Archive for the ‘overthinking things’ 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!


What you wanted

August 9, 2012

“It’s what you wanted.”

Four words. So many possible meanings.

It was the end of the day, I was tired and on the edge of cranky, trying to manage six different things at the same time (pour juice, head off simmering battles between the kids before they erupt, answer Gimli’s question, keep an eye on the clock, listen to Oz’s chatter for discernable words, ignore my headache). I made some comment about what a juggling act it all was, or how glad I was that Monday was coming along with the nanny, or looking forward to the day they’d both be sleeping until noon on weekends, and he said “it’s what you wanted.”

I admit that I flew off the handle a little bit, albeit silently. “It’s what you wanted.” What, exactly, was that supposed to mean?

Try it – say the phrase out loud, at least four different ways.

1. It’s what YOU wanted. Don’t blame ME for this state of affairs, for your fatigue, for your inability to multi-task, for your constant angst about whether you’re doing them irrevocable damage or building them up into whole human beings. It’s what YOU wanted. You pushed for this, you made it happen, I’m an innocent bystander along for the ride. So don’t expect me to do much more than just stand by.

2. (Mocking) It’s what you WANTED. Ha! Look at you now! Be careful what you wish for and all that. You wanted this, and I delight in your misery now that you have it.

3. (Puzzled) It’s what you wanted, isn’t it? Didn’t you ask for this when we threw out the birth control, when we hammered at the inconceivability for 32 months, when we ran the gamut of tests, when you ingested the artificial hormones, when I drove 6 hours with a cold can of Coke on my lap? Didn’t we do all that so you could be a SAHM? Oh, that wasn’t what you wanted?

4. (Quiet delight) It’s what you wanted. Look at this. Look at them. Look how wonderful, how cute, how small and full of life and astonishingly fast at learning things they are. We wanted this for so long, and here it is. Here they are. It’s what you wanted, and now you have it. Bask in the amazing wonder of that truth. Let the other things fade into the background. Look at your beautiful children. Be glad, and be thankful.

He claims that option #4 is the one he meant. All I could hear was 1-3. Sometimes the voices in my head are so loud I can’t hear the ones that come from actual other people.

Correspondence, Connectivity, Screens, and Free-Range Joy

July 18, 2012

[lightly edited]

It takes me 2-3 hours to get the kids to sleep at night. And then once they’re down, I take an hour or more to unwind. Which is foolish. I can’t afford to lose that precious sleeping time – I surf the web, play Angry Birds – it’s stupid. A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article on the addictive qualities of the internet – and while I take the tone of alarm in the article under advisement, it rings a bit true (and how ironic that I read it on the net via social media). I’ve thought before – I’ve observed in myself – about the way I keep clicking around in circles – Facebook, Google Reader, e-mail, Twitter – around and around hoping for an update, something interesting or funny or pretty to look at, for that little “zing” of pleasure. I remember when we did experiments with white mice in my college intro psych class, the intermittent and unpredictable reward was the addictive one. The little mice kept clicking and clicking the little lever, because the next click could be the one! That brought down the food pellet! Sometimes it did, and sometimes it didn’t. But even after we cut off the food supply, they kept clicking and clicking for a long, long time. A line in the article on internet addiction said something about people foregoing sleep in order to mess around online, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m losing my mind.

What would our lives be like, without all these screens?

When I was growing up, we were unplugged most of the time. When we lived in a two-room adobe house in a village in Peru’s “ceja de selva” (brow of the jungle, or highland jungle), our only connection to the world outside that village – besides walking trails – was a ham radio. The first thing we did every time we moved out there was to set up the antenna, stringing the long lines into a tree or up a bamboo pole. The first thing I heard every morning as I woke up under my mosquito net was the crackle of static and scratchy voices, my dad checking in with our call number – “OAX29 a OAX6, cambio.” “Adelante, OAX29.” And that was it. Over and out.

I have this memory. As an adult it has become “my happy place,” a moment in time suspended in a golden bubble of pure joy. I am 7; I am playing in the shallow creek that runs past the village, under the light shade of the guava trees that drop dried flowers all over the sandstone boulders dotting the creek. The sun casts a sparkling net through the water, where fish dart over the gravelly bottom. This is the only place in the village where my sister and I are allowed to go barefoot – we could get hookworm from the manure that free-ranging farm animals leave to dry under the sun, but the rocks are clean – so now I revel in the grip of my bare soles on the rough sandstone. The water is cold on my feet, the stones warm in the sun. I jump around from rock to rock, and I sing. It’s a Sunday School song, and I believe that God is watching me right this moment, that God is embracing me as warmly and closely as the sunlight embraces my young brown limbs. I am alone with God, with God and with my pure heart-lifted happiness.

