Tag: Friendship

15Dec

Grateful to Care

Today’s my day off from writing—a day allocated for errands and ironing and all manner of riffraff that didn’t get seen to during the week. Yet I can’t not write today. I have a desperate desire to make sense of yesterday’s massacre, though I realize there is no sense to be made, nothing that could possibly make the murder of twenty young children into something as succinct and graspable as sense. Still, writing down the whirlwind in my head makes it easier to keep my footing. A little.

I have a kindergartener, and I don’t say this to claim dibs on grief or to cheapen a single facet of people’s heartache or even to play the I’m-so-glad-it-wasn’t-my-child card that has to twist dagger sharp in the ears of bereaved parents. I say it because my kindergartener trotted off to class yesterday morning hand-in-hand with a friend, their little heads bobbing in enthusiasm, and that that could have been a death march… that we live in a world where a room of bright and busy and trusting five-year-olds can be sprayed with .223-caliber slugs… it’s unendurable.

This heartbreak feels so literal, the actual sinews in my chest threatening to rip loose, and I know you’re feeling it too. We’re all breaking apart and trying to hold ourselves together in different ways, whether by anger or action or silence or advice or prayer or time with loved ones or time alone. My social media feeds are full of opposing viewpoints, but they all come from a similar ferocity of grief, and I’m comforted, like Mr. Rogers, by seeing “so many caring people in this world.”

Every one of us is shouldering a tiny portion of the pain that the Newtown parents are going through right now. Every one of us is united in grief, though we might process it very differently (and that’s ok). Evil was done yesterday, and we care. It doesn’t make sense of the violence and pain we experience to different degrees in this broken world, but it does lighten the load.

I’m grateful to care alongside you.

10Dec

Expatriotism

I just got back from an overnight getaway in Rome, and this entry may be less coherent than usual due to the excruciatingly early hour I got up to chauffeur my business-tripping husband to the airport and our less-than-responsible bedtime last night. I’m running on three hours of sleep and approximately six espressos right now, so you may want to read this post with one eye closed and the other twitching violently. At least consider yourself fairly warned.

Even after five years in Italy, I still get a speechless shiver each time I catch myself saying things like “I just got back from Rome.” It sounds like someone else’s exotic life, as plausible as a weekly brunch date with James Bond. It’s come to my attention that some of you feel a little disconnected as well when I write about our travels, so I wanted to take the opportunity today to share a more fleshed-out perspective of what our life here entails.

First, keep in mind that daily life is daily life, no matter where you call home. Even the Pope, nested above the bewildering opulence of St. Peter’s, puts on his slippers and shuffles into the routine of his day like the rest of us. The human mind simply can’t sustain a state of wonder long-term, though I feel like I’m betraying a collective fairytale in admitting that. After all, I live in Italy, a land flowing with family-recipe wine and artistic genius. If the mundane ever stepped back in deference for a place, it would be here. However, our socks still need washing, our landlord still needs cajoling, and our drivers licenses still need renewing…

…which brings me to Point #2: BUREAUCRACY. This one deserves capital letters both because it is a capital pain and because it is such a huge part of the expat experience. Every year or so, our life is fed into a gigantic bureaucratic machine where it is immediately pulled in seven different directions, investigated, ignored, wrung through committee meetings, entered into multiple related yet un-networked computer systems, lost, found, lost again, put up for adoption, taxed, misspelled, misquoted, mistaken, misinformed, and finally returned to us with a bill for the equivalent of two months’ wages. There is no principality or power that can force the Italian government to work more efficiently, and we are still mastering the spiritual discipline of Not Pulling Our Hair Out. Living here [legally, that is] can be mind-shreddingly hard.

The question we are most often asked by Italians is “WHY?” As in, “Why are you here? Why are you putting yourselves through the bureaucratic migraine machine? Why in the world would you leave your easy life in the States?” It’s a valid question, and I’m glad we’re reminded so frequently to examine our motives. It can be all too easy to slip into the groove of daily routines (when we’re not trying to reclaim our life from the system, of course) and forget that we aren’t here for the pasta or the travel opportunities or the bilingual daughters.

We’re here because these are our people. This culture is where our heart is, where our sense of home is rooted. We’ve been accused by homesick expats of loving everything about Italy, and I can assure you that’s not the case; however, the community we’ve found here is worth every frustration, inconvenience, and empty hair follicle. It’s the why.

