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


The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Bassetts

I don’t know if it’s because I so adored the book Heidi as a girl…

Running up the mountain

…or because the closest thing to a hill in my hometown was the highway Mixmaster…

Alpine wildflowers

…or because I was a mountain goat in another life…

Singing and hiking

…or because my soul was set to a frequency that comes through best at high altitudes…

The view from our hotel - Evening clouds

…but being here, in the Italian Alps, this week…

Mountain picnic

…with THIS as my waking view…

The view from our hotel - First glimpse

…is filling parts of me I didn’t even know were empty.

We four

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?”
– Mary Oliver

P.S. – You can follow our daily shenanigans over on Instagram (@bethany_bassett) if you’re so inclined!

P.P.S. – Credit for this post’s awesome and very accurate title goes to Dan. I’m adopting it as our vacation motto.


On Our Tenth Anniversary, One Year After the Fact

[Photo of the Parc del Laberint d’Horta, Barcelona] 

On our tenth anniversary, I wasn’t sure we’d make it to our eleventh.

Admitting that out loud is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. One doesn’t just up and say something like that; one keeps her head down and her best foot forward and her problems to herself until enough time has passed that she can preface the story with a respectable “Once upon a time…” One year certainly does not count as Enough.

As nerve-wracking as it may be to tell this to you right now though, admitting it to myself was far worse. Dan and I were catching up on The Office (Steve Carell version) at this time last year. The final season focuses heavily on a marriage that is struggling to survive the husband’s new work ventures, the wife’s new artistic opportunities, and the slow breakdown of communication over their decade-long relationship. I watched every episode in a kind of emotional stupor as our story—our work-related dreams and difficulties, our major life decisions, our inability to speak on the same page—flickered across the screen. Every line of it could have been written about us until the final episode, over which my sense of kinship with the characters crash-landed into the base of my throat. Because who was going to script our grand reconciliation? Who was going to supply us with the lines and the props that would make everything okay again?

I didn’t know if we had another year of marriage in us. By that, I don’t mean that I necessarily saw us getting a divorce, but I could no longer see joy in our future, no more easy camaraderie or neutral topics, no more uncensored breaths when the other was in the room. We no longer knew how to be ourselves in each other’s company, and if that didn’t right itself, then “husband and wife” would become no more than semantics.

I’m not ready to share all the details of our disconnect, but I will say this: Maintaining a healthy marriage while starting up a company in a foreign culture with a bureaucratic system designed by Caribbean crazy ants is… well, not im-POSSIBLE, but certainly im-PROBABLE (as our latest family read-aloud would say). Add to that a pair of children, fluctuating bank accounts, poor communication habits, and the wear and tear of so many years rubbing shoulders together, and it’s small wonder that we limped into last summer like a pair of emotional refugees.

We didn’t so much celebrate our tenth anniversary as we did survive it.

This was crushing to me. I had always thought of tenth anniversaries as milestones, gold-plated “You Are Here” signs along the paths of successful marriages. After ten years, we couldn’t fail to have our relationship figured out. After ten years, our exotic Hawaiian vow-renewal ceremony would practically write itself. After ten years… well, we definitely wouldn’t be staring down into our anniversary sangrias to avoid meeting each other’s eyes.

Expectations are the cruelest pranksters.

I opened up my computer about a hundred times that week to write a tribute to our marital “milestone”… a Facebook status if nothing else, a recitation of that annual mantra about each day together being better than the last. It was what everyone would be expecting. I couldn’t do it though. I loved Dan, but I had no vocabulary for making the daily canyon climb of our relationship sound like love. There was no heartwarming retrospect in which to package our struggle. I tried rising to the occasion, but my veins felt like they had been injected with plaster of Paris. I was alone, and Dan was alone, and the connection we still shared made our isolation all the more acute.

“I wanna turn this thing around
I wanna drink with you all night until we both fall down
‘Til we go low rising
Cause we’ve gotta come up
We’ve gotta come up”

Writing this one year later on the morning of our eleventh anniversary, I’d love to be able to say that we came, we saw, and we conquered this whole marriage business thank you very much. I’d bust into a Queen ballad while I was at it, maybe rip my sleeves to show off all those bulging interpersonal muscles I’ve developed. And truth be told, Dan and I have developed some interpersonal muscle power over the past year as we’ve fought our instincts and our habits and our expectations in order to fight for us.

