20Feb

Light Bulb

A difficult-to-replace light bulb in our dining room burned out this morning just as I was sitting down to teach an English lesson, and the day never really recovered its glow. Between heavy-handed clouds and a tricky relational situation, the hours slumped by with my mind sticking increasingly to the soles of my feet. Some days are just downers.

But you know, every time I catch myself brushing off a bad day as no more than a 24-hour inconvenience, gratefulness swoops the air from my lungs.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote the following journal entry:

I found a pocket of calm today, but it doesn’t suit me. It’s the kind of calm that comes from heartsickness rather than peace, and I can tell I’m not fooling anyone. I’m in a low place right now. Really staggeringly low. Last night in bed, I told Dan, “I can’t find my heart anymore,” then my eyes clamped shut. He whispered, “I miss you,” before falling asleep, and I lay awake most of the night feeling heavier than I thought was possible.

I see strange shadows inside my eyelids these days, as if everything familiar has become frightening. Writing requires me to rip words out of dental cavities, one at a time, and I don’t have the pain tolerance to finish what I manage to start. Smiling takes even more effort. I feel horribly alone, but I still crave loneliness. The freedom to hide. Not having to fake sanity for my family’s sake or to force insanity so someone will help me. I want a respite from the world’s problems, starting with my own brain. 

At least I put on makeup today in honor of Natalie’s birthday. That’s something.

Alzheimer’s runs in the female line of my family, and I’m bracing myself for the day when memories begin to trickle through my fingers, but no matter how many years I live or how many senses I lose over the course of them, I will never forget what it felt like to wake up suffocating, morning after pitch black morning. I will never forget the way depression tortured my mind into believing it wasn’t depression at all, only some mental inadequacy. I will never forget how bad days back then teetered on the serrations of a knife.

Today wasn’t one of those days, and for that, every inch of my muscle memory breathes gratitude. Today, a light bulb burned out, and the weather glowered, and I had a few frustrating conversations… but I had some great conversations too. I sat on my husband’s lap at the dinner table and grinned kisses to the delight of our children (and eternal embarrassment of our teenage house guest). I read stories with the girls and chased them shrieking around the house for tickle wars, and I tucked them well-loved into bed. I accomplished things that I’m proud of—you better believe that cleaning the kitchen is up there—and laughed often.

 Not a bad day

Bad day? I think not.

17Feb

Shelled

One thing I have learned a lot about over the past year is that Italians do community they way they do pasta: effortlessly, enthusiastically, and often. It’s both one of the most daunting and one of the most delightful aspects of life here.

The above picture I snapped at yesterday’s neighborhood Carnevale parade isn’t likely to win any photography awards.  In fact, I don’t even recognize anyone in it (that may or may not have anything to do with the camera angle), but I love it regardless. The people in it made up a small portion of the neighbors who paraded the streets yesterday disturbing the peace with high-volume joy. Little girls skipped through snow slush in their princess dresses, and little boys dressed as pirates tried to make it more than two yards before staging another sword fight, and grandparents held hands, and we mamas chatted over the clatter of homemade maracas while keeping an eye out for each other’s offspring. We were superbly loud.

Do you see the police car at the front of the line? Several officers came out to block traffic for us, and it made my heart swell every time one of their firm faces cracked into a grin at all the exuberance. Even the car drivers, whose big important plans were having to wait for short legs, waved and cheered from the sidelines. And do you see the man across the street toward the left of the photo wearing a bright blue scarf? His name is Michele, which I now know because the crowd made up a cheer for him as we walked past. I mean, why not?

After looping the neighborhood, we all squeezed into the elementary school gym for an epic dance party complete with disco lights and paper ribbon explosions, and it struck me that what I was doing at that moment—boogying with my girls and admiring their friends’ costumes and making plans for a moms-only date night and laughing with my neighbors—was exactly what we’d hoped for in moving to Italy. Doing community. Sure, neighborhood-wide disco parties can daunt an introvert like me into hiding, but it turns out that the delight of inclusion, of intentional, joyful togetherness, is just the thing to sweep an introvert like me right out of her shell.

 Carnevale Sophie(Not an introvert.)

16Feb

Introvert, Out

This is a Three Party Week.

To some of you, this will signify nothing beyond three individual chances to wear cute shoes and nosh on someone else’s potato chips while catching up with friends. If so, I am in awe of you. I probably wish I were you.

