Tag: Intention

4Oct

A Daily Dose of Truffles

I lost my voice in Texas two months ago. Within 24 hours of stepping out of DFW International into my sister’s arms, my laugh had developed a smoky rasp. Another day, and I was passing myself off as Keith Richards on the phone. By Day 5, I could only do a bullfrog’s rendition of a whisper, and I had to eat throat lozenges like M&Ms for the next few days in order to [audibly] deliver the toast at my sister’s wedding. It was awesome. Between grown-up slumber parties with my sister, long drives with my cousin, dinners out with friends, shopping marathons with my mom, and game nights with my brothers, I was in good conversational company for about 21 hours a day. (Related: Sleep, schmeep.)

This trip back to my hometown marked the first time I’ve really gotten to know many* of my siblings as adults, and every one of the eleven days I spent with them was a spadeful of sand unburying treasure. My voice box was simply the conduit for years’ and years’ worth of conversations delayed by age gaps, stage-of-life gaps, and geographical gaps. Goodnights took two hours and a shared tub of ice cream to finish saying.

* There are eight of us, plus assorted spouses, kids (mine), and dogs (everybody else’s). 

And then there were the sales clerks—women with ready Texas smiles, men with hilarious anecdotes at the ready—and I talked with all of them. I chatted with the gas station attendant, the intern behind the front desk at the Y, the mom whose toddler ran over my foot with a tricycle. It was such a thrill to be speaking American English, to be using terms like “the Y” and “fixin’ to.” I wondered if they could tell that I was from those parts (which I am) or if I came across as a foreign species visiting from distant lands (which is equally true). I reserved my secret life in Italy for my family, who I’m sure loved having me point out a new cultural difference every five minutes. (“Whoa, I’d forgotten that you can actually pay at the pump in the U.S.! LOL. Things are so different where I live, haha. Oh, and have I ever told you about speedometers in Italy…?”)

Returning to that secret expat life, however, I found my throat blocked by a lump the size of the jalapeños on my honky-tonk nachos. I’d never really experienced homesickness before, so I couldn’t be sure that’s what it was. It was something, though, and that something propelled me to the corner of our house farthest from the front door. I sent Dan to the store for milk. I let the phone ring itself hoarse. I lay in bed with my mind ping-ponging between jetlag and insomnia and my mouth tightly closed.

It’s just so hard here. Can I say that? Can I tell you honestly that this beautiful life I’ve been given with its ancient cathedrals and its bowls of pasta and these two little bilingual daughters traipsing across castle grounds on a Saturday morning can be too heavy for me sometimes?

I feel like an ingrate for it, but at least I can be an honest ingrate. Here it is: Every interaction in Italy, no matter how small, requires more than I ever feel comfortable offering up. An acceptance of lost dignity is the main prerequisite, and I cannot think of a sensation more exactly opposite of the thrill I felt speaking Texan among Texans. Any time I open my mouth here, I advertise the fact that I am a foreigner (aptly, the term is “stranger” in Italian), and even though the person I’m speaking to has already seen my freckles and knows I am not a local, speaking aloud feels like zipping up a sore thumb costume and launching into a set of jumping jacks on the street corner.

So, there is the psychological effort of un-belonging, and then there is the mental effort of the language itself. The words still come to me slowly, like doddering old men reluctant to leave their rooms, and the worst part is and always shall be choosing the correct subject-verb endings to accessorize the things. Italian is a language that must be spoken with confidence and spice, completely unlike the gently sloshing Spanish I studied growing up, and I regularly trip over my false teeth trying to infuse my words with Mediterranean spirit.

In fairness to my Italian friends, I need to make clear that no one ever disparages me for speaking imperfectly. All of this drama takes place within the confines of my own head. Still, my head is a rather significant part of my life, so “ciao” is never just “ciao” for me; it’s emotional and mental strain followed by a very special like-it-or-not brand of humility.

