Archive for the ‘navel-gazing’ Category


June 16, 2013

Have any of you heard of the Enneagram? Gimli and I kind of got into it about 10 years ago; it’s a way of understanding your personality type based on your fundamental, basic motivation. There are 9 different types and I won’t go into all the arcana here, but I’m supposedly a Type 4 (the Individualist – motivated by the desire to be unique) and Gimli is a Type 8 (the Challenger, motivated by the desire to be in control). Several people on our team are into posting their “Enneathought for the day” on Facebook and kind of got me hooked on it again. I have found it helpful at times, for understanding some of the conflicts G and I have, in terms of getting flashes of insight into what kinds of things feel threatening to him (he hates feeling controlled by others) as well as what he is like at his best (a compassionate leader). I’ve also used it recently to try to help him understand other people on the team.

I signed up for a free online membership to the site linked above, and now I get an Enneathought for the day (I do have to refrain from rolling my eyes slightly at the whole thing even though I also find it really fascinating) delivered to my inbox daily. Below are a sample of some of the best ones I’ve gotten:

“A major feature of average Fours is using the imagination to heighten the emotional impact of reality. Fours can relate to their fantasies instead of to reality. Watch for this tendency in yourself today.” (Deleted PWP posts, this is so relevant)

This one is kind of corny: “Ponder this Insight: How can you fully experience your Presence here and now? Allow yourself to experience the richness and subtlety of your life.”

This one hit too close to home for comfort: “How is your unconscious childhood message that ‘It’s not okay to be too functional or too happy’ affecting you today?” Gimli often teases me about (at some level) enjoying being moody. A quote from The Historian, about Eastern Europeans: “We take our pleasures sadly” – he says fits me to a T.

Here is a concept I remember from the first time we got into the Enneagram, which I have often taken as affirmation of some of my career choices (including the most recent one): “Community service of some kind will make you less self-conscious and give you a better perspective on yourself.”

I liked this one a lot, because I do it way too much (hence a few of the categories on my blog – e.g. Overthinking Things Navel-Gazing, etc.) “Remember it’s not endlessly exploring your emotions that produces change but self-knowledge and awareness. Don’t try to change your reactions today. It is enough to see them more clearly.”

So, it’s kind of fun; I take it with a grain of salt, a bit. If you know your type or take the free short test, I’d be curious to know what number you were identified as, and if you think it fits you!


Culture Shock (*now with more linky love!)

January 4, 2013

I’m a veteran of transcultural living; perhaps at some level I thought culture shock didn’t apply to me anymore. I certainly thought that Colombia, being Latin America and sharing a border with Peru, would feel like home. But I’ve been overwhelmed with longing for Albania… the last thing I expected to feel upon coming here.

I had felt so ready to leave. I felt “done.” I knew I would miss Dhurata, but that didn’t feel like enough of a reason to stay on another year, so very far from my family of origin. I so looked forward to the familiarity of Latin American culture and the sounds of Spanish.

Today as I walked to lunch with  Gimli I looked up and saw laundry hanging from a balcony high over the city streets and I smiled, because it reminded me of Tirana. When we got back to the office I googled “culture shock.” My body has been registering strong symptoms of anxiety – difficulty sleeping, a tingling feeling in my face, headaches – and I’ve been persistently haunted by thoughts of how much better life was in Albania… more and more easily accessible fresh produce; a better apartment; a close relationship with a dear friend who also watched my children and helped me clean the house.

In the past, when I’ve shepherded university students through cross-cultural adjustment, I’ve given them lists of things to do to ease through culture shock: get enough sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Pay attention to the things you like and appreciate about your new context. Find ways to do the things you enjoyed doing at home. Care for your mental and emotional health, whatever that means for you.

So I’ve been trying to list the things I like about Bogota. The fact is, I feel much happier about living in Colombia whenever I have a chance to get out of the city… But there are things I do like. I like being fluent in the language. I like the bakery next to our office. I love the foods I can get here that I couldn’t in Albania, or very expensively in the US – papaya, mango, pineapples, avocados. I love the “typical” regional foods – a wonderful soup called “ajiaco” with chicken, potatoes, corn, flavored with capers and cream; fried plantains; fresh-squeezed guava juice. I like the public transport system – amazingly sophisticated and efficient compared to what I’m used to in other parts of Latin America.