A couple years ago my dad told me that our time in this village was the most difficult time in his and my mom’s 40-year career with the mission. This is the village where he first got sick, completely debilitated by one illness after another (he has never recovered. He has been sick for 32 years). There were times when we ran out of food, literally nothing to eat in the house, and then at the last minute someone would come by with a gift of dried red beans and rice, a papaya, a hand of green bananas.

But I remember pretending to float paper boats in the dew on the grass that lingered in the shadow of the church building next to our house. I remember climbing those sandstone boulders, finding the vacant shells of enormous snails piled between the rocks – snails the size of oranges, which people would cook and eat with manioc and boiled green bananas. I remember helping an old woman pull cotton seeds from the bolls, and I marveled at how heavy the seeds were, how light the cotton. I remember the utter silence of noon. This village was inaccessible by any motorized vehicle – we rode horses two hours from a little airstrip in the next village over to get there – so not even the distant drone of traffic interrupted the silence of the world at siesta. Only the occasional rooster crowing, dog barking, the distant rattle of pots and pans. The smell of wood smoke and guitar music at night brings it back to me in an instant. We would lie under our mosquito nets on church night, my dad would read us a bedtime story by candlelight while the village children lined up along the bamboo wall to stare at us – a row of black eyes all along the crack in the wall, a row of little fingers bracketing each nose.

This was our life without screens.

When we would visit the capital city to stay with my cousins, my sister and I would sit on the stairs and stare at the clock, counting the minutes and seconds until 10:00 when the children’s programs would start on TV. Then we’d run up to the family room to play with Legos and watch cartoons all day long. In the afternoon we’d watch the A-Team and Knight Rider dubbed in Spanish (I was shocked the first time I heard Mr. T’s actual voice – nothing so gruff as the Spanish-speaking actor who dubbed his part – and I always thought Kit’s name was “Keith”). We had no defenses against TV. We had no… I want to say filters, but that’s not quite the right idea. We had no guards, no screens. We couldn’t imagine choosing not to watch it.

I installed a site blocker on my laptop, in order to focus more on my work. It’s been good. I had completely broken my celebrity gossip habit for awhile – until the Cruise-Holmes divorce sucked me in again recently – but I found that I don’t need it anymore, I don’t want it. I don’t seek it out. I just don’t go there. (Oh, and a good Brangelina story has the power to pull me in as well. And maybe Kate and Wills. But that’s all. Really.) I still trawl Facebook – and I’m glad I do, I’m glad I stay connected that way, especially overseas. But it’s imperfect.

Here’s a crazy story. I saw a FB update on my cousin’s page – my favorite cousin, mind you, the one who looks like Bon Jovi and is about as free of bullshit as anybody I know in the world. My cousin had built a tree house restaurant in NYC, and there were all these photos of the grand opening, and the label on one photo of “Simon and his lovely girlfriend Lynn.” And I went huh? The last time I saw Simon was at my uncle’s – his step-dad’s – funeral three years ago. At that time he’d been married to Sabina (born Sara, she changed her name when she became a dancer) – a women I’d never really clicked with nor cared for much. They have one child. So who was Lynn? I checked Sabina’s FB page and saw she’d gone back to using her maiden name. Neither of them listed anything in the “relationship status” box. I mulled over this for weeks. Weeks. I mean, how do you ask your cousin whom you’ve been in touch with on Facebook fairly regularly over the preceding two years, “Hey, I saw that you have a girlfriend. What happened to your wife?” Weird, right?

So finally I wrote him – Hey Simon, what’s up with you these days? Fill me in! I seem to have been out touch for far too long. Facebook seems to create the illusion of keeping in touch but it’s far too brief, too superficial… How is Chloe? What happened to you and Sabina? (I’ve been working over and over in my mind just how to ask that question… but it looks like you’ve both moved on???) Fill me in – and he responded that yes, he and Sabina split up three years ago.

Three years ago.

My favorite cousin got divorced, and I didn’t even find out until three years later? How disconnected can I get?

It still bothers me.

