This is Summer: Season Six {Episode 31}

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TV on the floor

He chased them at the park, now

He’s teaching new games

~Natalia

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Sunday Afternoon Picnic

There are people everywhere. Each way I look, each way I tilt my head, there is action, movement; life and all its accompanying sounds.

Legs crossed, my long skirt tucked around my knees in vague hopes of modesty, I sit in the grass, surrounded by all this moving and living and sound-making, and I watch. The sun seeps into my shoulders, flutters across my chest, heats the toes I haphazardly painted red in the hours before Eli’s wedding last weekend. Leaning back on my arms, I can feel the knots and twists of my summer-sticky hair falling around my shoulders, frizzy stands inching their way defiantly under my sunglasses, into my eyes once more. I lift my glasses, run my fingers through the humidity-curled bangs, and turn for a moment to watch the movement to my left.

Across the narrow, straight concrete that cuts this park in two, a group of parents, couples, sit under the shade of a short, thick tree. Long, arching branches bring brilliant green leaves almost to their level, almost down to where they sit in fabric camping chairs. Some with hands crossed in their laps, others leaning forward in their seats, their whole bodies nearly falling into their conversations. There’s a little girl in the shade of the tree, too, thin blonde hair pinned back on the side, her belly still baby-round. A curios, friendly toddler, I’ve watched her gaze up at older children, wrap her dimpled arms around other little ones in a neck-squeezing hug. Now, her head tilts back, arms reach up to her father, miniature fingers stretching to be held, if only for a moment, before she toddles off again, the picture of tiny independence.

Not two yards down the path, the trees open, briefly, and the warm grass is near-full with the backpacks, picnic blankets, and discarded lunch bags of those who have eaten there. Meal consumed, they sit in the sun, as I am across the sidewalk, and talk, their body language and the flow of their words creating pockets of conversation throughout their group. Here three talk, here four, here two converse over the heads of the others; now they all glance around, chuckle at a communal joke, nod in group agreement.

Beyond them still, the children play. Settled in the middle of the field, the playground appears mottled in some places, as shade from the trees encircling the play area splashes over the slides, the sand, the swings. The children are many. Some faces I recognize, some I don’t. They’ve mixed effortlessly in the easy, clean way of children who simply want to play. A game of tag is better with seven than four, going down the slide is faster with three, swinging goes higher when there’s someone to push, so they make alliances. I watch as they play, slipping in and out of my line of vision. There are slanting parallel bars along the play area, running from the slide platform to the ground. I perceive no organized games, but there’s a congregation of young ones around the bars, waiting their turn. They slide down, legs hooked on each bar, bodies quickly slipping into the space between, until they arrive on the woodchipped ground, only to jump up, scramble up the ladder, do it again. They slide alone, waiting their turn at the top, and they slide together, four children lined one after the other, slipping slowly down the bars. There are no rules to their sliding, I think, but maybe there are, because children are smart like that, and creative, too.

In the grass before me, in the sun-warmed span between my seat in the dirt and the tree-lined playground, they are playing soccer. Strappy sandals tossed in the grass to represent goals, the teams swirl and meander together. A pick-up game, players straggle off the field, tentatively wander on, throughout the game, and watching distractedly from my self-created sideline, I’m unsure who is kicking for which side. But the flow of the game moves back and forth across the field, the ball rolling in and out of extended legs, occasionally flying high in the air, followed with cries of “Head it!” only to come bouncing back down again. Every now and again, the ball rolls to where I sit, in the middle of all this movement. And I pick it up, and throw it back into the fray.

~Natalia

This is Summer: Season Three {#9}

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They’re learning baseball,
Swing, hit, run, catch: they got that.
But they still skip third.

~Natalia

March 1st: Part Three

This is the last part of those wonderful hours spent playing and learning at our professor’s home. Here’s Part One, and also Part Two, just in case.