But it hasn’t been a glamorous business, and we are nowhere close to throwing ourselves a victory parade. Rather, we’re more aware than we’ve ever been that marriage is not a thing to be vanquished. There is no finish line, no achievement score after which we can dust our hands off and call it a job well done. In fact, that’s part of where my thinking went wrong years ago, because success in marriage is not a destination at the end of an anniversary-studded path; success in marriage is the daily choice to connect. (You’re welcome to use that, Dr. Phil.)

The hardest truth I’ve learned over the past year is that the counter resets every morning. Just because we kicked ass at marriage yesterday (or last month, or on our honeymoon) doesn’t mean that we’ll be on the same page today. That has got to be one of the most unfair principles in the whole construct of humanity; can’t we just play the good rapport card and have it remain in circulation for the rest of the game?

No. No we cannot. That card might not even remain in circulation for the rest of the hour if our busy lives have anything to do with it.

Which is why my husband of eleven years and I have been relearning how to talk. We’ve been at it for around six months now, and do you know why toddlers need fifteen hours of sleep a day? Because learning how to talk is like running back-to-back triathlons in your own brain. Dan and I are having to rediscover when to talk, where to talk, what tones to use, and what wording will work… and then come the hows. How to bring up sensitive topics. How to figure out what’s going on behind the scenes. How to be honest without weaponizing that honesty. How to confirm that we understand what the other is saying. Lord o’ mercy. This book has been helpful in getting us started, but the work we’re having to put into using the English language is like nothing I’ve experienced since the age of two. It makes us want nothing more than to zone out in front of the TV at the end of the day, arguably one of the main ways we ended up in this mess in the first place.

When we have enough energy (and/or resolve) to go spelunking in each other’s minds instead of zoning out though, good things happen. For instance, we remember that we like each other. We remember why we like each other too. Even when our conversations delve into places that wound or frighten, we’re together in the turbulence instead of standing under our single-serving rain clouds, and as much as I hate and resist those emotionally volatile talks, it’s worth remembering that Dan is the person I most want by my side through them.

On our tenth anniversary, I didn’t have the heart to share the following photo, snapped during a small pocket of happiness on our getaway to Barcelona. It looked like a lie to me—our smiles and closeness a tableau of everything our relationship lacked. I see it differently today though. That pocket of happiness wasn’t a lie; it was a success of the small, daily variety that counts the most to me now. We were making it, one shutter click at a time. One tongue-stumbling conversation when we’d rather reach for the remote. One afternoon set aside to rediscover why my husband is my favorite kind of company. One hard-won year to celebrate, not as a milestone but as 365 of them.

10th anniversary in Barcelona


A New Original

[By Sophie, illustrating the emotional journey of being away from her parents for a week and then reunited with us. Please note Dan’s righteous beard.]

I’ve wanted to be a mom as long as I can remember, but at some point in my teens, the daydream changed. Its parameters shrank and sharpened until what was once an all-encompassing landscape of an identity became a hat in a bold-striped box—a beautiful accessory.

This was a healthy adjustment for me to make. I was coming from a background that told me all females were coded for the same job description, that our purpose on this earth was to gestate and birth and feed and raise our husbands’ children. I didn’t mind this view at all when I was a girl. I loved babies, and for our AWANA Club’s “What Do You Want To Be?” Night, I proudly dressed up as a Mother. (Let me tell you, my apron and spit-up cloths really gave me a fertile edge over my friends in their Supermodel and Actress garb.)

By the time I started college though, the patriarchal mindset was a jarring false note in my head. It didn’t ring true to anything I was learning about myself or the world, and I could no longer accept that God was in on it either. I felt in my bones—though they told me shyly, as voices long repressed—that I was not created on a paint-by-number assembly line. I was an original. I was a unique human being with a unique identity, and that identity could not be encapsulated in the word “Mommy.”

I confided in Dan during our newlywed days how terrified I was that our future babies would swallow me whole. I kept watching it happen to friends, bright and creative women who dropped off the earth the day their children were born and then emerged a year or two later with sleep deprival tattooed under their eyes and a new vocabulary revolving around the word “doodoo.” I felt like I was watching a horrible psychological experiment—total disillusion of identity in nine months or less.

