dough will be too dry. The goal is “tacky, not sticky.” *If you have a KitchenAid, use the dough hook and let the machine do the work!
  6. After kneading for 5-10 minutes, the dough should be soft and stretchy; if you take a small ball of dough and stretch it between two hands, you should be able to make a translucent “window” of dough you can see light through. If it tears instead of stretching, it needs more kneading!
  7. Once well-kneaded, sprinkle flour over the the ball of dough and cover with the inverted bowl or a damp towel. Allow to rise while you make the sauce, oil the pans, and chop the toppings, 30 minutes to one hour.
pizza sauce

Homemade Pizza Sauce

2 15-oz cans tomato sauce

1 6-oz can tomato paste

2 teaspoons dried oregano or 2 tablespoons fresh oregano

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1 pinch red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cloves garlic

  1. Put all ingredients into a Vitamix (or blender/food processor). If using a regular blender/food processor, mince the garlic first.
  2. Run on high for 30 seconds to one minute, until mixture is homogenous. Set aside while you chop toppings.
pizza oven

Top, Assemble, and Bake!

2 6-oz packages pepperoni

1 lb. Italian sausage or turkey sausage, browned and crumbled

1 cup each: sliced mushrooms, olives, green peppers, onions

8 cups mozzarella cheese

Other options: hamburger, bacon, and salami; chopped ham and fresh or canned pineapple; tomato slices and fresh basil; chicken, bacon, barbecue sauce and cheddar-jack cheese; chicken, black bean, corn, jalapeño, salsa, and cheddar cheese…et cetera.

  1. Preheat oven to 425°. Space oven racks so you can get two pizzas in at the same time.
  2. Oil four 15″ pizza pans and sprinkle with corn meal. (If you don’t have four, place dough circles on oiled/corn meal-sprinkled aluminum foil and reuse the same pizza pan.)
  3. Once dough ball has doubled in size, divide into four equal portions and roll into balls.
  4. Sprinkle your kneading surface and the top of a dough ball with flour. Using a rolling pin, roll ball into a 15″ circle, adding flour as necessary to reduce sticking. Fold into quarters and transfer to pan; unfold. Prick all over with a fork. Repeat for other three dough balls.
  5. Pre-bake crusts for 5-10 minutes; they’ll begin to rise/bubble, but not brown.
  6. Remove hot crust, top with about one cup of sauce and desired toppings.
  7. Sprinkle with 2 cups of cheese.
  8. Bake another 10 minutes, or to desired doneness. Crust should be golden brown, cheese bubbling at the edges.
  9. Slice up and serve with “shakies”–red pepper flakes and parmesan cheese!
pizza margarita
Margherita: fresh tomato and basil

Pep Talk #13: Dance Like No One is Watching

Rachel Dancing
Rachel dancing, age 3

I’m feeling really good these days, despite the fact that the news is getting worse, not better. Maybe my husband is a prophet (or a pessimist), but he saw all this coming. Two months ago, he was listening to the medical advisors’ and the economic advisors’ contradictory advice, and it seemed to boil down to this: shut everything down to save lives, keep everything open to save lives. If we keep vectors for the novel coronavirus apart from each other (issue shelter-at-home orders), fewer people will die and we won’t overwhelm the medical system. Alternately, if we open the economy after a short quarantine, we may be able to prevent the collapse of our economy and social breakdown, thus saving lives. And while it is easy to criticize a leader who comes off as a buffoon, without the benefit of omniscience, we can’t really say what the correct approach to this thing is. Unprecedented means we’ve never done this before. With such disparate viewpoints and polarization over something as simple as whether to wear a mask in the grocery store, we are left each to himself to decide what it means to “do the right thing.” And once we’ve decided, we take sides and begin to tear each other apart, right? My goodness, how quickly we lose our humanity and resemble wild dogs!

