At 6:45 a.m., the world is impossibly quiet. Even the birds whisper in half chirps and trilling wings, unwilling to break the feather-light spell which separates the mad rush from this magic. The sun is dressed to play the enchantress this morning, her translucent robes draped over rooftops and church towers, her shining elixirs tipped into valleys and over windowsills, and I can’t see the sky for all her radiance. The silence and light ground my soul to its ethereal roots.
By 7:45, the city will have yawned, turned over once or twice, and finally tossed off the translucence like a rumpled sheet. The air will hum and growl, sizzle with electric charge, whoosh out of the way as trains and traffic and alarm-harried people claim the morning for industry. The sun will be tucked up tightly and lost in the larger sphere of blue. Bells will more clang than chime, drowning out birdsong for a resounding second, and car horns will follow suit. I’ll begin checking lists, herding clothes into the washer, fielding the infinite curiosity of preschoolers, and working with one eye on the calendar and one eye on the clock. Stopping to hear the silence or squint into sunlight would seem foolish at best.
But here, in the radiant hush of 6:45, it is still possible to believe in mercies renewed every morning, and so this is where I start.
It’s a good thing today is a holiday because we’re all still in a sun-stupor. Breakfast was so late that we decided to count it as lunch. Naptime was non-negotiable—for any of us—and a homemade chocolate frappuccino courtesy of my ever-thoughtful Dan was the only thing that pulled me upright afterward. We’ve skipped almost all socially recommended forms of getting ready for the day (read: clothes) and gotten straight to work lounging away the afternoon. Time consuming, that one is.
While I wish I had something more profound or provocative to write today, truth is that my mind is still back at the campground doing cannonballs into the pond and swinging two-by-two in hammocks and cheating at Crazy Uno to help the little ones win. My thoughts are still soaking up purple mountains at sunset and the happy-making mess of s’mores, s’mores everywhere. I’m still cocooned in a sleeping bag nest with my husband and exclaiming over fish (as only true city dwellers do) with the girls and piling around a picnic table with friends. And I’m going to go ahead and say that’s okay.
Hey there! Sorry for all the radio silence around here lately. I’ve been working like a… well, I was going to say like a madwoman, and then I was going to admit that it’s more like a regular nine to fiver… but no, madwoman would be accurate. I don’t think I mentioned this before, but I’m doing translating work in addition to teaching, and I’ve put in more 10-hour work days this week than I can recall. Literally. My brain is down to 5% functionality (give or take 5%), and I had to check what day it was several times in the last hour alone. Thanks to the powers that be, the calendar said Friday every time.
In the spirit of full disclosure, here are some things that I did not manage to do today:
Make my bed
Sit down to breakfast
Style my hair
Rescue our short-sleeved shirts from storage
Wash, hang, fold, iron, or otherwise acknowledge the existence of Mount Laundry
Bake goodies for game night later (do you think our guests will buy that I slaved in the kitchen all day making a bag of potato chips and a tub of ice cream from scratch?)
Clean the bathroom (do you think our guests will buy the “Out of Order” sign I’m sticking on it?)
As well as some things that I did:
Consume the first popsicle of the year (orange, of course)
Consume the first antihistamine of the year while weathering* the first allergy-induced headache of the year
Stay awake to finish teaching class during the first allergy-induced headache of the year
Learn all about concrete mixers
Drive with the windows down and the music up
Wear cute shoes
Pop my head into the blogosphere to wave hello.**
* Ha! ** Hello!
Just two quick things before I go indulge my brain’s lack of functionality:
To those of you who work full time and manage to do anything else ever, I salute you.
What did you do today? Wait, scratch that. What did you fail to do today? ::grin::
Admittedly, our weekend in Rome wasn’t the most harebrained idea I’ve ever jumped on, but it clearly was not the work of a sound mind. One daughter was vomiting, you see. The other was dealing with a bout of “poop juice” (what her term lacks in delicacy it more than makes up for in originality), and I was feverish from a mild case of food poisoning. However, one’s husband only runs his first marathon once, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to cheer him on. Besides, it was Rome. Cobblestone streets, gold-plated basilicas, Colosseums, Rome. We were all going.
The decision was at least 30% mistake. The family and friends of 14,000 racers seeped along the streets carrying curious tourists along, and a sickly mama with a preschooler attached to each arm was no match for the full-bodied tide. We never made it within 300 meters of the starting line, and we were somehow less successful at finding the finish. As for my vision of popping up around the city like moles with Metro passes, arriving at famous monuments with impeccable timing to whistle and snap artsy photos as Dan ran past… well, we were actually more like earthworms, inching from the underground stops in pale discombobulation and completely missing our first pre-planned photo opportunity because we were lying belly-up in the sun.
