Tuesday, April 16, 2013


When I was 21 and newly married I left behind my home and my husband to study in Madagascar. I spent a semester in Antananarivo, living with the world's most lovely host family. Each morning I would wake up and breakfast on milky coffee and bread with honey, or mofo gasy (sweet rice cakes).
I would kiss my host family on the cheeks, gather up my school things and walk outside to the "bus stop". The "bus stop" was really just a dusty junction at the top of our road where passengers would gather and wait for a "taxi be" (large van) to come transport us into town. I would queue up next to little old ladies wrapped in lambas (decorative white cloth, worn around the shoulders), men with baskets overflowing with chickens, stylish young women on their way to their office jobs.

I would stand and shift my weight from foot to foot, peering across the road at the hillside and its terrace of rice paddies. A zebu would hulk its way across the road and a line of children in uniforms would straggle past on the way to school.

All around me was noise.

Cars. Chickens. Mothers calling after their children. Men stopping to converse with their neighbors. Older women exchanging neighborhood gossip. A young man trying to flirt with my host sister. Kids on bicycles riding past and calling out to me "Vazaha!!!!!" (foreigner)

I knew just enough Malagasy to strain to decode all that was happening around me. In the classroom and at lectures we spoke French with our professors, and in my host family we defaulted to French (a second language for everyone in the home) in order to communicate. Thus I spent most of my day trying to decode the Malagasy syllables I heard and translate them into French.

Never had my brain been more limber, or more overworked.

At the end of each beautiful day I would collapse into my bed, the family cat (Baby) curled by my side. My mouth and ears would be sore from the effort of *hearing* and *being understood*, and I would fall into a deep sleep until daybreak--when the neighborhood rooster would dutifully wake me.

Lately I have been thinking about that kind of brain-tired a lot. That kind of mouth-fatigue and ear-exhaustion feels very familiar to me these days, as I work to communicate with YH.

My son has made huge leaps in his communication skills--but it is still active work to *hear* him. If we are driving in the car and he is "talking" to me from the backseat and the radio is playing and traffic is heavy on the highway--I need to really, really concentrate in order to decode what he is saying to me.

It is frustrating for both of us, as we try to make our hearts known in each other's language.

I have such empathy for his struggles to get his thoughts out in a way that the rest of the world can understand. I can see his lips purse and quiver as he searches for just the right sounds to get his meaning across. His fuzzy eyebrows knit over his tiny nose in concentration. There is a small intake of breath before he launches into:

"Mama! Baby owl. YH hold it, hold it baby owl."

He is thinking about the baby owl we found over the weekend, stuck in a knot of tree roots in our backyard. He is remembering how daddy picked it up, with heavily gloved hands, and how excited YH and his siblings were to watch the little bird's yellow eyes blink open and shut at them. He is remembering how at the time he asked to hold the owlet, to take a nap with it.

He is remembering this because we are behind a truck with an owl sticker on the bumper and he recognizes his wild friend in the dingy plastic image before him.

And if it were late rin the day, or if my brain was less limber, I might miss this chance to fully appreciate the wonder of his tiny brain. The glimpse into how he sees the world around him. A sliver of his own labor.


  1. Awwwwh, baby owls! One time I was running and I found a baby owl on the side of the road and he was injured. I ran all the way back home and came back with a shoe box and a towel and got him picked up, and then drove him way the heck out past Bastrop to the wild life rescue place. It turns out he was just stunned (probably from being hit by a car, how awful) but would make a full recovery. I miss that little owl and wished I could have kept him!
    Anyway, you didn't need that big long dramatic story but owls are cool and YH is cooler! :)