Shift 7: Free

I’ve been keeping my focus on what I’ve got.


I try not to think about what I’ve lost.


I’m thinking about what I’ve got.

I got the desert. I can run for miles every day.

I’ve got prickly pears and barrel cactus and saguaros that give me sweet fruit to harvest.

I’ve got leftovers in the lounge I can grill up when I need protein.

I got passes to Deon’s spa when I want a hot shower.

I got a cot to sleep on and a camp that I can use.

I’ve got friends, and they don’t ask questions, and they let me be.


I’ve got freedom.

You don’t get freedom like this when you live with parents or grandparents. You sure don’t get it when you’re in Child Protective Services, and you don’t get it in foster care or group homes.

You get freedom like this when you’re on your own.


I don’t think about what I’ve lost.

I think about what I’ve got.

I get to sleep in the desert air.


I get to eat barbecue every day.


I don’t think about what I’ve lost.

I’ve lost a lot. If I were to start listing it, I’d realize just how much my life has changed.


I lost my home. I lost my grandma. I lost my parents. I lost my friends. I lost my spot on the track team. I lost my 4.0 grade average. I lost my future and I lost my past.

Man, I didn’t know that you had to lose so much to gain freedom.


I’m not thinking about what I lost.

I gained a friend.


Deon checks in on me pretty often.

Sometimes, if he finishes his work early, he’ll stop by camp.

He likes to dance up there on the bluff. He brings me batteries for my boombox and he’ll bring his favorite CDs and we’ll dance up there while the gray hawks call.

We were dancing to Prince the other day, “Still Would Stand All Time.” I love that old song.

“Dance it like you mean it,” Deon said.


I looked at him. He was getting down and singing. “Leave your paaast behiiind….”

And I couldn’t help but smile, getting my life lessons from a Rock God Who’s Crossed the Rainbow Bridge and a gardener who’s been there, right where I been and moved out of it.

I’ve lost so much. But look what I’ve gained.


We were dancing to “New Power Generation (pt 2)” when Yuki joined us.

“Just making a general announcement,” she said, “to the world in general. School sucks. That’s the announcement. We now return to our regularly scheduled show, Dancing with the Dork-Heads.”


I tried to joke her out of her bad mood. But Deon took a different approach.

He said that yeah, sometimes dealing with other people sucks. Sometimes when you gotta follow rules or listen to people who think they know what’s best for you, that it feels like you’re losing your freedom.

He said sometimes school makes you feel like you’re nobody in a world of somebodies.

Then he said something that shot right inside of me. He said, “When you got people that care for you, and you got a place in society all set up for you, then sometimes, you see all the ways that they impinge upon you. It feels like it sucks. But when you don’t got that, and all you got is yourself in the big wide world, then you realize how lucky it is to be able to have that spot where you belong. Freedom comes at a price,” he said. “And it’s a pretty steep one.”

I know he knows it, too. He’s been there.


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AN: What they were dancing to…

Love you Prince.

Shift 6: Squatter

I been hanging out with Yuki. I like her style.

She told me she likes my style. I’m not surprised. I was wearing one of my new vests and the scarf I got from the free box. Like I said: Swanky.


When I talk with Yuki, I forget everything. She gets me laughing so hard, and next thing I know, I feel like I’m a regular kid and we’re out after curfew on a school night.


She always says something goofy when she leaves, like, “Toodles.” Or once she said, “Jaa mata,” like they say in anime.

God, I wish there was a TV and DVR in the lounge. It would be so awesome to watch anime with her on a Saturday afternoon.

As it is, we catch pieces of stuff on her phone or on my tablet. That’s fun, too, because we get to lean in together and watch the video like we’re both in the same tiny world.

And maybe we are both in the same tiny world. It’s just that sometimes she leaves it to go back to her big world, and then I leave to go to mine…


My world feels both tiny and vast. It’s tiny because it only extends as far as I walk or run: The visitor’s center, my camp, the trails all around, that district nearby with Deon’s spa and the tapas bar. That’s the extent of it.

It’s vast because it’s nowhere. I live nowhere. I don’t really live here–I’m just staying here before I shift on. I live nowhere and everywhere. That’s how vast it is.

