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30Sep

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.

15Sep

Fadeaway

This morning, the alarm barged into my dreams at what felt to my sleep-sunk mind like the middle of the night.

The girls were already dressed and waiting.

They chattered and sang all the way to the bar for our traditional first-day-of-school breakfast, and Dan and I barely had time to kiss the tops of their heads before they were off to squeal with friends and hug teachers in the schoolyard. The bell rang, the doors opened, and the resulting stampede sound of 150 kids charging to class made me laugh out loud. September school days still make me feel like a crisp current of possibility is tickling my airways.

Summer 2014 is well and truly over as of 8:15 this morning, and I’m struggling to find the proper ceremony of closure within my heart. It was a long summer for us, a gamut of unforeseen changes that left us alternately exhilarated and heavy-hearted. I didn’t numb myself this summer; I stayed awake for every minute of it, and the result is that I’m feeling tender and mighty and overexposed and reinvented all at once. I’d like to take a vacation to knead the knots of the last few months out of my muscles—not a normal vacation with luggage and an activities roster, mind you, but a vacation of quiet. A respite. Nature to look at listen to and absorb, and nothing else on the agenda. Think Thoreau with room service.

Until I get a chance to slip away though, I’ll continue to drink coffee here at my desk with neighborly snatches of conversation and roadway percussion rolling through my open window. I’ll light dessert-scented candles (the only ones worth burning, in my opinion) and woo my mind toward words for the few quiet hours afforded me. I’ll fix big, Italian-style lunches and hug my girls when they walk in the front door, dropping backpacks where they don’t belong and calling “What’s to eat?” before I’ve finished saying hi. I’ll try every day without fail to cram more productivity into the afternoon than is humanly possible. I’ll read with the girls, tuck them into bed, and resolve to follow a responsible bedtime routine for myself as well. I’ll stay up too late anyway. The alarm clock will catch me off-guard each and every morning, but that’s what the coffee’s for. I’ll walk this daily path into September until, ceremony or not, I find that summer has closed itself like a sun-faded paperback.

How is the seasonal switchover going for you? 

8Sep

Seastruck

The first time I saw the ocean, I was nearly twelve. Our van crested the bridge to Quintana Beach, and there was the Gulf of Mexico stretched out below us, the vast basin where God must have dipped his brush after painting every color of earth and sky. I couldn’t tell you even now what hue the Gulf of Mexico most resembles. It’s slate gray but also moss green, sky blue capped by cloud crests, equal parts mother of pearl and loam. At first sight, I couldn’t believe such a thing existed—this expanse of creation-colored water curved to fit the horizon. I ate my wedge of watermelon that evening in the waves, salt and grit and who knows what else seasoning its pink flesh. My baby brother threw the van keys into the surf (or so we thought; we found them a week later deep inside one of the bench seats), and we were stranded until nightfall, and it was magical.

Now that I’m a mother, I have an inkling of how my own mother must have felt that night—all six of her children sand-plated and smelling of seaweed, dark tongues of water lapping up the shoreline, my father hitchhiking to find a locksmith, and no cell phone to know when he’d be back, not the tiniest bit of technology with which to distance ourselves from the deep. I also know a bit of how she must have felt when we finally made it to the condo and she still had showers to administer and salt-encrusted towels to dry and the next day’s picnic to prepare. Beach vacations are the parental equivalents of overtime.

But it is paid:

Puglia beach trip 2

We drove down south to Puglia for the first time this month and spent the better part of a week with friends at their beach house. And by “at their house,” I mean on the beach. The Ionian Sea is like liquid topaz, so blue and crystalline that simply looking at it it is a form of wealth. I was in the water about three quarters of the time that the girls were; we dredged up seashells and splashed each other silly and tracked the tiny striped fish who were tracking our toes. The other quarter of the time, I sat back in a nest of sand and filled straight up on my kids’ delight.

Puglia beach trip 3

Puglia beach trip 4

Puglia beach trip 5

Puglia beach trip 6

The sea turns children into hunters and gatherers, architects and archeologists. It draws on their genius for play and holds time at arm’s length so they can stop growing up so fast, at least for the day. It makes magic out of ordinary minutes. Admittedly, magical moments are not necessarily effortless ones, at least not for the parental portion of the family. We came home tired with slightly more than our fair share of sand and sunburns, and my post-vacation laundry pile would have been enough to make even Mrs. Walton faint of heart. I still take the whole experience as a gift though—the chance to play with my girls free of the usual time-claustrophobia that haunts me at home, to watch them at ease in their own childhoods, to see the living sparkle of the waves mirrored in their eyes, and to discover my own sense of seastruck enchantment right there in the context where I first found it.