The prison.
Last game, it’s 2:30pm when we begin. We’ll play until 4pm, he says, and I cannot imagine this dice-rolling, piece-moving, card-drawing stretching until then. But it does. We’re the prisoners to his German officers, our multi-colored pieces hopping across the board. Around the table, five players watch the board intently, searching its jail-patterned backdrop for the answers to our puzzle, for our escape. Standing, I lean over the board, study the spaces, the rooms, the walls. I count the spaces between my pieces, the spaces to my goals. I strategize a way, get arrested, replan, rethink, redo. The child toddles past, bare feet smacking faintly on the hardwood floor. I pick her up, her weight on my hip familiar, comfortable. She sips her milk bottle, I plan my escape from a German Prisoner of War camp.

The clock ticks by. It’s 3:30pm. Slowly, we begin to understand the community aspect of the game. In order to win, you must get two of your own pieces safely out of jail, he’d said. But I’ll be beaten when any two pieces escape. Slowly, we understand. It’s not a me versus them; it’s an us versus him. We work together, then. Pass cards back and forth: do you need this? Will this help you? Time is running out and we’re desperate now. Desperate to work together. She’s stuck, needs rope. I hand over mine and with it, the escape plan I had labored over. We yell, cheer, when another break free. I dance, nervous, the child still on my hip, as I watch her roll the dice.
She must survive, we can do this.

The game ends at 4:02pm. I’ve lost, my pieces forfeited in a Do or Die move that would free me or kill me. But it doesn’t feel like a loss at all. Doesn’t feel like disappointment, the slump of shoulders, the shrug of indifference to cover the sting of effort lost. Doesn’t feel like that because it’s not that. This is success. This game is cooperation, community. This game is awareness of others, watching the colored pieces move; where is she going, how can I help her, what is best for another. This game is teamwork, self sacrifice. This game has rules, but so does life and maybe they’re more like guidelines. This game is planning and then scrapping your plan with one misstep, one roll of the dice, one endangered friend. This game is improvisation and heart and struggle and learning, growing constantly.

This game is you are not your own, you are not alone. And those are lessons that everyone can learn.

And tomorrow, I drive once more along the highway towards this wonderful home on the corner. But I’ll not go all the way there. Rather, there’s a school beside the highway, brick building full of learning and teaching and students and Jesus. And tomorrow, I’ll visit and I’ll meet and I’ll ask questions and I’ll hear more, and maybe in January, I’ll go back and teach.

~Natalia

March 1st: Part Two

In case you missed it, you can find Part One of this school report turned blog post here.

The States.
Explaining the game, the Professor pauses, searching for a word. He’s making a comparison, an analogy, to clarify this game, a card game of the United States. He alludes to an alternate title, one he’ll not say. It’s like Cheat, he says, after a moment. I nod, then, understanding. My mother doesn’t like that game’s title either.

But this is a different game, one of geography and maps and sometimes a little guessing, and maybe a little improvising, hoping the others don’t catch on, aren’t paying attention. The baby having slid off my lap, off to play, and we’re four again around the card table, taking turns laying down states, oceans, even one card reading CANADA across the top.

Fourth grade, maybe fifth, I knew these states well. Trading roles, I was the teacher, my mother was the student. Map of the United States printed blank, state outlines unlabeled, I tested her. She wrote the state names, their capitals. She wrote, I corrected. Red pencil borrowed from my professor-father’s desk, I marked the maps, corrected them, learned them. Now it’s twelve years later and my eyes are closed, I’m scrambling to see that map in my mind. Does Georgia touch South Carolina? Does it touch the Gulf of Mexico? How many states does Utah border? I learned in fourth grade, sitting cross legged at the dining table, red pencil in hand. And I’m learning now; a mix and match, guess and check kind of learning. Trying hard to remember what I used to know.