When I was in high school my boyfriend was three years older than me and so graduated first and went to college in the US while I stayed in the jungle. It was all snail mail then, and even more than that international snail mail. It usually took about three weeks for a letter to change hands. Sometimes when we were in the village it would be months, and then I’d get five letters all at once. I remember how my palms would sweat and my hands trembled as I opened each one, savored every pen-stroke, fingered the paper his hands had touched. He would draw our initials entwined together elaborately. Our romance continued until my first year in college. Being closer to him – Illinois to Iowa – I realized that I didn’t really like him all that much anymore. But oh how sweet the pain of longing for my distant love through those high school years! We constructed an intensely dramatic arc around the torture of missing each other all the time. It couldn’t possibly last (and I’m so very glad it didn’t).

It’s just wild to think about it now – how our one long-distance call during those years lasted thirty minutes, cost me $70, and got cut off abruptly when terrorists blew up a power station somewhere between me and the coast.

Now Gimli and I skype with our parents about once a week. It’s free. It’s face-time – sort of, anyway – and even though sometimes the connection is dropped, we can usually pick it right up again.

Which is the better connection, then?

All this to say, I don’t quite know how I feel or what I think about my online life. Or the ways I use digital media, or how it uses me. Clearly, blogging and connecting to other bloggers has enriched my life tremendously, and I hope I have contributed to the enrichment of others. On the other hand, the way I currently use it is robbing me of sleep. And when we lost Illyria’s cat? Gimli’s anger was about 98% about the fact that I was playing a game on my phone instead of paying attention. And yet, I let the kids watch videos or play with the iPad way more than I want to or think I should – because it’s easier. I can get stuff done while they’re thus engaged without constantly moderating conflicts. But what is this doing to their brains for the long-term? My husband likes to joke that “what’s good in moderation is great in excess!” (Tara wrote about this half a year ago and I’m still thinking about it…)

So, a 2000-word free-ranging ramble about various indirectly-connected topics… apparently that’s my blogging MO these days.

And all for the want of a little gray cat

May 23, 2012

Okay, so this post is just way, way, way too long and anyone who reads it to the end gets an automatic jewel in your crown in heaven. Any armchair therapists who want to take a stab at helping me deal with my neuroses get a whole palace.

Here’s the Story:

Sunday afternoon, late, after naps, we took the kids to the park. Illyria has been sick with a nasty cough, but she lit up once we were there, laughing and running and climbing and sliding. I asked her at one point if she needed to go to the bathroom and she said yes, so I took her to an adjoining café, but then she didn’t actually need to go after all.

The walk to the café is lined with twin hedges, and long ago (we go there a lot) she learned that tossing a toy into them is endlessly amusing – it might land on top, magically suspended on the leaves, or sink into the bushes and huddle around the roots. We used to use a brightly colored Very Hungry Caterpillar, but this time she had her cat.

It’s a gray beanie baby cat, called “Silver” on the tag, but she calls it Tom Cat and for the last three months or so it has been her constant companion.  She sleeps with it, goes to the bathroom with it, wipes her tears on it (it was getting so manky I recently washed it, and it was so sweet to see her carefully hanging him up on the drying rack by the ears. It took long enough to dry that she had to substitute in a Corduroy Bear for about 18 hours and then it was back to the still-slightly-damp cat).

I was a little annoyed, and bored, not really wanting to play toss-the-kitty-into-the-bushes with her, so I pulled out my cell phone and called Gimli to tell him where we were, and then started playing a stupid little game (kind of like Bejeweled, but more boring), pausing intermittently to retrieve the cat from the bushes for her. I suggested several times we go play something else but this was what she wanted to do. And then, on the fourth or fifth toss, I didn’t see where the cat landed. So, annoyed, I started at one end of the shrubs and worked my way down to the other end, parting the leaves at the top and looking to the very roots of each individual plant. I didn’t find it, so I started up the other side.

I was on my third or so round of the shrubs when I started to get that feeling in the pit of my stomach, that sick, slightly panicked feeling you get when it begins to dawn on you that something is missing, really and truly missing. Your keys, your wallet, your Tom Cat. Gimli came over and I sort of snapped at him, “I have to keep looking until I find it.” He began to question Illyria and me – where was she when I looked up and saw her? – and to hunt in a wider circle around the overgrown garden there – and he was clearly angry with me, I could see it in the set of his mouth and shoulders.