Puglia beach trip 7

27Aug

The American Context vs. August in Italy

For the second time in a week, I’d found myself smack dab between the lines of Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day.” The first time had happened the day after we arrived in the Italian Alps, after we had laced up our shoes and left the narrow walls of our hotel and picnicked on a grassy slope, butterflies tangoing with the wind around us. The second time was on our final hike of our getaway. I was stretched out in a meadow with my camera, trying to soak in as much of the place as I could before we packed up, when the miniature grasshopper sprang onto a blade of grass in front of my nose. At least I think it’s a grasshopper. It could be a cricket or a locust or a boll weevil for all I know (or, to be honest, want to know) about six-legged creatures. I did not, however, jump back shrieking in my standard Insect Encounter Dance. Instead, I watched it, fascinated and at peace while Mary Oliver filled my mind:

“Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.”

I had the time to understand her phrase “idle and blessed,” to take the ancient Hebrew lyric “Be still and know” to heart. Out of all souvenirs, that state of unhurried intention is what I most wanted to bring home with me this summer.

It didn’t even make it down the mountainside.

///

August is a quiet month in Italy. School is a purely September construct; no one is thinking of fresh pencils or new jeans just yet. Instead, everyone is in beach mode, moving through the steamed air like half-dressed anemones. Shops are closed. Utility companies are on vacation. No one here expects anything remotely resembling productivity.

Except for me.

Even here, in the warm laze of summer, I choke for want of time. It feels almost like a nutritional deficiency, this sense of depletion when I look at the clock. If I could just work out how to double the hours between eating and sleeping, I think, then I could keep up with the pace of online work, to say nothing of the dust bunnies that procreate like… well, rabbits around here. I would also settle for getting my brain to work twice as quickly or my body to have twice the energy. Basically, my aspiration is to become Bart Simpson on Squishee syrup.

///

I just started reading Tsh Oxenreider’s Notes from a Blue Bike, and I can so closely relate to her struggle to keep the slower European lifestyle within the faster American context that I want to look up from every other sentence and tell her, “Me too!” I know I don’t have a great deal of room to pine over the European lifestyle considering that I live here and all. Obviously, I’m already in the perfect place for slowing down, embracing simplicity, and savoring the little things. What’s not as obvious, though, is that I’m still operating in an American context. I am the American context. My work philosophy, my personal expectations, my tendency to view life as an emergency… all of it is part of the cultural package that leaves me rushed and harried even when everyone around me is in vacation mode.

And this is after seven years of adapting.

Clearly, I still have much to learn from Italy, but Tsh’s assurance that we can choose how we live is buoying me today. Even as I write this, we’re packing up for a few days at the beach with friends. My attention keeps drifting down to the to-do list on my desk, a wee slip of paper that carries enough weight to sink me some days. It’s already tried twice today. There are so many chores to squeeze in before we leave, and I need to remember the beach stuff down in storage, and I haven’t gotten a haircut yet, and the girls will need packing help, and my email inbox is going to seed again, and how can I sit here dallying with words when there is so much to do, so very very much, and so very little time in which to do it, and AAAHHHHHHHH?

The answer is with that little grasshopper above. I can sit here and write today (albeit distractedly) for the same reason that I could lie on my stomach photographing blades of grass last month—because I chose to do it. I can ignore the chaotic context within me and do things on purpose that give me life. I can throw my lopsided sense of responsibility to the wind. I can choose.

I know that vacation isn’t the typical setting for one to channel her inner Thoreau, but my hope is that if I can remind myself how to live deliberately when I’m kicked back on the sand, maybe—just maybe—it will stick around once I’m back home.

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

18Aug

An HSP Watches the News

At the bidding of a friend, I finally took the Highly Sensitive Person test this morning and ended up selecting 25 of the 27 points. (14 are enough to classify someone as a HSP, so I assume 25 means something like Watch Out, This Person May Spontaneously Combust At Any Moment.) This explains a lot about how I operate in general and how I processed last week in particular. According to the book on which the test is based, we combustible folk absorb more of the environment around us and thus become more overwhelmed than the 80-85% of the population with normally functioning brain-filters. Therefore, if—hypothetically—I spent a week hearing about the atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq, watching Humans of New York give faces to those suffering in the Middle East, revisiting my old depression diaries in response to Robin Williams’s suicide, and following the shocking play of events in Ferguson, I might—hypothetically—have trouble unpeeling myself from bed in the morning.

I have been heartbroken by the news, and this has been bothering some people.

Some people have not been heartbroken by the news, and this has been bothering me.

Everywhere I’ve looked this last week, humanity has confronted me: prejudice and suffering and community and callousness and hope and no-hope and initiative and frustration and rhetoric and rawness and so many conflicting interpretations of which rights we should allow to those different from us. As a species, we have yet to mutually agree to each other’s right to live; opinions just get more fragmented from there. And it’s all so much, so very much, so close to too much for my porous mind to bear.

