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Staying Put

28 Mar

When one lives in paradise, it’s nearly impossible to find vacation spots that compare to home. Our solution? A staycation. We explore our own community and pretend we’ve never seen it before. Yesterday, we took a drive up in the Santa Ynez mountains, had lunch downtown and took in a late afternoon movie (Get Out–a fantastic film.) This morning was breakfast at Anna’s Bakery and a walk to our local nature preserve. I am so grateful to live in Goleta the Goodland.

Here’s a slideshow of our hike this morning. Enjoy!

Now I’m off to work in the garden.

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Tiny Beautiful Things

1 Mar

I recently read the most wonderful book: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, the author of the best selling memoir, Wild. This lovely little book is a compilation of letters sent to the author while she worked writing an advice column for the Rumpus called Dear Sugar. My childhood friend Michele (one of my fellow creative soul sisters) recommended it to me as she understands my constant angst about trying to find happiness through creative expression.

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I needed this book right now. I haven’t felt like myself lately. Each morning when I turn on the television I want to either scream or cry at what’s happening in our country. I need to start my next novel and every time I sit down at the computer–I’ve got nothing. I stare blankly at the screen until I finally give up and log into Facebook where the political posts made me even more depressed. Just before falling asleep in bed each night, my brain manifests all kinds of wonderful and exciting writing ideas, then when I wake up the next morning, I can’t remember a single one.

The best thing about Tiny Beautiful Things is that we learn something that we already know: life is hard sometimes. We are all sad and raw and completely lost at some point in our lives. the trick is to understand that with each experience there’s a lesson to be learned. We don’t always pay attention, but it’s there.

I’m not sure what my lesson is lately. Certainly, I need to feel more gratitude for what I have. And I have so much. So I will pay attention to all the tiny beautiful things that are right in front of me.

 

 

 

Happy New Year

11 Jan
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The Mireles Family: Back row: Nino, Nora and Leah. Front row: Rene, Isa and Jessica

I’ll be honest–due to my complete lack of preparation and general malaise, I neglected to get my annual holiday letter out before Christmas. I did manage to send out a few cards, but if you didn’t get one this year, here it is. I’m sharing it on my blog because after a rough 2016 for all of us, I feel the need to spread some love.

Dear Family and Friends (and Blog Followers),

Okay, I know I’m late in getting our annual Christmas letter out this year and I’ve no doubt most of you were paralyzed with fear and dread that I wasn’t writing one. Rest assured, I will not leave you in your state of angst any longer. You may now drag yourself out from under the covers and move on with your life.

As difficult as it is to focus on the good after 2016 went flying off the deep end, my plan of action is to try my best to focus on the one thing that has the ability to solve everyone’s problems: LOVE.

Here goes:

NORA: My oldest and favorite child. I love that Nora still lives at home even though she worries that she’s too old to still be living at home. I love that she adores her job working with such amazing women at California Retina Consultants and has developed wonderful relationships with them. I love that Nora plays coed fast pitch softball and that she’s really, really good at it. I love that Nora drives a Prius and has become totally vegan and is now super healthy. I love that she’s trying to convince the rest of the family to do it too (hmmm….we’ll have to see about that.) I love that she’s goofy, funny and kind and still tolerates me and René (most of the time.)

LEAH: My second oldest and favorite child. I love that Leah is will graduate in May from USC with a masters in Hospital Administration. I love that after working a full-time unpaid internship at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles while going to school full time, the hospital hired her for a paid position. I love that Leah wrote an incredible essay about healthcare and won a huge scholarship that paid half a year’s tuition. I love that she took a solo trip to Italy to meet up with a friend. I love that Leah and her boyfriend, Jeff come and visit us often and bring their dog Luna, who is my favorite granddoggy. I love that Leah is so funny, kind and generous to our family as well as the rest of the world. (And I love Jeff, too.)

NINO: My only son and favorite child. I love that Nino graduated from UCSB last June as an art major. I love that in July he moved to Oaxaca, Mexico to live for six months (he just got back right before Christmas which is why this letter is late—I mean, what kind of mother would I be if I took our family Xmas photo without him? I love that the minute he arrived home, he got his old job back (with a raise) and started working right away with the intent to pay off his student debt within the year. I love that he makes me belly laugh all the time. I love that I didn’t realize how much I missed him until he was home again.

ISA: My youngest and favorite child. I love that this kid is so great that sometimes I have to close my eyes and thank the universe that she’s here with us. I love that she was elected La Patera School’s student body president and when she came home from school that day, she very nonchalantly told me she’d won. I love that she does cartwheels and handstands around the house like a crazy person, plays soccer, takes piano, voice and dance lessons and does her homework without asking. I love that she begged for an iPhone and got it for her 12th birthday (and Christmas and sixth grade graduation.) I love how she laughs all the time and that she can come up with puns and zingers that put her siblings to shame. I love that I don’t embarrass her in public (or at least not yet.)