I found a number of silver-dollar-sized snails, but no gray beanie baby cat. I looked again. I joined Gimli in the hunt through the grass, around rosebushes, into small palm trees, around the fountain. He tried to see onto the roof of the café. A waiter came out to ask us what we were looking for.

Oz ran off to the slides nearby, and I went after him to supervise, and then Illyria came too, saying “let’s go play, that will make it all better.”

It was getting dark. We hadn’t really had supper. Gimli had bought some souflaqe (can’t remember offhand what they’re called in English – gyro meat, French fries, tzatziki sauce, ketchup, wrapped in a pita) but they weren’t very good and he ate most of them. Oz ate the French fries and some meat. I was worried about bedtime. Illyria wanted popcorn, which we bought from an ambulant vendor.

Gimli was really mad at me.

Finally I explained to Illyria that we were going to have to go home without the cat, but that I would come back in the morning to keep looking for it. Gimli and I agreed it was probably in the fountain – which wasn’t turned on, but was filled with murky green water, soggy fluff from the cottonwoods floating all over it. We also agreed that the loss of the cat was, ultimately, my fault, and I felt absolutely sick over it.

Illyria didn’t cry, but I did, the whole walk home. Gimli and I didn’t speak to each other. Illyria actually seemed ok. In fact, I asked her that night, “do you feel sad that we came home without Tom Cat, or do you feel ok?” And she said, “ok.” That night before she had to go pee, she picked up a beanie baby bunny, and has been holding it ever since.

So Monday morning I went off to “work,” without my laptop. I asked at the café if it was all right for me to poke around in the fountain, and they actually came out then and unplugged it to let the water drain out. (It was so, so gross.) I pulled up a small, young sapling – I think a volunteer cottonwood, actually – and stripped off the leaves to poke around as the water drained. It took a long time. Periodically, I went off and looked again throughout both long hedges, every nook and cranny, and around the whole garden area. It was a lot easier to see in the bright morning light. All I turned up were snails and some empty plastic water bottles. Eventually, I could see orange-brown lumps appearing under the water in the fountain – fruit that had fallen in and was rotting at the bottom – but nothing that even resembled a small gray cat. When the water was gone, I did another look around, then sat on a bench deep in the shade and cried.

When I saw a waiter come out and start poking in the bushes, I went and thanked him for their help and said “it’s not here, I think a child must have taken it.” I’m sure he could see I’d been crying. Then there was nothing to do but leave.

I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I walked around and around city blocks, only stopping when I was too tired to keep walking. I didn’t want to go anywhere I usually go, do the things I usually do. I didn’t eat lunch. I went home when I was sure the kids were asleep and took a fitful nap, waking up with a pounding headache that lasted into the next morning when I think I finally managed to get rehydrated.

I’m not sure why I took this so hard – honestly, harder than Illyria did – although today she did say she’s sad that she doesn’t have the cat. But she hasn’t cried for him (at least not directly – she has cried over other things, although she’s also sick, and that makes her more sensitive). Sunday night when I was trying to fall asleep, I realized the feeling in my body was exactly the same as after breaking up with someone. That kind of sick feeling of loss and deep, deep regret. I thought about Mel’s post on The Undoing of Things and all I wanted was to PUT DOWN THE DAMN CELL PHONE AND KEEP MY EYES ON MY CHILD. Or even not push her to go use the bathroom when she really didn’t need to. Or have gone to a different park. Or, maybe, never have been born.


Yup, that’s how I felt, pretty much until Tuesday afternoon. It seems so melodramatic and ridiculous and poor-me and narcissistic. Because it’s not deriving entirely from Illyria’s sadness over losing her cat, and my guilt over not being able to prevent its loss or find it then later; a LOT of it is deriving from Gimli being mad at me.

I don’t know why I can’t handle his being mad at me, why I take it so deeply to heart, why I just fall apart. I suspect it has to do with how my family of origin doesn’t know how to handle or process anger. When my mom was angry, she’d shout at us and spank us. When my dad was angry – which was very, very rarely – he’d get really quiet, say something cutting, and then leave the room.

