Tag: Insecurity


Picture of [Im]perfection

As you may have guessed, the last couple of days have been rough. I never know what might be a trigger until I’m rubbing my eyes on the other side of a long tunnel, emotions bloodshot, wondering what the hell happened. Thank goodness for work. I’ve heard distraction recommended as a coping strategy for PTSD sufferers, and it was actually a relief to have to get out the door early this morning and focus on teaching a class. It snapped my mental energies back to the here and now, and it always does my soul good to be around people and places who don’t remind me of anything. Later, an irrational translation client had me laughing (I apparently “ruined” the central Italian landscape with my un-poetic word choice and grammatical consistency; I guess it’s true that the pen is mightier than the real world?), so I think it’s safe to say I’m back to myself.

I often wonder how these episodes are going to end up affecting my girls. I worry that seeing me sad and struggling to cope will traumatize them, but at the same time, our conversations during the hard times are incredibly precious. The girls know that my sadness is only occasional and has nothing to do with them. They know their mom is human and fragile and willing to be honest with them about both. They also know love. They’re experts in it already, and their hugs and notes and daughterly concern add up to the most healing treatment plan I can imagine.

Thank you for your encouragement too. I always ricochet between feelings of stupidity and feelings of guilt whenever I let on that I might not be the picture of psychological perfection (might not, mind you). Authenticity will probably always be a struggle for me considering my background. However, Jennifer pointed out that naming something is powerful in lessening its hold, and I’d like to think that writing about it goes a step further—aims typeset floodlights into the shadow, illuminates the sniveling nightmare, and says I’m not afraid to expose you (even if I am). I’d also like to think that my honesty with the girls will help them flip the tables on their own fears one day, though hopefully with less neurotic two-stepping. More than anything, I’d like to think that my ability to write this today means that love is the one winning this struggle.


That Damn Proverbs 31 Woman*

The story goes that once upon a time, an aging queen sat her son down for a chat. “Listen, Lem,” she began, “Those girls you keep bringing home? Well, I ain’t saying that they’re gold diggers, but they ain’t messin’ with no broke goatherds, capisce? You’re a king, so let’s cut to the chase: WHAT IN THE HOLY HOLISHKES ARE YOU THINKING? What you need is a virtuous girl, by which I mean one who can knit—designer knitting, mind you, that generates enough income to fund her real-estate business. Obviously, she’ll make all of your clothes too… yes, even those scarlet ski pants of which you’re so fond. She’ll arrange a steady stream of extracurricular activities to keep the kids busy while you’re hanging out with your buddies so she can work her daily shift in the soup kitchen, and it probably goes without saying that she won’t have time to sleep. Ever. Now go find her!” And all the maidens of the kingdom fled in terror. The end.

That’s more or less how the Biblical book of Proverbs wraps up, and it makes for one of the most horrifying Bible study topics I’ve ever experienced. Groups of women meet up to wade in guilt together and discuss how they can start measuring up to Mrs. Proverbs 31, which is kind of ridiculous when you consider that Lemuel’s gal would have had no time for Bible studies herself. Things get desperate, and if you don’t think modern women would start stitching dresses  just to be more virtuous, think again. Even the ladies who go with a more “letter of the law” approach leave the Bible studies with dark circles forming preemptively under their eyes.

I doubt King Lemuel’s mom imagined her motherly advice would ever be construed as God’s Will For Womankind. Furthermore, I doubt that the womanizing, perpetually hung-over Lem ever found a wife to fit his ideal (er, make that his mom’s ideal). The virtuous wife was a fantasy spun from parental reproach, a strong work ethic, and good old-fashioned hyperbole, and there is no evidence suggesting that such a superwoman ever existed. In fact, the latter third of the Bible makes it clear that God is much more interested in our sincerity and love than in how late we stay up knitting.

I guess what bothers me so much about this famous chapter is that King Lemuel’s mother adds one more voice to the chorus telling us women we’re not enough—not productive enough, talented enough, skinny enough, smart enough… fill in the blank. And when the aging queen’s advice is taken as God’s decree because it shows up in the Bible, the not-enoughs take on the full weight of divinity. It’s no longer a simple matter of “I am not enough;” it becomes “God thinks I am not enough.”

Yet Jesus is the one who comforted a housewife flustered over her massive to-do list: “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.” It didn’t matter that what she was worked up over was Jesus’s dinner; he would forego a feast to enjoy her company. And to another woman who wasted a year’s wages on a perfume bath for his feet (rather than giving that money to the poor as Jesus’s dinner hosts angrily insisted she should have done, as the Proverbs 31 woman would have done), he extended kindness, gratitude, and the grace she had been craving.