So, yes, we may be facing the “end of the world as we know it,” and someday we may be able to look back and see what we should have done, hindsight being 20/20 (no pun intended). But that doesn’t necessarily help us decide what to do now, where to put our mental and emotional (and sometimes physical) energy—if we should respond with sadness, fear, anger, apathy, compassion, joy. Yes, I said joy. How you respond to this crisis might become your coping mechanism, so choose carefully. And study your history books: it’s always a slippery slope from labeling people (or hanging an auction number around the neck or pinning gold stars to a sleeve) to annihilation. If we forget what makes us human, if we forget to look at our enemy as a wayward brother, if we choose competition over cooperation, we are going to create the thing we are afraid of: complete breakdown, in which we all lose, but some lose more than others.

I choose joy. Do not confuse this with happiness, or naivete, or delusion. It is a deep-down, smile-no-matter what, focus on something good kind of joy. Joy stands in an attitude of defiance: “no matter what happens, I will continue to demonstrate love. I will continue to dance, sing, create, help others, feed my soul, and laugh at absurdity.” Where ephemeral happiness disappears with the rain cloud, joy goes under cover and concentrates on remembering the sunny days of yore and hoping for sunny days ahead. Joy can co-exist with sadness and anger, but it prevents one from slipping into hatred, apathy, fear, and self-destruction.

I am a slow learner, and joy does not always come easily for me. I am capable of doom-and-gloom, stinginess of love, taking things too seriously, snappishness, trying to control things and then whining when I don’t get my way. These things tend to send joy running. Maybe you can find joy another way, but the way I find it is in the context of faith.

For many, Christianity looks like a vast self-deception, one in direct opposition to scientific thinking. To others, it is a social construct to keep people under control. I have heard it said that it is merely a crutch for the weak, who are uncomfortable with the unknown and need a God-is-in-control narrative. To me, it is a life-raft: I am in the middle of a dark ocean, defeated as much by my own negative thoughts and behaviors as the various horrors I see in the world, my boat is sinking, and though I can swim, I can’t do it long enough to save myself—and then a bright-yellow self-inflating raft pops to the surface, someone extends a hand and I climb in—so relieved that I can’t help but whoop and holler. This is what God did—and does for me. Call me delusional and weak-minded if you like, but I heard God’s voice, and I am undeniably afloat instead of at the bottom of the ocean. We can discuss endlessly the complicated details of divisive theology, abuse done in God’s name, seeming contradictions in the Bible or in the fossil record—I am not ignorant of these things. But most of the problems with religion are man-made (big surprise there). Maybe we could discuss these things inside the rubber raft instead of while treading water in a sea full of circling sharks.

Here is some advice from the first century, from a letter written to a church suffering persecution in the Greek coastal city Thessaloniki. It is encouragement to the believers there to live lives worthy of their calling. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil” (Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians 5:16-22, NIV Bible).

I don’t know what else to do right now. Maybe I will be called to act or to resist action. Maybe I will soon be in survival mode myself. While I wait, watch, and take care of daily tasks, I am also playing my ukulele, writing songs, editing my book (which feels like it will never be done), playing with my kids, making delicious meals, homeschooling, writing down my thoughts, reading good books, walking and biking and kayaking, talking to friends on the phone, listening to music, praying—both alone and with a group of faithful sisters (via Zoom), and occasionally adding my two-cents-worth to the wide-ranging virtual discussions.

Whatever the circumstances, we have the freedom to choose our responses. We can choose joy, if not happiness. If the Titanic of our “normal life” is sinking, we can emulate the musicians playing on the slanting deck. We may fall down, have a bad day, backslide, but we can get back up, remember that we are loved and are capable of love. If people’s fear, arrogance, or hatred reduces them to snitching on their neighbors (may we never forget Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia), it may make it hard to freely do the things that bring us joy, but for now, we must continue to dance like no one is watching.