 “A billion people died on the news tonight
But not so many cried at the terrible sight
Well Mama said, It’s just make-believe
You can’t believe everything you see
So baby, close your eyes to the lullabies
On the news tonight”

Over the weekend, I was pulled in by this passage from my favorite book, in which 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding is confronting the reality of death:

“At the cowboy matinee last Saturday a man had dropped down dead on the white-hot screen. Douglas had cried out. For years he had seen billions of cowboys shot, hung, burned, destroyed. But now, this one particular man…
He’ll never walk, run, sit, laugh, cry, won’t do anything ever, thought Douglas. Now he’s turning cold. Douglas’s teeth chattered, his heart pumped sludge in his chest. He shut his eyes and let the convulsion shake him.
He had to get away from these other boys because they weren’t thinking about death, they just laughed and yelled at the dead man as if he still lived. Douglas and the dead man were on a boat pulling away, with all the others left behind on the bright shore, running, jumping, hilarious with motion, not knowing that the boat, the dead man and Douglas were going, going, and now gone into darkness.”

This is how it is for me, how it is when I hear that a child has been beheaded by a terrorist group in Iraq or a teenager shot by police in Missouri or a comedian hung by his own fractured mind in California. I feel the loss of life like a blow to my head, and the weight of all the things that person will no longer do or see or experience or be sends concentric shock waves through my system. Do you feel it too? The immense mushroom cloud of tragedy balled up in that single word, dead?

If you don’t, that’s okay. At least, I’m doing my very best to accept that it’s okay. According to the test I took this morning, Douglas Spaulding, Jack Johnson, and I are among a small percentage of people who feel everything deeply. This doesn’t mean that others feel nothing; it just means they have a thicker layer of protection between themselves and the goings on in the world. It just means that they can watch the news, compartmentalize what they’ve seen, and go on with their days.

When I watch the news, I fall in headfirst.

My conscience has waffled back and forth for years on the topic: Should I stay up to date on events as a responsible and caring citizen of Earth? Or should I avoid the news as much as possible in order to spare my heart and mind from constant overload? Should I engage the negativity, or should I retreat from it? Is awareness worth taking nightly boat trips alone with the dead? I haven’t reached a conclusion yet that gives me peace, and maybe that’s because the world is so far from a place of peace. As long as I continue to be a Highly Sensitive Person in a highly human world, I’m going to struggle with a weight that most people don’t often feel. Every news link I click in my lifetime will carry a price.

I’ve been thinking though that if I were the one in the news this last week, if it were my death being announced in professional newscasterly tones and argued about by a parade of talking heads, I would want someone out there to cry for me. I would want the loss of my life to mean enough even to a complete stranger in another country that she would lose sleep over it. I would want her to get willingly into that boat with me, away from the motion and noise, out where I was no longer a news story but a full human carrying the sum of my years and experiences and aspirations with me off the edge of the world.

So I’m here… not seeking out the news today but not hiding from it either, not exactly loving my status as Highly Sensitive Person but not exactly wanting to trade it out either. If my role in this sea of humanity is to care—even too much, even beyond my own pain threshold—then I’ll care to the best of my ability. And if your role is different, I’ll do my best to remember that you’re the normal one here… and that whenever I spontaneously combust over the ten o’clock news, you’re the one who can put out the flames.

30Jul

Cracking My Shins on Wildflowers

This last Sunday, we went to our church for the first time in two months. “Are the Bassetts actually here today?” one lady asked us, feigning shock. “No,” I said, and we all laughed. I was only half-joking though. I was there, but not all there, and for that, I blame the wildflowers.

Wildflower altar 2

I started reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World on our vacation earlier this month, but I didn’t make it very far because I kept returning to the first chapter over and over for refills of the same heady draft. The chapter is about cultivating an awareness of God in the world, and in it, Taylor (Brown Taylor? BBT? B to the Bitty?) follows a line of thought that rang at the frequency of my own heart during our time in the Italian Alps:

“What happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls—even four gorgeous walls—cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts, and the trees?… Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”

Wildflower altar 3

I cracked my shin on an altar pretty much the minute we stepped out of our hotel in Sestriere, an alpine village so far west of Turin that it’s nearly in France. I had to look that last bit up on Google Maps, by the way. My sense of geography is marvelously awful. All I knew of location while we were there was that we had stepped onto the dance floor where earth and sky practice sweeping each other off their feet, and that’s all I cared to know.