The speechless shiver of getting to spend a night in Rome is just an auxiliary wow.

23Jul

The Gift of Permission

When I told Dan that I only got a cumulative ten minutes of sleep last Wednesday night, he ran it through his Bethany Hyperbole Filter and concluded that I meant seven and a half hours instead of my usual nine. (I need more sleep than any creature I know, newborn sloths included.) The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but the point is that I spent Thursday tired, and even a luxury nap after breakfast didn’t jump-start the kind of energy or inspiration one would hope for on her birthday.

My perceptions of cold, hunger, tiredness, and sadness have always confused themselves with each other, and so I never was quite sure throughout the day if I needed a snack or a blanket or maybe some stand-up comedy. In reality, I probably needed some double espressos with an extra spoonful of grace, but clear thinking is not my forte when I’m running on a sneeze-worth of sleep. Instead, my instinctive drive to do more! accomplish more! amps up in direct proportion to my rising exhaustion—all the more so on “special” days—and I basically turn into my own personal Dementor.

Sucking out my own soul is a habit I’d love to kick in this coming year, so my first instinct was to put that at the top of an extra special birthday edition to-do list:

  1. Stop sucking out own soul.
  2. (But really, accomplish more please.)

Self help clearly isn’t my forte either.

It’s just that I want to feel in every synapse and pore of my being that I’m doing life well—living it deeply, thoughtfully, openly, and significantly. I crave purpose the way our palm trees crave water; that’s my internal design, and it could be a force for good if I could simply ditch the accompanying stress. Search for purpose – guilt-ridden paranoia + a chill pill. (Optional: more wine and/or Rumi.) Sounds pretty perfect, right? To that end, I’m writing a different kind of list for myself this birthday. Instead of lining up the things I hope to do this year (see 2008, 2009, 2010, and a dizzy buzzing noise from 2011), I’m giving myself permission this year to not do. (Feel free to adopt this list for yourself or anyone else in your life who could use a break from self-flagellation.)

  • You have permission not to catch up with friends’ online worlds before getting in touch. It’s okay to call or write a loved one without knowing exactly what she’s been up to the last few weeks (or, ahem, months). If anything, it will give you more to talk about one-on-one, so ditch the guilt, mark all as read, and spend your valuable time enjoying the relational part of your relationships.
  • You have permission not to take other people’s success as indication of your failure. Personal amazingness is not the last piece of pie; there is more than enough to go around in this wide, ever-possible world of ours, and it has no expiration date. You can’t be late to a game that doesn’t exist, so stop worrying that your friend’s book deal was meant to be yours (it wasn’t) or that the scholarship accidentally fell out of destiny’s hands into the wrong person’s (it didn’t) or that each new name worked into a Ben & Jerry’s flavor pun knocks you even further out of the running (Fruit Bassett for 2015, anyone? anyone?).
  • You have permission not to wait until ideas are fully formed and Beowulf-epic before acting on them. Your husband is right in warning you that incubating a project until it’s reached theoretical perfection means never starting that project at all. Wrinkles are best smoothed out with forward motion anyway, so put more energy into your doing than into your thinking, start small, and at least try to befriend imperfection along the way. (He’s so much more interesting to hang out with than perfection; just think of the stories you’ll accrue!)
  • You have permission not to wear all your hats at once. Just one at a time is enough, I think, but not the everything hat. It’s not really a hat at all—just a piece of tinfoil hot-glued with delusions of grandeur—and the only thing you manage to do while wearing it is bump into walls; please, for the love of all that is holy, throw the everything hat away. Also, you know the housecleaning hat is too tight, so limit your time with that one; the mama and friend and writer and teacher hats fit you much better. As long as you don’t wear them all at once.
  • You have permission not to protect the worry. I know you think that someone has to be responsible for worrying, and not just for worrying but for keeping the worry comfortable, well-fed, and safe from harm, and if you don’t do it, who will? I also know that sometimes worry feels like the only constant you can grasp when life is surging around you. But oh honey—the worry doesn’t need a protector. It’s an animal of prey, and you know all too well how it bites the hand that feeds it. You already have plenty to do without this job on top of all; you have my express and hearty permission to resign.

The gift of permission

Bonus: You have permission to slip away to the park for an hour or two and fill yourself to capacity with fresh air. Recommended especially for those with a Dementor habit to break.