Favorite Treat on Take Two: Lemon Blueberry Pound Cake

Lemon Blueberry Pound Cake

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup cream cheese (4 oz.), softened
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon lemon flavoring
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 8-oz carton lemon yogurt (or plain yogurt + lemon zest)
2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
Juice of one lemon
1-2 cups powdered sugar

Beat sugar, butter, and cream cheese at medium speed until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Beat in vanilla and lemon flavoring. Whisk together flour, baking powder, soda, and salt in a separate bowl and add to sugar/butter mixture alternately with yogurt, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Gently fold in blueberries. Pour batter into a greased and floured Bundt pan (or two 8″ loaf pans). Sharply tap pan on counter to remove air bubbles. Bake at 350° for 1 hour; check for doneness with a toothpick and bake additional 15 minutes if necessary (bake until toothpick comes out clean). Cool cake in pan 10 minutes on a wire rack; remove from pan and cool another 10 minutes. Whisk powdered sugar into the lemon juice little by little in a small bowl until desired consistency is reached (like honey). Drizzle over warm cake.

Pep Talk #12: No Time Like the Present

Sunset, Providenca

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

–Roger Waters (from “Time” by Pink Floyd)

When we traded our plot of dirt for a floating home 12 years ago, we also opted out of the “normal” life. Until we came back to the United States from the Caribbean last July, none of our children had ever attended class in a conventional school setting, played on a sports team, or owned a cell phone. They had rarely lived in one place for more than six-to-twelve months, and they almost never missed a family dinner. We came back, in large part, to give our teenagers some of the normalcy which they had missed and to help them take steps to integrate and find independence. By the fall, we were so swamped in busy-ness that we found it difficult to sit down even one night a week with everyone in the family to have a conversation at the dinner table. I was looking around at other families and wondering how they could stand it—how could this be “normal”? When everything ground to a halt in March, one of the things I felt was relief.

This week, my friend Sadie admitted that she has loved this aspect of the COVID-19 mass-quarantine. She has experienced in the last couple of months what I feel like we’ve had for the last decade. Don’t get me wrong—homeschooling five kids on a boat, traveling, working from home, cooking everything from scratch, doing laundry, and keeping a boat running smoothly—that’s a full and busy life! But we’ve done all those things out of choice, not obligation. The schedule we set was our own—if we got overwhelmed, we could cut something out to give ourselves margin. The routines we adopted upon our return, however, seemed so much harder. Taking kids to and from school, sports, activities, and appointments, and trying to live according to the clock left me feeling rushed, anxious, and guilty (when I couldn’t keep up).

Now of course, we have plenty of time, copious amounts of unstructured hours and days and weeks, while we shelter at home waiting for whatever comes next. This is not necessarily good. Without goals and a sense of purpose, time ends up getting frittered away, and as it is a limited commodity, something we can neither buy nor save for later, we cannot afford to waste it! So I am looking for the middle ground, a productive-but-enjoyable life somewhere between frenetic and idle. I am seeking this balance in the purgatory of self-isolation while we wait for a worldwide pandemic (and the looming economic and social disaster) to run its course.

Initially, we were hopeful that this would “blow over” in a couple of months, though it was clear from watching other countries that this was just wishful thinking. Things may not get better for a long while, and they may never go back to normal (which I argue wasn’t that great, anyway). If we are entering a period of prolonged instability, we’re going to need a sustainable outlook. How we prepare for a marathon is very different than for a sprint. Until we have more information about the virus and its long-term effects, it’s hard to make an informed decision about how to proceed. In the meantime, how ought we to live day-to-day?

Everyone’s situation is different. Those who are convalescing may feel like they are stuck inside Thomas Mann’s 900-page novel, Magic Mountain. Some people (like my husband) are busier at work, and don’t feel the slow-down at all. Others have been adjusting in stages—first enjoyment of a slower pace, and creative use of the extra time, then despondency or frustration as it seems to stretch on longer and longer, confusion over mixed messages from media and leaders, and, if your state is still closed, resignation and boredom. Still others are in survival mode and beginning to feel desperate. But what we all share is a universal feeling of uncertainty, an inability to plan for the future.

As I work through these stages myself, as I journal my thoughts and emotions, I have come to realize that planning itself is a luxury and an illusion. The majority of the people on our planet live day-by-day, hand-to-mouth, without having a choice or the ability to save and plan for the future. And even in my privileged life, I never had more than today. And neither have you. We were never guaranteed a “normal life” or anything resembling consistency. Life—and death—on Earth is anything but predictable. Our lives are a fragile gift—granted largely by circumstances over which we have little control, and we have never had more than the breath we are breathing right now. We can’t see the future, and we struggle to make sense of conflicting stories about the past. All we can do is carefully spend our limited time in the present.

