Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Children Will Listen..."

4th grade picture day, complete with bowlcut

When I was a child, there were a number of adjectives used to describe me.  My mother referred to me as "healthy," "big-boned," or my personal favorite, "husky."  The kids at school, they just called me "fat" (and that was on a nice day).  For those who have just met me in the last 5 years, it's hard for them to imagine me being overweight.  But as I mentioned in "My Story," until 2007 I was on a never-ending rollercoaster with my weight.  And the way I started, as one of my aunts lovingly put it, was "pleasantly plump."

I wore bibs until I was 5.  I wish I was joking. 

Around 7th grade, my parents sent me on a 2 week trip to California on my own.  I was the teenage equivalent of "sturm and drang," and honestly, my parents probably needed the break more than I did.  Every few days I would go to another city, staying with cousins, aunts, uncles, and family friends.  Towards the end of my trip, I was staying with my Auntie Nora in West Hollywood.

Staying with her was unlike anything else I had experienced on my trip thus far.  All the other houses had video games, other kids to play with, dogs to chase around, and lots of eating and staying up late.  With Auntie Nora, things were much more structured and scheduled.  There were no other kids, no extended family living in the same house or the same neighborhood.  It was basically just her and I.  So I lived the way she did.  Go to sleep at this time, wake up at this time, take a bath at these times, watch TV at this time, stretch at this time, etc., etc.

Ampalaya (aka bittermelon) in my backyard

Now instead of a lawn, her entire house was surrounded by plants and vegetables.  And given the drought at the time, the vitality of those plants was simply amazing.  My mother and grandmother had taught me to love plants and flowers, and taking the tour of her garden was like being in a fairy tale where ice cream cones sprout from trees and candy canes hang down from branches.

Except there was absolutely nothing even close to that in her refrigerator or pantry.

More than half of what she ate she grew herself.  And she was very careful not to take too much - she had a great deal of respect and love for her plants.  I recall eating mostly bitter greens, fruits, and vegetables (like the bittermelon pictured above).  No soda, no candy, no fast food.  There was meat at one or two meals, and I think that was only because she felt sorry for me.   Now if you brought me there today, I'd be in heaven.  But back then, to that porky little teenager, it was quite discouraging, both in terms of what I was eating and the amount.  I was hungry after every meal and teasing thoughts of deep dish pizza, melted muenster cheese, and chocolate chip cookies with peanut butter would dance through my head.

8th grade field trip to Mexico City.  I didn't drink the water, but I ate a lot of food.

On the second to last day staying with her, she took me out to downtown Los Angeles.  It was a real treat, especially when lunch time rolled around.  I believe we were in Chinatown at a cafe, and she allowed me to have a steamed pork bun, one of my favorite things.  I inhaled it - it was gone before I even realized it.  She must have seen my puppy dog eyes, because she leaned towards me and said something I will never forget in her trademark crisp and clear diction.

"Jonathan, is your mouth hungry or is it your stomach?  Think about it, my child."

I must have been laying it on pretty thick, because she relented and allowed me to have another.  And the next day, I was on to the next house.  Of course, the next house marked a return to that "vacation" lifestyle, of social eating smorgasbords, late night mahjong marathons, and watching TV until my eyes were red.  And while it was definitely a relief for me to go back to a lifestyle that was easier and more familiar, I didn't resent the time I had spent with my Auntie Nora.  It was special, challenging, and unique.  The time I spent at the other homes, though no less special, kind of blurred together.  But my stay with Auntie Nora - it was kind of like one of those moments where time slows down and you become very aware of everything around you, creating an imprint and a memory to return to.

And here I am, 20 years later, back at that memory, sharing it with you.

Senior Prom'96, during one of my "thin" phases.

The title of this posting references a song of the same title from the Sondheim musical, "Into the Woods."  I recently did a Broadway revue and it was incorporated into a medley that was part of the setlist.  I had sung the song before, but this was the first time I had actually listened to the words.

"Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see and learn.
Children may not obey but children will listen.
Children will look to you for which way to turn,
To learn what to be.
Careful before you say, 'Listen to me,'
Children will listen."

And finally, I understood.

Though I may not have showed it at the time, and though I may have exaggerated how much I didn't enjoy the food she and I ate, I did listen.  I saw...I learned...and I became the man I am today because of her presence in my life.  At that crucial crossroads, when I felt alone, misunderstood, and lost, she took me in.  And rather than distract me with food or numb me with TV, she forced me to look within and just be with myself.  To listen.  And ultimately, to learn.

At a wedding in '04.  Back to pleasantly plump.

This posting is in gratitude to my Auntie Nora.  For introducing me to the path, and trusting me with the lessons she had to teach me.  And while they may have been latent in my subconscious for nearly two decades while my health and my weight fluctuated, her words were always there - waiting for me to nourish them to fruition. 

We all have someone who has had a significant impact on our lives.  Someone who said something that lasted long after it was said.  And not only did it last, but it grew, and it blossomed and evolved into something more beautiful than its humble beginnings.  Thank that person and let them know how they've touched your life.  Complete the circle and give back to the person who gave so freely of themselves.  And once you've given it back, pass it on to someone else - someone who needs it.

Summer 2011, following and sharing my bliss :)  No more yo-yo.

Words are powerful
And even if they're rejected or brushed off, given time, those words will root and they will grow.  So make your words and the moments you share with others important.  Make them matter.  And listen, carefully, with a gracious, loving, and open heart.  That way, you never stop learning...


  1. whoa.. what an amazing woman. so very cool that she influenced you to be the healthy man you are today!

  2. I wish I could convey to you how awesome she is. She was ahead of her time.

  3. I remember you recounting your tales of your trip to California. The description of Auntie Nora's house sticks out in my mind the most because it was like a magical garden with it's sheer amount of plants and vegetables. It's also because of the fact that she had a swimming pool, but it was empty due to the drought in California. When you described the food that Auntie Nora made for you; you indeed described it as being different and bitter, hehe ;p

    Auntie Nora is an amazing woman. To grow even half of what one consumes would be amazing. Imagine growing 100% of what you consume. It would make you greater appreciate what goes into your body for energy.

    I hope that you'll get another chance to visit Auntie Nora. I know she'd be so proud of you.



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