See, I fall into the category of people who started reaching for their security blankets at the words “Three Party Week.” I’m not exactly anti-social—one of my favorite things to do in the world is sit down for a heart-talk with close friends—but large group events have a way of swallowing my energy whole. The pleasantries, the social expectations, the whirl of activity, and the noise! noise! noise! noise! inevitably bring out the Grinchiest in me.

Take right now for example. I am sitting at my computer shooting reproachful glances at my own reflection because an entire morning of gold-plated writing time has resulted in… one Tweet. This is despite my getting up at 5:45 with motivation and a caramel cappuccino in my favor.  The reason I spent all morning staring at the wasteland formerly known as my brain is that I spent all afternoon and evening yesterday at an indoor play place with about 100,000,000,000 shrieking children and assorted moms and dads. The girls had more fun than their little hearts knew what to do with, and I was glad to be a part of the community there, but… oh. Oh oh. I explained to Dan afterward that I might be able to handle people using their vocal chords in front of me again come Sunday.

Objects may be louder

Warning: Children may be louder than they appear.

Unfortunately, silence isn’t an option as the girls and I are due at another party in… twenty-eight minutes. This party is being thrown for our entire neighborhood, and I know for a fact that the elementary school has been busy handcrafting noisemakers for the occasion. Based on previous track records, I’ll probably need to lie in bed with earplugs for the next month. That won’t  mess with my ability to socialize tomorrow’s party, will it?

Crap.

15Feb

Branded Flibbertigibbet

I recently started reading a blog that is so good, so good, that every single post has me either laughing or crying. Often both. (It’s hard to choose a favorite, but this post has my heart firmly entwined around its little finger.) Glennon writes with such humor and candor and ridiculous grace that my day is always better for reading her, but one thing in particular has stuck with me. She mentions how storytelling and shamelessness are her strengths, the gifts that fuel her unique purposes in life. To this, I say Rock on, sister! with accompanying fist-pumps.

To myself, however, I say something less celebratory like Huh. and finger the edges of my own uncertainty over the future. The decision to leave my job this year was hard-won, but it only feels like the lifting of my foot before choosing in which direction to step. Questions, doubts, worries, and more questions rise in quick succession these days, and I kick myself under the desk for consistently accomplishing less now that I have more time at my disposal.

My sense of social guilt has nagged at me for years now about not having a “brand,” a platform, a niche, a signature—whatever word best conveys direction and potential. Now, it’s morphing from unfocused guilt to true, urgent need as I look out over this blank-page year and ask, God, what the hell am I supposed to do with this?

I need to write like I need to breathe; that much is clear. It’s also clear that I’m not so much a storyteller as I am a thought painter, watching concepts take color and shape beneath my fingers. My brain-waves on any given day might pull toward mothering or spirituality or travel or the creative life or brownies; in fact, if I find myself slipping into a topic rut, I instinctively stop writing. I have a wild suspicion that if I rehash old material, my blog and everyone reading it will lapse into comatose boredom.

But isn’t that what a brand essentially is? The same lines of thought tackled from a variety of angles? A stamp of consistency that draws people with similar interests to comment and contribute and build a like-minded community? That’s just it—I don’t think I’ve been exactly the same person for any two days of my entire life. In the constant struggle and exhilaration of change, it’s hard enough to keep tabs on who I am without also nailing down what I’m about. Besides brownies, I mean.

I’m embarrassed to be outing myself as a lifelong flibbertigibbet, which just goes to show that I do not share Glennon’s gift of shamelessness. It could be that this state of flux is my strength, but I have a hard time seeing how something so vague and unwieldy can result in the kind of direction that gets someone up before dawn.

I’m not fishing for insta-answers here, though your speculations and stories are absolutely welcome. I’m simply painting my thoughts out as wide strokes on a blurred background in hopes that in the process, I’ll catch a glimpse of my bigger picture.

