Tag: Change

15Sep

Fadeaway

This morning, the alarm barged into my dreams at what felt to my sleep-sunk mind like the middle of the night.

The girls were already dressed and waiting.

They chattered and sang all the way to the bar for our traditional first-day-of-school breakfast, and Dan and I barely had time to kiss the tops of their heads before they were off to squeal with friends and hug teachers in the schoolyard. The bell rang, the doors opened, and the resulting stampede sound of 150 kids charging to class made me laugh out loud. September school days still make me feel like a crisp current of possibility is tickling my airways.

Summer 2014 is well and truly over as of 8:15 this morning, and I’m struggling to find the proper ceremony of closure within my heart. It was a long summer for us, a gamut of unforeseen changes that left us alternately exhilarated and heavy-hearted. I didn’t numb myself this summer; I stayed awake for every minute of it, and the result is that I’m feeling tender and mighty and overexposed and reinvented all at once. I’d like to take a vacation to knead the knots of the last few months out of my muscles—not a normal vacation with luggage and an activities roster, mind you, but a vacation of quiet. A respite. Nature to look at listen to and absorb, and nothing else on the agenda. Think Thoreau with room service.

Until I get a chance to slip away though, I’ll continue to drink coffee here at my desk with neighborly snatches of conversation and roadway percussion rolling through my open window. I’ll light dessert-scented candles (the only ones worth burning, in my opinion) and woo my mind toward words for the few quiet hours afforded me. I’ll fix big, Italian-style lunches and hug my girls when they walk in the front door, dropping backpacks where they don’t belong and calling “What’s to eat?” before I’ve finished saying hi. I’ll try every day without fail to cram more productivity into the afternoon than is humanly possible. I’ll read with the girls, tuck them into bed, and resolve to follow a responsible bedtime routine for myself as well. I’ll stay up too late anyway. The alarm clock will catch me off-guard each and every morning, but that’s what the coffee’s for. I’ll walk this daily path into September until, ceremony or not, I find that summer has closed itself like a sun-faded paperback.

How is the seasonal switchover going for you? 

2Jul

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

16Jun

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.

18Apr

Welcome to the Future of 2009!

I have a confession to make that will no doubt secure my spot in history as the coolest and most technologically savvy blogger of all time: I’m scared of site makeovers. Other people’s, that is. I first discovered this attractive characteristic in 2002 when a member of my small blogging community (hi, Eliot!) updated to a minimalist theme. His site suddenly looked so polished, almost corporate to my eyes. He even had his own domain, which was a great mystery of the universe to me at the time. (My tech-savvy status is increasing by leaps and bounds right now, I know.) I was mega-impressed but just as intimidated too. Why couldn’t we all just post away cheerfully on our colorful Blogspot and Xanga journals for the rest of eternity?

For the record, I’m glad that progress didn’t stop to consult me on its way out the door. I even joined the ranks of domain-owners in 2009, learning enough PHP to build my very own minimalist website. (Okay, the minimalist part is a lie, but I did have a white background.) Still though, trends continued to shift, and I felt lost every time another blogger friend modernized their online presence. Actually, online presence is what it all boiled down to for me. Writers who had formerly struck me as down-to-earth now seemed inaccessible, their beautiful new sites every bit as formidable to me as power suits and Botox. Why couldn’t we all just keep our quippy titles and cluttered sidebars and webcam profile pictures for the rest of eternity?

Once again, I am glad that the forward trajectory of the world does not depend on me. You may have noticed that I’m posting this from a shiny new website of my own, and that is because the online presence reflected in my dear old hand-coded site no longer resembles me. I see the world differently than I did five years ago. I blog differently and interact with readers differently and think about the future of my writing differently, and it’s [past] time that I welcome you into an online home that has room for it all.

On the slight chance that one of you experiences the same site-makeover anxiety that I do when a friend upgrades his or her space, let me assure you that you’ll find no power suits or Botox here. I’m writing this in my around-the-house jeans, which are ripped beyond even Abercrombie’s sense of propriety, and yesterday’s crumbling mascara. I’m still me. And now my website is too.

So, welcome! Take a look around, and if you haven’t yet, would you mind heading over to “like” my Facebook page? I’ve been letting it languish for a while, unsure whether it was worth putting energy into or not. This seems like the perfect opportunity to resurrect it though, and I’d love to have you along while I figure out how Facebook works in 2014. (Why couldn’t we all just keep writing “is” statuses and super-poking each other for the rest of eternity?)

