Next to my desk, a window opens onto the landscape of community. Puppies take on sidewalks with the zeal of cartographers while their owners shuffle behind in contrails of cigarette smoke. Utility trucks linger in the road to socialize with light posts and the odd pothole. A street sweeper dodges double-parked cars, painting cleanliness in drunken zigzags down the pavement. Women in house dresses putter on their balconies, shake tablecloths into the wind, rest their elbows on the ledge and survey the neighborhood with unabashed attentiveness. I wonder if they notice the masking tape still labeling our windows. On second thought, of course they do. They’re not afflicted with polite indifference like we the Americans.
We’ve been in this house less than two months, and I’m still walking through it with the curiosity and hesitancy of new acquaintanceship. I’m not used to its voice as it settles in for the night or the design of morning sunlight on its floors. I still drive toward our old house on automatic pilot, forgetting every. single. time. that we live on the other side of the neighborhood now. It’s only half a mile, but my perspective is still struggling to make the jump, to detach itself from one sense of home and apply itself to another. It’s okay. I’ll get there. And sitting at my desk pretending not to watch our new neighbors from behind a not-yet-cleaned window is as much a part of the process as unpacking has been.
I’ve been gone for a few months, not just from my blog but from myself as well. I don’t know how to put it any more truthfully than that.
Here in the spaciousness of retrospect, it’s not difficult to see how it happened, how life started amping up at a time when my heart was already dangerously threadbare, how I chose what looked the most likely path to surviving this summer. I shut down my inner life. We were scheduled to start moving the day after returning from a long and draining business trip, and the rest of the summer was already strung up in deadlines and impossible hopes like prayer flags on a spider web. There was simply no time to feel anything. No space for rumination, no margins in which to transcribe my heartbeat. The jaws of busyness were digging into me as effectively as a bear trap, and I had no energy for MacGyvering my way out. The next best option was to stop caring and, via that clumsy mental trickery, to stop feeling trapped.
I don’t recommend it, for the record. Self-smothering works to an extent, but at some point, your oxygen-deprived muscles will lose their grip on the pillow and air will rush into your lungs, driving like a spearhead against their atrophy. It usually happened in the wee hours of the night for me—the slipping resolve, the rush of thoughtsfeelingsdesireshurts, and the gasping pain of trying to breathe and trying not to all at the same time.
It was a hard summer, but one stippled throughout with moments of sheer beauty: toasting under the Barcelona stars to a full and hard-won decade of marriage with my Dan… standing awed and brimful next to my little sister and brother-in-law as they pledged their own marriage into being… sifting an inaugural rain of flour and cocoa over my new kitchen… reading adventure stories with the girls nestled like puppies beside me… dancing… kissing… tasting…
…until my need to engage in this messy, gorgeous, multifaceted human experience outweighed my urge to retreat from it.
It has been is a hard road back to life. The night still tugs at the sleeves of my mind instigating restlessness. I have to ration my energy, which only refills these days at the drip-slow pace of a morning in bed or an afternoon without responsibility. Joy and motivation and clearheadedness have been slow to return, and words slower still, but this return to blogging—a prospect that tinged my summertime periphery with anxiety—is proof of the more comprehensive return to myself.
Sunlight traces my desk with long September arms. The air outside rustles like notebook paper, and the compulsive energy rifling through it brightens my mind as effectively as caffeine.
This isn’t going to be the same kind of autumn as the last few have been for me. Rather than the usual heel-clacking charge into work and projects and PTA mode, I’m approaching the next month or so as a recovery period. The biggest change is that I’m no longer teaching. I stumble over my own tongue when trying to explain this to the kindly curious in my life. My reasons for stopping are valid, necessary even, but balancing my sanity on them for all to see makes me feel like nothing so much as an unsuspecting audience member called into the ring to perform a tightrope act.
There is such expectation hidden in the fine print of adulthood, especially here in Italy where nineteen mothers out of twenty work outside the home. Granted, most of them have nonne to cook their dinners and watch their littles, but it would be unfair of me to pin my career on the availability of relatives. For one thing, teaching has never felt like a career to me but rather an interim activity, a source of revenue and C.V. references during years when more authentic professional paths seem closed to me. Throughout this last decade of marriage and new motherhood, I’ve chosen jobs based solely on my ability to do them, and while I will always be grateful for each opportunity and experience, I can’t continue in this temporary holding pattern. It’s time to slip out of the parade of exhausting and unfulfilling jobs and directed my one wild and precious life’s energies toward finding My Work.
And then there are my girls, something like three feet taller and twenty years older here on the other side of summer. They’re loping ahead of me, more independent and articulate every time we sit down for bedtime stories (“You look tired, Mom; would you like me to read tonight?”), and I’m suddenly, fiercely, desperate to harness this fleet-footed stage of childhood, to slow time down with the full force of my attentiveness and appreciation. Time. Time off, time out, down time. Time to notice. Time to be with.
I don’t know how I can explain this urgency without jabbing barbs of discontent or regret into my fellow mammas. Neither do I feel capable of telling them that the trajectory of my career and the trajectory of my soul-identity have never matched and that I need this time, as fundamentally as I need oxygen, to find the right track. I’m plagued by the suspicion that I’m asking more than my share out of life. I worry that my explanations will either imply judgment or invite it, and the last thing I want my personal soul choices to do is to propagate unhappiness. Second-guessing is my first nature, here as in every growing process.
One surprising benefit of this summer’s withdrawal from life, however, is that I’ve returned without my former addiction to respectability. I still prefer others’ approval, of course, and I can’t entirely stop wondering how I line up in the estimations of the other parents at school, the customer service agent, the dressing room attendant, the gray-haired woman whose balcony perch allows her a perfect view of our bedroom. I don’t want to be viewed as flighty or incapable any more than I want to show up to a social event wearing the wrong clothes, but if I am to be the subject of others’ whispered conversations (which is already assuming myself far more important than I probably am to my acquaintances’ thought lives), so be it. The desire to fit in no longer holds the reins of my mind.
The view from here is welcome but unfamiliar, ever so slightly off-kilter with newness. This neighborhood and this season, both experienced before through younger versions of myself, tug equally at my imagination and insecurities. There is so much potential here for life to slump back into its old ruts, for me to grow disillusioned with forging a new path and return to the parade. I’m ever aware of the delicate effort it takes to remain present and accounted for. There is also potential for change, though—the new house a tangible excuse for cultivating new habits and the September wind as worthy a conduit as any for fresh starts. And delicate effort or not, I am here.