I’m thankful it’s been so sunny since we’ve been here! Our previous impression of Bogota was constant clouds, cold, and drizzle, but the weather has been wonderful (climate change? Or just seasonal variation we weren’t exposed to before?).

I also love that the work we are doing is something I feel like I can really get behind, whole-heartedly. More on that in a future post, perhaps.

In terms of self-care, I know I need to take this down-time to pay attention to my emotional journey. I’m going to pick up again with the coaching I’ve been doing with my SIL, and I want (need) to resume blogging (and commenting on personal blogs) and personal writing. I need to figure out how to get more and better sleep. Yesterday when Gimli and I came to the office, there was nobody else here… so I lay down in the guest room we have for out-of-town volunteers to use when they’re in the city… and slept for six hours. Worker renewal.

I’ve enrolled both kids in a preschool just around the corner from our house. They start February 1. I’m terrified. More on that in a future post, to be sure.

And I’ll be doing a “What It’s Like Here” post a la Bloodsigns soon… I need to take more photos around the city… although I still feel a little wary of hauling out my camera on random city streets… but something will go up soon.

Last but not least, a grateful thanks to my top four commenters of 2012 (the fifth was myself!):

Jjiraffe – Faces of ALI, fashionista, mother of twins, and my first URL -> IRL friend (along with Esperanza) 🙂

Rachel – Raspberry Chip, baker, seamstress, faithful friend

St. Elsewhere – Intrepid woman, word artist

Tara – I miss you.

Playing in the Residue

May 31, 2012

Holy cow. Ok. Wow. So instead of deleting this blog (which was really just my tiredness talking, I won’t actually that) I went back and started reviewing my archives, copy and pasting each entry into a word document. I’m doing it one post at a time (and I now have over 520 posts) so I can preserve the comments, and also so I can edit a little bit. I’ve deleted a small handful of posts, the ones that went into too much detail about other people, and edited a couple slightly for identifying details.

But it has been so. much. fun. to do this. It’s all I want to do right now. It’s fascinating to see my life through the eyes of my 34-year-old self, six years ago – how different my life is now, how different I am. I feel like a different person. But I struggle with so many of the same things – insecurity, anxiety, self-doubt. Actually those things have been magnified incredibly by motherhood.

I’m about 6-7 months into the archives (I’m working from oldest to newest), and a few months ahead of the conception of our daughter. It’s kind of amazing to read back, knowing what I know now, about how the journey has gone since then.

It’s also amazing to see comments from people I haven’t thought about in YEARS – the women who just stopped blogging one day and never came back. And also amazing to see comments from people (Tara, Mel, Rachel, Sarah S-P) who are still part of my life today.

I found this fun iPod shuffle game we did a long time ago, where you do a random shuffle and then use the songs that come up, in the order they appear, to answer a list of 10 questions. I thought it would be fun to revisit it and see how it came out, and here is my list for today:

1. The song for the you that existed before you ever thought about your fertility:

“Anxiety” – Black Eyed Peas. OMG – the exact same song came out on top both times!!! Hit refresh. Try again.

“Down to the River to Pray” – from O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.

My “issues” with conservative/evangelical Christianity, the tradition I was raised in, were certainly in full force before infertility (or sub-fertility, if you will). But struggling to conceive certainly didn’t help resolve my issues. Having kids didn’t really, either. Well, maybe a little.

2. Would you really want to go back and be that person again?

“Shiny, Happy People” – REM

Not sure that that means… but I also don’t really know how to answer that question. I was so, so sad back then. But I was nowhere near so tired, so stressed, so anxious about everything. At the same time, there is no way I would want to lose this gift of motherhood. I’d like to regain the ability to focus I had back then, some of the balance I had, the intimacy with my husband, the fun I had doing things like play Scrabble and go out in the evenings. I know this will come again someday but right now it’s mostly really hard. Wonderful, but hard.

3. The song for when you first started fertility treatments:

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” – U2

Um, no further comment…

But so thankful that we eventually found them, or they found us – our babies.

4. What did infertility do to your sex life?

“Where Is The Love?” – Blackeyed Peas

Ok, who shuffled this now? Are they reading my mind???

5. What about superstitions and fertility rituals?

“Etcetera, Whatever” – Over The Rhine

“We don’t need a lot of money, we’ll be sleeping on the beach, keeping oceans within reach and I guess all I really mean is we’re gonna be all right. We’re gonna be all right.” (This one didn’t really fit the question. Which, phew, it was getting creepy!)