However, for all its faults, the experience was one I’m glad I took life up on. Had the girls and I stayed curled under familiar blankets, we wouldn’t have gotten to watch spring wake fresh-faced from her beauty sleep and beam into the niches of the Eternal City. It was a rare kind of pleasure to sit on a marble bench in the Piazza del Popolo with the sun freckling my nose and the girls napping on my lap while we waited for Dan to sweep by on the stream of marathon runners. For that hour, we had no obligation to tour or snap photos or do anything; it was a golden opportunity to just be, and the unplanned respite could not have been more perfect. While tourists milled around surreptitiously snapping photos of us (“I’ve never seen such a sight in all of Rome,” grinned the man who offered to take a shot on my camera), I soaked up spring and the precious nearness of my still-little girls.
And then my husband ran past—kilometer 37 of 42.2—and it was incredible to see his hard work and dedication in every footstep planted on centuries’-old pavement. We smiled at each other like married people do, one in sickness, one in health, both calculating the experiences of our life together and coming up rich. Then he turned the corner, the girls and I collected our jackets and sickness bags, and all four of us headed on jellied legs toward the finish.
That was about the time the girls and I got lost and Dan ended up dehydrated and we realized it was three in the afternoon and some of us hadn’t eaten in 24 hours and our parking meter ran out and the glamor of our adventure was trampled under tired feet and I decided that next year I’m limiting my spring-welcoming activities to opening windows and potting flowers. Still, even our least sane ideas lead to experiences that we cherish as our family’s most valuable keepsakes, and there’s no doubt in my feverish, harebrained mind that we left Rome richer than we came.
The girls’ school called me this morning to pick up my newly minted six-year-old, caught in a rackety upsweep of fever. I was barely through the entryway before Natalie wrapped herself around me. “I want to go home,” she whispered, eyes drooping onto flushed cheeks. “Of course, kiddo; let’s get you home.”
Mothering hadn’t factored into my plans for the next few hours. I had just left work, and I had lesson plans to go over, an editing project to finish, and mountains of both laundry and correspondence to scale. I was also chewing on an upcoming writing deadline I’ve been hoping to meet, and the house needed disaster relief aid after yesterday’s birthday party in which glitter featured heavily. Just in case I had time left over (ha) and was wondering how to spend it, I could always put a little thought into birthday party #2 fast approaching on Sunday. Oh, and Natalie’s presents should probably be wrapped at some point, considering her special day is was yesterday. Also, if truth be admitted, I wasn’t feeling too hot myself and wouldn’t have turned down a nap.
However, tomato soup, fairy tales, and plenty of unrushed snuggle time were clearly called for. Natalie didn’t require any brain power or motivation from me, just the number one remedy used by mamas worldwide: love (give or take a cool hand to the forehead every three minutes). She is growing up so quickly, that girl—sugar and spice making way for vocabulary and art—and she has her own trajectory now outside of my arms. It’s incredible to have grown-up conversations with my wide-eyed baby, read long-winded books to her, give her scissors and a workspace and let her go to town, giggle over shared jokes… but I so miss the days of rocking her to sleep that my heart squeezes the breath from my lungs. So while I might not have planned to spend today burrowed under blankets and storybooks, I can think of worse ways to celebrate a girl whose years are rushing by faster than time itself.
November had stashed away one last jewel of an afternoon, and it glittered emerald and gold in an unexpected flood of sunlight. Some friends of ours were taking advantage of the gorgeous weather to harvest their olives—another regional tradition that I’ve wanted to participate in since we moved to Italy—and they invited us to join them. I couldn’t imagine a lovelier way to spend the afternoon… soaking up the beauty of our friends’ country home, teaching the girls how to climb trees, rolling smooth olives between my fingers, and connecting with nature and laughter again after a stressful week.
However, I could not go. Literally. I had been dragging myself out of bed before dawn for days and scraping out my brain until late at night for any bit of creative residue. My Saturday word quota was filled, but I was beyond exhausted. Over a late lunch, my mind ran frenzied laps around the manymany other things I needed to get done until it simply stopped. Total shutdown. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t respond to simple questions. I couldn’t hold my head up.
While the girls skipped out the door with their dad to enjoy the last perfect fall afternoon, I burrowed under piles of covers where I spent the next few hours shivering uncontrollably and dozing off only to snap back in a panic over everything I needed to do. That’s when I should have clued in that NaNoWriMo was costing us too dearly.
It didn’t sink in though until yesterday when I read this:
“Sometimes I think I can do this and do that and then do this after I do that. But the truth is, motherhood permeates everything. It trumps all. It’s the calling that interrupts this and cancels that and makes this look like it never mattered anyway.”
Her words thudded into my chest and jolted my eyes back into focus. I hadn’t actually played with my girls since, oh… Day 3. The priority of writing a book in thirty days had edged them out, labeled them as threats to my agenda, marginalized their need for a happy, attentive mother. I had told myself we could survive anything for a month, but that simply wasn’t true. The crusty dishes could survive. The unsorted laundry could survive. But we, with our beating hearts and fragile skins, were not surviving my absence from life, no matter how excused.