14Feb

Braving Together

Seth and Amber Haines have been sharing letters to each other for the last few weeks, hanging the hard work of marriage up as art, and their love story never fails to inspire the writing of my own. This week, patience:

~~~

Dear husband,

You don’t know this, but I spent half an hour on my hair this morning. If any day of the year is worth the extra effort to look sexy and glamorous, it’s Valentine’s Day, right? I knew I was ridiculous for pulling out the ruby-tinted lip gloss before breakfast, but date night was already smoldering on my mind, and you know well after nine years that my whimsy is nothing if not ridiculous. It also has good taste in lip gloss.

By 8:30 a.m., all signs were pointing a hot lovin’ kind of day. Only, when I walked out of the bathroom, you said, “I’ll wait to make the coffee until you’re done getting ready.”

“Come again?”

“I mean, since your hair is still pinned on top of your head from doing your make up.”

I suddenly felt very slow. “So… you don’t like how I fixed it?”

Oh, my dear one. I could hear your face buckling from the impact of the realization, and you scrambled to salvage an unsalvageable situation. “It, uh… it looks very pretty… in the back… I mean…”

I’d seen that expression once before, on the face of a friend’s fiancé who had just asked me when my third child was due. It’s the look of a man without a time machine.

I don’t make these things easy on you, I know. I retreat from hurt feelings as instinctively as I do from conflict and controversy and furniture placement decisions. For a man who connects best through brave words and open eyes, it must be especially difficult navigating marriage with an emotional turtle.

Yet you do it so well, husband of mine. You have never tiptoed around the dark parts of our relationship, but you don’t take them by force either; you wait until I’m ready to talk, and then we march into the dark together.  It is this willingness to hold out for together, this inexhaustible patience, that has turned me into a woman who comes out of hiding. You make me brave.

Brave enough to grin as I shake out the hair pins (loose hair is its own kind of sexy and glamorous, yes?) and let your intentions speak louder than words. Brave enough to reapply ruby lip gloss after my coffee. Brave enough to go out this evening with open eyes and unhidden words for the man whose patience won me over a long time ago.

It’s going to be a good date night.

Bethany

13Feb

Like a Child

Last September, Sarah Bessey shared an incredibly touching post about the prayer of a two-year-old girl when she didn’t know how to express hurt over her parents’ failing marriage. The little girl simply prayed through her tears, “Jesus. Mommy. Daddy.” and trusted that he would understand.

Perhaps that post touched such a deep chord with me because I don’t know how to put words to prayers either. In the religious culture of my childhood, prayer was a minefield requiring spiritually PC language and doctrinal gymnastics while we conjured up select interpretations of scripture like robed genies to our aid. Talking to God required as much ceremony and flattery as approaching a volatile dictator; it was more strategic groveling than anything, and it wounded me all the more for being labeled as love.

I knew the right words, but they came to represent a complicated and soul-mangling kind of subservience to me. Even now, if someone puts me on the spot to pray aloud, I can feel the old scripts grind into my heart with muddy boot heels. (Hopefully, no one notices me tripping flat over the initial “Dear God…”) For all my belief in a rule-breaking, boundlessly loving God and in miracle answers, I still can’t bring myself to frame requests with words. I won’t go back to groveling for scraps of divine favor.

So I feel prayer, and I soak it in through my headphones, and I breathe it on the open air, and I feel our connection the way I sense light through my eyelids. However, none of it quite replaces the intentionality of conversation… and so I turn to this.

Jesus. Dan.

Jesus. Natalie.

Jesus. Sophie.

Jesus. The friend being torn slowly apart by divorce proceedings.

Jesus. The friend heartbroken by infertility.

Jesus. The loved ones facing major life decisions.

Jesus. Our own major life decisions.

Jesus. Our finances.

Jesus. Our marriage.

Jesus. This complicated soul-life I wrestle and grow and wake with.

And I trust him to understand.

8Feb

Acclimating

In defense of my slow start this morning, even the sky has opted to burrow under quilts rather than face the flurrying cold. I have to wonder if the temperatures this February are some kind of karmic grudge for all the sun we soaked up last month in Florida, some bitter Sherpa spirit blasting away at the residual glow of swimsuits and lime sherbet. If you live in a climate that requires you to dig your car out of snow banks every morning, 1) I’m so sorry, and 2) you might want to skip this next line: The thermometer hasn’t risen above freezing in a week. This is where I show my southern roots by shivering promptly to death.

I had penciled in our first week back from the States as a recovery period, but a round of seasonal bugs and the ensuing laundry apocalypse turned one week into two, and it’s only now that I’m marking out new routines… by which I mean hitting the snooze button and tunneling back under the covers because my Texas-bred sensibilities don’t know how else to respond to icicles.

Motivation has been a finicky bird this year, alternately hopping with impatience and swooping out of reach, and I don’t know yet how to get from here to the spring-loaded 6 a.m. writing sessions I imagine. However, I’m working on finding the way—on wrestling my night owl feathers into bed before tiredness turns to mania, on tethering my focus to deadlines instead of minutia, on honoring this gift of time. It’s a worthy work, and I’m happy.

Even if I can’t stop shivering.

How does winter weather affect your day? What gets you up and at ‘em on dark, snow-lashed mornings? Is it at all forgivable to be mentioning lime sherbet in February?

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