the madness of march

March 27, 2019

I don’t understand how so many stunningly awful things have happened this month in my circle of awareness. I know some of you, my blog-friends, are living excruciating things yourselves. Sometimes it feels like the apocalypse. But I think whether it is or not is up to us. A wise friend once told me, “it’s not so much what happened, but how we respond to it.”

My sister’s brother-in-law passed away suddenly, just a week before the 14th anniversary of her late husband’s sudden death – which means that the mother of those two men is now childless.

My best friend from grad school lost a baby at 21 weeks – and nearly lost her life from septic shock.

Another sudden death of a former student, in India.

Mozambique.

I feel like there was a time when life didn’t feel like this, didn’t feel like things falling apart all around. Or did I just not see it?

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Guards

March 27, 2019

When I pulled my backpack purse around to put my cell phone in it, I saw that the main zipper was open. For a flash I thought “how careless, I didn’t close it” but then I saw the shadowy gap where my wallet should be and wasn’t.

It was a really pretty wallet, camel skin that my husband brought me from Afghanistan.

All the running around, shouting, trying not to panic, trying not to let my distress kill the joy of the day for my kids – we were just outside the Acropolis in Athens, and in the moment that I had leaned back to take a photo of an old Orthodox church with the top of the Acropolis peering over the rock’s edge above it, I had been aware of people behind me but I was absorbed in the moment, framing the shot, soaking in the almost spiritual vibe of the place.

Long story short, I lost neither cell phone nor passport but I did lose my credit card, debit card, driver’s licence, a SIM card for my phone in the US, maybe a few other random items, and 100 Euros in cash. And my serenity. I’m still worried about identity theft, but I’ve already replaced the credit and debit cards. The money isn’t insignificant but it’s not that much either, in the grand scheme of things. It translates into books and yarn that I was planning to buy and won’t, now. At least not this year.

And I wasn’t alone: my husband still had all his cash and cards and could carry us through the rest of the trip.

It made me think, though, about how during the five years in Colombia, in a city where nearly everyone on our team had a wallet or phone stolen at least once, I never once had my pocket picked or home robbed. But I also never once let my guard down. And this affected – deeply – my experience of living in that city. It was a mutually reinforcing dynamic, the guardedness and my unhappiness there – if I had felt more connected, more welcomed, perhaps I would have been less guarded. If I had been less guarded, less defensive, perhaps I would have formed closer attachments to people and places in Colombia. But I did neither.

Sure, there are a few people I feel great affection for – the Colombian women on our team in particular – but that affection is still colored by the disaffection I feel towards the country as a whole. (And I still feel guilty, a sense of failure, for this.)

In Athens, my wallet was stolen. In an unguarded moment, someone took advantage of my happiness and trust and did me injury. And yet I still have that memory of seeing the Parthenon for the first time, tears surprising my eyes as the immense weight of history washed over me – the tangible reality of the white stones in front of me. All those years of poring over flat diagrams on a white page, and now the constructed thing made real, with all its attached significance. I let down my guard, and all this experience flooded in.

 

Hobbies and Obsessions

January 15, 2019

It’s cold, cold, cold here, and my Christmas tree is still up.

I’m looking for a new hobby/obsession. For years I was super into knitting, and got really good at it. Looking back I can remember clearly the series of misshapen hats and sweaters that slowly evolved into areas of specific expertise – baby hats and sweaters, socks.

Before the knitting era, I did all kinds of handwork – I crocheted (at least 4 bedspreads among other random things), did counted cross-stitch, learned a technique to paint on cloth (a set of sheets with a pillowcase, several T-shirts). I thought about learning beading, bought a set of tools to make jewellery and taught myself how to make up-cycled earrings from broken-up thrift store pieces.

Then one day I read an article in a knitting magazine about knitting obsession and it was like the *permission* I needed to truly become obsessed myself. I gathered an extensive collection of needles and other paraphernalia, built up a good-sized yarn stash, read knitting blogs, experimented. I taught a small group of friends how to knit.