But there’s another side of it, too, and that’s this feeling I have that there’s something in our relationship that isn’t quite as it should be, for me to have this extreme reaction. It doesn’t seem healthy. Obviously, he’s my life partner and best friend, my confidante and companion – and here, where I don’t really have close friends outside the family, my dependence on him is exacerbated. And it’s not like he’s violent or anything – all it takes, really, is just KNOWING he’s mad at me and I get upset. A word, a look. If I think it’s unjust, that I shouldn’t be blamed for whatever he’s mad about, then I get really mad myself (also out of proportion, usually, to whatever the issue is) but if I also blame myself… then I sink into this hopeless depression and fits of crying like with the kitty incident.


Tuesday afternoon when I put the kids down for naps they both fell asleep really quickly, and for some reason my ability to get them down for naps has become in my heart a measure of my parenting. Days when they go to sleep easily on schedule I feel like a good mom. Days when they don’t…. well. So my heart was lifted, and Gimli commented when he got home from work that I seemed to be in a good mood.

But there’s something there, still, this dark cloud hanging over me. I haven’t talked about this with him yet. I haven’t told him how deeply awful I felt about the whole thing. There was just a quick “so you’re not mad at me anymore?” exchange, a hug, a gift of chocolate and I think for him it’s all in the past. But I feel wrung out and exhausted. I will probably write him an e-mail later today – or direct him to this post – since we never really have time to talk away from the kids unless we schedule a date night, and somehow the restaurants we go to aren’t really conducive for heavy conversation.

He’s not mad at me anymore; I found “Silver” on Amazon for $5 and am going to order two so we have a backup. (I’ll have to cover his pink nose with purple thread like I did the other one at her request – don’t know why, she has some funny little quirks.) Strangely enough, a few days before this incident she unearthed a book we have about a little girl who goes on a trip in an airplane and en route loses her teddy bear. A man in a light plane finds it and brings it to her, meeting her on the runway with her beloved bear. We told Illyria that Tom Cat had to go to the States and we’ll find him there when we go in a few weeks (a 2-week trip related to the job in Colombia – dreading the jet lag, but maybe it will make the new job seem real). I think that for her it’s actually a valuable lesson in resilience and responsibility and not entirely a bad thing. I wish Gimli saw it the same way.


But here’s the armchair therapist thing – How do I fix this? Why am I so destroyed by Gimli’s anger, and how can I change?

A little clarity would be nice

May 7, 2012

I’m clearing out my e-mail inbox because it was getting ridiculous. Friday morning I had 1,300 message, 200+ unread. I now have 752, and only 139 unread. My goal is to have under 50 messages, zero unread.


So, we have a decision regarding our life plans, but it doesn’t feel like we do. I wrote an exuberant blog post announcing our decision but I haven’t posted it, because we keep niggling at it, wondering if this is really what’s going to happen or not.

Initially our options were:

  1. Return to the US for Gimli to continue his university job, and life as we knew it (more or less) prior to coming to Albania. I would finish writing my dissertation and defend it in summer 2013. We’d start Illyria in a pre-school and the grandparents would help provide child care. I’d also start looking for a job, preferably teaching at one of the universities close to us. Assuming I found something, Gimli would transition from university teaching into more consulting work.
  2. Stay on in Albania for another 8-12 months. I would finish writing my dissertation and defend it in summer 2013. We’d start Illyria in a pre-school here in Tirana, and we’d continue with Dhurata for child care. I’d start looking for a job, possibly somewhere in Europe or Latin America rather than in the US. We’d return to the US For a few months leading up to my dissertation defense, and then see what we could wrangle for the fall.
  3. Kind of on a whim, last month we interviewed for and were offered a community development (non-academic) joint position in Colombia, starting this November. The idea would be for me to continue working on my dissertation part-time with the aim of finishing in the summer 2013 but  really ramping it up in the coming months prior to leaving Albania at the end of August (planning on a few months in the US with the grandparents in between gigs). This is a 5-year term.

I was initially very excited about option #3 for a lot of reasons that still seem really appealing to me – closer to my parents, kids growing up in a Spanish-speaking country, doing work that more closely aligns with our ideals and principles, working together as a team. The downsides are 1) a really tricky and awkward transition time (we have to attend an orientation in the US in June, prior to leaving Albania, so cross-time-zone travel with the little ones; and I have an academic conference in the US in November just a week after landing in Colombia, so leaving the kids right after a huge shake-up in their little worlds). Balancing all this travel with little kids seems… difficult, but possibly worth it for the value of 5 solid years in Latin America. Oh, and 2) a LOT less time to work on the dissertation, although we negotiated leave for me to attend the conference and to defend the dissertation next summer.