I did some rituals – I would pray for fellow stirrup queens when I couldn’t sleep at night, using the Hail Mary as a basis for rhythm and structure. And I would meditate after yoga using a heart-shaped candle. I don’t know whether or not I believed in either of these as effective beyond calming my mind.

6. How about “alternative” treatments, from cough syrup and pineapple to acupuncture and ‘body workers’? “

“Ribbons Undone” – Tori Amos

“She’s a girl / Rising from a shell / Running to spring / It is her time it is her time / Watch her run with ribbons undone”

This song makes me think of my daughter, although it has nothing to do with the question.

I didn’t do any “alternative” treatments.

7. How do you feel about coming out of the IF closet?

“Calling the Moon” – Dar Williams

“Oh, make sense of me, night / I can see so much from this cold height / The moon said, “Oh darkness, my work is done / I’ve poured this bottle of light from the sun / But their anger keeps on rising / And they don’t understand / I’ve shown them all that I can / That the world is at hand”

8. Your song for other people’s baby showers:

“Give Me Novocaine” – Green Day

Okay, getting creepily apropos again!

9. What about our scary friend hope?

“This Will Be Our Year” – Ok Go

“This will be our year, took a long time to come” I held on to this song for a long time. Held on to it hard.

10. And lastly, the theme song of your fertility journey:

“By Way of Sorrow” – Cry Cry Cry

Ok. So. TAG – you’re it!!!


March 12, 2012


(Sometimes I get bored while I’m working)

Hey, it’s my birthday today! I’m now on the final count-down to 40. I want to do something intentional this year, a daily discipline of the sort that I can reach March 12, 2013 and be able to look back and see something that has unfolded over the 365 days past. I thought of doing a 365 photo project, but I already take a lot of photos and couldn’t think of a subject that really lit me up. I thought of doing something health oriented but that’s not really, well, fun – I mean, taking my vitamins and flossing should theoretically contribute to my general overall good health a year from now but there’s not the aesthetic aspect that I’m looking for.

So I decided to dive into a blank journal I’ve been hoarding for a few years now. I plan to write something in it every day (I haven’t decided whether to do morning or evening) – aim for just one sentence. Something good that happened that day, or something I am thankful for, or an intention for the day (if I’m writing in the morning). I want to end my 30s thoughtfully and proactively. I want to begin my 40s mindfully and optimistically.


Last night our nanny texted me to say she had a family medical urgency and could she come in late today? So I spent the morning doing housework and playing with the kids, instead of going to my Albanian lesson. It was nice, by and large. We played “monkey catch” which entails Illyria standing on the bed and throwing a beanie baby spider monkey at me while I do slap-stick leaps and jumps in a mad effort to never, ever catch it and she laughs hysterically. Oz enjoyed it too. We had oatmeal and peanut butter toast for breakfast, potato-noodle-bean soup (leftovers edition) for lunch, and I moderated disputes over a beanie baby cat toy. I checked in periodically on the Healing Salons but have yet to add my two cents.

When Dhurata arrived around lunchtime, I went out to do the shopping but then also bought myself a sandwich and Vogue and sat at a cafe to read and eat while sipping a chocolate drink that is exactly like hot chocolate pudding. It’s a sunny day but cold. As soon as the kids went down for naps I slipped back indoors to sit in the back bedroom and surf the web. I might watch part of a movie on DVD while knitting socks. Later tonight Gimli and I are going out for an early dinner. It feels… luxurious.

And that’s all the birthday party I want or need.


February 13, 2012

Today in Tirana it’s pouring rain; dignified old men walk under black umbrellas, and chattering schoolgirls cluster under flower-colored ones. Here in our little Balkan hinterland unprecedented quantities of snow are falling on the high mountains in the north; it’s almost a Grimm cliche, but wolves have even been coming into the villages in advance of the ten feet of snow that hit this weekend. Corruption having siphoned off the diesel for the snowplows, people are homebound and without electricity. But here in the capital it’s just rivers of rain and more rain.
My mom left in the pre-dawn hours five days ago, and I miss her. But I’m also trying to tease out why her visit was somewhat disappointing. It was good to see her, to hear her voice, to hug her closely. But I didn’t feel the joyful contentment I imagined that I would. She seemed low-energy and tentative, on unfamiliar ground, and spent a lot of time reading novels. I couldn’t help but compare her to my MIL who was a bundle of non-stop energy playing with the kids. And my mom did play with the kids, but it seemed like she would usually wait until I asked her to. And while I appreciated her help with little household tasks I also felt bad when she did things like wash the dishes – I felt like I should be waiting on her instead.