Love,
The coolest and most technologically savvy blogger of all time

15Oct

Nostalgia vs. The Substance of Now

We hear fireworks in the night but can’t see them. Though each boom and popcorn-crackle reverberates through our open windows, no light reaches high enough to clear the row of apartment buildings in front of us. I’d be all for shrugging off the disappointment, but my mind has already snuck down the street to our old house with its legend of a balcony. We used to stand there under the stars with the tip of my beloved Van Gogh tree beckoning the moon and watch no less than a dozen firework displays at once, the surrounding region our own personal snow globe. We could communicate with the weather from there—whisper to the first tentacles of fog slipping around church steeples, harness the green-eyed energy of summer storms, rub the golden hours between our fingers. My goodness, but I miss that view.

Once the pages of memory start turning, stoic indifference is almost impossible to keep up, and my nostalgia over fireworks and gold-tipped fog quickly turns into something sadder. The scent of heaven still lingering in my newborn daughters’ skin is a repeat offender at times like this. Could any memory possibly be more heart-wrenching after a day in which I have snapped at those same daughters for fighting over board games when they were supposed to be doing their homework, on a night when their legs seem to have grown longer than their mattresses and their hair forms sweat-tangled updos on their pillows?

Other memories stand at the ready too, each unwrapping its own flavor of longing: Firelight painting gold on the walls of our snowbound house in Delaware. Herds of zebras grazing below the hilltop where I journaled in the South African sunrise. Pecans nestled throughout a Texas-sized backyard like autumn Easter eggs. My heart blinking in delight the first time Dan met me at my front door with a kiss. Our girls (ours!) laughing past the point of motor control on the teacup ride at Disney World.

These sensory treasures are now rooted permanently in the past, and I feel what would be regret if not for the comforting sweetness in the center. I know that I’ve been at least a marginally responsible moment-enjoyer; every one of my fond memories exists because I welcomed it in person. No, regret has no place in nostalgia.

I’m still in the grip of a hollow sadness though, as though a balloon has inflated in the base of my throat, and I’m unwilling to let this be my final reaction to nostalgia either. Sometimes I feel like my truest profession in life is that of a war strategist against sadness. It targets me from so many angles, triggered by things as insignificant as the smell of oatmeal cooking or the sound of fireworks in the night. I can’t predict it and may never be impervious to its sudden charges. I can, however, fight back, so I take on my memories tonight with the biggest force of reality I can muster.

First, I coax my mind back to the present. The sum of my former lives is too much to take on at once. This is about now—this new house, still startling me with ways it is unlike our old; these precious family members sheltered inside, still startling me with ways they are unlike my impressions of them. This is about change, how I so readily dive into it without remembering how hard it always is in the end. I did it this summer, throwing myself into our move with gusto, never considering just how fiercely I would miss the familiar floor plans of the past. Now that we’re here, my heart keeps looping back on itself; it’s no wonder I find myself tangled.

The fireworks continue just beyond my reach, and I lay our former home life to rest in my mind. There were so many reasons we needed to move, issues of cost and architecture and utilities; it helps to give a slight nod to each from time to time just to acknowledge that we made the right decision. And then there’s the Van Gogh tree I so dearly loved; our landlord unexpectedly cut it down two days after I took that photo. I’d had no idea I was posting its obituary.

The tree reminds me that nostalgia is so often a revisionist history. There never were any Good Ol’ Days when all the magical elements of the universe came together at once. There was only ever the beauty and struggle of everyday life, followed by change and then by a different set of beauty and struggle. Those newborn babies I miss so much were accompanied by sleep deprival and postpartum depression. Those South African sunrises were followed by grueling days of physical and emotional labor. Those holiday nights we stood on our old balcony drinking in the display were often tense with frustration and frigid fingers due to problems with the house. The struggle was always alive and accounted for, just as the beauty is now.

I consciously turn my thoughts toward our newest version of everyday. We’re still getting used to it of course, but I can already begin to pick out the elements that will one day reshape themselves as nostalgia. Our neighbors, for one. We’re lucky enough to share this little complex with sweet and generous families who are well on their way to becoming friends. And then there’s my new kitchen, so spacious (at least by Italian standards) and gorgeous that I feel like I’ve won the culinary lottery. I will always remember this as the house where my girls grew into bona fide big kids—Sophie putting on her new purple glasses and trotting off to first grade, Natalie devouring Boxcar Children books with a reading lamp after her sister goes to sleep. This darling white writing desk is where I might actually finish the book that’s been simmering in my imagination the last ten years. This apartment is where our daughters’ childhood memories may one day come to roost.

These are the days of marathon training, walks to the bakery before lunch, pirate stories at bedtime, and family Uno championships. Likewise, they are the days of unreliable hot water heaters, occupational uncertainties, relational challenges, and tendinitis. Nostalgia won’t want me to remember the second list, but this is what gives the everyday its substance and meaning: struggle and beauty together, light and color blooming in the dark.

Acknowledging this is enough. My sadness retreats amid a shower of sparks.

