14May

Reentry

It might surprise you, given the nature of my blog, to hear that I’m not a natural at traveling. Don’t get me wrong; I love traveling and take every available opportunity to trot the globe. I’m just not particularly well suited to it.

Here’s what I mean: Planning itineraries sends my ISTJ brain into decision-making purgatory, though not planning them is worse. (“Let’s just wing it” is not nor ever shall be a valid sleeping arrangement.) Packing takes me about six times longer than it should, and I end up bringing the wrong kind of shoes regardless. If I don’t get stretches of alone time during a trip to process and recharge, I end up losing myself, though every minute I do take for myself take feels like a misappropriation of resources. I blend in almost nowhere on the planet, I sunburn at the [literal] drop of a hat, and public transportation gives me gray hair. Also? I’m hopelessly squeamish. Spiders in our tent, lobster eyestalks in my scampi, any animal, plant, or mud-related life form in a lake… They’re liable to make me faint on the spot. For real. Just ask Dan how well I handled the extreme anatomical accuracy of our seaside dinner Friday night.

Of all the different challenges that come with travel, however, reentry is by far the hardest for me. No matter how much I’m looking forward to sleeping in my own bed and slipping back into my own routines, returning from a trip tends to go about as smoothly as the final third of every astronaut movie ever made. The atmosphere rubs me the wrong way. My mind begins to malfunction. Everything is shaking and dramatic and underscored by off-key violins, and it always takes a few days before I’m able to readjust to gravity. Or in this week’s case, to get my land legs back.

Bethany on the boat

Dan and I spent this last weekend on a boat (a brilliant Airbnb find on his part) to celebrate our upcoming 11th anniversary. We slept under the Mediterranean stars, picnicked just off the coast of Cinque Terre, and formed our own tour group of two to explore the coves and islands nearby. We were either on or in the water for two days straight, and the waves and I have been mutually reluctant to let the other go. I can still feel the floor sway ever so slightly when I close my eyes. The sun is still painting jewel tones on the bay. The breeze is still singing a cappella with the seabirds and the rigging of passing sailboats. I was never going to be ready to leave.

Lighthouse on Isola Palmaria

Captain Dan

Islands from above - 1

Bethany and Dan hiking

Chiesa di San Pietro - 1

Porto Venere

I’m getting my equilibrium back though, slowly but surely. Absurd amounts of sleep have helped, as have molasses cookies, fresh nail polish, and a spontaneous family outing to the park this afternoon. I think that often, in my love for chronicling our adventures, I skip over the frustrating or sad parts—the romantic dinners that fall flat or the tourist attractions that end up being closed or the homecomings that are less Norman Rockwell and more Deep Impact. As a result, I forget to add extra grace to future packing lists. Frustrations then magnify, and I berate myself for feeling anything less than relaxed when the trip is over. It’s as if I believe that nostalgia should work like a simultaneous interpreter, infusing experiences with a real-time sentimentality that leaves no room for disgruntlement.

Life is not a Hallmark movie though, and I should know well by now how multi-faceted and messy travel can be is. Sure, some days it’s sea and sky and colorful villages and cold wine on the beach… but some days it’s reentry and struggle and the real-life work of forging melancholy into nostalgia. I’m not particularly well suited to this part either. But if I can get over myself enough to keep camping with the spiders and ordering the scampi and saying yes to the vast unpredictability of going somewhere new, then I can summon grace enough to let this week’s crash landing be a part of the beautiful whole instead of its undoing.

Mediterranean in the distance

5May

Rolling With It

A few weekends ago, we attended the opening of a friend’s scooter rental shop. I had done a bit of editing for his promotional flyers, and he’d promised me an afternoon on a Vespa in return. “Sounds great!” I’d said, smiling wide and hoping no one would notice the muffled strains of panic issuing from the closet where I’d bound and gagged my common sense.

I don’t do well with things that roll, see. Just about everyone I know could tell you a story of how I forgot to brake when my bicycle started down that one hill or how I did a perfect 90° flip my first (and only) time on a dirt bike or how I fell off and was subsequently run over by that mammoth handcar I’d agreed to joy-ride through our college campus. And we’re not even going to mention my “experience” with skateboards. Much like dogs and Chuck Norris, things that roll can smell fear, and I’ve only become more afraid as the wisdom of passing years has confirmed that I really should stay as far from wheeled devices as possible.