RENE: My favorite husband (so far.) I love that René comes home from work each day raving about how much he loves his students. I love that he still drives to L.A. almost every weekend to see his sister who is confined to a nursing home. I love that he yells at me to get off my phone and then proceeds to spend hours playing games on his. I love that wherever we go, he meets someone he knows. I love that he values family above all else. I love that he stops for coffee at McDonald’s everyone morning on the way to work and has breakfast with a group of homeless men. I love that even when I want to kill him, he makes me laugh. I love that we will celebrate thirty years of marriage this coming June. And I especially love that I still love him after all these years together.

ME: my favorite self. I love that I’m blessed with the best job where I teach children how to love music. I love that I got to spend several days at a beach house with a group of women friends I’ve known since junior high. I love that I finished my novel and am now trying to find an agent. I love that I’ve received over thirty rejections (really—I do love this because it will make it all the more sweet when it actually gets picked up.) I love that the five people I’ve allowed to read my book have raved about it (including Nino, who is a hard sell.) I love that my mom is still going strong at eighty. I love that my kids tease me and laughingly accuse me of turning into my mother. I love that I dote on my two lap dogs, Cody and Leo. I love that I still work in my flower garden and that it brings me so much joy. I love that our extended family spent Christmas together and had such a wonderful time.

2016 was a challenge, and perhaps 2017 will be as well, but I love that I will ALWAYS try to find the good around me. I love that I will always try to be a helper to those who are disenfranchised and looked down upon. I love that I will never stop believing that the majority of us are kind and moral people who choose to see that deep down we are all the same.

We send our warmest wish of LOVE, happiness and good health to all of you in the coming year!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

René, Jessica, Nora, Leah, Nino and Isa (and Cody and Leo, too!)

Miracle

12 Dec

img_0612My youngest daughter, Isa turns twelve years old today. I guess you could say she’s a bit of a miracle–born to a mother in her forties whose other three kids were practically grown up when she entered the world with a lusty cry and a head full of thick, black hair. Then, when she was a toddler, this miracle girl did something even bigger: she was diagnosed with cancer and after a fierce battle, she survived. And as a family, we also survived. The greatest miracle of all is that through this nightmare of cancer, Isa taught us how to live.

Today is a special day: Isa’s golden birthday. She is 12 on 12/12. It’s also the birthday of the Virgin de Guadalupe, who is an iconic saint in Mexican culture. When Isa was going through treatment, when her hair fell out and her belly swelled from the medication, Rene took a short trip back to Oaxaca to see his family. While in Mexico City, he went to the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe to make an offering to the Virgincita and to pray for Isa’s life. Now, my husband could certainly win the prize for the best lapsed Catholic, but going to that shrine somehow comforted him, offering him hope during a very dark time.

Since that time, our family has made it a tradition to go to Olvera Street in Los Angeles on Isa’s birthday to Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church to offer our thanks for another year with our beautiful daughter. We went last night and had a wonderful time, marveling at the beautiful culture of Mexico and deeply grateful that Isa is still here with us.

Happy Birthday, Isa!

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Thankful

26 Nov

There is nothing more blissful than a rainy Saturday afternoon. Even better, being able to get outdoors during a break in the rain and revel in the beauty of this wet day. Even though my heart is heavy about what’s happening in our country right now, I’m choosing to set my worries aside for one lovely, quiet afternoon and reflect upon all the gratitude I have for my wonderful life.

There is a lovely park near our home that used to be a private ranch but is now a county park open to the public. Numerous hiking paths meander around a small lake filled with all kinds of water fowl. Come along and take a walk with me. Perhaps you will even be able to smell the wet earth…

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I absolutely love the vibrant red of these berries!

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Before long, these grasses will be bright green.

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The dogs (and Rene) are so happy to get out of the house!

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A new tree popping up in front of trunk of a dead tree

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Almost felt like I was in the English countryside!

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Nothing better than the scent of wet Eucalyptus!

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Stow House at Rancho La Patera in Goleta, California

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And because it’s Thanksgiving week, I can’t resist sharing a photo of my wonderful family.

Midlife Crisis

17 Oct

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I’ve recently decided that I’m going through my first real midlife crisis. At least I hope that’s what it is—perhaps I have another 54 years ahead of me. Whatever it is though, I’m struggling to find the joy lately.

I could blame my depression on several things:

1) No takers on my novel so far. I do have one agent still looking at it, but no word back yet. I’m savvy enough to know that for new writers trying to get published, this is not uncommon. It’s still hard on the ego, though.