She had an awkward experience in the grocery store early on, when she went by herself to look for chicken breasts and left without buying anything when she discovered they didn’t carry fresh meat there; two men followed her across the street and one came with her all the way up to the door of our apartment – it scared and upset her – when I opened the door, the man said he was looking for the dentist. So strange. She said she thought they suspected her of shoplifting. So I went back with her a little later to buy something or other we needed, and to gauge the owner’s reaction to me (they know us well there) – sure enough, he looked at my mom, looked at me, and got this “oh shit oh shit oh shit” look on his face. Then he said “Excuse me for the men following her, they just wanted to offer to help her if she needed anything.” Right.

It doesn’t matter that she has a US passport, she is small and dark and speaks English with an accent and will never be treated – save by family and close friends – the way someone would be who looks the way people expect an American to look, to sound, to move.

After some thought, she said of the incident “well, it’s right that they should be careful and should check on people who come in and out without buying anything.” And she had no more problem with it. But I still kind of do.

Ugh, I don’t want this blog to just be gloomy and negative. Although it is kind of my repository for those moods, a place I can put all that dark stuff and feel the release of getting it out of my head.


We had a lovely mother-daughter lunch out one day, just the two of us. I took her to a nice place that serves “typical” Albanian food as well as the Greek and Italian fare that has become standard on most menus here. It was so relaxing to be out without the kids, to actually be able to have a conversation. I realized that I’d been spending a lot of my time with her here trying to gauge her evaluation of my parenting and wifing and life in general here, but that judgment was the farthest thing from her mind. A lot of her thoughts were with my dad, back in Peru by himself. He is not well, and hasn’t been well for over 20 years, and it’s hard on them both to be apart. They’re hoping to come together in April, hoping he will be strong enough for the trip. And one evening, late, as she hugged me goodnight, she said “tu eres una buena mamita.” And that – such simple words – made such a big difference to me.


A commenter suggested some time ago that one reason I’m perhaps more tense when Gimli is around is that I’m looking to him for approval, especially of my parenting. I’ve been watching this, sort of monitoring my inner state, and I think it is to a large extent true. His default mode of conversation and interaction is teasing banter, largely of the insult genre, and I know, I know that it is his way of showing affection. But it can be hard for me, when it comes to something that consumes me 18 hours a day and that I take extremely seriously, to respond in the same vein. I think I was looking to my mom for the same thing.


In the “perfect moment Mondays” vein, I’ve been trying to pay attention to the small perfect moments with the kids as they come. Like when Oz pointed at the red circle of light on the ceiling from my headlamp one night and said “sun.” Or the way he throws his arms around my neck, leans back and kisses me, then lunges in again for a surprisingly strong squeeze. And the way he’ll – how can I describe this? – he’ll see something that charms him, and he’ll go into this little crouch with his hands in front of his mouth, squirrel-like, smiling squint-eyed and wrinkled nose, fingers out like little birds’ beaks, and chirp.

Illyria’s favorite game is “boing-boing” – she jumps on the bed holding dad’s hands, then he’ll give her a little push and she’ll fall back shrieking in laughter. She also likes to play “try again” – dad will lie on his side on the bed, and she’ll jump up, kick both her feet into his butt, and then bounce down again. Three year old exuberance. She has mastered a 100-piece puzzle, and is actually learning to read – around 40 words she knows by sight, and can spell out with blocks. I was astonished yesterday to look at her magnetic drawing pad and see that she had written the word “fox,” completely without prompting or guidance whatsoever. When I lie down with her at bedtime she’ll throw an arm around my neck and say “awwww.”

So there’s my Monday morning brain-dump. To those of you still reading – a heartfelt thanks for sticking around. I’m so behind on commenting it’s not even worth commenting on (ha ha). There’s been so much really good, thought-provoking stuff coming through my reader in the past couple of weeks, I have a bunch of posts marked to respond to more thoughtfully, soon, I hope. Now tell me, if you’re still here – just as a way of saying “hi, I’m here” –

Salty or sweet?


and again with the motherhood angst

December 19, 2011

I read this lovely post from Stirrup Queens last night (or was it this morning?) and what is sticking with me, along with the metaphor of the Y representing the choices we make daily, was the phrase “they have all the tools.” Now that her children are in school, and she releases them each day into the world, she has to trust that she has given them the tools they need to navigate and manage that world and the people they will encounter in it.