My adventurous streak wouldn’t let me pass up the chance to ride a Vespa through the Italian countryside though. Plus, the girls were practically levitating over the idea of a family scooter excursion. I could do it. Surely I could do it. Audrey Hepburn made it look so… well, possible… and I see fourteen-year-olds riding them through traffic every day. How hard could it be?

Scooter ride - empty scooters“Hello Bethany. Come and ride on us. Come and ride on us, Bethany. Forever… and ever… and ever.”

Friends, you have no idea. I don’t know which was worse: that I had Sophie on the back of my scooter or that a few dozen friends and acquaintances were watching when I made that first tentative twist to the throttle. We were still in the parking lot, and my scooter sprang—sprang, I tell you—toward a parked car. True to form, I completely forgot about the brakes and only just averted collision by skidding my feet against the pavement. Hoping that the onlookers would think I’d totally planned to do that, I gave myself a quick pep talk centered around the word “BRAKES” and turned my scooter toward the road. Another slight twist of the throttle, and we were lurching forward like a drunk cheetah. “BRAKES!” my brain told me, so I squeezed the brakes for dear life… and we promptly toppled over.

As women began shrieking and men began running over to help, I had a full second to contemplate the strong, capable, dignified image that none of those people would ever hold of me again. Neither Sophie nor I was hurt (and I avoided inspecting the scooter under the principle that ignorance is bliss), but every drop of my poise was now splattered on the pavement, a tragic afterthought. Our friends helped me pull the scooter upright, and one kind man told me not to let emotions overwhelm me, just to breathe, to keep breathing. So I did. I breathed and reminded myself that I had come here to take on a challenge. And what if it was more challenging than I’d hoped? Now that I’d already dispensed with dignity, I had nothing left to lose by trying again. (Well, other than life and/or limbs, but I was trying very earnestly not to think of that at the moment.)

Sophie, wise child that she is, declared that she would not be riding with me anymore, so I left her in the care of our friends and set out on a little practice run by myself. The scooter wobbled and weaved, but I was able to get the hang of it after a few blocks—how to pull on the throttle without giving myself whiplash, how to slow down without resorting to bodily contact with the pavement. By the time I made it back to the parking lot, Dan and Natalie had returned from their practice run, and it was time for the real deal, the family scooter excursion we’d been promising.

Sophie would only agree to go with Dan, so Natalie took one for the team and climbed up behind me. The four of us set off into the Umbrian countryside just as the afternoon began to mellow toward evening. The colors were glorious: fields of glossy green rippling to each side, pink and white buds in various state of undress on the neighboring trees, blue mountains in the distance, and a warm goldenrod sun nodding down on us all. Natalie kept a running commentary behind me as we rolled along, and I found myself in an odd state of in-between. Half of me was loving the afternoon—the beautiful setting, the rush of movement, and the fact that I was getting this experience with my precious little family. The other half of me was vibrating with tension though. I had trouble trusting that I was in control of my scooter; I was all too aware that the slightest wobble of the handlebars could send my daughter and I down a ditch, off a bridge, or into the path of an oncoming car. By the time we returned the scooters, my whole body was shaking from the discordant mix of fear and elation and self-respect and chagrin.

I wasn’t planning to share this story in public, ever. In fact, I’ve been prepared to deny everything should any of the witnesses bring it up (mercifully, no one has). I found myself thinking about it this morning though in terms of our last few days of self-employment, and the analogy was so exact that I couldn’t not share it with you. See, self-employment is squarely in the category of things that roll.

Just because you’re running a business doesn’t mean that you’re in full control of it. These three years in the entrepreneurial game have included plenty of false starts and retries for us, and it often feels like we’re gripping the handlebars more to hang on for dear life than to actually steer the thing. On this side, there’s a ditch, and on that side, there’s bankruptcy, and what if one of these wobbles turns into a full careen? What if we don’t get any new clients this month? What if that quote is turned down? What if we’re already caught in the helpless sideways momentum of a crash?