And so my post-Texas self clammed up for a while, the difficulty of interaction here contrasting too sharply against all my fresh memories of hometown and kin. I wanted to get right back on an airplane to the States and savor the easy cascade of words for another few weeks. My goodness, but I wanted to greet a friend without having to button up my courage first. I found myself grieving, honest-to-goodness grieving, over this gorgeous adventure of an expat life.

I know the world’s tiniest violin is playing right now in mock sympathy for my plight (“Privileged Woman Chooses Fairytale Life, Whines That It Is Hard”), but this is real life, compliments of the real brain in my real head, and I believe that we allow grace to exhale pure ambient relief around us when we’re real with each other. Plus, I found a way out of my clamshell, and I wanted to share it with you.

I was listening to the audiobook version of Eat, Pray, Love while running a few weeks ago, and though I had previously read the book and watched the film (and re-read and re-watched and then re-re-watched if we’re going for full disclosure here; I do love a good spiritual/travel/gelato-themed memoir), and though I thought all of the relevant parts had already made their impressions on me, something new jumped out:

“Every word was a singing sparrow, a magic trick, a truffle for me… The words made me laugh in delight.”

Elizabeth Gilbert is, of course, referring to Italian, and once living in Rome, she actually drops out of language school so she can have more time to enjoy trying her vocabulary out on shopkeepers, seat mates on trains, postal clerks, soccer fans… basically everyone I most dread having to speak to when I go out.

My mind immediately drifted away from the book, and between the usual mental soliloquies that take over while I’m running (“Ow.” “Hate. “Why.” etc.), I tried to wrap my mind around the concept of language learning as delight. It was hard at first. I’ve lived here for six years now, and my perspectives have become worn to the point of shabbiness with daily use. There is nothing particularly glamorous about daily life, after all. Take out the trash, walk the girls to school, do a few linguistic slapstick routines while saying hi to the other parents. This is no Julia Roberts flick.

But consciously relishing each word as it leaves my mouth is something I can do without the least disruption to my routine. I don’t have to do anything different, in fact, except remember to enjoy my free daily language practice. My daily dose of truffles. It’s incredible how something as insubstantial as the concept of delight can reshape the mind’s topography, turn canyons into playgrounds, turn long afternoons at the pediatric allergy clinic into extended word games. It’s changing so much for me, not necessarily for the easier but certainly for the happier. I even picked up my old grammar book the other day and read a few verb conjugations out loud just to feel them melt on my tongue. Voglio, vuoi, vuole, vogliamo, volete, vogliono. Like chocolates, like throat lozenges, cures for a lost voice.

14Nov

The Long Exhale

It’s here, in the collective slump after the girls have been tucked into bed and the dishes washed (or ignored, as was almost certainly the case tonight), when the clock picks up a stray echo from the shadows and my thoughts begin to puddle, it’s here in the long exhale of evening that I most often wonder if I’m any closer to becoming myself than I was one year ago, or two, or five.

I can’t remember a time when this question of identity wasn’t waiting under cover of tiredness to command my attention. It carries a pocket reel of my day and winds through it in reverse. There I am, tripping my way through a chapter of Pippi Longstocking in Italian as the girls color snowflakes and pajama cuffs purple. There I am paying bills, scanning documents, and rearranging euros among spreadsheet boxes as if their military gray borders will hold our finances in place. There I am pushing a grocery cart between produce bins of green, all the while pining for the green of the park and that elusive half hour just for running. There I am, pen in hand at the tip of dawn, trying to make out if my words will fly in formation or startle into a flurry of nothingness today.

Intentional living has never been the problem. I was raised on it, taught to imprison every minute with my mind and reform it into something of eternal significance, and that pressure to force every moment into a holy mold still bullies the way I think. It is exasperatingly difficult for me to simply appreciate life in all its organic, beauty-steeped mystery. Cultivating wonder can be as challenging for me as cramming for a final, and cultivating self is even further from the comforts of routine and right answers.

I’m on my own trail, though; I can tell. My feet are finding familiarity in new landscapes, a heady déjà vu, and I have enough clarity left over to look my question of identity in the eyes when he finishes the reel, thank him for his concern, and wish him goodnight without ever needing to mold our moment into an answer.

11Jul

Re-stitched

One one hand, the ER was not where I’d imagined spending the evening of our 9th anniversary. Sure, the colored reflectors on the operating room lights scattered a certain romantic sparkle through the air, and we had some special moments answering the doctors in two-part harmony. “Which one of you is Bassett?” “We both are.” “Yes, but which one is here for treatment?” “We both are.” Still, we probably wouldn’t have handpicked the emergency room for our anniversary getaway.

On the other hand, how better to commemorate this perpetual adventure of a marriage than to get matching stitches for our matching arm wounds which will be matching badass scars by this time next year?

Yeah, I’ve got nothing either.

It started at midnight, the first moon-slivered seconds of our anniversary, with a tremendous crash just beyond our bedroom door. We (I) were still skittish from the night before when our television had started blaring in the opposite end of the house leading us (me) to imagine burglars hiding in every sock drawer, so I felt totally justified in jumping up and brandishing the first weapon available. Which was… our sheet. I must have looked very fierce indeed, terror-frozen at the foot of our bed with a fistful of linens.

Dan, possessing all of our collective presence of mind and movement of limb at that moment, dashed out of the room to investigate and soon reported that, contrary to popular opinion, we were not under mortar attack. I surrendered my sheet and came out to see what would only ever under those exact circumstances be considered a welcoming sight—a bathroom covered wall to wall in foamy brown liquid and shards of glass.

To those of you still reading, it’s not as gross as it sounds. Promise. My husband brews artisan beer as a hobby and had recently bottled a batch of lovely dark stout to finish fermenting on a bathroom shelf, not realizing that the temperature would creep up to dangerous levels. A bottle had exploded, and despite making a royal mess, it smelled delicious and wasn’t a grenade-launching burglar. I’ve never been so happy to scrub down a bathroom at midnight.

Exploding beer 1

We crawled into bed an hour later, kissed sleepily, and closed our eyes just in time for another explosion to rock the house. Crap. We checked on the damage—at least three bottles this time—and decided to just cordon off the crime scene for the night. By the third explosion, we barely even stirred on our pillows. Any number of home invaders could have blown down our door that night without encountering so much as a single belligerent bedsheet. Prospective villains, take note.

We didn’t really want to spend our anniversary cleaning double malt off the bathroom ceiling, but sometimes life requires maturity. Which is why we waited until nearly suppertime to start. (Why else did God invent second bathrooms if not to allow for slovenly cleaning habits?) Now, some people might have reasoned that walking into a room full of spontaneously exploding glass necessitated flak gear or at least a healthy sense of caution, but then again, some people don’t get to experience unforgettable 9th anniversary bonding moments like the one just ahead.

It happened while I was kneeling over the bottom shelf of bottles hosing away glass chips and yeasty goodness. I didn’t realize that the shelf above it was getting nudged off its pegs until I suddenly found myself trying to catch a dozen beer bottles as they exploded. In my face. Demonstrating the same quick reflexes and superior thinking that I had the night before, I froze in place… that place being a front row seat to my own dissection.

Fortunately, survival of the fittest is trumped by survival of the married, and Dan yanked me onto my feet and toward the door. Just as I was registering that my arm kind of maybe really hurt, he made a sound indicating that some part of his body kind of maybe really did too. We stumbled into the other bathroom where the following half hour remains a bit of a blur. At some point, a pair of blood-splattered jeans ended up in the laundry, and we found a red scatterplot across the mirror the next day, so you know it had to be fun.

My arms, legs, and shoulders were peppered with tiny nicks, but there wasn’t a single splinter of glass lodged in my skin—a mercy. Even more remarkably, my face was untouched. Not a mark. I didn’t recognize the miracle of this until much later because that was about the time Dan realized that a few Angry Birds Band-Aids and wishful thinking were no match for the slices on our biceps. Always a people pleaser, I myself was reluctant to head to the hospital. In my mind, the ER is for head injuries and heart attacks; wouldn’t the doctors frown on us for taking up their valuable time with something as mundane as cuts?

As it turns out, there’s a generally accepted rule of thumb about this very situation: If you can see your own muscle, get thee to the ER.

Exploding beer 2

A mere hour and a half later (I know!), we were sewed up and headed back home, five stitches apiece and gratefulness all around—for the neighbor who took in our girls with thirty seconds’ advance notice, for the friend who cleaned up every bit of broken glass in our absence, for the spouse cracking jokes and grimacing in sympathy across the triage room, and for the divine current of goodness carrying us not only through our 9th anniversary but to it as well.

This last year has been one of our hardest as a couple, and I know that probably sounds worth an eye roll or two in light of the marriage letters and the Dear Nearlywed and the happy Instagram feeds. None of that is an act; we are happy, but some days, it’s a happiness hard won. Some weeks, life pressure turns into a geyser under our feet and we jump in opposite directions without meaning to. Some months, we can’t really tell whether the intensity we’re channeling is primarily push or pull, both instincts being so strong and our minds so weary. We’ve spent so much of the last year facing obstacles and scanning for miracles that we’ve often forgotten how to look at each other, how to look and really see.

This is why our 9th anniversary came as such a gift. Fresh out of the emergency room, twinges of pain reminded me of the pain avoided—the deep mercy of an untouched face, of blood beating soundly inside our two skins. And then this interpersonal rawness after an intense year… it floods me with gratefulness for the new bonds we’ve forged throughout, the promises kept, and the sacred still of forgiveness.

I’m not used to picturing us with scars, and my mind keeps reverting back to the way we used to be like a dog who can’t understand its owners have moved. I can never adjust to new realities without a ridiculous amount of head-swiveling. However, the new us is quickly growing on me. This is the year we start rocking the scars, and honestly, I love that we share these testaments to coming undone and being restitched. Even the ones on our arms.

Exploding beer 3

(All pictures by Dan, who had the presence of mind to take them)

19Aug

Sluggish with Shoulds

Today is one of those days in which good intentions flop belly-side up just as I’m congratulating myself on their vitality.

It’s one of those days in which prodding myself out of bed just as the sun melts upwards is no guarantee of productivity.

It’s one of those days in which I punish my brain by assigning it menial tasks… and then make messes of those as well. (The subsequent words I lob at myself aren’t pretty.)

It’s one of those days in which ants crawl around the inside of my skin and I think “If only…” without being able to finish that sentence.

It’s one of those days in which the minute hand slips through my fingers as I watch from miles under water.

It’s… well, you know, one of those days, and iced coffee and happy children and good news and TGIF vibes aren’t enough to reset the defensive sluggishness in my mind, not with the big bad shoulds still glaring through every window.

I’m the one who spoiled the view with shoulds, I know. In an effort to feel more productive and thus more fulfilled, to stop tiptoeing around the monster of inadequacy every night, and to finally make something of those dreams eternally cramped by time, I’ve been loading myself up with motivational strategies:
Cut out the unimportant and make every moment count.
Apply the 80-20 principle to every facet of your life.
Limit input, expand output.
Give yourself impossible deadlines to sharpen your focus.
Figure out what you want and only do what is absolutely necessary for achieving it.

And the result is that I’m frozen.

Attempting to regiment my creativity seems to  have drained its life force, and so I find myself sitting next to a half-empty coffee mug at 7 am, completely free of distractions and focusing with all my will on output, output, output, and… nada. Or I plant myself in my studio corner while the girls are playing quietly across the house, and I’m desperate to squeeze every drop out of the opportunity, but still… nothing. I would hit myself upside the head if I thought it would do any good. (I sometimes do it regardless.)

The energy just isn’t there—not when I’m feeling the pressure to perform on cue. The fun has fled, the magic’s evaporated, and I’m dredging the bottom of a concrete tank for words rather than plucking them from the air. But isn’t this a necessary part of life for serious writers? The need to type on a timeline under the weight of deadlines and conjure up magic anyway? I’ve watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk about a bajillion times, and I love what she would say to her genius as she worked on Eat, Pray, Love:

“Listen you, Thing, you and I both know that if this book isn’t brilliant, that is not entirely my fault, right? ‘Cause you can see that I am putting everything I have into this, you know, I don’t have any more than this, so if you want it to be better, then you’ve got to show up and do your part of the deal, OK? But if you don’t do that, you know, the hell with it. I’m going to keep writing anyway because that’s my job, and I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.”

Only I want to know what happened after that, on days when her muse remained AWOL and other responsibilities clouded her mindwaves and the sentences already on her paper looked all wrong and no more would come. Is the stubbornness to keep showing up all it takes? Does my creative center just need awhile to get used to the shoulds and ticking timers staring it down?

Or are these expectations I’m putting on myself unnecessary and counterproductive? Am I sabotaging my instincts by trying to conform them to others’ techniques? Am I wasting this precious commodity of time by staring at an unfinished document trying to threaten a balking imagination into moving forward?

Or is this just one of those days and nothing more?

8Aug

Double Shot of Eco-Buzz

Homer: “Marge, can you cut back on your makeup budget?”
Marge: “But I already use crayons for lipstick and fireplace soot for eyeliner….”
Homer: “So THAT’S where my soot went!”

(The Simpsons will forever have a place in my heart.)

Over the last few months, I’ve been researching ways to save money, and I always end up arguing at the internet thusly:
But we already line-dry our clothes!
But we don’t even have an air conditioner!
But we already eat seasonally!
But we’re already a one-car family!
Pet hair sweaters? Are you kidding?

I’ve felt for a long time that there’s not much we can do to lessen our day-to-day expenses, and I’ve avoided updating our budget spreadsheet for weeks because of the helplessness I feel in the face of so many numbers. Today, though, a particular category made me pause.

We spend—::cough:: I don’t even want to say how much—a month on hygiene, beauty, and cleaning products which I’ve always considered a necessary evil because, well, wallowing in filth just isn’t our style. Of the 7 products I use in the shower, the 5 in my daily facial routine, the 3 for hairstyling, the 4 for laundry, the 8 for housecleaning, the 4 for dishwashing, and the myriad lotions and soaps and cosmetics and perfumes and gels and sprays that we cycle through, there are maybe two I feel I could do without. Let’s face it—I’m just not that crunchy.

However, I’m noticing downsides to our current modus operandi in addition to the cost. For example, I won’t let the girls help me clean the house (despite all of our wishes) because I don’t want them coming in contact with all those chemicals and fumes. For another thing, I have to bring an entire backpack worth of toiletries on vacation, and my face-washing regimen looks pretty ridiculous lined up in a campground washroom. I hate feeling enslaved to certain aisles of the supermarket, forced to choose between cleanliness and my better judgment. (€5 for the cheapest bottle of lotion? Really???) I hate feeling powerless to change.

So this morning, I dove into some online research on homemade, frugal, eco-conscious solutions, and I emerged from Google two hours later with glassy eyes and a dizzy brain. The quantity of information out there is simply overwhelming, and I have no idea whether the kiwi-cider toilet scrub recipe or the wasabi-Borax one is more effective (my guess is neither, and anyway, I can’t find Borax here). The familiar helplessness started sinking back in, but then I had a revolutionary, completely original idea that I will now share with you at no cost just because I like you so much: Try one thing at a time. (Novel, non?)

Here’s how I imagine it working: As I run out of a product, I try to find a more sustainable and inexpensive substitute. If I find something that works, I rejoice and my husband gets to make fun of me (you’re welcome, dear). If not, no big deal, nothing changes, and I pretend I wasn’t trying to unclog the drains with salad dressing. Also, I get a guilt-free pass from all the following:

  • Using fruit for anything but eating (There’s no way I’m going to shell out big bucks for a tub of strawberries and then smear them on my face. Unless by “on my face” you mean “inside my mouth,” in which case, yes please.)
  • Using rocks as deodorant (I have previous experience with this one, and it resulted in a friend kindly donating me her father’s used Speed Stick. True story.)
  • Giving up makeup (I’m sure that beet juice lip gloss and olive oil mascara bring out one’s natural beauty, but… no. Just no.)