I got a scare the other day that it was time for me to shift.

I got back to camp from hanging out late with Yuki, and there was an old guy sleeping in my cot.


I freaked. I thought it must be that guy whose camp this is who returns every winter. It’s getting on towards winter, late fall, anyway. I guess I’ve been halfway expecting him to return anytime. I don’t think this park’s big enough for two homeless people to camp here. So I always figured when he returned from up north, I’d head on. I don’t know where. Somewhere. It’s his camp, after all.

I slept in the lounge that night.

Next morning, I told Deon that the old guy had come back. He said he didn’t think so. Usually the guy came back a lot earlier, like in the middle of October. He was so late, Deon had started thinking he might not make it this year. He asked me to describe the guy to him. Tall. Skinny. Long gray hair.

Wasn’t him. Deon’s old guy is short, stocky, Asian, crew cut.

That afternoon, I saw the guy who’d slept in my cot. I got to talking with him.

Turns out he’s a rich guy who lives on an island. But now and then, he runs away from home, just goes roaming for a while, until he gets the vagabond out of his system, and then he calls up his kids and asks them to come pick him up or wire him money for the train ride back.


His daughter was on he way to pick him up now.

And that meant, if it wasn’t him, then I’d get to stay here a little longer.

I found myself feeling grateful that the old guy hadn’t come back. And then I realized I was feeling grateful for what might be somebody else’s misfortune. That won’t do.


Just take it for today. Just be thankful for today. I let it go, all those thanks. I’m not making plans. That old guy comes back to his camp, and I’m outta here, thankful for the time I got to stay, and no begrudging. Just gratitude.

That old guy doesn’t come back, and it’s grace. It’s a gift.

How do you accept a gift? For just what it is and nothing more.

That’s life. Just what it is. Nothing more. Which means it’s everything.

I ran into one of Deon’s friends from the tapas bar. He was fishing.

“Catch anything?” I asked him.

“Nope,” he said. “Never do.”

He looked like he was having the time of his life.


I slept in the camp that night, and it felt as good as a dream.

When I woke up–OK, I woke up late. I can sleep in. It’s not like I got to do anything during the day–when I woke up, I found a note on my cooler.

“There’s a treat inside for you, Jazzie Joo!” It was signed by Deon.

I opened up the cooler. There under a bag of ice was a carton of yogurt and a basket of strawberries. Deon had even left me a clean bowl and spoon.

Man, breakfast that morning was the sweetest thing.


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Wonder 49


I was grateful for work the next day. Something to get my mind off of grief. Well, for a little while, at least. Yuki was my first patient, and she always helps me feel better.

“I heard about Jake,” she said. “You OK?”

“I have no idea” I replied. “Is it OK to feel sort of frozen inside?”

“However you feel is OK,” Yuki said. “Everybody feels it differently.”

After I prescribed the herbal remedy for Yuki, Luna suggested I take a house call that had just come in. I felt there was some sort of conspiracy between my friends, for the house call was to my friend Jeanette Hairston’s home.


I saw her roommate first. It was a simple diagnosis–just a cold which our herbal remedy would fix right up.


Jeanette, however, seemed a little loopy.

“I been trying a little home remedy myself,” she said. I suggested she try, instead, a cup of strong green tea and a nap.

“Give a call if you still feel badly when you get up,” I said on my way out the door.


I passed the rest of my shift logging research results. I couldn’t focus enough to run tests, but entering the data let my mind clear while my heart slowly thawed.

Yuki called as I was leaving the clinic.

“Come meet me at the Blue Velvet!” she said. “Let’s hang out together.”

I took the train there. The prospect of an evening surrounded by people, conversation, and music was way more appealing than a long night at home, just me and my feelings.

“Yuki!” I said when I saw her, “you get Best Friend of the Decade award!”

She laughed. “You think I’m going to let you alone at a time like this? I know you, Charlie. I know what you need.”


Miranda was there, too. Now I knew there was a conspiracy! We shared a quick hug.

“You heard about Jake?” she asked. I hugged her again. I’d met Miranda the same day I met Jake, back when Miranda and I were little kids.

