What is a home?

Plants in every window. Shoe clutter in the closet. Balsamic on the shelf. The shuffle of neighbor feet on my ceiling. The basket of extension cords in the pantry. Candles on the porch. Photos in the scrap drawers. The tree out front that smells inexplicably of sage. Red wine on a hardwood table. The laughter of dinner parties and the accumulation of dishes. Drinks on the porch with Linus. Adrian. Dan. Ruben. Tim. Jeff. Lining my toes up on the edge of the coffee table and painting them red. Hot baths in cold winters with paperbacks. Linda Rondstadt on vinyl, cooking dinner for Rachel. Saturday afternoon naps in the heat. Radiator whistles. Heartbreak. Dust on fan arms. A mouse. Poetry magazine. Turning a key in a sticky lock. Flowers that grow from seedlings to waist high every summer. Hardwood floors. Yoga on a grey mat in my room. Love.

Happy (almost) Mother’s Day.

I could make a long list of reasons I am grateful for my mother.  Actually I have.  But this weekend, a short and arbitrary one of memories from many, many to choose from:  making ornaments out of tin can tops, head-back laughter at Calumet Fisheries, the cheese thing, first trip to Wash U, drinking margaritas and playing bags in the front yard.  I love you mama.  I am so lucky to have you.


The Mission


Between trips I forget the way Central America feels. Smells. Enfolds you in warm humid air the moment you step off the plane. I’m not at home.

Painted mountaintops drape the horizon and telephone wires droop in the foreground. The horses are skinnier here and so are the cows.  Red bougainvillea explode against corrugated tin roofs.

Tang and Pepsi ads cover the faces of the pulperías and blur together as I watch from the bus. Men roll tires as tall as their waists. We slow for checkpoints where baby-faced military policía wave us through with their AK-47s. Colorful laundry on the line, Easter egg houses, banana leaves, sugar cane forests, and babies holding babies on the side of the road.  A dozen men pass us, legs dangling off the pickup bed. I watch the mountains through the gaps in the pine trees, my head resting on the window. Smoke rises from the valley.

The Clinic:

At the end of the first day my feet hurt. Faces watch us at the windows. I crouch in front of an elderly woman who is waiting for her medicine.  She reaches out and we hold each other’s arms, hands around elbows, forearms on forearms, and touch each other’s skin. Holding the moment. My friend says, “You can’t repeat something. It happens once and it’s magic.”  So I squeeze tighter, to stretch it and take it with me.  Her strong weathered hands on mine.

Before sleep we stretch, a circle of hands on a dirty clinic floor.  My thoughts slip between Spanish and English as I braid hair and drink clove flavored coffee.

I sit on the step outside the kitchen and am surrounded by children. Swarmed by laughing children.  I teach them to say “thank you” and “you’re welcome” and am trailed by bright smiling faces shouting broken English at me for the rest of the week.

I sit with the doctors. I talk with an older gentleman about his blood pressure, his alta presción, which he walked three hours to have checked. I tell this dignified man, in a white vaquero hat, that the medicine is working. Continue the medicine and go to the clinic when you run out.

The word parásito sits in my mouth when I get tired. I roll it out, with effort.  So many moments lost in translation. The heat settles into my bones and I feel heavy. Unwell. I need to pause, despite working in the shade with a tall bottle of clean water. Despite the line of hundreds in the sun, waiting to be seen.  The door to the shower is locked, so I bathe from the cool sink with a small green bowl and feel alive.

The crowd parts as I walk through it. As if in deference. The line cleaves so reliably, I have to guard against feeling entitled. As if I possess something special inside me to deserve it. As if our insides aren’t made of the same stuff.  As if their feet and backs don’t ache the same as mine.

There is joy too my friends.  So much joy. The way the cerebral infectious disease doctor transforms when dancing. Peals of laughter chasing bugs out of the girls sleeping room. Fast friendship. Running after kids around the yard, their little faces looking up expectantly. Dancing in the village square, kicking up dust, twirling little girls in the hot sun.


On the way in I see poverty; on the way out I see beauty. Horizontal stripes of color meeting at the seams of buildings. My friends dancing down the hallway of the bus. Tan mountains, green mountains, chocolate mountains. The kids of town waving at us through dusty bus windows, chasing us as we pull away.

There are moments of the trip that are still too raw to write. A suitcase of stuffed animals in the peds ward of a broken down hospital.  The mismatch between the gesture and the gratitude.

Trips like this stretch my emotional bandwidth.  They break my heart and lift me up and it feels good to feel so much.  To laugh with my whole self and to cry and to feel alive.  To shake off the staleness of routine, and open my eyes again to see color.

Rong Chang.

I’d like to thank my boy Rong Chang ( for assisting me with so many ESL (English as a Second Language) tutoring sessions.

Thanks to these clever little stories I’ve been in the position to explain, through a combination of broken Spanish, pantomime, and very basic English words, concepts like “captivity”, “the bubonic plague”, “horniness”, and “groping” to my lovely, eager, forty-something year old student.

Merry Christmas Olivia.  Thank you for your patience with me and my teaching.

The days leading up to Christmas are my favorite time of the year.

I love squinting to see if there are any gaps in the Christmas lights.  Drinking hot wine and listening to George Winston’s December album.  Sneaking unfinished gifts into closets and drawers.  Reading “The Night Before Christmas.”  Inspecting presents under the tree.  The anticipation of loved ones opening what I’ve spent time making.  The Walnut Room on Christmas Eve.  My mom, Christmas giddy.  Advent calendars.  The white lights on Michigan Avenue.  My nephew, sorting the presents like a perfect little elf.

It’s Winter in Chicago.

It’s cold outside.  Snow on the boots.  Salt on the rugs.  The Christmas tree is up and it smells like a pine forest in my little apartment.  

Whenever it gets cold it makes me feel grateful for the heat in my life.  My noisy radiators.  The yoga mat.  Warm breath into my scarf on a brisk dawn walk to the Irving Park bus.

The cold is the contrast we take pride in as Chicagoans,  the common gripe that binds us together as neighbors.  And it’s there every morning to smack us in the face and remind us we’re alive.