21Mar

‘Cause There’s Beauty in the Breakdown

[Photo of the first sunset of spring over the walls of Assisi]

In nearly thirteen years of marriage, Dan and I have moved five times and have lived out of suitcases three different summers. Each time we gear up for a new transition, I read a book about decluttering to try to offset my frugal “But we might need that someday!” impulse with the pure glee of tossing items I will no longer need to dust, iron, or trip over in the storage closet. This time, I picked Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up because I like being approximately a year late to online parties and also because I wanted to start using the phrase “This does not spark joy” every time my alarm goes off in the morning.

Yes, we’re headed for change once again. In an attempt to out-epic all previous summers, we will be living from suitcases for a few months while we catch up with loved ones and eat our weight in fresh salsa in the States, and then we’ll be moving from our little Umbrian city to the sprawling metropolis of Milan.

More of our heartstrings are caught up in this move than in others before it. Perugia has been our home for the last nine years. It’s the city we know best in the world, and it’s almost impossible to imagine no longer getting coffee at the bar up the street or going for runs at the park down the hill. When Natalie and I attended junior high orientation last month, I hovered Mission Impossible-style above the surface of grief, trying to modulate my emotions so I wouldn’t make a scene in front of all the friends and neighbors we are about to leave. The girls are taking it even harder.

We have a host of compelling reasons for the move though, and our sadness at leaving our current home is woven inextricably with happiness about our new one. Work and church and family await us in Milan, and the fact that we’ll be able to see the Alps on a clear day doesn’t hurt either. We know with certainty that it’s time for us to move on.

This brings me back to decluttering. I’m going through our clothes and books and knickknacks trying to determine what will bring value and joy to our life in Milan and what would only be a weight. I’m no natural at this, mind you. I fretted earnestly this morning over throwing out threadbare socks that I haven’t worn in years. (We won’t discuss the shoe situation at all, thank you kindly.) The biggest item I’ve had to evaluate, however, took only a quarter hour of soul-searching before I admitted that it has been dousing me in self-reproach rather than sparking my joy like it used to do. As Marie Kondo would say, this blog has served its purpose for me and deserves to be let go with respect.

I can’t tell you how reluctant I am to put an official stop to this writing that I’ve kept up off and on since 2002. Blogging has given me a voice when I’ve felt most alone and has connected me to priceless communities of people. This is where I’ve chronicled the early years of parenthood and the complicated shifts in my faith. So much of who I am is poured into this online space where so many of you have invested as well.

Our self-employment contracts have increased dramatically over the last year though, and my busyness is only going to ramp up over the coming months. I’ve caught myself many times wanting to spend a precious free hour working on a writing project with deep significance to me and then remembering that I haven’t blogged in ages, reasoning that I should get this up to date before tackling any other project, and ultimately giving up on the idea of writing at all that day. It’s become a lead-plated cycle of dispassion and guilt, a far cry from the creative outlet that blogging used to be.

I want to say goodbye to Perugia well, and I want to start our new life in Milan well. Holding onto this blog for old times’ sake will help me do neither. Therefore, with an almost exact blend of the excitement and heartache I feel about our upcoming move, I’m publishing this as my final post here.

Thank you all for the time you’ve invested in my blog. I can’t thank you enough for your friendship, and I’d love it if you continued to keep in touch on Instagram (@bethany_bassett) where I will be documenting every funny misadventure of the coming months. Here’s to spring and to hard-good changes and to bestseller buzz phrases that nevertheless lead to joy.

With much love,
Bethany

4Feb
Adulting is hard

Adulting Is Hard

(Portrait of two self-employed parents with a shortage of house elves.)

I always feel like I need a machete coming back to this space after a break. The jungle of online content is so relentless in its growth, so gleefully fecund, that I have the sense of being swallowed up if I don’t constantly maintain my little clearing. Three months of silence, and I need GPS and a sharp-bladed resolve to find my way back.

Hi, by the way!

2015 ended before I really got my bearings in it, which has left me blundering around 2016 like a first-day intern whose supervisor has called in sick. I’ve been working alongside Dan for the past several months—I do the bookkeeping, the list-making, and the English-languaging while he does the other 3,017 things that keep a startup afloat—and I generally love it. We make a good team (when we’re not on each other’s nerves for the very differences that make us a good team). Being a grownup is not easy, however, when you have a household to run and business contracts to puzzle through and no real idea of where the previous year went. It’s been easier to avoid the blogosphere and social media than to risk bumping into myself here.