“You holding up OK?” I asked her.

“I’ll be all right,” she said.

We sat at the bar, sharing stories. I told about a time when Jake had tried to teach me to weed the garden, and I’d pulled out all the clover, instead.

“Very thorough,” Jake had said. “Next time, pay attention to the shape of the leaf of the plants, so you don’t pull out the very ones you want to keep.”

Jake had launched into a short lecture about beneficial plant communities and rhizomes and such. And I realized, for the first time, that that had been my introduction into this field of science and herbal medicine that is becoming my life passion.


Miranda and the others left. I wasn’t sure where Yuki was. For a moment, the bar was silent, and I felt a deep pain inside.

“It hits you in the gut, doesn’t it?” said Cassandra, who took the bar stool next to me.


“Grief’s a funny thing,” she said. “After Father died, I couldn’t eat for a week. Then the next week, I had a headache. Then finally, I thought I was having a heart attack. It was grief. All of it.”

“Are you OK now?” I asked “You look pretty chipper.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “You just get used to it, that’s all. I still feel like there’s a dagger lodged in my upper left chest, right below the clavicle.”

“That’s the subclavian artery,” I said. “You should have that checked out.”

“No,” she replied. “I’m fine. I hardly even notice it anymore, only when I really tune in. You get used to it. You’ll see.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to get used to phantom pain lodged in my body. I wanted to move through grief, in its own time, and come out the other side. I tried to explain this to Cassandra.

“Not me,” she said. “I like feeling that tightness there. Every time I do, I remember Father. This way, I’ll never forget him.”


“You know,” I joked, “there are other ways we can remember our friends and family. Like hearing a favorite song, for example. Or telling one of their favorite stories!”


“We could,” Cassandra said. “Or we could feel pain and smile anyway.”

I left before sunset. Yuki had left a while before. For some reason, I wanted to catch the sunset from the ferry. I wanted to stand on the deck, facing the ocean, and remember all the sunsets that Jake and I watched together. I wanted to discover what I might feel–what was there, besides pain, that was left of him that I could still feel while I watched the sun go down?


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Wonder 26



Minha mãe is a hero. I always knew it. Today, due to my idiocy, I put that knowledge to the test. It started with the best intentions: my club buddies were over, we were hungry after yoga practice, and I volunteered to scramble up some eggs for us.

Tia Berry said that morning that she heard snapping sounds coming from the stove when she was heating water for tea. We thought it was the kettle expanding.

But as I was cooking, there was a loud pop under the front burner, and then the stove burst into flame.

I grabbed the fire extinguisher before my mind even registered what was happening, and then next thing I knew, there was Mãe at my side, fighting the fire with me.


Mãe!” I yelled. “Go outside! Take Berry with you! Get safe!”

“We got this, Charlie,” she said.

Yuki ran in screaming. “I smelled smoke!”

“Get outside, Yuki!” I shouted. “Take my tia with you!”


Time did that weird thing where it stops and silence wraps itself around everything. I loved it. I hated the fire, and I felt like such an idiot for having started it, but I loved that silent envelope. I felt like I was moving through clarity–not a thought, just total awareness, like I could step through the frozen moment.


“You’re awesome, Mãe,” I said when the fire was finally out.

“We did it, spud,” she said. “Not bad.”


She got that wistful look she gets when she watches me.

“I ever tell you about the first fire I fought?”

She hadn’t.

“It was my second trimester,” she said. “I was hungry all the time. And sick all the time, but you don’t want to hear about that.”

She told me about how the stove had burst into flames when she was scrambling up some eggs for breakfast. She’d put out the fire then, too.

“I liked it,” she said, “if you want to know the truth. I liked the power of quenching the flames. I liked knowing I could keep you safe.”

“That’s how I feel now,” I said. “I’d do anything, Mãe.”

“Me, too,” she said.


The kitchen was a mess–flakes of ash everywhere, the stove emitting the stench of burnt plastic and electrical wires.

I cleaned it up. If I really would do anything, then that means doing the gross work, too. Heck, minha mãe had just put out a kitchen fire. She shouldn’t have to clean up the kitchen, too.