2) The ELECTION. Like a looky-loo at a car accident, I’m sickened but at the same time, strangely captivated. I can’t seem to pull my eyes away from the tragedy playing out on television while eagerly waiting for another car (or scandal) to plow into that already huge pile of carnage.

3) My children are growing up and leaving me. I know this is as it should be, but shedding my role as caretaker of four is harder than I thought it would be. Thank goodness I still have six years left with Isa.

4) Getting older sucks. Menopause, wrinkles, aches and pains all remind me that while inside I’m still that sixteen-year-old girl, my body proves that she is long gone. I should have loved her more when she was around.

“White-privileged, first-world problems,” my husband admonishes me. “Get over yourself.” As a person of color, he’s allowed to say this to me. Growing up poor in Mexico, he knows about real poverty, discrimination and suffering. Sure, I’ve had my moments of pain, but fully understand I’ve lead a privileged life. After recently calculating our wealth on Globalrichlist.com. I’m actually embarrassed to admit how far up on the scale we are. I have NO reason whatsoever to complain.

Still, I can’t seem to shake this feeling of “What if?” What if I’d starting writing earlier? What if I’d made exercise a priority throughout my life? What if I’d traveled the world when I was young and had the energy? What if I’d learned to love myself a long time ago?

Hey Jess—do you want some cheese with your whine?

Okay, rant over. No one can fix me but me. I need to look for the good, so I’m off to practice some intentional gratitude.

I’ll start with a heartfelt THANK YOU for following my blog. I truly appreciate your readership.

There. I feel better already.

Just to remind myself of how lucky I am, I’m posting some photos of things I’m grateful for:

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Black-eyed Susans in the garden

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Time spent with my beautiful daughters

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My daily view of the Santa Ynez mountains

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Isa and our babies, Cody and Leo

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The vibrant color of this late autumn hollyhock.

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There are really no words to express my gratitude for my family.

What Now?

4 Apr

I’ve loved books forever. As a young girl, I was never without something to read. Whether it was a library book (best smell in the world, in my opinion) my brother’s tattered MAD Magazines or the back of a cereal box, I devoured words. Books allowed me to escape into a world of my own choosing; they took me on adventures, they let me be somebody else for a little while when it was too painful to be me.

As a kid, my dream was either to become a concert pianist or a writer. I ended up pursuing music because I was pretty good at it, although I don’t think I was ever competitive enough to make it as a concert artist. Instead, I became a piano teacher. Truthfully, I’m glad I chose that path as it allowed me the chance to raise my four children while I worked from home.

My other dream–the writing dream–never did die out, though. For years I fantasized about writing a novel but never did anything about it–either I was too busy or the fear of failure stopped me before I even wrote that first sentence. That changed when my youngest daughter was diagnosed with cancer. I’ve beaten that story into the ground so I won’t rehash it, but I will say that experience was the turning point for me. The lesson was obvious: time is short so follow your passion.

I got to it. I began blogging. I published an essay in a small magazine and one in an online publication. Nothing big, but it was a start. I blogged some more. Then I sat down and began writing a novel. I blogged some more and got better at my writing.  I joined a writer’s group and shared my stuff. They liked it. Now, ninety thousand words later, I have actually finished a novel.

Now what?

Here comes the hard part. Being new at this trying to get your noel published game, it’s like I’m starting back at square one. Everyone has opinions on what to do: send out queries; find and agent; no, no–don’t do that–self publish instead! I know someone who knows someone who knows someone who can help you.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what happens. I wrote a novel and I loved the process of writing it. I didn’t do it for the money or the glory (well maybe a little.) I did it because there was something inside of me pushing to get the story out. I did it because I couldn’t not do it any longer.

Dear readers, I thank you for hanging in there with me over the past several years, always encouraging me to keep going. I value your support more than I can ever express. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Now if I can only come up with a decent title for the damn thing.novel on desk

 

 

A Morning Walk

11 Mar

I almost didn’t go for a walk this morning. The rain is threatening and I felt I needed to get to work on my writing, but the dogs were looking at me with those sad, pleading eyes. So I caved. This is what I would’ve missed if I’d stayed home.

The world is a beautiful place if you go looking.

Breathe

12 Feb

I recently read the inspiring book—When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi. It’s the story of a highly educated man with degrees in English literature and biology who becomes a renowned neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. A lover of literature and philosophy, Kalanithi writes eloquently about his family, his education, and being diagnosed with stage four lung cancer at age thirty-six.

Here’s a doctor who treats terminally ill patients suddenly facing his own mortality. Before he dies, he’s able to write this poignant book about the true meaning of life.

I guess what really resonated with me about his story was that for years Kalanithi put life on hold while working diligently to become the best possible neurosurgeon—spending hours and hours studying, researching and performing surgeries to leave his mark on the world. Yet in the end what really mattered was not his career, but his wife, baby daughter and extended family.