Also, allergy season has begun, which means I’m 90% drugged-out zombie, 10% flea-bitten spastic, and 0% productive member of society. My blog archives are already well stocked with descriptions of my seasonal allergies, so I’ll say no more about it and simply leave you with this dazzling self-portrait from 2012:

Self-portrait with allergies

(Just imagine a pixie haircut and slightly more bloodshot eyes.) 

We have a lot of decisions on our plate these days, not the least of which is where to sign Natalie up for junior high (!!). There are other Where? questions too, lingering in front of our eyes like tinted lenses. I don’t want to be responsible for the organization of our “one wild and precious life.” I don’t want to have to weigh the hard decisions in my own hands. Can’t I just take a sabbatical from adulting? When do the substitute grownups arrive?

When our girls were very small, they adored the book We’re Going On A Bear Hunt and would chant the refrain on every other page along with me:

“We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!”

That’s basically where I find myself these days, wandering straight into decisions that can’t be outmaneuvered no matter how earnestly I protest that I’m just the intern and surely someone else is better equipped for them. I can still hear Sophie’s toddler voice singing, “We’ve got to go FREW it!” and blast it all, she’s right. The big decisions and the allergy seasons and the machete-chopping back to this space… My inevitable route is straight down the middle.

Still, it doesn’t necessarily mean I have to be mature about it.

Catching snowflakes

(Snowflakes for lunch during a short January getaway to Lake Bled. Trips like this help us remember why in absolute tarnation we hopped on the insanitycoaster of self-employment.)

How are you all? Is the new year being good to you? I do believe we’re overdue on catching up.

22Oct
A sister break to watch the flowers

Scriptwriting for Gremlins

I began keeping a daily journal the day I turned ten. My first entry includes a list of my birthday presents and the phrase, “I had been waiting for years to turn ten.” (Now that I have a ten-year-old of my own, I love that age even more if that’s possible.) In my teens, I had to add companion journals for all of the photographs, letters, and printed-off Jack Handey quotes that I wanted to preserve, and by the time I left for college, I was scribbling off several pages of my deepest thoughts each night before bed. After I got married, my journaling habits shifted somewhat, and I now write almost exclusively on the computer. I still have my old diaries though, a whole shelf of glittery or pop art or fur-bound books in various stages of disintegration. They are some of my most treasured possessions. They are also the most distressing objects in my life.

I cannot read far in any of my journals without face planting into sadness or shame. Between the difficult circumstances of my childhood and the misguided, often unlikable person that I could be, my past does not make for light reading. I usually only delve back into those handwritten accounts when I’m trying to fact-check. That’s exactly what I was doing several months ago, hunting for some info from my early teenage journals, when one particular page grew arms and jabbed a cattle prod into my neck. I’m still stunned and smoking slightly from what I read.

There on the page, in my own childhood cursive, is the nearly verbatim dialogue that I hear in my mind today when struggling to write, reconnect with someone, or just generally exist: 

People might think that you’re a great person, but you’re not; you’ve just conned them into thinking so.
Those who really know you know that you’re an ogre, black-hearted and evil.
You have no character.
You are ugly.
All of your achievements are based on lies; you are the dumbest person on earth.
You are lacking any softness or empathy. You cannot relate to human beings.
Your presence in others’ lives is slowly murdering them.
You are not capable of communicating properly.
You will never, ever have any real relationships.
You have no potential.
Any difficulties you are going through are exclusively your fault.
You are a disappointment.

All of my adult life, I’ve attributed these sentiments to creative gremlins or badly managed neuroses. When I haven’t had the strength to fight them off, I’ve accepted them as the voice of truth. What I learned from my journal, however, was that they used to have a real live human voice. Those sentences that I wrote down at age fifteen were spoken to me, repeatedly over the course of years, by someone I trusted.

I’d completely forgotten.

Recently, a friend (hi, Jeff!) shared the following quote by Mothering Magazine editor Peggy O’Mara: “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” If I weren’t reeling from discovering that very fact in my journal pages, I might have dismissed the quote as fatalistic. I’m still not prepared to believe that every word from a parent figure gets internalized and rescripted as inner monologue, but I now know how deeply a recurring childhood message can be absorbed. The indictments I received growing up are as much a part of my mental landscape as are the resolutions I’ve made in adulthood.