I’m not saying that Lemuel’s mom didn’t have some good points—as long as they’re taken with a grain of salt and a glassful of cultural perspective—but I find myself wishing that King Lem had acted a bit more kingly to start with and let that damn Proverbs 31 woman rest as all women should: in peace.


* Title and topic inspired by a dear friend.


Love Thursday

Anyone remember Love Thursdays? Apparently, the tradition is still alive and well at Chookooloonks, but it seems to have slipped out of vogue elsewhere which is a shame… especially when one finds a wee reminder of love tucked inside a walnut shell on a foggy Thursday morning.

This morning wasn’t the smoothest we’ve ever had. The trouble really started yesterday afternoon when I decided to knock tax filing out of the way during the girls’ naps. Three hours later, I was hopelessly lost inside the labyrinth of IRS form instructions with bad words on the brain and nary a plan for supper. As a result, bedtimes were far too late, and we all woke up unwillingly this morning with only half an hour until school.

I felt like my head had been run over by a nice mid-sized sedan, and patience escaped me within the first minute when one daughter greeted the offer of a tissue with wailing and gnashing of teeth. The other passively protested the not-hot-pinkness of her jeans by taking ten minutes to put on one sock. Backwards. Both girls were crying by the time their shoes were tied, and I was seriously contemplating the benefits of getting a sister wife or two.

At five minutes until school, two overtired girls slumped against their overtired mother in the kitchen, our goodbye hug sagging with defeat. I could still feel the sedan’s tread marks across my skull as yet another signature on my sign-in sheet of failures—my failure to get up early, to respond to this morning’s preschool dramas with grace, to “mop up hurt with embrace,” to finish the taxes yesterday, to ration my time skillfully, to keep up with the to-dos, to be fitter, happier, more productive, to mother effortlessly…

Because it’s not effortless for me, you see. Loving my girls is the fiercest instinct I’ve ever experienced, but mothering them takes intention, sacrifice, trial and error and error again. Looking at how other moms do it is the surest way to convince myself that I suck. That mom enrolls her children in a variety of extracurricular activities; that one takes her children on weekly field trips. That one had each of her children reading by three and a half; that other one relaxes on the academics but gives her children hours of undivided attention. That mom chronicles her children’s growing-up years with breathtaking photos; that one writes books to hers. Each new way of mothering flashes in neon letters until I am dizzy from the should of it and wondering how drastically I am screwing up my daughters.

My mother-in-law doesn’t see it the same way though. When I got to spend time with her a few weeks ago, she reminded me of what matters above all activities and achievements. It’s the one thing that comes to me by instinct rather than effort, and we have so much of it around here that it shows up inside our walnuts. We love each other. We really do, even when the girls have to entertain each other because I got caught up in the difference between Form 2555 and Form 2555-EZ and forgot about supper. Even on groggy, rushed mornings when we hug through tears of frustration. Even when I think longingly of sister wives and sleeping in.

Maybe it’s impossible not to screw up our children, and the real goal of parenting should be to keep their future therapy sessions to a minimum, or maybe parenting just comes less easily to some of us. Either way, a simple shape this morning reminded me of the truth my mother-in-law shared with me—that love doesn’t just cover a multitude of failures; it renders them obsolete.



The Grass Is Always Busier

Over the weekend, spring finally pulled itself out of the mud and launched into full fairy-tale mode: fluffy, baby blue skies, birds doing Broadway in flash mobs, second and third and fourth courses of the most delectable sunshine, and a lavish swirl of allergens dancing on the breeze. I wasn’t sure I would survive my own respiratory system last night. However, I woke up this morning without a hint of inner-skull itch, feeling like a new person and ready to dust out every golden corner of the day.

The downside to clear-headedness, though, is that it tends to help one remember things… specifically, that summer break is quickly approaching. And I have nary a thing planned to do with the girls. We have zero popsicles stockpiled in the freezer. Not a single date is marked on the calendar for a zoo trip. We put back the hula hoops at the store yesterday, unwilling to pay 10 euro for rings of cardboard plastered in glitter tape. No one is signed up for summer camp.

It occurred to me as I blinked away the cobwebs this morning that I am dangerously close to a nomination for So-Boring-She-Might-As-Well-Be-Negligent Mother Of The Year. Admittedly, a lot of this is circumstantial. Our freezer is not big enough to stockpile popsicles, the local zoo costs as much as our weekly grocery budget (and rumor has it that most of its animals have died and been replaced with concrete replicas), and our summer travel plans keep us from making any major schedule commitments. Also, we are a one-car family, which means our excursions are generally limited to how far short legs can walk.

It’s not as if the girls will be suffering. We have a huge balcony and a backyard for them to play in, and we’ll see their friends at the neighborhood park each day. Plus, Saturdays devoted to exploring and a tremendous trans-Europe camping trip in July promise plenty of adventure. However, I can’t seem to side-step guilt when reading other moms’ plans for daily swimming, soccer camps, field trips, play dates, book clubs, and craft days. Other moms seem eager to dive into activity-packed months centered around their children, whereas I just feel… reluctant.

This is the natural outcome of the comparison game, I know. I was excited about our low-key summer until I measured it against other families’ and let our assets—child-friendly neighborhood, travel opportunities, my ability to be at home with the girls, their colorful imaginations—be overpowered by the deficits I suddenly see. If only we had more money or lived in a more metropolitan city or had a housekeeper, if only I could allocate every moment of my days to the girls without losing myself in the process, if only our community had a pool, if only the girls were a little older, if only, if only, if only… The If Onlies are neither healthy nor helpful, but my perspective seems determined to gaze at the greenness of everyone else’s grass while ignoring our own lush lawn.

So here’s my game plan:
1) Comb travel sites, talk to the neighbors, and compile a list of activities that will be kind to both our wallets and our naptimes.
2) Remind myself that my daughters really sincerely enjoy drawing pictures, playing kitchen, and running through the house in tutus screaming their happy lungs out.
3) Do the best I can with what I have, remembering to count love among our assets.
4) Politely tell the If Onlies to stuff it.


Classic is Always In

Last night, I went to a concert featuring a friend of ours who is an incredible pianist. (She started with this, and my jaw was later found rolling on the floor several rows back.) Knowing how my local friends get all dolled up for casual get-togethers,  I donned a dress and jaunty boots for the concert, hoping the ensemble was fancy enough to look appropriate in a room of Italian fashionistas. As it turned out, the Italian fashionistas all wore jeans. Skinny jeans. With black patent leather pumps. I did my best to stifle the sore-thumb sensation and focus on the music, but I couldn’t help wondering how everyone else in the room knew to wear the same thing.

At least I can now add to the list of occasions for which I am aware of wardrobe expectations:
Concerts: Skinny jeans, black patent leather pumps. Note: not a dress.
The playground in spring: Skinny jeans (preferably colored), Chucks, t-shirt with rhinestones, short trench, giant glasses. Note: The only item of these I possess are the glasses, but if I pretend they are Dolce & Gabbana rather than €5 knock-offs, do they count for a complete wardrobe?
Summer weddings: Cocktail dress, shimmery wrap (essential), strappy stilettos, and up-do. Note: I almost got this right the first time, but failed to bring a shimmery wrap. Alas.
Winter weddings: A black dress. Or pant suit. Just so long as it is black. Note: not red.
Dinner at friends’ houses: For some, church clothes; for others, sweat suits. It’s all very trial-and-error and dependent on the hosts, the weather, the proximity to major holidays, and what we’ll be eating. Note: Oh, help and bother!

We are attending a graduation dinner tonight, and I am trying my best to narrow down what I plan to wear so that I can make sure to put on something else. This isn’t one of those situations where expat literature or even Clinton Kelly would be of much help. Rather, it reminds me that the classic combination of time and discomfort zones is a necessary, if inconvenient, good. What can I say? Classic is always in.

We didn’t move to Italy for the novelty, though I may never quite get over the thrill of cypresses standing sentinel around long-forgotten castles or the cappuccino breezes swirling through bars each morning. We moved here, quite simply, because here feels like home. Italy is where we breathe most freely, where our lifestyle clicks into place, where we want our children to grow up. It’s imperfect, of course—(Ask me sometime how the legal hoop-jumping is going. On second thought… please don’t.)—but even with its quirks and frustrations, this is our choice. I feel immensely privileged to have been granted that choice, to stir fresh tomato-basil sauce in my kitchen overlooking Mt. Subasio, to button Natalie in her pink school smock, to attend concerts and weddings and enough dinners that I occasionally know just what to wear.

There is so much beyond the language to learn in a new country, but it’s the best kind of learning—even the awkward fashion lessons—because each realization puts down another root in my chosen home turf. And while I am sure to show up to tonight’s event in the wrong outfit, at least I will wake up tomorrow with my wardrobe list one step close to complete.


The Quibbler

They bicker constantly, these voices in my head. There’s the dour one that I used to call realism but really deserves a much less respectable name—Ursula, for instance—who likes to point out in increasingly shrill tones that I am absolutely not cut out to be a writer and should give up before I make a fool of myself. She takes full responsibility for making sure I know how just how lousy I am each time I sit at my desk. If I stay seated, she peers over my shoulder telling me at intervals how this phrase is far too convoluted and that one appears to be written by a three-year-old and that if I were actually any good at writing, it wouldn’t take me so long. If I get up, she pats me on the back with her sharp nails and says, “Yes, very good; you’re much better at being a house cleaner. Well, the potential is there at any rate. You can find the grout cleaner under the sink.”

Then there’s the voice of creative intuition, Seraphina, who tells Ursula to kindly remove her ugly backside from the premises. Seraphina plays my veins like wind chimes and reminds me that what makes me feel truly alive is what I should be doing, external validation be damned. She texts Orlagh to get her vacationing butt back home. Come to think of it, she has kind of a thing about butts, but I really don’t mind when she’s telling me how nice mine looks planted in my desk chair. She tells me not to give up, never to give up, that the grout can wait for the next tenants.

Mrs. Fuzziwuggins occasionally pipes up to tell me I’m a special and unique snowflake, but the other two just tell her to shut up.

If I’m not careful, ­­­ Severa Slushpool slips into the back room chanting  “Guilt, Guilt, Guilt, Guilt,” until I am convinced of my unworthiness to exist. Ursula shrugs and says, “She has a point; you’ve produced nothing of value today, and at least one of your children is currently pantsless.” Mrs. Fuzziwuggins sticks her pudgy fingers in my ears while telling the others off for crushing my delicate spirits. Seraphina argues that I’m stronger than that. “Guilt, Guilt,” chants Severa in the voice of a pipe organ.

“Just a reminder,” whispers Graziella, the in-house massage therapist from my spiritual spa, “You are under no obligation to feel guilt anymore.”

“That would be accurate,” snaps Ursula, “if you were spending your time in worthier pursuits. Scrubbing down the balcony, for instance.”

“There is no more worthy pursuit than the one that inspires your passion and whole-hearted creative effort,” contends Seraphina.

Mrs. Fizziwuggins quickly adds, “But no need to strain yourself, dear; we wouldn’t want to stifle your fragile specialness.”

“SHUT UP!” shouts everyone else.

“Guilt,” cuts in Severa Slushpool. “Guilt, Guilt, Guilt, Guilt, Guilt.”

“Hey guys!” bursts Orlagh, out of breath and smelling faintly of coconut rum. “What did I miss?”


Discussion questions:

1) What do the voices in your head quibble about? You do have to deal with quibbling voices, right?

::cue the crickets::

2) For the sake of making me feel less crazy, pretend you have to deal with quibbling voices too. Would you:

a) volunteer for an experimental surgery to plant earplugs into your temporal lobe?
b) decide that whichever voice you agree with at any given moment is the correct one?
c) kill them off one by one like in that John Cusack movie?
d) take up drinking coconut rum?

3) Am I crazy?


Happy Slob

Earlier this week, I went to an informal get-together with some other gals from church. Knowing Italy’s take on casual is America’s version of dress-up, I took care to look nice—my good jeans, suede boots, dangly earrings, a pretty scarf. I would have felt pretentious in the States, but here… I was just proud of myself for managing to pull off the fashionable look I knew all the other ladies would have.

Except that wasn’t the case. At all. The others were wearing designer denim, designer shoes, cashmere sweater dresses, skinny belts, chunky necklaces, crystal hair clips, perfectly color-coordinated outfits with purses to match, and makeup that put my mascara-and-Lip-Smackers philosophy to shame. I felt like a complete slob.

Sitting in that circle of fashion models with my stomach sucked in, I quickly forgot all about the Year Without Clothes efforts I’d been applauding. I pushed away the commitment I’d made to spend as little as possible this year so we can finally get out of debt. That sense of satisfaction I’d felt when resolving to forego a new pair of heels this winter? Vanished without a trace. Because not only did I suddenly need new heels, I needed new boots and a new dress and a new coat and new sweaters and new scarves and new jewelry and new eye shadow and probably a new haircut too.

There in my chair, with no provocation other than my own self-imposed notion of inferiority, I turned into a miner. You know the kind—discontented, jealous, ready to uproot their lives for the shoddy promise of gold dust somewhere in a California stream. I needed to fit in, no matter how much cashmere sweater dresses cost.

Two and a half hours later, I pulled up in front of our gorgeous house. I tip-toed up the stairs and into the warm pool of light spilling from our bedroom door, where I was kissed like a movie star by my husband. We peeked into the next room where our girls slept with arms and legs flung on top of their covers, eyelashes resting serenely on cheeks. I put away my not-designer jeans and snuggled into bed with the love of my life as far-away lights danced like pixies on the wall. Peace tucked itself in around us; the knot in my stomach subsided. Through the soft night colors, I could see clearly again that happiness has nothing to do with new shoes or new hair or new anything. And just like that, my fashion crisis was solved.

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