Tension is only half of the experience though. The other half incorporates and validates the whys of setting out on our own: to feel the wind full on our faces instead of through the seams of a cubicle, to follow the direction of our instincts rather than of someone else’s protocols, and to experience the unfiltered joy when our bravery pays off. And it does. Over and over again, we’ve found ourselves the grateful recipients of enough, which likes to sweep through the door at the last minute to remind us that we are in the presence of miracles.

We would always have regretted not choosing this path.

I have to remind myself of that on repeat when the bank account dips dangerously low and I’m confronted by how very little control we ultimately have over our future. Weeks like this last one tend to find me white-knuckling my way through prayers and giving myself pep talks that do little to assure. I want onlookers to think that we’re old pros at this, that we’ve totally got self-employment down, but the truth is sometimes as undignified as wiping out on your Vespa in front of a crowd of people you can’t unfriend. Lord have mercy. And please also strike them all with amnesia.

But then days like today dawn, days in which a single phone call or email changes our outlook on the next few months from terror to delight. These are the days when we remember why we love the roller coaster thrill, when the adventure of it all makes us grin and clasp hands and lean into the movement as if embracing a friend. We are still shaky, you bet. Exhausted too. But despite our weariness and the worries that we know will merge back into focus soon, we’re remembering how very much fun things that roll can be when you relax enough to roll with them.

Scooter ride - Having fun.png

2May

On Self-Promotion and Measured Decisions

I have been on the fence about social media for a long time… and by on the fence, I mean impaled by uncertainty, stuck beyond all powers of unsticking between the forward-moving concourse of platform promotion and the chambers of my own backwards heart.

If you would, please read this post in a whisper because that is all I can bring to the discussion. I have already done my share of ranting, judged and envied until the two became indistinguishable, and questioned myself hoarse. This feels ridiculous to admit because we’re talking about Facebook here. But it’s not just Facebook, is it? For me, the question of how to promote myself online is ultimately a question of how I define validation, and un-impaling myself from that particular fence is not easily done.

Like a first-timer at IKEA, I wander the aisles of the Internet accumulating fistfuls of free measuring tape—one strip to measure Twitter followers, another to tally Facebook fans, one for comments and another for acceptance into certain circles, and every one of them labeled How Legitimate Are You Today? The thing about free measuring tape, however, is that it’s always too short. You can’t measure the stature of a human being any more than you can a Svärta bedroom set with that strip of pre-printed paper. I know this.

The temptation to measure is always there though, close on the heels of the good and life-giving impulse to share my words with you. It’s a scarily small step between loving feedback and needing it, and that’s where my dilemma lies. The question I’ve found myself circling back to time and time again is this: Can I actively promote myself online without losing myself in the process? And the answer is… no. Deeply, and with a certainty born of many restless nights, no.

I’m not saying that the social media experience is like this for everyone, but trying to clamor for the world’s already-fragmented attention feels about as natural to me as taking a job in the stock exchange would. I was not made to wave my hands and shout. Nor—and I say this with great affection toward those of you who have this gifting—was I made to narrate my day in 140-character zingers. Instead, I was made to sit down and chat over beverages some place where we can hear each other think and forget about the passing hours. I was made to write slowly and to do it as an extension of holistic living, not as a response to (or worse, a bid for) other’s opinions.

I’ve discovered that my soul has nothing of the marketer about her. This can make me crazy, especially knowing that marketing savvy can be the sole difference between a writing career and a writing hobby. This is also why I’ve dangled on the social media fence for so long. Do I try to jump into the game even though the pace overwhelms me and I can’t keep the rules straight and I am sure to be wheezing and disoriented within minutes? Or do I walk out of the stadium into the quiet evening air I so love, knowing that I may have just turned my back on the opportunity of my life?

I hope you’re still reading this in a whisper because all I have left of this debate is its still, small core: How do I define validation for myself? And friends, as much as I love you and welcome your company here, the answer to that is located behind the secret panel of identity, the place God and I go alone to sort out the whos and whys of me. No other person or group has a say in it. They shouldn’t have a say in it, at any rate, which is why I’m making a pledge to myself, a decision at last: to enjoy social media as an outlet and a meeting point… and to close my browser the second it begins to mean more.