I realized I was starving once the biggest part of the mess was cleaned up. We had to wait for the new stove to be delivered, and, besides, I really didn’t feel like cooking with heat. I made a salad.


Later, after Hugo and Yuki left, when Mãe and Tia Berry were sleeping, I did some reps out back. It’s a weird feeling I had. Can a person feel both tender and strong?

I felt vulnerable because I realized how quickly anything could go wrong. I felt like a baby because minha mãe had rushed to save me. I realized she’d always do that–as long as she lived. No matter how big, how strong I am, I’ll always be o bebê da minha mãe.

At the same time, I felt powerful. I’d protected her. I’d protected our house. I’d found this strength and courage inside of me. I’d stepped into that mighty tunnel of silence, and I’d found something in me I never knew I had.

I don’t know how this works: How does it work that I can be both a baby and a man at the same time?


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Wonder 25



Lately, I’ve been watching Charlie as if I’m seeing him for the first time. I wonder if my dad felt like this sometimes. I remember once, I was about Charlie’s age, and I was writing in my journal. I remember that I felt excited–I’d just discovered something. I forget what it was, but I was writing quickly, and when I looked up, I caught my dad looking at me.

“What are you doing?” I asked my dad.

“I’m seeing you,” he said. I blushed.

“I’m nothing to look at,” I answered.

“No,” said my dad. “You’re beautiful.”

I remember how bashful I felt. But as I’m looking at Charlie now, seeing how beautiful, how amazing he is, I imagine that my face looks like my dad’s did then: lost in the wonder of this person that somehow came here through me.

Charlie and Berry as so similar. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I mean, Berry and I raised him. And Berry and I, we talk a lot. I mean, we’re always talking, always sharing our ideas and our opinions. I guess we’re opinionated. So it makes sense that Charlie would pick up our views and mindset. But it’s not just ideas that he shares with his aunt: he even has her gestures and mannerisms.


I always thought that Charlie would grow up macho and tough. I’m not sure how I got that idea. He was a bold kid, and his dad, while not coarse, by any means, is certainly very masculine. So I always imagined that Charlie would grow up to be just like him. But Charlie has such a sensitive side. He’s creative and intellectual, and he speaks articulately and eloquently, and he seems to be always thinking, always feeling.


He’s started a club. It’s called “Paint,” but it’s really a club for sensitive, creative types like him. It was his idea that they practice yoga.

“I’ve been reading about meditation,” he said. “Musicians are using it to help with performance anxiety. I think I need to add it to my toolkit.”


“It’s good for artists, too,” said Yuki. “Integration of mind and body!”

I watched Yuki talking with him. Charlie doesn’t seem to notice yet, but he draws women to him. I’m grateful he’s sensitive: at least if he breaks hearts, it won’t be intentional.


During the first club meeting, Berry and Hugo got mired in a debate about pointillism. I had to shake my head. Leave it to my sister to refute the optics theory behind it.

“It’s all dots anyway,” she said, “whether we paint them as such or not. We just can’t perceive them in any other way!”

Hugo seemed deflated.


Charlie joined them.

“It’s having a renaissance, did you say?” he asked Hugo.

“Yeah, sure,” said Hugo. “And I’m the biggest champion.”

“But why not Impressionism?” said Beryl.

“It’s not either-or, is it?” Charlie said. “Don’t we learn more when it’s both-and? And even if now, we can see what about pointillism doesn’t work, doesn’t that make it even more interesting, for we learn about how our minds put together what we see, like when we listen to music, if we know something about auditory theory, we can understand how our minds put together what we hear into a cohesive piece? Isn’t that what matters?”

Beryl and Hugo both looked at him, feeling their argument had been diffused.

Charlie smiled and continued talking with more and more enthusiasm about how we create meaning out of what we see and hear.

I thought of my dad, again, as I always seem to do whenever I reflect on having once been a daughter, and now being a mother. I remembered how my dad picked up my journal one day and held it before me. “It’s just little lines on paper,” he said, “until the human mind decodes these scratches and forms them into meaning.”

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