Orange sparkles

3May

Life All Around

We’ve had an odd schedule lately. Italy celebrated a national holiday on Thursday last week and another one two days ago, and it seems like weekends keep popping their heads into our lives and then backing out again, mumbling apologies. We’ve spent more time with friends over the last week than we have in months, and it’s felt like coming back to ourselves even as work piled up around our ears, even as the haphazard routines in our life gave up altogether and ditched us to go out for commiserative drinks.

This is an odd season of life, actually. We’re never quite sure if we’re on the verge of change or if we’re putting down roots into our version of normal. Those things that make us feel most alive—traveling, spending quality time with friends, writing (for me), playing music (for him)—have taken a back seat to the sheer madness of trying to establish ourselves as self-employed. We know the work we’re doing is valuable, but we don’t know when we should stop, what shape the big picture is taking, whether we’re in a sprint or a marathon.

One day, I’m sure I’ll look back on these in-between years and see every pattern and nuance through the clear vision of hindsight. I may even develop nostalgia for this time when our lives revolve around possibility (nostalgia-speak for “How the hell are we going to make it??”). For now, though, I’m trying to focus on one bite-sized day at a time and on the snippets of loveliness that carry me through the crazy:

* The drone of lawnmowers all across the city on Sunday afternoons. Even though I know that the tiny wild daisies that I love are being cut along with the wild allergy grass that I don’t love, lawnmowers sing the surest tribute to sunshine I can imagine.

* The quaint ruckus of Umbrian architecture, pink limestone houses and terraces and arches piled up on top of each other like a Medieval slumber party. We’ve lived here almost six years, and I still can’t get over the layers of our landscape: the base of silver-dusted olive trees posed like elderly modern dance troupes, the jumble of sun-warmed stone climbing out, and the Mediterranean sky pooled above. I still can’t stop pulling out my camera, a tourist in my own home.

Umbrian layers

* Coffee, in the social sense. I’m always amazed at the kind of long, easy conversation that can be carried by something as small as an espresso. Don’t try to tell me there’s no magic in that dark liquid.

* Re-falling-in-love songs:

* Handwritten letters addressed to me.

* Baby apricots, cherries, and figs in the backyard we share with our landlord’s family. (We live on the top floor of a “family condo,” which is a vastly more common living arrangement than standalone homes are here. I adore how this setup allows me to have fruit trees without my having to do any work whatsoever to maintain them.) Seedlings, snapdragons, and an explosion of strawberry buds in our balcony garden. Flowers on the kitchen table again. Little growing things, life all around.

Snapdragons - 3

* Sleeping on freshly washed sheets that have spent the afternoon cavorting outside with the breeze. I remember the luminous Mollie Greene commenting once on Instagram that washing your sheets “makes all the difference in everything,” and I’m inclined to agree.

* Tolkien with the girls before bed. After enduring series like The Faraway Tree, which the girls enjoyed but which made me want to stick forks into my own eyeballs, I’m thrilled to be reading good literature as a family. Also, I’d forgotten how funny The Hobbit is. (And what a bad-ass that Gandalf is!)

* Chocolate-covered grins.

Chocolate grin
(Picture by Dan, outfit by Sophie, decoration by gelato)

~~~

Tell me about the snippets of loveliness carrying you right now. Ready, set, go!

21Sep

Finally Free[lance]

The thing about a season of wild change is that every new morning feels truly new. It’s like we’re starring in a coming-of-age movie about our own life (with a moving indie soundtrack hand-picked by Zach Braff, of course), and absolutely anything could happen just around the next scene change.

One of my school-mom friends told me the other day about her brother taking an incredible high-paying corporate job in the States ten years ago. He and his pregnant wife uprooted their lives here and moved to the US… just in time for September 11th. The corporation who hired him went under in the aftermath, and he and his wife suddenly found themselves income-less in a foreign country. (Oh how sinkingly familiar this sounds.) Instead of just snatching the first menial job he could find to get back on his feet, though, my friend’s brother took advantage of the upheaval and enrolled in a photography program with a small stipend. One decade later, he is doing what he truly loves instead of dashing to endless meetings in a company car. He and his wife are still living out their dream of raising their children in the States, and they’re doing well enough to spend summers vacationing in Italy.

Our situation is much nearer the beginning of that story than the end, but I couldn’t help nodding enthusiastically because we’re already seeing how unemployment is the best thing that could have happened to my husband. He is already set up as a freelancer and doing support work in a field that makes his brain light up with ideas, and he’s turning some of those ideas into the start-up he’s been dreaming of for years. Finances are a day-to-day tango right now, but there is always just enough, and it’s becoming ever easier to leave tomorrow in the future where it belongs.

Our coming-of-age movie probably looks like a surf documentary put on by the Jackass crew—our family clinging to a tidal wave of uncertainty for all we’re worth and hurtling toward anywhere—but I can personally confirm that it feels like liberation.

The red flag side
(Photo from the beach in Porto this summer.
More coming soon to a blog near you.)

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