In other words, I’m keeping Facebook but dropping the measuring tape.

30Apr

The Spiritual Practice of TED

I was not born with the gift of waking up. During the night, sleep clots in my veins while my eyelids turn into miniature lead aprons, and while I might be able to force uprightness on myself the next morning, I can guarantee neither alertness nor attractiveness. (Ask Dan sometime how he feels about The Walking Dead as a reality show.) However, as much as I may rage, rage against the dawning of the light, my best days are always the ones that start an hour or two before I absolutely have to be up.

I call that hour or two my Spiritual Recharge Time (SRT) for lack of a better term. I grew up calling it Quiet Time, but that now reeks of obligation and guilt to me—falling asleep over Bible pages I was too tired to make any sense of, Psalms about morning prayer wagging their fingers at me, preacherly voices admonishing, “You don’t love sleep more than you love God, do you?” Give me a break.

I do sometimes read The Message for SRT, but I might read something else or journal or listen to music while the first cappuccino of the day warms my brain back to life. I have to figure out on a trial-and-error basis which practice will work for me on any given morning, and that’s not always easy. One morning, perusing the Bible will make my mind glow; the next morning, it will make me feel like stabbing something. Same with music and journaling and reading. I wake up (which in my case is always a euphemism, but still) with expectations of connecting with God, but sometimes trying to find the right spiritual practice feels like combing through a wardrobe of ill-fitting clothes. The frustration of this can leave me further from God and closer to zombiehood than I was upon “waking.”

I recently found a solution to this nothing-fits scenario though: TED Talks. It’s not that I’m just now discovering these “ideas worth spreading;” they’ve been on my radar since Liz Gilbert’s brilliant talk on genius in 2009. However, I never thought of them as spiritually relevant until one morning a couple of months ago when I gave up on SRT in frustration, opened my computer, and landed on Louie Schwartzberg’s presentation about nature, beauty, and gratitude:

“When people see my images, a lot of times they’ll say, ‘Oh my God.’ Have you ever wondered what that meant? The ‘Oh’ means it caught your attention, makes you present, makes you mindful. The ‘my’ means it connects with something deep inside your soul. It creates a gateway for your inner voice to rise up and be heard. And ‘God’? God is that personal journey we all want to be on, to be inspired, to feel like we’re connected to a universe that celebrates life.”

I felt it. Watching his stunning time-lapse photography filled me with the Oh my God that had been so absent from my other meditative attempts that morning. It rescued me from the confines of my own small mind and replaced my frustration with wonder. Wonder. That was the missing piece, the perspective I hadn’t had the strength to conjure for myself.

The talk finished, and I clicked to another one. I watched Paul Nicklen befriend a dangerous leopard seal, Sue Austin go deep-sea diving in a wheelchair, Amy Cuddy prove that we can change our internal chemistry with body language, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discuss the power of our stories. Their innovations and perspectives helped me sense the scope of the universe a little more clearly. It felt like tapping into an existential undercurrent, one powered by creativity and open-mindedness and awe… and what was that undercurrent if not God?

Watching TED Talks has become my go-to spiritual practice when none of the conventional ones seems to fit, and I’m sharing this because I know I’m not the only who struggles to connect with God. Religious institutions have worked a number on many of us. The Bible has been used so often to manipulate and oppress that its words wound rather than heal some of us. Faith traditions straight-laced with rules and shoulds and penalties have convinced some of us that they control access to God, and why even bother trying when it’s all so hard and heavy, when all our attempts at devotion seem to turn our souls industrial grey?

This is why: Because God is bigger than the walls put up to safeguard religion. This I believe with all my heart. If we’re not finding God within other people’s traditions, that’s okay. In fact, there’s an expansive kind of joy in brushing up against the divine where you least expected to find it—in the zombie hour following dawn, for example, when all the usual spiritual channels have failed and all that’s left is the entire wonder-full universe.