While I don’t enjoy remembering those saw-toothed words being jabbed into my developing ears, I feel like my perspective has been outfitted with a whole new defensive strategy. It is much, much easier to fight back against inner voices that have a clear outside origin. Rather than swinging blindly at my own brain, I can stare down the source of the problem and remind it that it has no jurisdiction here. Not anymore.

I’m also grateful for the reminder to voice my fondness for my girls as intentionally as I go about the other day-to-days of parenting. When they run up against struggles in their adult lives, I want their minds to have ready access to the truth that they are capable, brave, and so valuable that their mom needed every day of their childhoods to tell them so. We’re not a deep-conversations-every-hour kind of family. However, I believe that the small encouragements I sprinkle into their days can add up to the kind of inner script that will blast shame back to last century:

People might think that you’re a great person, but those who really know you will be certain of the fact.
You are as human as they come, and your imperfections will help you relate all the better to the imperfect humans around you.
You are luminous and altogether lovely.
Your achievements do not define you, but each one is a testament to what you can do.
You are capable of deep love.
Your presence in the world is a gift to the rest of us.
Never stop cultivating the unique ways in which you express yourself.
You have the kindness and determination to sustain lasting relationships.
When you are going through difficulties, reach out. You are worthy of help.
You are a joy.

6Oct
Bandersnatch - Erika watching the canal life

A Field Guide to Unfurling

“No one ever influenced Tolkien—
you might as well try to influence a Bandersnatch.”
– C.S. Lewis

/ / /

Like most people who have grappled with their childhood faith, I’ve learned that I can’t base my understanding of God on what other Christians are like. Even the most pious of pulpit-pounders are still human, and the ones who claim the most loudly to speak for God are the ones who raise my highest defenses. My best strategy for avoiding spiritual disillusionment is to keep firm mental boundaries between who God is and how people portray him. However, I’ve also learned this: that when you see Jesus in someone, you don’t easily forget it.

Erika Morrison is one such person. To her, everyone from the homeschool mom to the homeless cross-dresser reflects one facet of an infinite God, and she lives like it. When I started getting to know her four years ago, her words somersaulted my perspective of Christianity onto its head. The way she defined freedom and art and identity and community made me want to exhale three decades of pent-up weariness and then invite everyone I knew to a dance party. This is a lady who believes down to her toenails that God wove our quirks and creative impulses into us not so we could spend our lives trying to overcome them in the interest of uniformity but so that we could fill the us-shaped voids in this world. You just try not busting a move as that realization sets in.

I wanted to introduce you all to Erika not just because she’s rad—though she absolutely is—but because her book Bandersnatch was released into the wild today, and this makes me glad for humanity. It’s her gift of sacred unconventionality put to paper (or, uh, Paperwhite), and I don’t imagine that many of us who pick it up are going to be the same when we put it back down. At the very least, we’ll be several pounds lighter in exhaled cynicism.

Now, without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Erika:

/ / /


Bandersnatch (Full Length Trailer) on Vimeo.

The cardinals make it look so easy. The honeybees make it look so easy. The catfish and the black crow, the dairy cow and the cactus plant, all make being created appear effortless. They arise from the earth, do their beautiful, exclusive thing and die having fulfilled their fate. None of nature seems to struggle to know who they are or what to do with themselves.

But humanity is the exception to nature’s rule because we’re individualized within our breed. We’re told by our mamas and mentors that—like snowflakes—no two of us are the same and that we each have a special purpose and part to play within the great Body of God. (If your mama never told you this, consider yourself informed: YOU—your original cells and skin-print, guts and ingenuity—will never ever incarnate again. Do you believe it?) So we struggle and seek and bald our knees asking variations of discovery-type questions (Who am I? Why am I here?), and if we’re semi-smart and moderately equipped, we pay attention just enough to wake up piecemeal over years to the knowledge of our vital, indigenous selves.

And yet… even for all our wrestling and wondering, there are certain, abundant factors stacked against our waking up. We feel and fight the low ceiling of man-made definitions, systems and institutions; we fight status quo, culture conformity, herd mentalities, and more often than not,

“The original shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead we live out of all our other selves, which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather.” ~Frederick Buechner

So, let me ask you. Do you know something—anything—of your true, original, shimmering self?

Read More »

2Oct
Featured - Where San Martino and San Benedetto meet

Going Medieval

One sleepy Sunday morning two summers ago, we were driving through central Italy with friends when one of them asked to stop by a pharmacy. We pulled into the nearest town, though we weren’t sure if we would find any pharmacies open on a Sunday. What we certainly didn’t expect to find were barricades across every road leading to the town center. Our curiosity up, we parked on the outskirts and walked the five minutes to the city center (this is central Italy, after all) where we found an open pharmacy after all, plus seven hundred more barricades and a chatty barista who filled us in on what was happening.

We learned that we’d just happened to pull into Bettolle (“Bay-TOLL-ay”) on the one day each year when they commemorate the burning of their castle by a rival town and their subsequent reconstruction in the 16th century. Following lunch, the town would be gathering in the main square for a medieval parade, after which teams from the five town districts would compete in a Race of Revenge. In this race, teams of two must run laps around the historic town center balancing huge wooden urns on stretchers. Then, competitors dressed in man-tights must race to climb greased 5-meter-high poles and put out the fires burning on top.

We didn’t stick around for the festivities, but I later read the day’s results in a local magazine:

“There was a winner. Maybe two. In fact there are some who say there were three winning districts. Others say nobody won. Others, instead, insist that to be beaten is now a dried-up technicality of the rules which are too intricate and groundless and which don’t take into account the possible uncertain results that are inevitable in such a complicated race.”

A more Italian summary there never was.

Our region of Umbria is full of ancient hillside towns that celebrate their heritage with similar events, and the four of us finally got to attend one this last weekend. Friends from the nearby town of Gualdo invited us to their Giochi de le Porte on the condition that we cheer for their district and that Dan wear tights for the opening parade. (Sadly, I could not be there on Friday to see this magnificence.)

As charmed and delighted as I am by the idea of these events, I was wary going into the weekend. You may recall from previous stories such as that time the number machine at the health center broke and that time the national soccer team played in our neighborhood that crowd mentality in Italy causes a particular strain of strain for me. I am an introvert and an American; my personal space bubble is dear to me. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to spending my Saturday and Sunday getting up close and personal with strangers’ elbows, and had I known that a passerby would additionally lock me in a full-on boob grab, I might not have had the will to show up. (I’m still shuddering.) However, if I hadn’t braved the crowds, then I would have missed out on one of the most colorful and captivating experiences of our eight years in Italy.

Banners and crowds 1 Read More »

23Sep
September sky

Pumpkin Spice Laxity

The weather got the memo that today is the first day of fall, and I responded by indulging in one of my precious Pumpkin Spice Latte packets. If your refined coffee sensibilities are recoiling in horror right now, you might need to step back from your screen for a breather while I admit that my granulated Starbucks experience was just what I needed on this gray-clad morning. (Expats gonna expat…)

The girls have been back in school for one week now, and we’re slowly figuring out our dance of schedules for the fall. The fact that Dan and I both work from home makes coordinating much easier, but it also means that we’re not always home when we’re home, and figuring out who’s taking care of what, when, takes some trial and error. Having my right hand out of commission for three months also adds to the fun. I keep looking down at my grace note tattoo in an attempt to remind myself that it’s okay our home life is in its eighty-fourth consecutive transition phase. We’re cultivating flexibility and dodging boredom, and neither is a habit I’d actually want to see go.

Other habits remain frustratingly elusive. Getting up even one minute earlier than responsible parenting requires me to hasn’t happened yet this month. In the fantasy realm of good intentions, I’m the type to rise before dawn and harness the creative magic of those pre-breakfast hours. In practice, however, I’m deeply committed to my pillow between 11:30 at night and 7:30 in the morning. So far this year, there has been neither idea compelling enough nor caffeinated beverage strong enough to tempt me to join the 5am club, but my good intentions will not go down without a fight. You’re welcome to pray for our collective sanity once I summon the courage to change my alarm.

I may not be getting up at a respectable time, but I am writing again on a daily basis—with frequent appeals to my grace tattoo—and I’m hoping I’ll be able to share some of what I’m working on soon. Writing is such a delicate subject for me. Just mentioning that I have projects in the works threatens to tip the day’s balance toward fear again, and I’m often one sharp exhale away from succumbing to the shame-mongering voices that plague all of us who create. I have goals for this fall that feel like home to me though, and so this is where you can find me each morning, duking it out with myself in a desk chair.

There are a lot of areas of life relegated to the back burner right now… or, more truthfully, off the menu altogether. Housecleaning is a dusty memory. (See what I did there?) We haven’t been keeping up well either with friends and neighbors since coming home from our trip, and our tackle-eventually list has literally piled up around the margins of our house. As usual, I’m frustrated that I can’t do it all. The superhero myth is a difficult one to set down.

At the same time, there’s relief to be found in transition times. Nothing about our life right now says status quo, so we’re free to hold our loose ends loosely. It’s not hard to imagine that next month I will start waking with the birds, and the month after that my writing day will require only the briefest of stare-downs with fear, and the month after that the windows will get washed. It’s the first day of fall, and anything is possible. Even the notion that we’re already okay.

What is life looking like for you all these days? Are you ready for fall yet?

31Aug
Tendinitis

It’s All in the Wrist

I have tendinitis in my right hand and wrist. Have I mentioned that here before? It’s relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of life; I can’t lift much with my hand, and Dan has to chop the vegetables for dinner, but it’s never struck me as anything to write home about. Perhaps part of that is because the tendinitis started under the dumbest possible circumstances: I opted one day to carry a far-too-heavy grocery bag to the car rather than going out of my way to get a cart, and the next day, I couldn’t hold a fork. I wore a splint on my hand for a bit, tried anti-inflammatories, electrotherapy, and corticosteroid injections, and then decided that I’d just live with the stupid thing. After all, it’s not like I could take three months off using my dominant hand in order to let it rehabilitate. I’ve got things to do, places to drive, a household to care for. Rest wasn’t even on the spectrum of possibility for me.

That, dear friends? Was four years ago. Four. YEARS. Last week, I had a come-to-Jesus moment in which I realized I’ve been living with a gimpy hand for nearly half a decade just to avoid three months of recovery time. Algebra may not be my strong suit, but I’m pretty sure this doesn’t even out. (Cancel out? Equal out? Blerg.)

Wednesday was my Duh Day, and I strapped the splint back on before adding up the next three months and putting them into the calendar as milestones. The final one is on Thanksgiving Day, when I will be able to eat turkey with my right hand if it still remembers the mechanics. The timing of this feels like no accident. Six days into rest therapy, and the reasons for gratitude are already piled up to my ears… though to be perfectly honest, I’m having a hard time differentiating between gratitude and guilt.

I’m really ridiculously bad at letting others take care of me. I first noticed this tendency in myself the day during junior high when I got faint in class but instinctively turned down my long-time crush’s offer of water and attention. (Commence six weeks of private head-desking in my diary.) Being as little trouble as possible is a virtue in my weird brain. I want to do All The Things myself, thank you, and the scenario most likely to drive me demented is having to rely on others for the basics of life.

So, pretty much exactly what’s going down right now.

For the last six days, my husband and girls have been taking care of everything for me from food preparation to deodorant application (#truelove), and only one of us is chafing under this arrangement. It’s like I’m still in junior high, unable to grasp that someone’s caring actions might be rooted in genuine care for me. I have been tempted dozens of times to fling off my splint and this whole three-month recovery attempt because it’s too hard—because accepting the gift of rest is far more difficult than working my tendons to shambles. The next twelve weeks lurk beyond the limits of my imagination.

This is the same strain of ridiculous, however, that prompts otherwise sane adults to ignore injuries for four years. Rejecting help out of misplaced guilt is dumber than giving yourself tendinitis. I know this, no matter how poorly I demonstrate it. The fight begins and ends in my head.

It helps, actually, to look down at my wrists, the source of so much maddening incapability right now. On the right one, I have metal guides velcroed into place; on the left, a grace note. Helplessness twinned with gratitude, my limitations the backdrop for gift. I am still frustrated with myself and still predisposed toward guilt; I hate having to ask so much of my little family, cheerful though they are to pitch in. This time is good for us all though, I suspect. My girls are going to learn to clean the bathrooms, and I’m going to learn to chill. We’re all going to survive these three months, and maybe by the time Thanksgiving rolls into town, it won’t be the recovered hand that I’m celebrating so much as the recovered ability to rest.

(Also, the amazing left-handed typing skills that are sure to kick in aaaaaannnyyy time now… right? Right?)

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