All we have is now.

And now is not the time for laziness, but for learning to control our emotions, sharpening our minds, strengthening our bodies, and building up our spirits. Our humanity depends on it. Hopefully, we will emerge from this crisis stronger, because it will not be the last. What are we learning about ourselves and our values that we can bring with us into a new normal? What needs to change? How can we, individually and collectively, add love and light to a world where there is so much darkness and despair? How can we invest this time so that we’ll have something to show for it?

Without a clock, calendar, or plan for the future, we can still have goals for now. Here are mine:

  • To wake up every morning and say “thank you for my life.”
  • To do one thing every day for my mind, for my body, and for my spirit.
  • To monitor and adjust my attitudes about my daily tasks.
  • To be kind to myself and the people I live with.
  • To keep informed about what’s going on in the wide world without losing sight of the small world at my fingertips.
  • To limit my screen time, play games with my children, pursue creative endeavors (writing, painting, music), read good books, make nourishing food, keep in touch with my neighbors, get enough rest, do what brings joy and share it when I can.
  • To support those who are struggling.
  • To take life one day at a time and keep my thoughts in the present.

Taco Tuesday on Take Two: Homemade Tortillas

WARNING: A recipe so delicious you may never be able to use store-bought tortillas again and be stuck with a time-consuming cooking project every Tuesday…

Taco Tuesday on Take Two
Tortillas made by Rachel (age 9)

For 3 dozen 6-inch tortillas, you will need:

3 cups corn flour (masa harina)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 cups water
3 tablespoons olive oil
2-3 cups wheat flour

Instructions:

  1. Pour the water and olive oil into a large bowl.
  2. Add the corn flour and salt and stir well with a wooden spoon.
  3. Add the wheat flour 1/2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition, until the dough is stiff enough to be kneaded by hand, but still soft and pliable. It should resemble Play-Doh consistency, and it should roll into balls without sticking to your hands.
  4. Preheat a cast iron griddle (or lightly oiled skillet) over medium-low heat.
  5. Pinch off some dough and roll a ball about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and place it between two pieces of wax paper or in a quart-size plastic bag cut along the sides.
  6. Use a tortilla press or rolling pin to flatten the ball to a 6-inch round.
  7. Peel tortilla off the lining and cook on the heated griddle, flipping after 30-60 seconds. Cook for an additional 30-60 seconds. It will bubble and get golden-brown spots. (Turn heat down if it seems like it’s cooking too fast or burning easily.)
  8. When done, place in a bowl lined with a cloth napkin–tortillas should stack without sticking.
  9. Fill with amazing taco ingredients and top with guacamole or pico de gallo!

2020 Vision: Casa Agua Azul

“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” —Jonathan Swift

View of Lake Izabal
View of Lake Izabal from Casa Agua Azul

I don’t know what Gail Gordon saw or felt when she first stood on the property that is now Casa Agua Azul, a home for abused and abandoned children on the shores of Lake Izabal in Guatemala, but it must have been powerful. I don’t know how, short of many miraculous coincidences, she’s been able to share her vision with the right people at the right time to make what was once a wisp of an idea into a solid place where children run laughing through the garden. And I don’t know how God will continue to sustain it and provide for the house parents and staff, and the seventeen children in their care, but I know that He will.

Jerry, Griselda, Wally, Sofia and Otto
Jerry and Griselda with Otto, Wally, and Sofia, Winter 2019

I know how I felt, the first time I met Gail four years ago at a Wednesday morning Bible study I attend when our boat is moored in the Florida Keys: intrigued. She was asking for prayer about plans for a property she had purchased, and about the endless difficulties of getting it cleared, cleaned up, rebuilt, funded, licensed, staffed, and operational as a children’s home. I took note but had no way of knowing how important that little piece of information would be to me, or how God can multiply one small act of faithfulness. When we found ourselves sailing into the Rio Dulce for hurricane season in 2018, I thought we were coming to Guatemala get our boat painted. I guess I forgot that God’s plans are always bigger than our own.