 

2Jul

Heavyweight

Hello there, July. For the record, I do not condone summer’s refusal to wait for my go-ahead. I’m still wandering wobbly-kneed through the second week of June, and I really would have appreciated all the school closings and triple digit temperatures holding off until I could collect myself. About that last one—Did you know that we don’t have air conditioning? The Italian strategy for surviving summer involves 1) nudity, 2) napping, and 3) nude napping at the beach, and while each is worthy in its own right, circumstances occasionally dictate that I be dressed and/or conscious. Maybe the heat’s just getting to me more this summer because my head’s still back in strawberry season.

I’ve barely touched my computer over the last three weeks except for busy work, and I’ve felt this kind of sad, longing, tired push-pull every time I’ve walked by its closed lid. Between a string of emotional anvil drops and a rejection notice at the tail end of a heartwound publication process, my ability to string words together seemed to drain right out of me. One of the ways I traditionally deal with word-bereavement is rock solid stoicism. I decide our relationship was never meant to be and that it’s about time I embraced my true calling as a housecleaner. And then I cry into the mop water. And the dishwater. And the tonic water. I’m a real heavyweight.

But even in all the crumminess and confusion of the last few weeks, I never felt truly disconnected, and I want to thank you from the dregs of my heart for that. Your notes and prayers after our friend’s death sat with me at his funeral and shared the dinner table with his grieving family, and I’m a kind of grateful that can’t be articulated.  I’m also deeply thankful for your encouragement to be here, to value my own writerly heart enough to ditch the mop water (our seasonal infestation of ants thanks you too, btw) and rescue my blog from solitary confinement. Thankthankthank you.

It’s better to start summer late than never, right? Here’s to more connecting, less mopping, and nude napping on the beach.

~~~ 

How are you welcoming the summer?

9Jun

A Reality Without Undo

A family friend died of a heart attack this morning, and I stared in shock at the message on my husband’s phone, wondering why he didn’t just push the back button and undo what could only be a grave cosmic blunder.

When my grandmothers died in relatively quick succession a few years ago, I felt a certain insulation from their deaths. The wide buffer of ocean and age between us provided a tender finality, and while I mourned them, I didn’t begrudge their passing. But this… an artist who chose a lifestyle of backbreaking sacrifice to protect someone without the mental capabilities to understand, a husband and father who helped create one of the most loving family units we’ve ever seen, a generous soul who opened his home wide to us many times… this? We were laughing in his kitchen just a few months ago. I know how cliché this question will sound, but it’s the only one I can articulate right now—How can he possibly be gone?

Dan took the first train out once we heard the news, and in the mad dash to get him to the station on time, my shock crystalized into the clarity of action. I couldn’t stop thinking about our friends’ wife, a dear-hearted woman suddenly left with more than any one person could be expected to handle, and I was grateful that at the very least, I could send my husband to help ease her burden. I would have gotten on the train myself if not for Natalie’s last-day-of-school program tomorrow. Even so, I spent the entire afternoon baking, for her, mixing a helpless sense of compassion into the dough and hoping that on some metaphysical level, this weight on my heart is weight off of hers.

It’s late now, and my perspective has gone fuzzy again. I don’t know if I will be able to hand over the bread in person tomorrow, and if I do, what I could possibly say to steady a world flipped so unexpectedly on end. I don’t know how to break the news to my girls who loved our friend like an uncle. I don’t know how to pack for a funeral that I just want someone somewhere to undo. There is so much I don’t know about processing death, and I keep wishing to wake up safely back in our old reality where I didn’t have to come to grips with this. More than anything, I wish that our friend could wake up.

For a solid two minutes before I shot this video, he had the girls convinced a bird was loose in his living room. The girls have their own bird whistles now, and I know they’re remembering our friend (blue shirt, kind eyes) every time our house fills with warbles.

15May

Pinterest Parenting

I have a confession to make: I dislike taking my children to the park. So strongly do I dislike it, in fact, that I agree to a maximum one hour a week at our neighborhood playground and sigh in relief when inclement weather lets me off the hook. All that changing of clothes, applying of sunscreen, and filling of water bottles so that I can hover near my daredevil four-year-old while craning my neck for my seven-year-old who is playing hide ‘n’ seek with her friends and may no longer be in the country for all I can tell? Goodness, it is so not my favorite thing.

I feel like I’m admitting to some heinous crime against parenthood here, but wait—it gets better. I also strongly dislike showering the girls after swim class, organizing their birthday parties, teaching them to ride bikes, and doing crafts with them. Don’t even get me started on that last one; there is little in this world more unsettling to me than glue in the hands of a preschooler.

Keep in mind that I’m not exactly glowing with pride over this. I’ve absorbed enough parenting magazines, mommy blogs, and Pinterest boards to convince myself that the ideal mom would help her children mix up eco-conscious finger paint as they rode their bicycles from an all-day picnic at the park home to the lavender-infused bubble baths they’d brewed the day before. I have a glossy image in my mind of the ideal mom: creative genius with infinite patience meets soccer mom with sex appeal, something like June Cleaver and Maria von Trapp rolled up in a sugar cookie crust and pretty much nothing like me.

I’m embarrassed to be writing this, any of this, because I don’t want to add any credibility to the Mommy Wars. I want to proclaim in bold, confident type that if a mother is invested enough in her child to worry about how many months she should breastfeed, she’s doing a good job. End of story. Yet… I’ve known many parents who earnestly believed that physically and mentally abusing their children was the best strategy. Even now, I often notice parents letting their children hang out the passenger window on the highway, their kindergartners go on violent rampages, and their children’s teeth rot from hygienic neglect, and I have to admit that there’s something to be said for holding up a standard. We parents need humility and accountability just like any others in a position of power. We were never meant to do this job in isolation.

At the same time, the comparison game can quickly turn into the shame game. Having access to so many inspired ideas at once can make us forget that we’re looking at a collage of unique personalities and talents, not one composite superhuman. I see a mom who creates whimsical food faces for her children’s lunches and think I should be doing that. The next mom knits stuffed animals for birthday gifts, and never mind that I don’t know how to knit one, purl anything, I should be doing that too. Living room chemistry labs, French idiom flashcards, Mommy & Me Karate, I should be doing it all.

Clearly, logic has no place in my compare and despair routine. The karate mom, chemistry mom, and knitting mom are not the same mom, so why do I feel like a failure when I can’t master all of their individual strengths? I can’t really blame the media for this one; it’s all me. I’m the one focusing on pinboards meant for the karate mom and the chemistry mom and the knitting mom and the loves-taking-her-children-to-the-park mom and taking each one as a personal attack.

Here’s what I should be doing instead of browsing Pinterest for reasons to feel unworthy: I should be piling a dozen oversized pillows on my bed, calling the girls in, and cracking open a storybook. I’m great at reading out loud—did you know that?—and contrary to busting out the bikes or the glue (shudder), reading together is an activity that the girls and I love with equal enthusiasm. It’s one of my personal mama-strengths. Family travel is another, and if I were pressed to come up with a third, Sophie could tell you just how much fun we have baking cupcakes together.

I think that the main reason we moms take up arms against each other is in misdirected self-defense. We feel like other women’s successes are a commentary on our failings, and we bristle, desperate to believe that we’re not screwing up our children as thoroughly as that snide little voice in the back of our minds says we are. As a realist (code name for pessimist) and a chronic internalizer, I struggle with that mindset more often than I’d like to admit. However, I’m finally fighting back against it by trying to give the most attention to my strengths rather than my deficits. The key word here is “trying.” Self-congratulation feels like such a taboo, but honestly, why wouldn’t I work on celebrating and cultivating the ways in which I love my children best? It’s the quickest antidote against my own mental Mommy War that I know of… and? It lets me return to browse the eco-conscious-lavender-bicycle-karate-supermom pinboard without an ounce of guilt.

~~~

Your turn! What are your own awesome talents as a parent, a child, a friend, an artist, or a Pinterest-browsing human being? What are YOU especially great at? (No cop-out answers now; your strengths are worth a little celebration!)

9May

Trumped

I decided years ago that I was done with the creation vs. evolution debate. As a Jesus-follower, I often hear earnest sermonizing that God created all life forms in six literal days and that science is trying to undermine the truth of our Bible, but I no longer take on that conversation. My personal belief is that the creation story in Genesis is highly figurative and that God in science are on the same team, but I could be mistaken. Honestly, I don’t care. I see a divine fingerprint on the world around me, but the method of its origin has no bearing on my faith. It’s simply a non-issue to me.