Perhaps that’s why my pregnancy with Natalie was so hard for me to get used to. I wanted her, very much so, but I also wanted myself, and I wasn’t sure if the two were compatible. I picked out crib sheets and scowled at the weary-looking matron on my cover of What to Expect When Expecting and braced myself against the impending threat of motherhood.

And when it came? When she came?

Snuggling Baby Natalie

I changed. Of course I did. I was a different woman the moment I touched her curlicue of fingers in the delivery room, and I had no desire to go back to before, to a version of the world without my daughter in it and me her caregiver. I had expected motherhood to diminish me, but instead, I felt myself expanding in a dizzy rush.

“How wonderful life is,” I sang to Natalie in only a slight butchering of Elton John’s 1970 love ballad, “while you’re in the world.”

Now before things get too bejeweled-roses-and-glow-filters up in here, I should clarify that I have never, not for a single hour of a single day, found raising children to be easy. Meaningful, yes. Heartwarming, most certainly. Both of my girls have infused life with a richness and a hilarity level that I never could have arranged for myself, and we often have moments in which I feel that being related to them is the most obvious arrangement in the world.

Parenting, however, is not quite as easy a job as, say, choreographing chickens or running the complaints department at FIFA. It requires a constant state of high-alert creativity and intention that reduces Dan and I to warm-blooded sofa cushions many evenings. It is with utmost affection and gratitude for our girls that I tell you I have had to struggle, hard (and sometimes unsuccessfully) throughout these early years of child-raising to hold onto my senses of identity and purpose.

That’s why being able to drop our girls off at their grandparents’ and take off for a week of adult time (take that as you will… *wink wink, nudge nudge*) as we did this last week feels like a luxury worthy of the Forbes Most Ridiculous list. Dan and I went out at night, gallivanted around Venice, ate un-sensible breakfasts, and watched our Arrested Development reruns at a slightly higher volume than usual. It was awesome.

Parents gone wild

But it also felt incomplete. Even though I knew I wasn’t on-call for those seven days, my mother-signal wouldn’t stop scanning, wouldn’t quit pinging the atmosphere in search of my children’s wavelengths. It’s a strange sensation to pluck the strings connecting you to someone who’s not physically there. I felt my girls but not with any sense I knew how to operate. They were phantom limbs, all week long.

When Dan and I returned to his parents’ house and the girls ran into our arms, I can tell you what that moment was not: It was not the putting on of a lovely but inessential hat. Nor was it the dissolving of self into a role. Rather, it was the satisfying thump of puzzle pieces fitting together, of four separate, whole, and marvelous identities that together create a new original. Mine, theirs, ours.

How wonderful life is, while we’re in the world…

Snuggling no-longer-Baby Sophie


The Real World: Italy

I know we’re no longer partying like it’s 1999 here, but I still cringe every time I catch myself saying the words “We met online.”

Others try to assure me that there’s no stigma to this anymore, that everybody and his uncle these days have a tribe of friends they’ve never seen in person. Even the fact that we now say “in person” instead of “in real life” should be a comfort. But whether it’s because I’ve never been to a bloggers conference or because I have truly cringe-worthy memories of defending my chat room “ministry” 15 years ago, I feel the need to hem and haw and issue disclaimers in triplicate before I admit that any of my friends started out as a URL to me.

The fact is that I have connected with some dear, dear people online, soul-siblings whose words and photos have integrated themselves into my own story. I count every one of these connections as a treasure, and I wouldn’t take it well if anyone implied that they were less valid for having been forged over screens instead of tabletops. (I owe it to humanity to admit here that no one has ever implied such a thing since… well, 1999. Clearly my defense tactics are aimed at the wrong decade.)

The most wonderful outcome, of course, is when screen-friendship becomes table-friendship. I live on the wrong continent to take advantage of that very often, but this last weekend came with a triple dose of magic, beginning with the arrival of this pair:

Erika and Austin on the gondola 1

Erika is one of my favorite people on God’s green interwebs, and now I can confirm that she really is that rad in person too. She and Austin made an otherwise ordinary day in Venice (said with tongue firmly in cheek) a feast, a party, and a pilgrimage all at once. Dan dusted off his tour guide badge, and the four of us wandered some of the most mesmerizing architecture on earth with no agenda except to be there—reverently, giddily, exuberantly there. If you’ll forgive my deviating into photoblog format for a while, I’d love to show you some of the trillion (give or take a few) pictures we snapped on Saturday. Because, Venice:

Read More »


Open-Source Parenting: Body Safety

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it wasn’t until after the Steubenville High School rape case in 2012 that I realized that consent was a Thing. I mean, I’d always known the word, but I’d never before thought of it as a principle, something to be taught and learned and insisted upon the way we do with freedom and equality. I remember reading Abby Norman’s post The Day I Taught How Not to Rape and feeling stunned by the simple truth of her premise:

“We have to teach clearly and boldly that consent is… an enthusiastic, unequivocal YES!”