It terrifies me, this responsibility to stock their toolbox. In some ways it is simple and obvious, and having two children means that we have a daily arena for teaching things like not hitting, and sharing, and taking turns, and acknowledging and honoring the humanity of the other (although we could achieve this also if we had a singleton by creating social situations where she was forced to interact with other children her age). But I am so afraid that I’m missing something big and huge and important that will become clear only further down the road as they descend into truancy and delinquency – or just simply unhappiness and self-hatred.

When my parents dropped my sister off at college, I went with my mom to a prayer meeting for parents that was scheduled as part of the orientation activities (yes, it was that kind of college) and my mom broke down in tears during the small-group sharing part, suddenly feeling that terror, that fear of having failed her daughter and it now being too late to make it right.

One time recently (maybe even last year) my sister said of our mother, “she’s been hurting me my whole life, why should it be any different now?”

During our hesitation before TTC, I thought about this a lot – I saw the tremendous conflict and pain between my sister and my mother, between my SIL and her parents – and I had to wonder whether having children was worth the risk. What if it should come to this, with my own children? This distance, this pain, this horrifying power and ability to wound each other to the core?

I think this fear has shaped my parenting style a lot. I err on the side of indulgence, rather than discipline. I know this is not always what is best for them. I don’t limit screen time as much as I should. I give in to too many of my toddler’s demands – or perhaps I should say commands – like when she doesn’t want any of us to stand and join in the singing at church, for example. I know that I shouldn’t let her control me, but sometimes I do. Of course there are non-negotiables – like holding my hand when crossing the street, or getting her hair washed, brushing teeth, and the aforementioned not hitting or pushing her brother.

When I was in grad school the first time, in 1999, it was a year after my cousin had committed suicide, and because I felt like I hadn’t done enough to help him during life I volunteered as a crisis counselor for a suicide prevention hotline. It was one of the best and hardest things I’ve ever done. A major component of our training was on reflective listening, and it stuck in my mind when one of the trainers mentioned that this skill had made her relationship with her teenaged children much better. Her ability to reflect back to them what they were feeling diffused tension and opened the door to communication. So I try to do that with our children, and I think it helps them a lot, to understand and release their emotions. I remember what someone said to me once (was it my therapist?) that emotional needs that are ignored or suppressed will never go away – they’ll just come back, sometimes in difficult or even dangerous ways. I’ve also been holding in my mind what Lori said in an interview about being in the moment, about feeling and releasing the emotion over and over again, and how physical movement can help in this process as well. So this is a big part of what I try to do as a mother – build up their emotional health and their tools for coping with strong emotions in healthy ways. So it’s frustrating when my MIL tells my daughter “Now don’t get mad,” or “don’t cry,” because, well, I think this is actually pretty harmful. I tell Illyria, “it’s ok to be mad, but you can’t hit your brother.” Usually then she requests to go to another room and “have a little talk” with me or another caregiver – it’s her way now of removing herself from the situation that’s frustrating or stressing her out. So we go away, and talk about sharing, or about whatever pissed her off, or just play for awhile in a different space, until she’s ready to go back and try again.

I long to be the kind of mom whose house is a haven of clean and tidy peace and serenity, who has Montessori-ed her home, who can make cake pops, who just generally seems to be competent and well-organized (Raspberry Chip, I’d link to you but you’re PWP!). I’m just not that kind of mom. I’m too overwhelmed by the quotidian. And I think I set the bar too low.

I’m gonna rock at homework help someday though.

The thing is – my mom didn’t TRY to make mistakes. She didn’t set out to hurt my sister. My MIL doesn’t hate her daughter, she loves her. They both did what they thought was right; they did their level best. I don’t fully understand what went wrong, why my sister and my sister-in-law have felt compelled at different times to put as much physical and emotional distance between themselves and their parents as possible, and why for each of them in different ways this seemed to be a move for self-preservation. So how can I know that I’m not going to end up in their position someday?

The question at the root of all tension

December 12, 2011

I’m in a funk about my dissertation again. I was on fire, and then one de-railed day threw me off track.