Tea and cookies.
He appears in the doorway as we play, brandishing a white tea pot in the air like some medieval banner: Under this hot beverage, I will conquer! But he’s talking about the traditional way of making tea, waving his free hand towards the table behind us, under the window. Outside, the snow is cold and white, lining the windowsill, covering the yard, falling now in fresh, fat flakes. Inside, there are cups and matching saucers, a plate of cookies, still warm. He tells us about tea leaves and milk in first and sugar to taste, and we watch the dark tea swirl lighter, sip the hot liquid. The United States spread before me still, cards waiting to be matched, played, I sip my tea, dip my cookie in it when no one is looking. Later, sitting on the living room couch, he says cultural experience, and there’s a kind of worth in that. He cares to bake for us, he cares to prepare for us. He cares to share his tea with us.

He cares.

~Natalia

March 1st: Part One

On March 1st, twelve of the girls in the elementary education program spent the day in the home of one of our dear professors. We left school too early on a Saturday, and spent the day playing educational games, eating delicious treats, and enjoying the company of our hosts and one another. It took two hours to drive home through standstill Chicago traffic in a blizzard, but March 1st was one of my favorite days of the semester, and a memory I’m still captivated by. This is Part One of the response paper I submitted after our adventure.

The snow.
The snow is piled on either side of the driveway. Uneven, sloping piles. I pull between them, inch towards the garage door, park. This home, this little town, is not what I expected; the house stands alone on the corner, set apart, yet warmly indifferent to its own separation. There is snow in the city, as well; black, gravel-filled spires of frozen precipitation lining the streets, narrowing the sidewalks. Here, the snow is still white, laying sofly across spacious lawns, draped seamlessly over front yard bushes, trees. Here, the snow is white and the air is still, quiet. The peace is heavy, bright. It’s almost disorienting.

The turkey.
Timeline, the game is called. We sit, four of us, around the card table. The cards are small when they’re dumped out of the metal tin, onto the table; they remind me of Ticket to Ride cards. The rule book- more of a pamphlet, really- falls out of the tin, too, and I pick it up, unfold it. This game is unfamiliar and I want to understand, I want to be able to play. Six cards each, it’s a simple game, although a challenging one. I learned every date in Christianity and Western Culture 1, completely aced Christianity and Western Culture 2, but now there are six world events in front of me, lined askew on the edge of the card table, and I feel my eyes squint as I wrack my brain for the right answer; surely I know the right answer, right?

I’m wrong on my first turn. Hands flat on the table, I split the growing timeline, separate a blank between two events, tentatively flip my own card into the open space. Nope. Wrong. Not even close. I discard that one, draw another. Six cards still in front of me.

We play Timeline twice, and I lose both rounds. The one with the most cards left. Wrong. But this game, this simple plot, these few rules, they’re motivating me. I want to know the answers. I don’t want to know to win now, I want to know because knowledge has value. Knowledge is relevant. The beginning of the 100 Years War, the invention of glass, The first Woodstock; history has stages and eras and wars and riots and inventions, but it’s all one story: the story of the world. I want to know the story. Know it to teach well. Know it to find my place in the legacy of things said, and done, changes made, feats accomplished. Know it because someone, someday, might ask we when the turkey became a thing, and I will give them an answer. The right answer.

The baby.
There’s a picture of her and her brother, pinned to a board outside of an office in an academic building in a big city. There’s a picture, but real life is better. In real life, she’s small, as two year old children often are, her baby-fine hair trimmed in bangs that frame gentle almond eyes. In real life, she sits on my lap as I play Timeline, miniature hands wrapped around the discarded card I’ve given her to hold. In real life, she’s vibrant, active, engaging. In real life, she smells like baby shampoo and fruit juice.

The States.
Explaining the game, the Professor pauses, searching for a word. He’s making a comparison, an analogy, to clarify this game, a card game of the United States. He alludes to an alternate title, one he’ll not say. It’s like Cheat, he says, after a moment. I nod, then, understanding. My mother doesn’t like that game’s title either.

~Natalia

Baseball in March

Years ago, March 2009, we flew to California. The whole family, little ones two and three years old; chubby little Latinas with round cheeks and wispy black ponytail sprouts. Stevy was not yet in high school, I was making my way through my junior year. We flew, family of six with just about that many suitcases, and we spent two weeks in the crisp, sunny air of Northern California in spring.