Marina Yacoe at the Gate
My friend Marina at the Gate

In October of 2018, as I walked through the gates of Casa Agua Azul, I was incredulous. I had seen photos from when friends of ours, fellow sailors Eric and Annie, had gone to Guatemala to help clear the land—back when it was abandoned and being used as the village pigsty. The place I saw was a hive of efficient and cheerful activity: a large clean building had been renovated and was ready for its first inhabitants, women were preparing lunch in the kitchen, and a team of missionaries was building private quarters for the house parents, Jerry and Griselda. People were moving rocks, working on pathways, and creating beautiful green-spaces under the mango trees.

Jerry and Gail, construction
Gail talking with Jerry, home under construction

I remember the people I met that day, the prayers for Jerry an Griselda, and the conversations about vision. I myself had a vision that day. While looking at the house, I saw many beautiful murals and scriptures that had been painted on the walls by volunteers. An empty wall on the second floor beckoned—and I imagined what I would paint if ever given the chance. I don’t know why I even had that audacious thought—that I would paint a mural! I had never painted art on a wall before, but I got a picture in my mind of what it would look like completed.

In September of 2019, I flew back to Guatemala to visit a friend who was having a baby. I spent a day at Casa Agua Azul, playing with the kids and visiting with people who, a year before, had been strangers to me, and were now like family. I barely recognized the property as I stood on the porch of Jerry and Griselda’s finished house: there was a playground, a covered visitors’ pavilion, a boat slip (dug in part by the hands of my own boys), a lovely garden with pebble pathways. There were now a dozen children there—laughing, playing, arguing, running around, doing all the things normal children do.

View from Jerry and Griselda's porch
View from Jerry and Griselda’s porch, September 2019

I spent the day helping in the kitchen, reading stories to children, racing matchbox cars on the floor, and singing songs in Spanish and English, sharing my ukulele with small, eager musicians. During the ten months we had lived in Guatemala, our connection to this place had grown from mild interest to full-blown engagement. Our boys had been volunteering every weekend doing physical jobs around the property, digging in the muddy pit that would someday be a boat slip, hauling rocks, doing odd jobs—whatever was needed. A fellow boat-kid, Deon, often went with them, and several of my friends from the marina had come to visit, to see what it was we were so excited about.

Aaron working with Jerry at Casa Agua Azul
Aaron digging in the pit with Jerry

We became friends with Jerry and Griselda, sharing meals at the house and on our boat. We celebrated the arrival of the first children at the home, Sofia and Otto, and watched Otto grow from a small and sickly baby to a healthy and happy toddler. After sharing my mural idea with Gail on one of our visits, I spent a month of Sundays with my nose to the wall, dabbing paint, and meditating on the scripture that is now written there: “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news” (Isaiah 52:7).

Tanya's Mural (Photo by Gail)
Finished mural

In a country with desperate poverty, a history of genocide, child trafficking, and rampant abuse and neglect, a safe place for children is good news indeed. And I got to witness it happening in real time. When our boat motored slowly out of the river in April of 2019, we felt as if we had left a little piece of ourselves behind. Being a part of Casa Agua Azul changed us from estranjeros into familia and made us feel at home in Guatemala.

When I visited in September, I found a treasure on the third floor: a simple wooden cross hanging in a window with an inscription that reads: “You faithfully answer our prayers with awesome deeds, Oh God our Savior. You are the hope of everyone on earth, even those who sail on distant seas” (Psalm 65:5 NLT). It was a token left by Eric and Annie, and they couldn’t have known when they wrote on those scraps of wood how God would answer their prayers, or how He would give hope to these children, but they were a part of something bigger than themselves.

Window with Eric and Annie's cross
Prayers answered

This is what it means to have vision: to get a glimpse of what could be and act in faith so that what is imagined can become real.