It was bracketed by accidents, minor injuries. In the morning, when Dhurata arrived, I had succeeded in priming Illyria to be happy and excited about it, instead of her usual tears. When she heard the door, she ran to open it for D but pulled the heavy door open over her bare big toe, scraping off a dot of skin. She was so distraught that I couldn’t bring myself to leave, and instead suggested she take a bath so I could wash her hair. To my surprise, she acquiesced – and since I’d been itching to wash her hair for more than a week I opted to do that instead of going out. Later, after a thorough grooming (combing out her long hair, cutting her nails, cleaning her ears thoroughly), I took her with me grocery shopping, and then home for lunch and naps while Dhurata focused on Oscar. And that was our day. My day. My work day.

In the evening, as Dhurata prepared to leave, Illyria was spinning happily in circles with a wooden spoon in her hand, her long hair fanning out in a circle around her, when somehow she lost her balance and fell on the spoon. She shrieked in pain and leaped onto the couch, clutching herself between the legs.

It was terrifying to think – to imagine – where the end of the spoon might have gone – but I inspected her for injury and saw a red spot near what I think is called the ischium, if I recall my high school biology vocabulary correctly – the part of the pelvic bone that meets the chair when you are sitting upright. In other words, not the dramatic catastrophe that could have been, but much too close for comfort.

Gimli is always asking me why I’m so tense when we’re hanging out, the four of us. It’s worse in restaurants or public places like that, but even at home I’m rarely fully relaxed around the kids, unless they’re both sleeping, and even then I’m listening with one ear for the first one to cry out and wake up. It’s not just the constant vigilance against potential injuries – the random and unforeseen ones as much as the obvious and anticipatable – although that’s a big chunk of it. It’s the constant self-monitoring. Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing right now? I rely heavily on my routines to suppress this voice, although rhythm might be a better word than routine for how we move through our day. There are specific ticks of the clock that signal to me that it’s time to start thinking about the next beat of the day, and I never leave the house in the morning without a plan in place for lunch and supper. Gimli scoffs at me, finding it altogether unnecessary, but I need it. I’m thrown by small things – going to a new restaurant, for example. The menu, the space, the goodwill of the proprietors – all are unknowns and hold potential disasters: nothing the children will eat, plants or furniture for Oscar to destroy, steps to fall down, unfamiliar bathrooms where Illyria may wet her pants (I always pack spares but it’s still really stressful for both of us when she has an accident – though these are very rare now, and usually involve a misdirected stream from atop an adult-sized toilet).

It’s this question that is always fermenting in the back of my mind: Am I doing the right thing, right now? Am I doing it right? Am I a good mother?


November 11, 2011

I think I need bifocals. I find myself doing the classic hold-at-arms-length-and-squint thing, and I find I have to take my glasses off to do any kind of close work, like sewing a rip in torn pants or cutting out construction paper stars. It’s kind of annoying, but kind of secretly thrilling at the same time, like a rite of passage.

I’ve always longed to age – except for those barren years, when each month ticked away another chance at a baby, and birthdays became somber, tear-drenched affairs. But through my 20s, I was eager and excited for each birthday, and I find I’m beginning to feel that way again now.

When I was a little girl, my best friend, who was a year older than me, used to give me all manner of ridiculous commands (“jump in the sewer ditch,” e.g.) and then, when I refused to comply, would say “OBEY YOUR ELDERS!” (I’m sure she learned that from her older brothers.) We grew up in a tradition where age was equated with wisdom and authority, and I long to feel wise. I used to say, in my teens, “I can’t wait until I’m 50,” because I imagined that at 50 I would have achieved a serenity and confidence in myself, in my knowledge of the world, in my ability to meet ALL life’s problems with equanimity and self-assurance.

I remember when I first started noticing the wrinkles – first it was on my knees, as I bent over doing warm-up workout stretches. I was startled to see the finely textured quality of the skin there. Within a year I saw the lines being etched into my face as well – frown lines between my eyebrows, a deepening labio-nasal fold. They didn’t go away, and they changed the aspect of my face more dramatically than I could have imagined. I watched the backs of my hands growing soft and veiny, and I thought how much they look like my mother’s hands. Mom hands, I thought. I’m getting mom hands. But I wasn’t a mom.

So when my first baby was finally born, I at once began to feel more at home in my aging body. Mom hands felt right, now that I was a mom.

Although, I have to admit, I do feel like an old mom. The parade of new babies being born to former students is always a bit disconcerting. And here in Albania, the norm seems to be to get married young (19 or 20, for women) and then pop out a baby as quick as possible. Women of all economic classes seem to prefer to space their children a bit further apart than the 2-3 year preference in the US – a gap of 4-6 years between siblings seems to be the norm here in the post-communist era. But in any case, I’m definitely at the older end of the demographic curve. Even at the playgroup, among professional expatriate women, I’m the oldest in the group by at least 5 years, by my best judgment (although Marta wasn’t there last night, and she feels closer to my age to me, a judgment I make based entirely on her hairstyle).