I’ve taken the same approach with the sexual orientation subject too. Nearly all Christian denominations openly condemn the homosexual and transgender, but I never saw the point in getting worked up over it. After all, I’m straight. I can hardly claim to understand, much less consider myself an authority on those with other sexual orientations. Yes, there are passages in the Bible decrying homosexuality, but the Bible is a complicated book, and I didn’t see a personal need to delve into the linguistic and cultural nuances behind those passages in order to polarize my stance. The issue simply didn’t affect me.

That was before someone very dear to me shared the story of her husband—a conservative pastor and Quiverfull dad—admitting that he actually identified as female and of their transition to a same-sex marriage. I was stunned. My lack of a position on the whole subject left me in a philosophical no man’s land as I tried to wrap my mind around their story, and my own longsuffering spouse can attest to the many hours I spent talking myself through it. I kept trying to put myself in Melissa’s position, but I just couldn’t imagine finding out that my husband had always felt his deepest identity to be female. More, I couldn’t imagine coming out myself and continuing our committed, affectionate relationship as he became a she.

It finally dawned on me that I was trying to understand things from the wrong angle. My body and soul genders match each other, and my romantic inclination is as conventional as it comes; I’m not going to be able to conjure up the transgender or gay experience any more than I could picture myself a tsar. But I don’t need to. I don’t need to feel what my friend is going through in order to hear the emotions of her story, see the awe-striking love she and her spouse have shown each other throughout, or understand the way people’s reactions affect them. I don’t need to twist my mind around in search for empathy. It’s been right here all along… and so has my stance on the issue:

Love matters most.

Jesus said that when a religious leader asked him for the greatest commandment, and it’s one of my favorite things in the Bible. All those lists of laws and thou shalt nots are both summed up and solidly trumped by love. You would think, according to some sermons I’ve heard, that Jesus accidentally forgot to exclude homosexuals when he said “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But this same Jesus met with scathing criticism from the churchy crowd for his habit of hanging out with prostitutes, cheats, and other flagrant sinners. He had dinner with outcasts and approached people considered too vile for interaction, and you know, he never once remembered to launch an anti-gay campaign. He was too busy teaching how to cultivate peace, live authentically, and stop burdening our fellow human beings.

I realize that unconventional sexual orientation has become a huge moral issue to many people, and it’s often seen as grounds for terminating friendships. In the case of Christian communities, many adopt the strategy of trying to shun the offending person into repentance. Bullying can take the form of anything from hate crimes to prayer meetings to constitutional amendments, and we’re only kidding ourselves if we claim that our repugnance is rooted in the Bible. The Old Testament puts pride, eating pig meat, and doing things to gain popularity in the same category as gay sex, but the cultural stigmas on those actions have long since been lifted. If you pick up a clam on the beach today, you’re not going to face a religious firing squad even though touching shellfish is listed as an abomination in the same section of the Bible most often used to bash homosexuals. Like it or not, every single Christian interprets the Bible through a cultural filter, so I think it’s about time that we acknowledge our prejudice for what it is.

I imagine that some people are ready to jump down my throat right now with theology books in tow, but I’m less willing to join in the debate now than I was during all my years of disimpassioned neutrality. It really all comes down to this one truth beating in my heart:

The Bible says homosexuality is an abomination!
But love matters most.

God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman, period!
But love matters most.

If I remain friends with gay people, they will think I’m condoning their behavior!
But love matters most.

They’re unnatural and perverted and mentally unsound; they need to be cured!
But love matters most.

What if my child turns out gay?
Love matters most.

No matter our fears or aversions, our power as a majority group to put others down, or our arsenal of theological ammunition, love matters most. Jesus summed up centuries of religious law in this, and I don’t believe for one second that he meant “love” as an abstract semantic device that we can claim over the people we’re shunning. Jesus’s love was always hands-on—touching the sick, embracing muddy children, tearing off hunks of bread for the hungry, washing his followers’ feet—and he charged his believers with carrying out his heart for people. He charged us with grace, freeing us forever from the responsibility of judging or condemning each other. His is a legacy of radical community, beautiful in its unconcern with convention or religious respectability, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be a part of it… right alongside my friend.

~~~

I’ve linked to this before, but it’s worth a second read: A Mountain I’m Willing to Die On

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