Not 24 hours after bumping to the ground, taxiing down the runway lined with palm trees and grass that would only be green until the summer sun had its withering way, we descended onto the baseball field. We arrived with the grandparents, piling out of the new minivan, rough towels lining tan seat cushions under the child carseats that belonged to me, years before. We arrive, and, moments later, done with work for the evening, an aunt arrives, too. She pulls into the parking lot behind us, ever-present turtle decal on her darkly tinted windshield. Then we’re there in the parking lot, exchanging greetings and hugs, her subtle French manicure clicking against her sunglasses as she slides them atop her head.

The cousins are already at the field. Three cousins, another aunt, the uncle. Two of the cousins run to the edge of the grass, wait to greet us. Mia is 10, Teo almost eight, and there’s a flurry of hugs again. We laugh, aww, as the little ones hug Teo; at five years older, he is the only cousin they have whose age is remotely close to theirs, and it’s sweet to see them together.

Moving across the grass, towards where aunt and uncle have arranged a blanket on the grass, Mia points across the field, the vibrant green grass waving in the evening wind under her fingers. We’ve come to watch her older brother, Marc, play baseball, and we lean around her, standing there in the grass, and we sift through fifteen pre-teens in matching uniforms until we find a familiar face. Then he’s seen us, and we’re waving to our cousin from across the field while he practices catching ground balls and pop flies.

The baseball diamond is small, but the field around it stretches far, and the girls, the cousins, run, spin, chase, crawl, laugh, while Marc’s team takes turns at bat, in the field, at bat once more. The grandparents alternately sit in the folding chairs we’ve brought along and stand on the grass, watching. They watch the cousins play, their amusement at piggy back rides gone wrong and the resulting harmless tumble mixing with faint sadness that this only happens once a year. The three sisters, the aunts and my mother, stand around the blanket, catching up. I’m the oldest cousin, the first to grow, and I’ve begun to walk the line between playing with the cousins and conversing with the adults, working to pull myself up to their level. But Mia, Teo, play with the girls, and Stevy wanders, snapping pictures of the game, the players, the chain-link that separates spectators from players. So I lie there on the blanket and watch.

Now, it’s March 2014. I’m a junior again, this time in college, working hard to finish even as I watch the days of my college career slip past me at breakneck speed. Once again, March found me in California. The same sleek van (minus the toweled seats) rolling through the airport pick-up line. The same eye-catching green grass, remarkable for its color, but also for it’s very existence. It’s been a cold, icy, white winter in Chicago. The same grandparents, aunts, uncle, and cousins. The same baseball league; Saturday evening games sending pop flies and the occasional foul ball soaring into the setting orange sun.

The same, but different. This March, there are no little sisters running around the field, no Stevy photographing blades of grass from artistic angles. No mother chatting with her sisters. These weeks are my trip alone, and what I vaguely imagined when I was younger has become my reality: I am the sole representative of my Little Family here, right now, and I’m richly heavy with connections with the adults- the aunts, uncle, grandparents- and those younger than me, my cousins. The baseball games are Teo’s now, and sitting in the stands, I’m between uncle and Mia, aunt and grandparents sitting in front me, perched on the lower levels of the cold metal bleachers.

But just as I grew up, so too did everyone else. Marc is a junior in high school now himself. He plays water polo and shows me pictures of the college tours he went on earlier in the year. He has plans and dreams and goals and earlier in the day, his father at home grilling, he drove Mia and me to Safeway in his jeep, where we hurried through the aisles, throwing ketchup, potato salad into a basket. Mia and Teo, are grown, too, and we’re friends and cousins, and sitting there on the bleachers, we pass sunflower seeds back and forth from aunt, Marc, Mia, myself, to uncle and back again. And we pass the conversation, the jokes, the laughter, too, while the floodlights above us take over for the setting sun and the umpire calls strikes as the bat whiffs through the air.

~Natalia

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