Why does it take something so devastating to wake us up to what’s really important? When my own daughter was diagnosed with cancer, I thought I had learned my lesson. Yet after almost ten years it’s still a struggle for me to consistently take pleasure in the little things. That darn “if only” pattern of thinking seeps into my subconscious, constantly diluting all the precious joy.

Fortunately, I have found a way to break free from these negative thought patterns—by practicing gratitude. Every day as I go about my daily tasks, I try to consciously think about how very lucky I am.

Today was full of the little things: Sleeping in because of a school holiday; breakfast out with Rene and Isa followed by a glorious walk to our local butterfly preserve. Watching the dogs romp happily through the grass, soft and green from the recent rains. Running into neighbors at the local pizza parlor and joining them for lunch and delightful conversation. A trip to the library. Little things, really—but oh, so very big.

Life is short. Be kind and show gratitude. Nurture relationships.

Revel in the beauty around you. LOVE. I will die someday and so will you.

Breathe deeply before that breath becomes air. It’s that simple.

The Long Road Home

26 May

Eight isa pile of puppiesyears ago, our lives changed forever.

The doctor sat us down in the hospital room, his face full of concern. “We finally know what it is,” he said, quietly, “She has a form of leukemia.”

For two agonizing days, my husband and I had been pacing the hospital hallways waiting for the bone marrow biopsy to tell us what was wrong with our daughter. Now a pediatric oncologist with tired eyes and a stethoscope around his neck was telling us that our fourth child—our baby girl—had cancer.

Those ominous words should have expelled all the air from my lungs, buckled my knees out from under me, or caused me to run screaming down the hospital corridor—but they didn’t. Oddly, I felt only relief. We finally had a definitive answer as to why my two year-old was so sick. Yes, it turned out to be cancer—but at least we knew what it was and could immediately get started on saving her life.

I can do this, I told myself, not realizing that our ROAD TRIP TO HELL was about to begin. For the next two and a half years, our family would travel down that bumpy, pot-holed road, the gas tank running on empty, the tires balding and the radiator constantly threatening to overheat as we navigated our way through a cancer diagnosis without a map. Isa, strapped into her car seat, would thrash about in the back, sweaty and miserable as she crammed Lays potato chips into her mouth, the salty snacks the only food she ever wanted to eat. In the rearview mirror I watched in horror as my beautiful daughter morphed into this hairless, grotesque creature with a protruding belly and swollen cheeks. Her normally sweet brown eyes were filled with an unrecognizable fury caused by the steroids that we crushed into a white powder and mixed with cherry syrup, feeding it to her each night like a special treat.

The constant fear was the worst part—the multiple surgeries to infuse chemo into Isa’s spine; the weekly lab reports signaling her low blood counts which indicated a non-functioning immune system. This meant staying indoors, constant hand-washing and no visitors. A high blood count report meant that I could actually breathe again until the next round of chemo started. For years my hands rarely left Isa’s body as I felt her skin for any sign of fever. When her skin burned with a temperature over 101.5 it meant a trip back to the hospital—cool skin under my fingertips meant no infection and it was such an enormous relief it was like diving into a refreshing swimming pool on a hot, summer day.

Now, eight years after Isa’s diagnosis of cancer, the lives of our family have returned to normal—if there even is such a thing. Isa is perfectly healthy with no long-term effects from the chemotherapy. Now I can’t even remember the names of all the medications she took. Our daughter is blossoming into an intelligent and thoughtful young girl with a wicked sense of humor. Every day when I see her beautiful smile and hear her laugh, my heart fills with gratitude.

And although we are beyond delighted with our happy outcome, we do carry residual sadness in our hearts from losing children we have known and loved during this long trip. That sorrow gets easier as time goes on, but it will never go away. And I believe that’s a good thing—because in remembering those who have died, we are more apt to cherish those who are still here with us.

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As we approach the eighth anniversary of Isa’s diagnosis, I’m truly thankful for what our family went through all those years ago. I’m grateful for the friends, family and those in the medical field who supported us back then—and who still support us today. I’m grateful that this experience changed me, and that I’m not the same woman I used to be. I’m more loving, more appreciative, more present in the moment, and more at peace with myself than I was before Isa got sick. I’ve realized how incredibly strong I am. I understand that there is only right now, and most importantly, that not only is it acceptable for me to put myself first at times—it’s often necessary. After all, I’m the one behind the wheel.

Our long road trip was arduous and exhausting and I consider it a miracle we arrived home safely. I’ve no doubt there will be other journeys as our family navigates down that long road of life, but lately it’s become a much smoother ride. So smooth, in fact—that now we can actually take time to roll down the windows, breathe in the sweet spring air and marvel at the scenery.