So we accepted the offer and are moving forward with all the red tape entailed in an international contract. We are slowly telling our family and friends – and this is where the weirdness started, because Gimli was very reluctant to tell anybody. Like a pregnancy announcement when you fear a loss, maybe. That’s what it reminded me of. His initial rationale for accepting the position was “well, if we say no, then we can’t go back and change our minds later, but if we say yes, we still have the option to bail.”

I feel like I should have listened more closely to his hesitation in that moment rather than pushing forward with my own excitement, because now he’s going all weird on me again – Friday we got an e-mail from HR at the new position, saying they had mis-calculated our stipend (not salary – it’s a volunteer position so they cover all our living expenses in-country plus insurance, and then there’s a small stipend) – it’s less than half what they originally told us. Which isn’t that big a deal, but yet it is. At least to Gimli it is.

How can I explain this – when he’s unhappy about something, he gives off this grumpy vibe – and it’s bad news. It’s a red flag for me. I’ve seen it in the past, and whenever I’ve ignored it hoping he’ll snap out of it, or tried to reason it away, it just comes back and bites us in the butt big-time. And to have his grumpy vibe triggered by something as small (in my eyes anyway) as a clerical error says something to me.

In evangelical circles, people talk a lot about having a sense of peace that is supposed to be indicative that you are choosing according to God’s will. I don’t consider myself evangelical anymore, but this is what I thought of. That sense of peace isn’t quite all there right now. Something is off, and I’m not quite sure what it is.

Option #1 above has been struck from consideration just because Gimli has been so miserable in his university job over the last few years. We told his department chair we’re not going back and then Gimli went all wiggy on my feeling guilty about “abandoning” her. They’re trying to work out a weird agreement in which he can continue to teach a course long-distance from Colombia (which I think is insane).

Option #2 is kind of scary just because we don’t have a plan or anything secure in place beyond Albania, but neither of us feels that we want to stay here longer than another year.

Option #3 was looking really good – and we were their first choice for the position which is kind of flattering and cool – but every single day we keep niggling at it – is this really what we want to do? Will I be giving up all my academic dreams? Gimli said he couldn’t even bear to open the e-mail I cc-ed him on, telling our pastor about our plans.

Part of me is losing patience with my waffly man. He is HORRIBLE at making big decisions. I know this. Yet while I  like  – need – to have a plan and to be able to move forward in some direction (Please! Any direction! PICK ONE!!!) I know from experience that pushing him against his grumpy vibe is bad, bad news (that’s what got us into that horrible situation in South Africa, for example). Part of it is that he likes having lots of options – the opportunity cost of saying “no” to one thing is just too high for him. He’s like that kid in Wee Free Men (you haven’t read it? What are you waiting for!) who is surrounded by candy and crying his eyes out, because as soon as he takes one piece to eat it, he isn’t eating all the others.

It’s a wonder sometimes we ever got married.(But I’m glad we did.)

Ok, well, my daily goal is to write 1,000 words on my dissertation (didn’t I mention that? I started writing! It feels sooo good!). I just wrote a 1,200 word blog post but I don’t think that really counts towards my daily goal, does it? Just had to get that stuff out of my head.

Biting the hand that feeds me

April 6, 2012

Is this biting the hand that feeds me?

Probably, yes.

I’ve been reading all these posts about bloggers using “social media for social good,” and while I applaud this endeavor, it also makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Maybe it’s a case of knowing too much.


Here’s a conclusion I’ve come to: relief/aid/development veterans need the fresh eyes of newbie idealists, who dwell profoundly on the human worth of the “single starfish,” because it doesn’t take long to become a crusty, cynical, and bitter veteran of the field.

Because the development/aide industry is… well, it’s an industry (this link is satirical). I’ve also come to the conclusion that this industry exists largely for the benefit of those it employs. Which isn’t entirely a bad thing, right? I mean, where else are altruistically-inclined young professionals going to be spending their time and energy? This is the question Zana asked me once, when I was waxing cynical about the agency she and my husband work for. She used to run her own business, but it began to feel meaningless and self-serving to her. She wanted to do something more, for her country, for children, something that would have meaning and lasting value. So now she works to promote child protection in her own country.

And who could possibly be against child protection? Right?


Here’s a fact I’ve been contemplating sharing with you, and hesitated, for a number of complicated reasons, and then decided to tell you anyway: my husband makes eight times the salary of his Albanian colleagues working in the same organization. (I know that telling you this breaks all kinds of taboos.)

