Perspective: Sara’s 50th (and Gratitude in five languages)


I can still see the black smudge of mascara under Mali’s eyes, and nothing delights me more than laughter-tears. They remind me why coming together is so important, the old fashioned way — in person. I can hardly describe to you the sheer pleasure of shared laughter. It revitalizes me in a way nothing else does.

  Still, like a lot of writers, I have to work at my communal skills. They weren’t the best when I was a younger writer after hours of working alone. And they still aren’t. I can fall victim to one of the clumsiest truths about being a competent writer: I’m a bit incompetent in the real world.

  Luckily, I relax with friends, with maybe a menu in one hand, a glass of wine in the other. Like this, I’m at my best, socially.

  This dinner, six of us met to celebrate our friend Sara’s 50th birthday. If there was one moment when I saw clearly what I wanted to write about this month, it was when I looked around our table. And poof! I was blown away by the sight of us.

  Worldly, multifarious us.

  Mali is from Thailand. Naturally more relaxed than the rest of us, she cannot be hurried. Our first conversation was a turning point in my life. There is a lot to learn from the Thai concept of sanuk, which is frequently explained as “fun.” But it is so much more. It’s about seeking to find joyful satisfaction from everyplace, everyone, everything. I have lessons to learn, I thought.

  Ly was born in Vietnam. She came to Washington eleven years ago with little money and a wellspring of hope, just itching to open a nail salon. Today, she supports her parents, owns a home, and an apartment to rent. No one emphasizes the adage it’s not what you make, but what you save, more than Ly. Things changed about a few of the wasteful ways I spend money after we met. I changed. (I haven’t told her that one of the changes was that I resumed manicuring my own nails.)

  Sara is a third-generation Sonoma County Californian who takes forever to order the wine, studying the list like it is of great importance, causing the rest of us to fall silent and think, Sara! Order a bottle already! But her choice continuously reminds us that wine can be an amazing experience. When she talks about wine, I virtually want to be wine. It has balance and character and complexities and forwardness, apparently. “Now, this is a good wine,” is what I always wind up saying. Sara is my portal into the “good life” and I gladly follow along. The only experience I’ve ever regretted is the Brazilian wax I did not want. “I don’t think our hair needs to go the way of analog, do you?” I argued. Oh, the pain.

  Romy is a school teacher from Zimbabwe. Whenever she tells a story, whether it is about family, food, her village, there is no going back to how I once thought about family, food, or village life. I think this is what teaching means ... to open minds. Plus, she’s really hopeful and positive about national politics. Much more positive than I am.

  Chris is the only one of us born in the Northwest. She is only first generation, her parents are from Austria, but she calls herself a local yokel. But we know not to call her that — that is for sure. She pulled up to the restaurant on a Honda motorcycle wearing a black leather jacket. Her boots and jeans were also black. But on Chris, “I’m a biker” looks easygoing, unaffected. She is comfortable in her own skin like no other Seattle friend of mine to date. Honestly, my other local friends are more of an uptight bunch compared to Chris.

  My own parents are not from Sonoma wine-making country. Our family wine was made in our cold dark cellar where there were spiders and creepy-crawlies everywhere. I remember the fizzing sound of grape fermentation like I remember the subtle sounds of childhood every time I pass the John Hay elementary school during recess. The broken blood vessels on my dad’s cheeks still remind me that it is possible to drink cheap wine, be a one-member wine club, and your own biggest acidity fan.  

  I look around our table and think how everything about being an immigrant today is not so different than in my parent’s day. Their struggles have always been harsh.

  So I’ll end by saying what I hope for all of us, that we will remember to say a simple “thank-you” to the hard-working people around us who still risk the struggle in order to work, save, survive.

  And anytime you make someone’s day by expressing gratitude, well, it’s a good way to honor yourself.

  Kob-khun ka.  

  Cam on ban.

  Hey, thanks, bro.

  Waita zvako.

  Ah. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.  


Mary Lou Sanelli, author and speaker,  has published seven collections of poetry, three works of non-fiction, and her forthcoming novel, "The Star Struck Dance Studio (of Yucca Springs)" will be published in September, 2019 (Chatwin Books).


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