Maybe those of you who came from Quiverfull-style backgrounds can relate to my own upbringing in which the guiding principle was submission rather than consent. Children and women were taught that our bodies were not our own and that struggling against a physical aggressor in a position of authority over us was grounds for harsher treatment. Intimacy was something to be claimed by those in power. I can hardly think of a more dangerous mindset for sheltered children to grow up believing.

After several episodes of “submitting” to boyfriends who wanted to take advantage of me, I was finally able to reject that mentality, and I am often reminded of how grateful I am to be here, free, seeing my own voice carry weight. This has taken time to filter down into my parenting through. I’ve taught my girls from the beginning about which parts of their body are off-limits to everyone except Mom and their doctor (“If someone tries to touch you there, you say…?” “NO!!!!”), but we never talked any further about why someone might want to touch them there or what other kinds of predatory behavior they should watch out for. Part of it was that I didn’t want to scare the girls, but the larger reason was that I honestly hadn’t considered the possibility that they would be targeted.

Who wants to think about that? Let me tell you, there is a special kind of nausea reserved for parents who imagine their children being groomed by a sexual predator. I was so unwilling to go there that I didn’t even think about my unwillingness to think about it… until recently when a friend with a daughter Sophie’s age had to confront some troubling attention her daughter was receiving from a bus monitor. I spent the whole next morning doing research on how to talk to kids about body safety and then made up a worksheet that Dan and I went over with the girls at lunch (and have referred to several times since).

Our conversation was mercifully devoid of the fear and the ick-factor that my inner pessimist had expected. Dan and I talked matter-of-factly, answering the girls’ questions and helping them role-play scenarios so they could practice safe responses. We focused on these main points:

  • I am the boss of my own body! We reiterated what they should do if someone tries to touch their bathing suit areas and then talked at length about how they can refuse any kind of touch that makes them uncomfortable. This can be a delicate subject here in Italy, where even new acquaintances will bend down and ask children for a kiss on the cheek. However, Dan and I agreed that the girls’ personal boundaries are more important than society’s standards of politeness, and we taught them how to say, “I’m sorry, I’d rather not” and stick to it, even (especially!!) if the person gets upset.
  • I don’t keep secrets from Mom & Dad! We clarified the difference between a surprise (something you’ll get to tell soon) and a secret (something you’re never supposed to tell) and impressed on the girls how important it is that they tell us immediately if anyone ever asks them to keep a secret from us. We had to do a wee bit of backpedaling on this one as Natalie’s first question was, “So I have to tell you secrets my friends tell me at school?” Dan and I did the best we could explaining which kinds of secrets are okay for the girls to keep and which ones aren’t, and it’s possible the whole subject is more confusing than ever. We’ll try to keep open dialogue about it though and hope that the main point sticks.
  • If I don’t have permission from Mom & Dad, I don’t do it! This one provided the most role-playing hilarity, but our point was simple. If someone—even someone they know—asks the girls to come into their house, get into their car, or take a walk with them, they need to get permission first. Period. End of story. No exceptions. We did clarify that they can get permission from a babysitter or relative that we have personally put in charge of them, but they should never take someone’s word that it will be fine to go off alone.
  • I stay away from “tricky people”! I got this wording from Pattie Fitzgerald, a child safety expert who makes the point that “strangers” only make up 10% of those who sexually abuse children. Instead, we want our girls to be wary of any “tricky person,” defined as anyone who makes our girls feel unsafe, nervous, or icky, anyone who won’t respect the girls’ boundaries, or anyone significantly older than them who says they specially need the girls’ help. (That last one is apparently a tactic that predators use to lure kids away or groom them toward a more intimate relationship.) If they feel someone is acting “tricky” around them, the girls are to come tell us right away.
  • If I get lost when I’m out, I… The girls already knew the first rule about getting lost in public, which is that they should stop right where they are and wait for us to find them rather than wander around looking for us. We then taught them that if they see a police offer or a mom with kids come by, those are safe people to ask for help. They should then ask those people to call their parents from where they’re standing. (The girls know both of our mobile numbers by heart. Mostly. We’ve been quizzing them every couple of days to be sure.)