I parked myself on the girls’ rug yesterday evening to play Legos with them and practically had to glue myself in place. I wanted to be there, to be a mother again, but my mind was lost in a maze of Christmas lists, insurance policies, and an ever-looming storyline while a disembodied voice over the loudspeakers reminded me that I was still 3,000 words behind. I told it to shut up. It boomed an accusation of laziness. I asked it what could be more important than my family. It answered, “NOT FAILING.”
I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to understand that that voice over the loudspeakers, the voice of achievement no matter the cost, didn’t have any more control over me than I gave it… but I would rather clue in late than not at all. Before going to bed, I reset the alarm to give myself an extra hour of dearly-needed sleep, and I woke up smiling for the first morning this month. Throughout today, I’ve worked on extra-bookular activities and spent time with my family without guilt. I worked on the novel too, but I let myself feel proud for adding 500 words rather than despondent over not completing 2,000.
I’m not quitting NaNoWriMo, and I’m certainly not giving up on my strapping kindergartener of a book. However, one month is too long to devote myself to literary abandon. I have a worthier calling that interrupts plots and cancels characters and makes an impressive 50,000-word goal look like it never mattered anyway. My new goal for November is to make sure my girls know that I know this… and if I manage to write a large chunk of book in the process, well, that will just be olive oil on my bruschetta.
Neither your dad nor I had ever experienced anything close to what the next few hours entailed. Our first mission was to extract you girls from your side of the tent, dress you, and get you safely to the car. This was no small feat as the wind would have happily whisked you off to sea, and by the time you were buckled in, we had lost three hats and were all sopping wet. I gave you girls the last of yesterday’s snacks from the front seat (“Stale pretzels for breakfast, isn’t that great?!”), then your dad and I screwed our courage to the sticking-place and went to take care of Everything Else. Perhaps this is where I should point out that we had unloaded the entire car the night before. Usually, we only get out the food and clothes we need, but since we had planned on staying in Glenbrittle for a few days, we had unpacked everything. Clothes, books, toys, food, electronics, cooking gear, bedding, toiletries, kitchen sinks—every last item in our possession needed to be fit Tetris-style back into the trunk before we could do anything else. The tent wrapped itself around our heads as we packed, and the wind shoved freezing rain into our pores as we ran each load to the car. Nature was definitely winning, and it wanted our tent for itself. Fortunately, another camper came to our rescue and held the canvas with all his might so we could fold it up and stuff it wet, muddy, and misshapen into our trunk. We were soaked, we were frozen, we were hungry, and we didn’t know where we were going to sleep that night, but by Saint Ninian, we had survived!
Next order of business: a big Scottish breakfast with plenty of hot chocolate.
The big question, once our bellies were full and our clothes wrung out, was what to do next. Here we had a wide open, albeit stormy, day on our hands and all of Scotland at our disposal. We weren’t going to be scaling any mountains (our insanity does have its limits), and our apartment in Edinburgh wasn’t available for another few days. So we did exactly what any family would do upon finding itself homeless and purposeless in a foreign land: We pulled in at the nearest castle and whiled away the afternoon pretending to be royalty. (I should note that you two didn’t need to do any pretending as you were clearly born princesses.)
As you girls would say, “My highnesses”
Eilean Donan Castle (more or less pronounced “EE-len DUN-en”) is one of the smaller castles we saw over the course of our trip, but it was the only one we paid to go into, and with absolutely no experiential proof to back me up, I think we chose well. Sophie, your favorite part was leaning over the castle wall to look for sea monsters. In fact, you were the sole one among us to spot one, much to your sister’s chagrin. Natalie, your favorite part was peering through the spy-holes on the main staircase. (Just wait until you’re old enough to read Nancy Drew!) My favorite part was pretending to be a scullery maid in the kitchen, and your dad’s favorite part was rescuing the rest of us from the various parapets, dungeons, and dishwashing stations into which we wandered. At least, that’s my interpretation, and I’m sticking to it.
Nessie alert: Red
(Never mind that we were still hours from her legendary home)
Maybe it was all the sea monster talk, but we decided to head to Loch Ness for the night. After all, why not? Along the way, we ran into some car trouble and discovered that the famous Urquhart Castle has a strict no-kindness policy toward little girls who need to pee. (It also has huge fence in place to make sure that no one can steal a glimpse of the lake without paying the lofty entrance fee. I’m starting to think that it probably deserved all its sackings.) However, when you wake up camping in a hurricane, all other attempts of a day to sabotage your happiness seem a little lackluster. We were survivors! Let loose in Scotland! Discouragement didn’t have a fighting chance. We found ourselves a peaceful little campground in nearby Cannich, unfurled our bedraggled tent directly on the playground, and got busy relaxing.
Notice the color of the sky at 11 p.m. Wonder no longer why we never once remembered to eat supper before 9 p.m. throughout our trip.