Wildflower altar 4

We hiked every day, unable to stay indoors a moment longer than necessary, and while the girls skipped ahead gathering bouquets and improvising marching songs to the tune of “Let It Go,” I planted myself in wildflower meadows. More accurately, my soul planted me there. It wound roots down through my kneecaps and into the ground, anchoring me in a posture to notice flower couture, the stunning individuality of petals, the communion of velvet-trimmed bees, and the extravagance of it all there, untended and largely unseen, the original guerrilla art knit across the mountainside.

Wildflower altar 5

There is no path to reverence quite like realizing you are it—the one guest at the gallery opening, the sole occupant of the chapel, the only human being who will ever brush against this exact strain of beauty. I am the only person in existence, past or future, to photograph those flowers above; even flopped there on my stomach with camera in hand, I couldn’t quite absorb the whole of it. I didn’t need to though. I didn’t even want to, truth be told. For all of my devotion to reason and fact, I still like to take a hit of undiluted awe every once in a while.

Wildflower altar 6

“Who had persuaded me that God preferred four walls and a roof to wide-open spaces?” BBT asks, prompting a little fist-bump of recognition from my heart. I realize that church is many different things to many different people, but I personally look to it as a mind-elevator—something that will draw my perspective back into the bigger but less visible realm in which God-with-us changes everything. Sometimes actual church accomplishes this, but other times it’s a meal with friends or an act of selflessness or a line of poetry said aloud under the stars or a line of music so lovely I fall straight into it. Or a field of wildflowers hidden up in the Italian Alps just for me to find.

Wildflower altar 7

24Jul

Normal is the New Normal

“I’m going to beat the everloving pants off this whole reentry thing,” I determined last night, laying myself down to sleep at the ridiculously responsible hour of 10:30.

We had been home only a few hours. Seven weeks’ worth of suitcases lay where they had been dropped on our dusty floors. All of my grand plans to keep up with writing throughout our trip were wadded up in one of them, no doubt, wedged somewhere between the dirty hiking pants and the souvenir chocolate. (Because: Switzerland.) I couldn’t see even the faintest, horizon-bleared end of the to-do list in my mind, but it didn’t matter. For once, I was going to prioritize my own post-trip sanity. No more spiraling into the scheduleless void. I would settle back into the cushion of my own blessed mattress, get the best night of sleep I’d had all summer, and wake up early enough to write my way back to normalcy by breakfast.

Cue mischief-portending Danny Elfman track.

At first, I couldn’t sleep. The bed felt strange. I had too many elbows. The sheet was too warm; taking it off was too cold. I dozed off a few times only to wake up in a disoriented panic wondering whose furniture was looming around me in the dark. And where had the door disappeared to? My brain rocked around wildly for a while and then began to settle down for the night. In fact, I was finally making some real headway into sleep when someone began knocking on the bedroom door. A certain six-year-old someone whose brain was cooperating even less than mine.

“I can’t manage to sleep!” wailed Sophie. “What if I never fall asleep? What if I’m awake all night?”

“No, no,” I soothed. “Let’s just get you back to bed. I’m sure you’ll be asleep before you know it.”

Five minutes later… “Go back to bed, honey. You’re not going to fall asleep any more easily by getting up like this.”

Ten minutes after that…“Have you tried counting sheep yet?”

And an hour after that…“Here, just get into bed with me.”

And an hour after that… “Maybe you should try your own bed again.”

The kid didn’t fall asleep until five in the mother flippin’ morning. It was the worst insomnia of my life, and it wasn’t even mine. By the end, I was lurching into her room like a blindfolded zombie to offer grunts that I hoped were conveying equal parts compassion and “Go the F**k to Sleep.”

It goes without saying—though I will anyway—that my pastel-tinted Morning of Rejuvenation did not happen. Dan pried me out of bed with a stiff coffee a little before 10, and I had to remind myself that everything I accomplished from that point on counted as a victory. Toothpaste located and used? Score! Self showered by lunch? Bonus! Vacation laundry sorted and pushed in general direction of washing machine? Fifty points for me!

It hasn’t been the day I’d hoped or planned, but I’m sure there’s a life lesson somewhere in there. Expectations make great target practice, for example, or Children can smell productivity. The truth is that I don’t mind how things turned out in the end. I had to take an adjustment in perspective and an extra coffee or two, but it hasn’t been a bad day. The bags got [mostly] unpacked. The four of us [mostly] enjoyed each other’s company. I’m getting a chance to string some [mostly] coherent sentences together and feeling [mostly] sane to boot. If you consider that the goal for my day was a return to normalcy, then perhaps the unpredictability of normal life, with its dust and insomnia and total lack of regard for best-laid plans, is just what I needed.

Well, that and about sixteen hours of make-up sleep tonight. I mean, really.

Insomnia e-card

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