Being an older mom does make me a little sad, sometimes. I can’t exactly put my finger on why – I guess just because it wasn’t by choice, entirely, and I’m still sad about those years we spent throwing BFN peesticks in the trash – the grim, hopeless sex; the dark cloud over every friend’s pregnancy announcement. That’s what my aging body reminds me of.

But then at the same time, my paunchy tummy reminds me of the fullness of the pregnant belly I once (no, twice!) had, and the ache in my back reminds me of the solid warmth of my children’s bodies as I carried them home from playgroup last night (our stroller is broken) – Oscar in the Ergo on my back, Illyria in my arms when she tired of walking. There is something immeasurably comforting in the warmth of their bodies leaning against me.


And age is catching up with me in other ways, too – yesterday I had my blood pressure taken, and it’s in hypertension range (154/110). The doctor recommended dietary changes first, and then if it doesn’t improve, some kind of meds. Since the constant walking here had resulted in dramatic weight loss last fall and winter, I’ve been pretty much eating whatever I want – and that’s not good. Pizza, hot dogs, butter, French fries – all off the menu now. Actually I’m kind of glad to have an external authority enforcing this change, it will make it more likely to happen.


July 31, 2011

Do you judge a book by its cover? Do you judge a person by the books on their shelves? I know I do – at least in the “could we be kindred spirits?” sense – if judgment, in this case, can mean making an assessment about who they are, how they think, what their priorities and interests are.

I took these photos yesterday of the books I had shipped here from the US (although a couple were mailed by friends or family). Not pictured: one shelf of Albanian-English dictionaries & grammars, and about 100 children’s books. You are welcome to judge me as much as you like – and make lots of comments especially on the parenting-books shelf! If nothing else, it demonstrates my lack of clear focus. Oh, and can you spot the ALI blogger books?

What are you reading? (I promise I won’t judge you!) 🙂

dissertation books 1

dissertation books 2

personal and parenting books

On friendship

July 17, 2011

I’ve been pondering, as I tentatively attempt to make new friends here while maintaining ties with friends in the US, how much I suck at friendship as well as how I’m good at it. Funny that Mel posted something about friendship too just as I was thinking through some of this. But rather than try to enumerate the ways in which I both suck and rock, I thought I’d start with a story about my high school frenemy – Jessica (not her real name) – from a time long before that term was coined.

I think I was in 9th grade when Jessica and I became best friends. I needed a place to stay for a few weeks while my parents were traveling for work, and her family offered me a room. Jessica was a year older than me – tiny, blonde, cute, with enormous blue eyes and the kind of personality that is usually described as “bubbly.” She had a cute Texas accent, played the flute and piano, and had recently returned to Peru from the US with a suitcase full of the latest fashions and hair accessories. At school, she was generally considered to be an “air-head,” so I guess I was surprised to learn when I stayed with her that she loved to read, composed piano accompaniment to songs she wrote, and had some interesting observations to make about the social scene at our tiny high school (five in my graduating class). So I was amenable when, one evening, she said “Hey, let’s be Best Friends next year.”

Being “Best Friends” meant, apparently, spending nearly all our free time together. Actually, as far back as 7th grade we used to hang out on a regular basis; every Saturday we would buy two bottles of pop (and in Peru in the ‘80s, pop still came in returnable glass bottles) and a bag of animal crackers, borrow a rowboat, and spend the day rowing around and swimming in the lake near the mission center where we both grew up. At the time I probably considered Rachel to be my actual Best Friend, but she didn’t care if I hung out with Jessica as well. Rachel was a lot more like me than Jessica – brown-eyed and nerdy, we both played the violin and pondered growing up to be English teachers. But in 9th grade I started going with Rachel’s older brother, and I think she felt a little betrayed because he’d used to spend a lot more time with his sister before he started going out with me.

Anyway. I guess I had a best friend vacancy in my life when Blue-Eyed Jessica suggested we be Besties, and I said, “okay.”