Eventually, through infertility and then babies and then two international moves my knitting dropped off to nearly zero. When I reclaimed it, all I made was socks. I love making socks. Using four or five needles at once automatically impresses people, and the small size is much more portable than a blanket or even a sweater. Sock knitting has gotten me through innumerable boring meetings. I love the self-striping yarns you can get, and I love playing with color and pattern and texture within the confines of the given shape. I know the structure of a sock so well now that I can cast on and then go without thinking or planning a lot. Plus, for an international move, a bag of sock yarn and one set of double-pointed needles is all you need to hours of therapy in the future.

I do find it therapeutic. But somehow I’ve burned out on knitting, finally. There are things I’d like to make, but I don’t have the same range of needles and yarns available to me here (although I still have all my tools and fiber in storage in the US). In Colombia I did find a couple nice yarn shops, but they didn’t carry the range of natural fibers you can get in North America. Even less so here where it’s either very rough but all natural sheep’s wool yarns that older women use to make bed socks, or imported acrylic yarns from Turkey. I brought sock yarn with me and needles but I feel entirely uninspired. It took me a year to make a pair of ankle socks for a friend with very small feet.

So, I’ve been coloring. I have the Bloggess’s amazing book, and another one my sister gave me of artwork based on tropical nature. But it’s not something I can obsess about. And I feel like I need a new obsession.

I’ve been toying with a few ideas – I love miniatures, and I realized that half the appeal of Legos for me is the building of a miniature world. I thought about learning how to make miniature books. Now I’m thinking about miniature knitting. I feel inspired by the tiny knitted and crocheted animals I’ve seen on Instagram and that’s where I think I might be headed.

Any delay, though, is due to the time it takes to figure things out. With socks, I could just grab some yarn, needles, decide who to make the sock for (–> number of stitches to cast on) and go. With a new thing it’s going to take time to figure out. Setting aside that time intentionally needs a little bit of a push and I’m generally more likely to tell myself “I’ll only surf Twitter for 5 minutes,” until 45 minutes later and it’s time to go get the kids. But I have a perpetual need to play with color, pattern, shape, texture, and design and if I don’t find another outlet for it then I will continue to get sucked into building worlds on my kids’ Minecraft accounts when I could be doing something more real, more productive.

Here we are

January 11, 2019

The obligatory New Year’s post… I guess I didn’t do one last year; my blogging was in a dormant phase at that time and my in-laws were here. I did set an intention though, tucked into a plastic tree ornament and re-opened on Dec 31, to find a sense of purpose and direction. And I think I did that, over the course of the year.

I feel like now I’m refining my goals, making them more realistic. When I turned 45, anticipating a mid-life crisis of some sort, I started working on a memoir as well as some fiction writing, giving myself freedom and permission to explore writing as a craft. I asked myself what is it I want so much I can taste it? I want to see my name in print. The exact parameters around that are vague to me, but I want to produce something really, really good.

What I’ve realized since I set that goal is that it will probably take longer than the few months I’d allotted to it, longer even than a year. It will take a long time.

I’ve also realized that I don’t want to own my own consulting business. Over the past couple of months I’ve been doing a LOT of work for my husband. He took on way too many projects this fall, and ended up under a series of simultaneous deadlines, conflicting travel demands, etc. So I ended up ghost-writing one of his reports (just 20 pages), translating into Spanish and then heavily editing another 200-page report (I started having dissertation flash-backs), substitute teaching his online class for a month, and continuing to manage most of the household business – although to his credit he did pick up a lot of that in December after getting back from his last trip. On the one hand, my feminism is outraged (“Anonymous was a woman!”) but on the other hand I’ve enjoyed it. I enjoy NOT being the one in charge. I found the work mostly stimulating and interesting enough in its own right (mostly – a good part of it was also excruciatingly tedious). I do enjoy working with him, mostly – I originally fell in love with him during long conversations about international development theory – I love his mind and how he makes me think about things I’ve never thought of before. And vice versa. So now I’m thinking maybe we should co-own the consulting business. If his current employment starts to look shaky, we’re thinking about doing that instead.

We’re thinking about extending our stay in Albania for one more year. Because of course we are. Because we changed schools for the kids this year and it would be nice if they could be at the same school for 2 years in a row, for once. (It has been, on balance, a good change. Illyria has a friend who is a girl her age for pretty much the first time in her life.) Because the cost of living is so much less here. Because we’re used to being expats. Because… sometimes I run out of energy to keep dissecting the whys and wherefores. So maybe it’s also because of inertia. And here we are.

Self-tracking

November 1, 2018

Ok so, we didn’t get the bid, although we got the “bronze medal” – third place. I wrote to ask how we could improve our proposals in the future, and they said we were outranked by a team with more experience/credentials specific to the field the project focused on (gender and domestic violence). I guess I feel good that we went for it, and I’m actually fine with not getting it… Gimli is traveling outside the country for 3 weeks, and I will be leaving on a trip just as he gets back – so the timing would have been pretty stressful and tricky. I don’t sleep well when he’s gone; actually today is the first day since he left 9 days ago that I actually feel rested and with enough energy to do some work. Just in time for November!

I set up a regular conference call with a friend who is also combining writing and parenting, to keep each other motivated and on track (she lives in Colombia so we can’t meet in person). It’s so helpful.

So it feels like a good day to set some new goals, re-engage with my meditation practice, exercise some self-discipline and enjoy the work.

Work and Love

October 19, 2018

Yesterday I hit “Send” on an email, putting in a bid for a program evaluation for an NGO here. My prospective co-evaluator M sat next to me, taking deep breaths and then a cigarette to calm her nerves, but I felt serene.

It didn’t start out that way though.

When my husband sent me the call for proposals, I read through it, thought “that’s do-able,” and then had to do some serious introspection to figure out how I really felt about it. What was my body telling me? I read the Terms of Reference and felt nausea as I scanned through the standard formatting – the list of acronyms, objectives, deliverables – just the language of it took me back to March when I was beyond miserable working on another evaluation for an NGO in Albania. During that awful time I thought about leaving my husband; we all got sick, it was just the worst.

But then I thought, this one could be different. And maybe I should give it a chance to be a different experience.

So… I decided to go for it. On Sunday, my husband took the kids to church and lunch and park while I worked for about 4 hours on the proposal, and after a bit of frustrated venting via text about just some of the idiocies of the nonprofit industry (seed grants that are somehow supposed to magically transform into “sustainable” sources of funding? It just doesn’t work that way) things kind of started to flow.

When I look at my CV, I even impress myself, so why do I always look at myself through this lens of deficit? You know what, I was taught to look at myself this way. My favorite teacher in high school once said in a church meeting, “Oh, but I love worm theology” (the idea that sinful humans are lowly as worms, to God be the glory, we deserve hell, we owe eternal life and salvation to Jesus, etc.). I have a hard time remembering that this belief is something I learned, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.

Anyway, with the job, the timing is awkward – I’ll be at a conference + visiting my sister for a 10-day period in the middle of the data collection phase – but I feel good about my colleague, and she badly wants the work.

And that was definitely a factor in deciding to go for it – I don’t need this, and in some ways I’d be a little relieved if we don’t get it – but if in doing this project I can help out a friend, I’m in.

~::~

The other story – on a completely different note – happened yesterday, too.

So a few weeks ago I took Illyria to a hospital here for a brain MRI. It was kind of traumatic for her, she had to have oxygen and to feel my hand on her leg to get through it. It was incredibly loud and strange. (I’m happy to tell you more about what we learned via e-mail – e.phantzi at yahoo if you want to write me.) So yesterday when the kids were playing with their leopard family stuffies I pricked my ears up as a parallel scenario developed there, with one of the leopard children.

The mother leopard, Lea, couldn’t figure out why rainbows would flash into existence whenever she hugged or cuddled Leopardy, who is also the only one of her children that is pink and purple. The parents each have elemental powers that combine differently in their children, but Leopardy had never shown signs of any of the expected powers – like lighting speed, or being able to produce endless heat. So she called the doctor for a house visit, and the doctor referred them to a scientist who could tell them more. Lea took Leopardy to the lab, where the scientist (a fawn) examined him and showed the results on a giant screen.

[I was holding my breath – what would the results be?? I just felt like this was going to tell me something crucial about how Illyria sees herself and the MRI experience.]

“Your son has a very unique structure,” the fawn told Lea. “It’s something I’ve never seen before. Every cell of his body is filled with and made of love.”

Vocation

October 8, 2018

I’ve been binge-listening to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, it is THE BEST.

(Thank you, Tara)

There is a great story during the live show recording for Book Three, Chapter 17 – (Prisoner of Azkaban, “Cat, Rat, and Dog”) told by guest Scott Perlo, which you can listen to here starting at 40:11. It brought me to tears with the idea of whatever it is you do, do with all your heart and do it with joy and love, even if it’s being a thief.

I was re-telling it to my husband, about how I was hearing this message while my hands were at work mixing oatmeal with honey and dried berries and lots of other stuff for granola bars, and I wondered if this was it; this is the thing I’m meant to be pouring my energy into. This work of child-rearing. I don’t think it is the whole of the thing. But it is a good part of the thing.

When we think of vocation, do we think of One Thing?

When I was a teenager, I never thought of my life in terms of a career. I think now that that’s in part due to my evangelical upbringing, where as a girl I was never encouraged to think of myself as a future professional in some field. I was encouraged to go to college, but nudged only towards being a high school English teacher or a missionary (maybe to Russia! That was what my dad wanted). I was encouraged to envision my future as supporter and helper of my husband.

And that’s actually a good percentage of what I’m doing now. Some tiny part of my feels a little bit of relief, that just maybe in case everything I was taught as a child turns out to be true after all (it’s a very tiny bit of me that thinks this) then I’m safe, then I’m doing the right thing. Cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, homework help, doctor’s appointments, haircuts, organizing the carpool and after-school activities… so that my husband can work 3 jobs and financially support us while making the world a better place… and most of the time it actually feels really good. I feel like I’m doing the right thing.

But is this my vocation? I also never saw myself as being solely a “homemaker.” I’ve always felt a strong sense of having a role to play in, well, making this world a better place, somehow. And not just by raising kids but more directly. This was my guiding light through years of doing community development, non-profit, and social service work. Even my PhD work had this notion of influencing people to think differently about immigrants and refugees, to deepen our understanding of what welcome means, what incorporation means. So now I have hours of unstructured time at home, because the work of raising the kids does not take all day, and I don’t have a job. They go to school, and I have help with the housework. So I’ve been writing. But I haven’t been diving in with the same full abandon with which I’ve given myself to work I’ve done in the past. It feels… tentative. And I’m not sure what that means.

Room

September 26, 2018

The earth tilts us into Fall; the full moon over the equinox and then cool, cool mornings and a shift in the slant of the light over the city. Yesterday afternoon I walked under rows of sunlit linden trees, the green going gold over my head and I felt… blessed. I love this city, but if I try to articulate the reasons, I can apply the itemized list to dozens of other places I have lived or visited, without the same affection having blossomed. It’s kind of like terroir I guess.

A young woman I follow on Twitter, Hannah Paasch, tweeted this earlier this month (screenshot because I couldn’t figure out how to embed the link):

Screen Shot 2018-09-26 at 08.25.19 am

It’s my new mantra. I thought of it this morning related to information that we got earlier this week about Illyria – we have learned some medical information that explains so much about certain things she struggles with, things I thought she did poorly because she wasn’t trying, or wasn’t paying attention, or I don’t know why, are all explained with this one thing – and it feels like a new room has opened in my mind, a place to look at, explore, and understand all these things about my beloved daughter that have been perplexing or frustrating. I’m not worried or fearful because over time I’ve only seen her get better at these things.¬†It helps me to know that these things ARE harder for her than for other kids her age; she’s not JUST being lazy or stubborn (although she is capable of both those moods, to be sure). We’ve shared the information with her teacher, who has responded so supportively.

Over the weekend Illyria¬†made an amazing model for her science class about the effects of DDT, using pipe cleaners to fashion a pair of cardinals on a nest – the male bringing a worm in his beak – and then of course the dead bird, broken egg. The project was about Rachel Carson and the birth of environmental science. I see a future for her in this – she is passionate about tree planting, clean air, environmental protection. It’s so cool seeing her express this, and to get a better idea of how to direct her interests going forward.

Today is the first day this week I’ve had for solitude and writing time at home by myself. It is a golden day.

Affirmations

September 20, 2018

I remember the early morning stillness, before the jungle heat set in to bake the roads and rooftops, and my family were all still asleep. I would sit in the living room – or kneel on the rug – to read my Bible, journal, and pray. Every day. Then I would make breakfast for everyone: toast, scrambled eggs, hot chocolate or coffee. Yep, I was a super pious teen. Even though I cringe a bit now at how sanctimonious I must have been (I wrote a paper for a school speech contest on how The Simpsons was ruining society by promoting disrespect towards authority – good grief, I must have been insufferable!) I can also feel a fond compassion for that earnest girl, who for several weeks one year met the challenge of praying for two hours every day – believing so hard that this act would change the world. Who knows, maybe it did.

And there was plenty of public affirmation and reward for this piety; in my high school girls’ Sunday School class (yes, we were separated into sex-segregated groups starting in 9th grade) we earned points for doing our daily devotions (aka “quiet time,” or “quiet time with the Lord”) as well as memorizing Bible verses and I don’t know what else. I won a blue fluffy bunny! I was also named “Student of the Year” at my Christian school, 10th grade and 12th grade.

Now I get zero brownie points, no trophies or stuffed toys. So I’m relying on the intrinsic benefits of daily meditation and putting the phone away so I can get better sleep. It’s helping. Yesterday I was working myself into a tizzy over something I said to someone in an e-mail, imagining their reactions and raking myself over the coals for not being as forthright as I feel like I should have been, imagining this person’s conversations with other people who know us both, about me, of course, and all my errors and omissions – Slightly ridiculous, yes? I got into a weird spiral where I couldn’t tell if it was really my honest intuition pinging me a needed warning, or that self-loathing part of my brain that just lies to me all the time about how worthless I am.

But I was able to yank myself out of it with a breathing meditation (I’m using the Smiling Minds app because it was free), and it gave me the needed perspective. Yes, I should have been more forthright, but probably nobody is talking about me. It was a small thing and will probably remain a small thing. If it bothers the other person, then they’ll get back to me and we can move on from there.

Overall, I feel calmer, happier. Nothing like the dark well of angst of this past summer. And I’ve been making myself daily affirmation slides, combining affirmations with photos I’ve taken. Here are a few to start your day.

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And this quote from Songs of Kabir:

Listen carefully,

Neither the Vedas Nor the Qur’an

Will teach you this:

Put the bit in its mouth,

The saddle on its back,

Your foot in the stirrup

And ride your wild runaway mind

All the way to heaven.

Random thoughts on wellbeing

September 11, 2018

I just finished eating a truly delicious breakfast: avocado omelette, watermelon-ginger-blackberry-peach smoothie, blackberry bran muffin, coffee. I made it all myself! And I feel a good 40% happier than before I ate it.

Tuesdays seem to be easier to handle than Mondays.

Sleep is so key to wellbeing.

I worry a lot about Illyria. My meditation app says that since I started this program I’ve meditated for 18 hours and 28 minutes (although some of that was my husband using it for the sleep meditation). I think it has a net positive effect on my overall baseline happiness level – or, to put it another way, the world feels a little lighter, a little more richly hued, softer, better. I wish I could get my kids to meditate with me more often.

But as I finished this morning’s meditation I felt a physical sensation on my chest, like a heavy flat piece of stone resting on my sternum. In my mind were two pictures of Illyria when she was about a year old, taken by her nanny at the time – “a rare smile!” the nanny had captioned it. Another picture, another day, showed her looking forlornly through the screen door, all melancholy. I think this was closer to her baseline state when she was away from me. Knowing what I know now about attachment, about my daughter’s own particularities, I wonder if I would have done the same thing trying to continue my graduate work after she was born? She still wants me to sleep next to her, she wants me to hold her hand or put my hand on her back as she drifts off to sleep. She wants to see me there when she wakes up in the night.

There are a lot of things I wish I had done differently, but I did the best I could with what I knew at the time.

I once asked a friend in undergrad if he was glad he’d majored in philosophy, since he seemed, I don’t know, pained by it in some way (I later learned more about his personal life that makes me think this pain probably came from our evangelical college’s stances on what we euphemistically called “lifestyle” issues at the time). But he thought for a moment and then said, “I feel glad in the way that you would be glad you had had heart surgery. It’s not something you enjoy, but without it you might die. You need it.”

That notion has stayed with me for a long time. How hard and painful things can be necessary for life, for thriving.

What heart surgery do I need to do today?

Baby Val