28Apr

Greener Pastures

Come August, we will have lived in Perugia for seven years. This is liable to give me mental vertigo, all these days expanding and collapsing like accordion pleats in my memory. A trick of the light, and I am once again massive with child and complicated hopes boarding a one-way flight to Italy; the angle shifts, and my perspective accelerates through one baby, two visas, three homes, and the better part of a decade to where I sit today penciling summer destinations into our calendar. Time is often catalogued for me in terms of travel, and we’ve done so much of it in these seven years that my mind can’t quite grasp it all at once.

We realized on last week’s little excursion, though, that our view on travel could use some tweaking. We tend to think of travel as something grandiose and all-consuming, volumes of time propped between the bookends of journey. The farther we drive to get to a pasture, the greener it is, right? This is why we’ve spent Saturday after Saturday chafing against weekend chores and griping for want of air. This is why the idea of a staycation this Spring Break disappointed us. This is why, in seven years, we haven’t ever climbed the slopes of our own Mount Subasio.

Er, make that hadn’t.

Hiking Subasio - Victorious three

The forecast called for rain on Saturday, but we went anyway, the drive to explore our own backyard stronger than our desire to stay dry. And it was beautiful, all of it: the girls’ pride at making it up the mountainside by themselves, the clouds billowing like down comforters overhead, the wildflowers holding their own against the tide of grass and gravity, the towns laid out below us like stitching on a vast patchwork quilt. On the drive there, we’d listened to Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World.” Two hours later, I knew exactly what that felt like.

Hiking Subasio - Bethany on top of the world

Hiking Subasio - Assisi down below(That’s wee little Assisi in the center of the photo.)

Hiking Subasio - Sisters

Hiking Subasio - Hiker Natalie

Hiking Subasio - Wildflowers 2

Hiking Subasio - Hiker Sophie

I will never stop wanting travel on a grand scope—road trips and international flights and wildly new terrains underfoot. This weekend has convinced me though that we don’t need to keep holding our wanderlust at bay until schedules and finances align. We have a wealth of beauty close to home, perhaps even enough to fill the next seven years of Saturdays. The verdancy of far-off pastures may be up for debate, but I can say now with certainty that we’ve got a green worth experiencing right here.

Hiking subasio - Wildflowers 3

What’s your favorite “destination” in your neck of the woods? Or is there a place nearby you’ve been curious to explore? Where would you take me for a Saturday adventure if I came to visit? 

25Apr

Worry vs. The Great Outdoors

It’s been an up-down kind of week, the way school breaks usually are for me. I love getting more quality time with my girls, but I tend to flail like a shipwreck victim when I find myself in a patch of undesignated hours; their fluidity makes them frustratingly difficult for me to shape. My brain doesn’t help matters either. In typical overanalyzer fashion, I’ve worried while sitting down to write that I’m not making enough of the social opportunities this week, then worried while hanging out with family and friends that I’m not holding on to myself. I’ve even worried in my sleep that I’m not using the wee hours of the day to best advantage. Occupying my own head can be exhausting, and sometimes the only way to get out of it is to inhale the wide-open air.

Monte Tezio - Skyline

Dan, the girls, and I piled into the car yesterday with no plan beyond the picnic lunch we’d packed and a vague swath of map where we hoped to eat it. Fifteen minutes later, we turned down an unmarked dirt road on a whim, and five minutes after that, we were piling out of the car at a trailhead as if we’d always planned it that way. (Dan calls this style of travel “going crazy,” and it consistently defies my expectations by turning out well. Fantastically, even.)

Monte Tezio - Hiking

For the next few hours, we hiked… and by “hiked,” I mean that we picked bouquets of riotous color, chased orange-winged butterflies in circles, performed scientific experiments, lingered over aperitifs, speculated on what was living in nearby hidey-holes, blew clouds of dandelion wishes, picnicked, combed the treetops with binoculars, peeked under rocks, picked more flowers, and occasionally walked forward a few meters. This is our girls’ version of hiking, and it’s one of my favorite things in the world. When I’m out in nature with them, I can’t help noticing it—all its colors and textures and idiosyncrasies, all the little nuances of life. And in the quiet of noticing, I remember how to breathe again.