It has been one of the greatest privileges in the traveling life of our family to be a part of Casa Agua Azul. On our journey, we have seen such heartbreaking poverty: the ravages of systemic inequality, greed, human selfishness, war, ignorance, and environmental damage. We sometimes feel powerless in the face of the forces that shape our world and that push so many to the edge of survival. When we can, we help in small ways, but it is in partnering with ministries like Bluewater Surrender that we see the power of good multiplied. It is one thing to give financially, and entirely another to participate personally, to put our hands to work, and to engage with our hearts. Both are needed.

Since Gail first shared her vision for that property on the lake, many have come alongside her to support the growth and maintenance of Casa Agua Azul. I’m writing this with the hopes that you too will want to participate and to help meet the needs of 17 at-risk children. Normally, there is a large fundraiser this time of year that helps sustain the children’s home—and though they can’t hold the event, the needs haven’t changed; if anything, they have grown. But the work being done in Guatemala is crucial for breaking the cycle of poverty and abuse for the kids that call Casa Agua Azul home. Investing in children by placing them in a family setting where they can experience unconditional love offers the potential for real change. I know that what gets donated to Bluewater Surrender goes directly to caring for the children at Casa Agua Azul. I have witnessed the transformation firsthand, and I have seen how the vision is carried forward: one step at a time, with prayer and hard work, and partnership.

Lunch at Casa Agua Azul
Lunchtime at Casa Agua Azul, September 2019

Vision means seeing where God is already at work, joining that work, and becoming the answer to our own prayers.

Will you join our family in supporting Blue Water Surrender and the Casa Agua Azul? Whether you make a one-time gift or offer monthly support, you’ll be a part of something bigger than yourself.

For more information or to donate directly, go to https://www.bluewatersurrender.org/

Kids Swinging Casa Agua Azul 1
Kids swinging

Book recommendations:

  • In Pursuit of Orphan Excellence by Philip Darke
  • When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
  • Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
  • Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan

Pep Talk #11: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

“One of the best ways to make yourself happy in the present is to recall happy times from the past. Photos are a great memory-prompt, and because we tend to take photos of happy occasions, they weight our memories to the good.” –Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project

IMG_4217
First Mate Tanya & the Crew of Take Two in the Tongue of the Ocean, Bahamas, 2014

If my title holds water, I can stop right here and save you my ruminations…but of course I’m more of a writer than a photographer, so you know I’m going to say something anyway. I’ve been using some of the endless expanse of time after school and chores are done to go through old photographs. Our external storage drive is full of folders like this: “Unprocessed 2014.” That’s a photo-dump—every picture we took in 2014, un-sorted, un-edited, sometimes un-looked-at since it was taken. I’m enjoying, organizing, and labeling the happy moments in our life at a time when everything else looks like it’s heading to hell-in-a-handbasket.

There is a lot of bad news right now, and not just in the mainstream news. I have friends in low places, countries where children are dying of malnutrition faster than people in cities are dying of the new virus. Things that were bad before seem to be getting even worse. Like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, reports of disease, famine, violence, and death come riding across the internet, and even though I would like to close my eyes and stop my ears, some of these stories are touching people who are like family to me. My heart is breaking, and yet I still have to function in the day-to-day. I’ll let you know when I figure out how to get through a day without springing leaks.

I know we’re supposed to live in the present, but when the present is dark, we can also dig into the treasure-trove of the past. No matter what happens going forward, here’s something that can’t be taken away: yesterday’s happy memories. We stored them up for such a time as this.

Today I found this one: on a hot and boring passage to the Bahamas, we did what we often do, put the engines in neutral, toss drift lines off the transoms, and jump in. We were crossing the Tongue of the Ocean—1000 fathoms of indigo water. If you put on a mask and look down, it gives you the feeling of standing on the old Sears Tower lookout deck (now Skydeck Chicago), more a fear of heights than of depths. You feel like a water strider on a pond, and the next step in your imagination is the predator from the deep coming up for a snack. It’s terrifying, invigorating, and fun. I will never forget that day, and I loved having the photo to bring it to the surface.

So many times since we returned from the Caribbean in July, I have found myself expressing gratitude for our travel memories. I’m so happy that we took the plunge, sold our house, and went sailing with our children. I know you have memories of happy times, too: dredge them up and let them bring you joy.

Previous post on a similar topic: