28Oct
Magic-001

Open-Source Parenting: Magic

“…My endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

/ / /

Santa Claus and I were not on speaking terms when I was a kid. Christmas was already a touchy subject in our fundamentalist tradition, what with the pagan origins of Christmas trees and the commercialism of all those shiny wrapped gifts. Don’t get me wrong; my siblings and I got to open presents on Christmas morning just like other children, but we sure as shootin’ knew they didn’t come from a fat shapeshifter in red fur whose name just happened to be an anagram for “Satan.” For a while when I was very young, I had the impression that I wasn’t supposed to know about him at all, so I adopted a kind of haughty obliviousness toward the old gent. After all, it wasn’t as if he were real.

The Tooth Fairy got the same treatment from me, as did that sacrilegious, egg-stealing lout The Easter Bunny. I looked down on my friends for believing in such nonsense, and I looked down even more on their parents for encouraging it. When I grew up and had kids of my own, I would never lie to them like that.

In the monkey grass with Hudson Taylor
Don’t mess with eight-year-old Bethany’s mental integrity or she will cat you.

A few things happened between my childhood resolution and the arrival of my own children though. One was the day in college when a few of my friends and professors teamed up to give me an Easter basket full of candy. It was the first Easter basket of my life (that I’d been allowed to keep, at any rate), and my classmates that day were treated to the sound of choking giddy laugh-tears. The candy itself wasn’t such a big deal, but the playfulness behind it, the bright colors and whimsy superimposed on a holiday that had often crushed me beneath its gravity, loosened up some tightly clenched fistful of my soul.

I was also at college when I learned about Coleridge’s “poetic faith,” about how we’ll willingly shed our sense of reality so we can slip into the pages of a well-written story. I hadn’t thought of that before even though falling headfirst into books was one of my favorite pastimes. The concept made perfect sense to me however. While I was nerding out over my Lord of the Rings trilogy, it wasn’t as if I actually thought Middle Earth existed… but I did believe in it. When Frodo set off for Mount Doom, I was there, my imagination busy alchemizing fable into fact. As scornful as I had always been of magic, I now realized that I was an old hand at it.

Bookworm
I still contend that books are best read in pillow forts.

/ / /

I didn’t set out to use the willing suspension of disbelief as a parenting strategy. It just kind of happened as we figured out our family rhythm over the years.

Take our old friend Satan Santa. Dan and I never told our girls that a jolly bearded reindeer driver would be bringing their gifts, but we didn’t exclude him from the holidays either. We read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and watched “Elf” and sang about the woes of Rudolph. When Natalie started asking if Santa Claus was real, we told her about the original St. Nicholas and asked her what she thought of it all. Our extremely literal little girl wasn’t quite buying the existence of a magical Santa. She did agree, however, that it was a lot of fun to pretend, and so we did. We do.

We pretend about the Easter Bunny as well. Most years, we go for a little family walk during which plastic eggs mysteriously appear in tree branches and clumps of grass around us. The girls try every time to catch Dan and I at it because they know we’re the ones planting the goods, but there’s magic in it all the same. “Wow, thank you Easter Bunny!” they’ll giggle in our direction with conspiratorial eye-rolls.

And then there’s the Tooth Fairy:

Tooth Fairy
I admit nothing.

I don’t share any of this to criticize how other parents handle folklore with their kids. Nor am I trying to minimize the sacred side of holidays like Christmas and Easter. I just wanted to share the way we’ve found to keep both reality and magic as dance partners in our family life—by handing the reins over to our imaginations from time to time, giggling our way straight into story, and together experiencing worlds that only exist through the willing suspension of disbelief.

Your turn! How do you navigate the realm of legendary figures with your family? What did you think about it all when you were a kid yourself? Any good stories to tell? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!

24Oct
One Day 2014 sky

Our Ordinary (One Day 2014)

I am not an avid Instagrammer. I wish I were, but my days get busy, and I forget to be noticeful, and even when I do snap a picture, nine times out of ten I put off posting it because writing on my phone still feels to me like eating with chopsticks once did. (My fingers are creatures of habit on par with aging hobbits.) Perhaps this is why I was so eager to participate in Hollywood Housewife’s One Day project this week, documenting my ordinary, unembellished Wednesday on Instagram. The concept grabbed me both because I love being able to look back at the daily life of our family in its various stages and because I imagine some of you are at least a smidgen curious about what passes for “normal” here in expat-entrepreneurland.

Wednesday morning, therefore, I woke up and started snapping photos (not necessarily in that order) aaaannnnddd… did not manage to Instagram a one. In fact, I didn’t even have a chance to follow friends’ #OneDayHH streams, so full did my day become. However, I still have the photos, and if you’ll forgive the fact that these are coming a few days late and without any fancy filters, I’d love to share what passes for an average Wednesday around here.

Read More »

15Oct
Enneagram Type 4

“Me Too” Moments With Myself

Having minored in psychology back in the day, I’m no stranger to the personality test. Every week or so in class, I’d be handed a questionnaire, the answers to which would reveal my Jungian archetype or my Type A/B profile or the likelihood that I would curl up in a ball and cry if ever put in charge of a junior high field trip. (Answer: 1 zillion percent.) I took these questionnaires as seriously as if they were pop quizzes, and I could never get past the feeling that I was unprepared. True, it doesn’t get much more open-book than using your own brain as reference for how you operate.  The problem was that I could never confidently circle one choice and move on.

“You know how to put every minute of your time to good purpose: YES or NO?”

Yes. Well, sort of. I suppose it would be accurate to say that I TRY to put every minute of my time to good purpose, but whether I’m actually accomplishing that or not is up for debate. I mean, yesterday evening I spent an hour and a half sneaking around with my roommate pranking the student art exhibit with creations we made out of paper towels and Sharpies, and while fun, it was probably not the best use of an hour and a half. On the other hand, it was a great bonding experience for my roomie and I. On the other other hand, though, we could have bonded over preemptively studying for finals or something. But we made memories! But we also wasted paper towels. Also, come to think of it, we may have inadvertently offended some of our classmates who contributed real art to the exhibit, which wasn’t our intention. If anything, we were trying to make fun of Picasso who is both famous and dead enough to take a little ribbing. Oh crap, now I’m making fun of dead people and putting my soul in jeopardy when I should be finishing up this questionnaire, which clearly shows that I don’t know how to put every minute of my time to good purpose, and oh hell…

Innocent Bethany
“Capillary Attraction” on Quilted Bounty

I probably should have ended up as somebody’s case study.

Recently though, I learned why personality tests have always been such a struggle for me, and in a neat ode to irony, I learned this from a personality test itself. Dan was away on a business trip, and I had about twenty-five too many things to do before I picked up the girls from school… so naturally, I decided to ditch the list and give myself an impromptu crash course in Enneagram theory instead. (See earlier re: knowing how to put every moment of time to good purpose. Boy do I ever.) Have you heard of the Enneagram* before? It had been on my radar for a year or so, but I’d always regarded the topic more or less the way I do the essential oils trend: so preemptively exhausted by the idea that FOMO** doesn’t even put up a fight.

* Pronounced “ANY-a-gram” for those of you whose brains, like mine, begin to melt with anxiety when they can’t figure out how to pronounce a word.

** “Fear Of Missing Out” for those of you whose brains, like mine, huddle up in a dark corner to cry when they can’t figure out an acronym.

I can’t tell you why I suddenly decided that I needed to learn everything about the Enneagram over the course of one too-busy Thursday morning, but I’m glad that I did. And by “glad,” I mean wildly relieved with a side of regret for not having researched this sooner. The longer I read, the clearer it became that despite my psychology textbooks and decades-old journals and lifelong fascination with human nature, I had never seen myself fitting in among the spectrum of personhood. I had spent every minute of my life to date thinking of myself as an anomaly.

That, I learned within two seconds of completing the Enneagram test, is because I’m an Individualist. Seeing myself as fundamentally different from everyone else on earth is a trait that I share with approximately one out of nine people (including, I’m charmed to say, both Kat Von D. and Rumi). Uncertainty about our identities is a hallmark of our personality type, as is withdrawal into the solitary mazes of our emotions. I might be a weird and complicated human being, but anomaly I most certainly am not.

Don’t worry; I’m not about to put you through a crash course in the Enneagram system (though if you’re interested, I’ll link to some resources at the end), nor am I going to expound much further on what my personality type entails. To be honest, I cringe at the thought of anyone reading up on my type as it so exactly describes me and is so unflinchingly thorough. That’s the difference that this personality test made for me above all the others though: It showed me a complete portrait of myself, good and bad, strengths and weaknesses, advantages and pitfalls, ways that I make the world a better place and ways that I inflict damage on it.

Looking at myself that way—as a multi-dimensional member of a known group instead of as an incomprehensible loner—is good and hard at once. I think that part of me was attached to the idea that I was utterly unique and that my shortcomings could be explained away as idiosyncrasies. If I didn’t understand all of myself, then I didn’t need to face all of myself. Now, it’s as if someone has handed me a close-up picture of my face with blemishes and wrinkles and scars enhanced rather than Photoshopped away, and it doesn’t make for a feel-good viewing experience.

That said, the wild relief I mentioned earlier flows deeper than discomfort. Being known as myself by myself is a gift to my thirties, the self-discovery I never quite attained during the years traditionally earmarked for it. I’m seeing clearly at last how all my mannerisms trace paths back to the same emotional switchboard, how I make sense even when I don’t. I’ve become an observer of my own overthinking ways instead of their victim. I have the perspective now to strategize my own growth instead of floundering in despair. And what’s more, so very much more, I’m not alone. I’ve got Johnny Depp and Frida Kahlo and Tchaikovsky in this Type 4 camp with me after all.

I’m reminded of the scene in “The Matrix Reloaded” (bear with me here) in which the Oracle tells Neo that he’s already made a choice; now he just needs to understand why he made it. I didn’t get that line at the time, probably because they’re talking about Neo’s choice to eat a piece of candy, and what is there to figure out? Candy is delicious and should be eaten, the end. Eleven years after watching the film, though, I’m starting to find just how empowering it can be to understand your own motivations. Knowing what makes you tick is a powerful confidence-builder, and being able to offer a sympathetic “Me too!” to yourself when thoughts or feelings overwhelm is one of the most effective self-care techniques I’ve found.

It feels an awful lot like making a friend.

What do you think about self-analysis and personality tests? Is there one in particular that’s helped you to make sense of yourself? (If you answer “Which Twilight Character Are You?” I’m going to force you to watch this until your eyeballs bleed.)

Oh, and if you’re interested in learning more about the Enneagram, you can dive into the information online at the Enneagram Institute, read the founders’ Introduction to the Enneagram, check out Richard Rohr’s A Christian Perspective, or take advantage of my friend Leigh’s personal coaching services.

13Oct
04 - Susanna and the Elders

Body Renaissance

When the first line of this story swooped out of the sky at the running track and imbedded itself in my brain, my first reaction was NO. Out of all the personal topics I explore in my writing, body image is the hardest. It’s like an elephant with a nervous disorder standing in my kitchen; true, I would be unwise to ignore such a thing, but one wrong step or unmodulated noise on my part could trigger a rampage. Tiptoeing in wide arcs around the issue feels much safer. No risk of stirring up shame-based emotions.

That’s why I *had* to write about it in the end—because shame doesn’t get to call the shots anymore. I am participating in my own redemption story, and this is one chapter of it:

~~~

No one told me that running a marathon would turn me into a Renaissance painting. Sure, I’d had a hopeful inkling or two that all those months of training runs would leave me with a model’s physique, but I’d been thinking more Bündchen and less Botticelli, if you know what I mean. I’d taken it for granted that turning in my couch potato card for a marathon medal would result in a slimmer, svelter me, preferably one with Gwen Stefani abs.

Instead?

Well, based on my experience, here’s an entirely subjective rundown on how the human metabolic system works: If you don’t exercise, your body won’t burn enough calories and your waistline will resemble a popular baked good. If you do exercise, your body will try to store as many calories as possible in anticipation and your waistline will expand in much the same vein as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. If you attempt to diet your way back to normalcy, your body will clutch every spare carbohydrate to itself (in the waistline region, of course) and defend its extra fluff to the death. And if you think you can use reverse psychology on it, put that plate of snickerdoodles down right now because it won’t work. Your friendly neighborhood muffin top is here to play. Forever, and ever, and ever…

I’m exaggerating, of course. Hyperbole is one of my great loves in life and pretty much the most fun you can have lamenting minor suckitudes. The honest truth though, the one that I’m plastering over with jokes and Ghostbusters references, is that within two months of running a marathon last fall, I had to buy new jeans. I couldn’t squeeze, shimmy, or pray myself into my old ones anymore… and if you think that prayer in this context is irreverent, then you haven’t stepped on a scale one morning and seen a number fifteen higher than the last time you’d checked. You haven’t found yourself inhabiting a body that feels as foreign to you as thrift-store coveralls. You haven’t seized a handful of your own flesh and presented it to God through tear-stung eyes as proof that fearful and wonderful no longer apply to you. Maybe just fearful, though “ashamed” would be the more accurate term.

{Continue reading over at A Deeper Story}

image source

7Oct
Terrible texter

Confessions of a Terrible Texter

This past Saturday evening, I found myself standing in the middle of the kitchen with a stick of butter in my hand and absolutely no idea what I’d intended to do with it. This was concerning to me, given that not thirty seconds before, I had opened the fridge with no clue what I was trying to retrieve from it. Apparently, I had remembered—butter!—and then forgotten again in the time it would take a competent adult human to spell a-m-n-e-s-i-a. “What am I trying to do?” I wailed to Dan, who was busy preparing dinner. He looked at me the way one might regard a self-cannibalizing pet*, equal parts concern and WTF?!

*We once had a hamster named Pickle who gnawed his own leg to smithereens. Better, I suppose, than our mouse Minnie who, despite her chummy name, ate her two little terrarium-mates one weekend when we were out of town. We don’t have the best track record with rodents.

Brownies. I was making brownies. I couldn’t seem to hold that thought still in my focus for longer than twenty seconds though. After re-finding my place in the recipe, I deposited the butter in a double boiler and then looked around the kitchen feeling lost and fragmented. All I really wanted to do in that moment was pull my smartphone out of my pocket and retreat into the lull of social media streams. The impulse was so strong, so insistent and sudden and reactive, that it startled me more than my memory lapses had done. Was I really about to soothe my disengaged mind by disengaging further?

I finished baking in a kind of unsatisfied stupor.

/ / /

On Sunday afternoon, a friend texted me saying she’d noticed we weren’t at church that morning, and was everyone well? I read her text and then mentally added it to the long list of messages awaiting my reply. Of course I should have written back immediately. It would have taken a single minute of my time and then been off my mind, plus it would have communicated my very real gratitude for her concern. Texting for me, however, has always taken on a form of Gestalt psychology in which my reply is weightier than the sum of its parts—the minute of time it takes, the choice of wording, the motion of my finger on the touchscreen. Entering a conversation requires my presence.

[Cue the overwhelm.]

Text messaging. WhatsApp. Voxer. Twitter. Facebook. Pinterest. Instagram. Each one a little universe full of people I care about, people to whom I want to give my full energy, attention, and emotional engagement. It’s not possible though, at least not considering my personality** and the creaking slowness with which my brain changes direction. I want to be present for all, but I can’t, and my extremely unhelpful coping strategy is to check out. Use social media to escape rather than engage. Let the faint interactive buzz of clicking “Like” substitute for the warmth of hard-won connection.

** ISTJ for you Myers-Briggs folks, Type 4 for you Enneagrammers. Basically, I’m an introvert who overthinks everything, including which personality test highlights this the best.

Tucking all these potential conversations away into spare pockets of my brain for later retrieval only serves to make me more fragmented, but the more fragmented I become, the more compulsively I scroll through social media in search of distraction. It’s the worst kind of loop, the kind that leaves me guilty and tired and replaces a section of my brain with Swiss cheese every time I pass “Go.”

I still haven’t replied to that text.

/ / /

Everyone and his Great Aunt Ruth knows that to make it in the online world these days, one needs to be both proficient and prolific in social media. This has a way of freezing my fingers cold on the keys.

If I can’t generate frequent snack packs of content throughout each day in addition to these slow-cooked posts, then am I in the wrong field? How are other writers able to be “on” for so long and in so many places each day without flying into a billion brittle bits?

I know the answer, of course, or at least some of its nuances. I know that personality and temperament have more of an impact on us than we often realize (more on this in an upcoming post) and that some good folks derive energy from the very things that sap mine. I know that a tremendous amount of work is often tucked into the archives of success, that diligence has its reward and its cost. I know that the sacrifices behind the scenes of others’ art might put my small concessions to shame. I also know that one size was never meant to fit all, no matter what the business experts claim.

Still, opening Twitter feels like smacking myself repeatedly in the face with a flunk card.

/ / /

I confess that while part of me feels snubbed every time a friend announces that he or she is sick of social media and wishes to get rid of it forever, another part of me completely understands. It’s not from the social media itself that I want freedom but from my own responses to it, the stress and disconnect and addiction and guilt, the impulse to self-soothe by scrolling through contacts’ photo streams, the wild-eyed withdrawal from conversation. I’d like to think that this is what my friends have meant as well—that we’re sick of the versions of ourselves we encounter when we reach for our smartphones.

This confession doesn’t come with a moral or with a list of tidy solutions. I will still be a terrible texter and a flaky Facebooker when the sun comes up tomorrow. (If you’re one of the ones waiting on a reply from me, I am sorry and can offer you contrition brownies if you come over.) Rather, this is my way of looking the beast in the eye and owning the reflection of myself I find there. It’s a truth-telling exercise. It’s a return to engagement, slow-cooker style.

1Oct
Candy corn

An Expat Shops for Candy Corn

While the expat life in Italy has presented me with its fair share of struggles—bureaucracy, language barriers, and… well, bureaucracy being the top three—food is not one of them. Italian cuisine is why dinners here can last six hours. It’s why some of our Italian friends bring suitcases full of food when they travel internationally. It’s why Dean Martin could get away with mentioning bean soup in a love song. It’s why pizza IS. No, I am certainly not suffering here.

Every now and then though, I find myself craving some processed and preservative-laden treat from across the sea, something that tastes of America! and also corn syrup! This happens every October as the leaves begin to change and their bright orange and yellow hues inevitably turn my mind to the magic of candy corn. Do you remember that scene in Elf where Will Ferrell lists the four main food groups as “candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup”? I totally agree. The whole-wheat flour and broccoli I feed my family are just for health show.

The problem is that one cannot buy candy corn here, at least not anywhere I’ve found so far in our smallish city. World-class chocolate, yes. Stripey fangs of compressed sugar-plastic that look and taste nothing like corn but are somehow still symbolic of harvest season in the United States, no. Today, however, I had the brilliant idea to search on Amazon.it. We can buy Yankee Candles and American flags through it, so why not candy corn?

Search bar

Alas. It turns out that Italian Amazon does not stock actual candy corn. However, you’d be happy to know that with a single click, one can purchase any of the following substitute items:

The most dynamic cross-stitch pattern ever, in English! (“This title not available in your country.”)

Cross stitch pattern.png

This genius smartphone game, which the product description calls both “beautiful” and “eye-popping.” (Is it just me, or does Man Boobs here appear to be lactating golf balls?)

Man boobs.png

Candy Corn Duck Tape, for repairing your HVAC systems, restraining your hyperactive children, and sealing up your man boobs in the full spirit of the season:

Duck Tape.png

Candy corn-themed crochet patterns so that you too can blend in among the European chic…

Scarf pattern.png

 …AND be the envy of your local poncho club…

Poncho pattern.png

…AND add an extra element of class to your Halloween soirée:

Wine bottle cozy pattern.png

Rarelove Sterling Silver Halloween pumpkin corn candy Heart Photo Charm Beads… which might be something you smoke for all the sense I can make out of that description, but hey—it’s on sale!

Sterling Silver pumpkin corn candy Heart Photo Charm Beads.png

Some fun tunes for your neighborhood trick-or-treat party:

Music - explicit.png

What’s that, you say? You’d prefer something less psychotic suicide clown skull fun and more happy fun? Not to worry, this super non-creepy hand-goose is here to help:

Music - happy fun songs.png
(I just listened to this song’s MP3 sample in the name of journalistic integrity, and I can now confirm with 97% certainty that it was indeed played by a goose.)

Back to literal candy corn now, on which this delicious and exclamation-point-worthy party game is based! (Please note: Game pieces neither included nor available for sale anywhere things are sold.)

Bingo - Just add candy corn.png

A candle made expressly to taunt expats with the scent of wishful thinking:

Yankee Candles.png

And last but not least, this yarn, which appears to have been thrown up on by a Dreamsicle with tuberculosis:


Yarn.png
(Who’s up for a parfait?)

So no luck buying my favorite Octoberly vice off Amazon. However, the internet is full of recipes for homemade candy corn; all I have to do is track down some powdered milk, and we’ll be in business!

Search bar - powdered milk.png

Powdered milk.png

Uh…

 

image source

30Sep
Uneven melody

Uneven Melody

We’re into the third week of the school year now, and time is a concerto played by an inexperienced pianist. Some days rush stumbling past while others hesitate a beat too long. We haven’t yet found the cadence that will let us relax into the work-family balance about which I stubbornly daydream each September, but there’s still the hope.

Maybe in October, I’ll figure out how to fit in a good workout every day instead of ducking out to the track at dinnertime on random Thursdays.

In October, the kitchen counters will not wear so much as a crumb.

In October, my brain will get along perfectly with itself and enjoy many happy hours of productivity on command.

In October, no one will come down with one of those ubiquitous beginning-of-the-school-year viruses.

In October, all four of us will go to bed on time every night and get up early every day and eat balanced diets with high percentages of kale-laced quinoa and have lots of people over to our house—which will remain company-ready at all times, naturally—and read for hours in an old-fashioned family huddle each evening because such will be the nature of our spare time.

Right? Right.

Riiiiiiiiight.

The fact of the matter is that tomorrow, life will continue coloring outside the lines as it has done since the first cave woman carved the first to-do list into her Day-Timer®. I know this like I know the spelling of my own name, but I can’t help hoping that that one of these years, I’ll accidentally step on life’s Easy Button™ and watch time unfurl itself in front of me. Why do we do that, by the way? Cling to the completely untenable idea that we will, eventually, against all odds and several millennia of experiential proof, figure out the secret to breezing through life?

Dan often tells me that I set my expectations for my days way too high, which… well, maybe he has a point. My dead serious to-do list yesterday included blogging, ironing the three-foot-high stack of clean laundry, coming up with a menu for the week, working out, and reading over a friend’s book manuscript. In the end, I… worked out.

I suppose that my to-do lists could be better termed “wish lists,” and I’m learning and re-learning to think of them as such. September is an especially hard time to keep my perspective in check though. It’s the time of year when syllabi are handed out, those crisp and bullet-pointed promises of what students will have accomplished in three months’ time. It’s when the acronym NaNoWriMo begins to pop up around the interwebs as brave souls assure themselves that they can write an entire novel in a month. (I couldn’t, but that doesn’t stop me from rolling the “what ifs” between my brain lobes each year like a prospective buyer.) It’s the time of year when I can’t help slipping brand-name office supply names®™ into my blog entries because September has and always will smell to me like the inside of a Staples—highlighter ink and pencil shavings and unlicked envelopes and possibility.

There’s a lot to be said in favor of setting goals, but the lesson I face with each new autumn is one of acceptance: Understand that “according to plan” is not a phrase in life’s vernacular. Greet each day with a preemptive dose of grace. Enjoy the happy surprises that take place outside the realm of to-do lists—snuggling sessions with my girls, emergency pumpkin pie fudge (because we can’t have our precious hand-puréed pumpkin going bad on us), piano duets, running into friends at the grocery store. Allow time and space to process the hard surprises too—neighbors in crisis, work contracts failing to materialize, children coming down with every single variation of the cold virus to creep within 100 miles of our house. Accept that perfection is almost definitely a myth, a pristine projection untouched by either the grime or the warmth of reality.

Maybe in October, I’ll remember how to relax into this uneven melody and the joy tucked in between each unpredictable note.

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