Monte Tezio - Wildflower bouquet

Today, I’m back to my struggle against time and that will o’ the wisp called balance. As much as I wish that moments of tranquility would act as a freeze frame for my soul suspending me permanently in the center of who I want to be, my mind is always waiting to snap worry back into focus. Did I sleep in too long this morning? Is the day wasted? Are the girls getting enough attention from me? Should I be doing housework right now? When should I work out? Is it even worth trying to stay in shape? Why can’t I write faster? Quick, the day is slipping away! For better or for worse, I am yoked to a mind that requires me to fight for my tranquility.

Monte Tezio - Pink flowers

The difference today is that the fight feels fair. Yesterday’s breeze still blows through my perspective loosening clods of resignation and despair. My breath is not confined within the parameters of worry; I have enough space between my ribs now to stretch into confidence and peace. I’m delegating these few slippery hours in the pursuit of joy rather than the placation of guilt, and I find it telling that the one piece of housework I opted to do today was laundry.

After all, if I didn’t wash our hiking pants, we wouldn’t be ready to go crazy again tomorrow.

Monte Tezio - Victorious Sophie

22Apr

Treasure Planet

 It’s Spring Break, but we have no tent in the trunk, no extra hundred miles on the odometer. We looked up at least a dozen possible destinations, but all of them said rain. Double-rain up in Cinque Terre where I most wanted to go. We’ve camped in the rain before, but none of us has the energy to face soggy sleeping bags this week, so staycation it is.

For reasons that have not only escaped us but are now doubled over laughing at us, Dan and I decided to allay our disappointment by watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend it for your next rainy Saturday night; it’s the kind of film that makes you fall in love with the adventure of life, the treasures in the world around us, and Ben Stiller. One thing it does not do, however, is calm pangs of wanderlust. Just take a moment to soak in the screenshot below. That would be the open road in Iceland. Iceland! Can you imagine?

Walter Mitty in Iceland.png

Dan and I have been to Iceland… sort of… in the sense that we once spent a half-hour hour layover exploring the grounds of the Reykjavík airport. We couldn’t see any mountains or geysers or lagoons from where we stood, but the landscape fascinated us all the same. Each tuft of grass, each scribble of green or beige or wine-red against the volcanic gravel was like a character in a fairy tale. The sky reached all the way down to the ground there. Within a minute, we were cloud-damp and windswept and smitten.

(Please enjoy this high-definition, award-winning documentary we made there upon discovering how very similar the Icelandic turf is to a trampoline:

You’re ever so welcome.)

A piece of my heart is still there in that wild and wonderful country, and there is nothing for it but to go back one day. I won’t be able to reattach that part of myself, of course, but I can visit with it as we traipse among the fjords and up the volcano slopes. Maybe on the way home, I can stop by the Highlands to commune with the part of my heart forever rooted to its glens, then down to visit with the piece I lost on a Portuguese beach. I stopped checking items off my travel wish list years ago when I realized that each check mark represented a longing awakened rather than one fulfilled.

Beach toes

I wrote in my profile that I’ve got this whole colorful, spinning planet of ours under my skin, and that becomes truer the more of it that I see. I have room for oceans in here, for limitless hues and textures of sand, for all the forests and waterfalls and summits that I’ve seen, pressed cheek-to-cheek with all the ones that I have not. With so many types of terrain held in me at once, it’s no surprise that wanderlust can be a real, physical ache sometimes.

I didn’t realize when I started writing this post that today is Earth Day, but the significance is not lost on me—that I would feel tugged inside-out by the trillion different points of our planet on the day set aside for acknowledging and respecting her. I grew up thinking that environmentalism was at odds with human advancement, but now I believe the opposite. We need the infinite variations of green on a mountainside to stir our creative impulses. We need the roll of waves to smooth the sharp edges of our souls. We need the wind flying across prairies to reawaken us to freedom. We need the intricate art of flower petals to show us the signature of God.

Purple wildflowers

And sometimes we need the ache of wanderlust to remind us what a treasure we have in this place we call home.

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