I’m grateful that we were able to have a good family discussion about boundaries without making the girls paranoid of every single adult male in their lives or every stranger on the sidewalk. In fact, as we talked, I realized just how empowering the conversation was. We were teaching the girls that they have the right to say no to unwanted touch. What I would have given for that sense of ownership over my own body as a girl!

I’m not sure whether or not we’ve covered everything we should on this topic with the girls. When I read that the director of GRACE, a Christian child abuse investigation firm, has seen too much to allow his daughters to sleep over at their friends’ houses or attend church camps, my throat closed up a little. Is it really as bad as that? Am I endangering my children every time I leave them in someone else’s care? The idea of keeping the girls confined to home doesn’t sit well with me, so I’m trusting that there’s a balance between naivety and paranoia. Surely we can be informed and prepared without thinking the worst of everyone around us. Surely our children can take steps toward independence without opening themselves to abuse. Surely, surely, fear should not be our rubric for parenting any more than denial should.

The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is that we can share our collective wisdom for the benefit of all, so here’s where I open it up to you. What are your thoughts on teaching body safety to kids? Are there any strategies or conversations that have worked well in your experience? I’m still very, very new at this line of thought, so I’d appreciate any insights you might have… and judging by the sheer number of new parents among my friends, I suspect I’m not the only one.


A Vanilla Lime State of Mind

I just about cried from happiness when we found a store here in Milan with an entire Yankee Candle department. In fact, Dan snapped this Instagram of me looking suspiciously misty-eyed the moment we stepped off the escalator:

Spotting the Yankee Candle display

[Not pictured: The actual Yankee Candle display. Possibly because within seconds, I was thrusting Citrus Tango and Coconut Bay under my husband’s nose saying charming things like, “Have you smelled this one yet? What about THIS? Oo, I don’t think you’ve gotten to try Fluffy Towels yet…”

I bought a tiny tart-sized Vanilla Lime in honor of my favorite chapter of Dandelion Wine* and only after unwrapping it at home realized it wasn’t a candle at all but a “wax melt,” presumably requiring some form of proprietary decorative Bunsen burner to use. Ah well. I’m keeping it at my desk and treating it as a Bradbury-themed scratch-and-sniff. Just call me Pollyanna. (And maybe keep it between ourselves that I’ve taken to huffing wax melts while I write.)

*Do you know it? If not, get yourself a copy no later than Saturday so you can spend every day of this summer in the magic of 1920s Illinois.

I’m finding it harder than I’d expected to get into a summery frame of mind this year. Granted, summer is technically still five days away, but considering that the temperature here soared to 100° last week and people have been using the #summer hashtag for something like four months now, I think we can agree that the season is here in spirit if not in person.

I’m trying, truly. I’ve been buying popsicles and napping under the ceiling fan and playing the 2014 World Cup album while I work out, but something in me seems reluctant to switch into holiday mode. Maybe it’s the workaholic troll in my brain that never, ever thinks I’ve accomplished enough to earn myself a break. Perhaps, instead, it’s the grumpy old geezer in my perspective that always takes forever to adjust to a new setting. It could just as easily be the scaredy cat in my soul that shies away from the whoosh of passing time, or maybe it’s something else altogether, something I haven’t yet identified or learned to face.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how I was going to work on feeling my feelings this summer instead of disconnecting from myself, but that’s proving easier said than done. Everything seems so complicated once I start peeling away the layers. Something as small as a Vanilla Lime wax melt leaves me sifting through the character files of my psyche, and that’s one of the easy ones, one of the emotive cause-and-effects that I feel capable of sharing right now. Can’t I just be… I dunno, simpler? More Buddy the Elf and less Lisbeth Salander?

I suspect that one cannot become less complicated simply by wishing herself so—and more’s the pity—but I do know that meeting every complicated facet head-on is a healthier response than ignoring it and hoping it goes away. That’s why I’m here today, feeling my feels and huffing the scent of summer and guiding my perspective with plenty of hand-holding and eye contact into the present.

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