I call her my frenemy, though, because of the envy I always felt, that in the end poisoned our friendship and led me to abandon her about the time I graduated from high school. Next to Jessica, I felt big and awkward and dark and fat. And more masculine, somehow. Which I hated. And I think this envy had deep roots; I remember when we were in elementary school (I think I was in third grade, she in fourth) we were playing at my house with another friend, Sara. Jessica was playing the piano downstairs and I think Sara and I got annoyed because we thought she was showing off, so somehow we convinced her to get into an empty barrel in the attic and then we put the lid on and ran away. Jessica couldn’t get out and started crying. I feel awful about it now, just imagining how she must have felt, and I don’t think we left her there very long; but see, the envy was already there.

But in high school, something clicked, at least for a while. I remember how just by being sarcastic I could make her laugh until she was rolling on the floor, clutching her stomach, her face red and tears streaming down her cheeks, and that was fun. And we liked a lot of the same books. We would lie on the floor side by side, our heads on the same pillow, each reading a different page in the same actual, physical book – usually Daphne DuMaurier. We liked the same music – Christian contemporary, which I absolutely cannot stomach anymore – and sang together a lot. We harmonized really well, and recorded two cassette tapes of songs she wrote with her playing the keyboard and me singing alto to her soprano. She had a little motor-scooter (a Honda 50) and I’d ride behind her for hours around and around the mission center (I could write several thousand words about the role of motorcycles in our high school social life but that’s, as they say, another story). So, most of the time I could ignore the fact that she got about 2,000x more attention from boys than I did, or that she looked way cuter in my stretch jeans than I did, or that she was somewhat tone-deaf to certain things.

Like this one time, my mom had sewed a fancy dress for my cousin who lived with us – Margarita, who had been adopted from a Quechua family at age 7 by my aunt and uncle and then was sent to live with us when she was 16 and her parents couldn’t handle her (yet another long story that I won’t go into here). Anyway, Jessica said to me later, after the event where my cousin had worn the dress, “Margarita’s dress was pretty and all, but it just looked so Peruvian.”

Do I need to spell out how much – and why – that hurt and enraged me?

Or another time I had made myself a pair of earrings out of purple and blue electrical wire, and Jessica just seethed with embarrassment and refused to be around me when I wore them, because they “looked home-made.”

I finally dumped her, though, when she started going out with the guy that I wanted. That she knew I wanted. And you know why this was such a bad reason for me to dump her? Because I already had a boyfriend. My boyfriend, Rachel’s older brother, was in college in the US, and had been for the past 3 years (let me tell you about long-distance relationship… some other time), and in his absence I’d developed a crush on, um, let’s call him Dave. So I secretly wanted Dave (who had previously dated my sister – ugh, what an inbred little bunch we all were!), so when Jessica came back from a year in the States, with a spiral perm and trendy clothes and contacts in her huge blue eyes, Dave couldn’t hide his lust interest and they were an item within two weeks.

This was right before I graduated from high school and went to college in the States, myself. So all summer and into the fall I got letters from Jessica detailing the nuances of her romance with Dave, and I just stopped writing back. (Or did I write a “Dear Jane” letter? I don’t remember. I remember sitting in my dorm room, freshman year, with a letter in my hand, feeling grumpy and morose and it had something to do with the end of our friendship. But was it a letter from her? What did it say? And what did I write back? I have no idea.)

I have some vague and not-very-interesting memories of sporadic contact since then, so we must have maintained or restored amicability in some way. She even asked me to be her maid of honor in 1994, but I wasn’t able to since I was doing an internship in Bolivia (my understanding is that this was less about our friendship and more about forcing her sister out of that role for some reason). When we both got e-mail accounts, she wrote me of her infertility – endometriosis and low sperm count – eventually they decided to foster to adopt, and now have three little ones. I was sympathetic at the time but of course I didn’t really get it until we encountered our own roadblocks to family building. So we’ve kept in touch over the years, off and on, now pretty much exclusively through FB.

So that’s the story. I’m not sure now what the point was… I suppose it is that I could be really petty and jealous in high school, and that the way I dealt with it was to silently distance myself from Jessica instead of talking with her about the things that bothered me. I suppose what I most regret is how much I hated her sometime because of her looks – which had everything to do with how much I hated my own looks. Having a boyfriend helped, of course, even though he wasn’t even on the same continent – but how clearly I remember walking with Jessica up from swimming in the lake, hating how the breeze lifted her shining gold hair and how slender her torso and thighs were in that sparkling lavender bathing suit. How I felt fat and dark and ugly, and somehow, I blamed her.