My natural inclination is to give up before I even start. Too much information, too many opinions, too much focus on weighty issues like ethics or politics when I’m just trying to save money and live a little simpler… but I like meeting challenges, I’m grateful to find my own strength in overcoming obstacles, and I’m even rather fond of my inaugural attempt:

Eco-friendly buzz

Do tell: Are there any budget- and eco-friendly products you can vouch for? Or am I headed down a vinegar-scented slope to utter wackedness?

18Feb

Life’s (Not) a Beach

These past several days have been so busy, so ripe with tasks and opportunities, that I find myself wondering if I’m allowed to stop plucking for a moment and catch my breath. I steep a mug of green tea—a sneaky attempt to ease myself out of late afternoon coffee dependence—and simply sit. It feels strange, and not twenty seconds go by before I’m antsy. Do something! the motivational speaker in my brain urges. Write something! Clean something! Finish something! Be all you can be! I wish I could punch her.

I just want to be. Not to be all I can be, not to be productive or witty or any one of a thousand admirable adjectives, but just to exist. Memories have been weighty burdens lately; I could do without them for awhile. Responsibilities too. I imagine this is what drives normal people to take beach vacations, the prospect of lying under sun and salt spray and forgetting everything else. (When I go to the beach? I stay in the shade all day reading novels unless I’m there with offspring, in which case cleaning sand from crevices factors in significantly.)

Of course, instead of disassociating from the present, I’m writing about it. This defeats the point, I’m sure, but I always feel more settled when I can give sentence structure to my emotions. Plus, a little bit of introspection goes a long way toward reminding me that the present is worth sticking around for. I actually do like the heft of goals and the importance each minute takes on when I’m busy, and I even like needing a late afternoon caffeine boost to wrap up a day well-packed. If the motivational speaker in my head doesn’t shut up soon, however, I’m taking off for the beach and leaving both novels and green tea behind.

19Jul

Sultry Sprinkles

I wanted my head to be in the game today, I really did. After all, one’s birthday is a rare creature, and I fully intended to grab mine by the horns and ride it for all it’s worth. However, this blanket of summer heat with its cicada underbuzz has lulled me into a daze that not even a fresh supply of Illy can penetrate.

I wanted to recap my birthday list from last year, to share the happinesses that have come from living with intention—the surprising taste of bruschetta topped with chocolate shavings and olive oil, Natalie’s rapt smile as I read through Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, a vertical strawberry patch flourishing on our balcony, pen-pal correspondence with a long-lost friend. I have loved challenging myself with each little adventure, but I can’t find the focus to lay out a whole year for display right now.

Ergo, all I have for you now is Birthday List version 3.0. Soon, I’ll have some camping stories spruced up and ready to share. Sooner than that (I hope), I’ll reclaim my brain power from the sultry weight of July. For now, though, I simply have a new year sprinkled liberally with hopes:

~ Host an all-tapas dinner party
~ Get lost in a field of sunflowers
~ Read a novel in Italian
~ Get over my nervousness of playing piano in public
~ Complete an unfinished project
~ Cook an entire meal of Indian food
~ Face a fear
~ Organize a night out with girlfriends
~ Keep my beloved two-year-old mint alive all winter
~ Write a poem
~ Make friends with my midriff again
~ Help the girls start their own Daily Dose of Beauty lists
~ Learn how to make tiger bread
~ Conquer the subjunctive tense once and for all
~ Reach for something that feels impossible
~ Call up another mom from the girls’ school to arrange a playdate
~ Make pickles from scratch
~ Instigate a knock-down, drag-out, rocking-awesome living room dance party
~ Publish something
~ Invite guests over at least once a week
~ Teach Natalie to read
~ Surprise someone with kindness
~ Laugh so hard I cry

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