This is enough money for us to support two families at a modest level – ourselves, and our nanny. She’s the sole wage-earner in her family, and what we pay her (which is above the average market wage here) is putting food on the table for a family of four, buying school supplies for her two kids, and taking care of the assorted medical needs of her extended family.

But it still boggles my mind, how much money there is in aid work, and how it’s distributed. Apparently eight times the local salary is what it takes to attract foreigners to work here – and they need the foreign expertise for certain specific things, to run the organization. Which works for child protection.


So, am I saying that the purported beneficiaries of these aide and development projects aren’t actually helped? Well, yes and no.

Here’s a story.

Many of the children in the village where I lived and worked in Bolivia had sponsors, but not all of them. Sometimes only two or three of the kids (out of six to eight) in a family had sponsors. It was very well known which kids had “good” sponsors and which ones had duds – the ones who regularly sent large gifts (clothing, books, flashlights, toys) versus those who sent their monthly check to the organization and never thought about it again. There was intense jealousy in the families where only one child received gifts, and the mother was put in a position of having to divide these gifts somehow among all her children. There was often suspicion that the agency staff were stealing money or toys from the packages, when really it was about what was lost in translation – for instance, a mom once asked me to translate a letter written in English that her child had received from his sponsor. She recognized the words “toys” and “cars” in the letter, and wanted to know if the sponsor had sent toy cars to her child? Because he hadn’t received any. I read the letter and translated it for her into Spanish. It said, “what toys do you like to play with? My grandson likes to play with cars.”

Another day, I was visiting a mom – who had a plastic bottle cut in half wired to the side of her bamboo hut, filled with toothbrushes and toothpaste – when her children returned from their weight-and-height monitoring meeting, each with a “hygiene package” in hand. Each package contained a small hand towel, a bar of soap, toothpaste, toothbrush – and she said as they unwrapped their gifts, “Wow, someone must think you are a bunch of stinky dirty kids if they gave you this!” She was joking, teasing them, but it made me think about the meta-messages involved. I’m sure she was glad not to have to buy soap for a few weeks, nonetheless.

And I know, first-hand, that WV is working to mitigate some of these tangled issues that can result from the way sponsorship has been done in the past – working at the level of the whole school, the whole village, the whole neighborhood – while trying to maintain the humanizing individual connections between sponsors and registered children –  and I’m not going to tell you not to sponsor a child – just know that it’s not necessarily as simple as throwing a starfish back in the sea (because what happens when the next wave comes, and washes it back out again?)


Aid and development can be done in ways that respect the dignity, worth, self-determination, and self-respect of those living in poverty and dire need (and, for the record, I believe the bloggers I linked above are approaching it in this respectful way), but it can also be done in a way that undermines those very things. There can be a hidden cruelty in charity that puts the receiver in a one-down position, and keeps her there. Aid and development can be done in a way that promotes the very colonial power structures that created the poverty in the first place.

So yes, sponsor a child, put her picture on the fridge, remind yourself to be thankful for the excesses and distractions that fill your life. But please don’t stop there. Educate yourself about global poverty and injustice. Reduce your carbon footprint. Don’t waste food. Buy local. VOTE!!!!! “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

Above all – and I think this is the most important thing, and this is what aid blogging can do for us – remember that it’s about human beings.


p.s. I’m really nervous about posting this – I’ve seen some ugly controversy emerge before on these very topics, and I want to go on record here saying that this is not a criticism of Eden, nor a blanket criticism of bloggers who use their platform to highlight social issues, nor criticism of the humanism and love and compassion that move people to want to help others. All I want to say is that “helping” can be very complicated, difficult, opaque, and have unintended consequences down the road. So we, who are privileged and powerful, need to remember to tread carefully in these matters.


February 17, 2012

“You fall in love so easily,” he said, somewhat wistfully, the guy to whom I had just confessed my crush. He picked up the end of my long braid and brushed it against my cheek, and I thought for a second he was going to kiss me, but he didn’t. Maybe it was the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights overhead, or the clatter of dishes in the communal kitchen beyond the lobby area where we sat. Most likely he was – to crib the infamous phrase – just not that into me.

Sometimes I think he was right; it’s easy for me to gloss over flaws, to give my heart over despite misgivings.

Early yesterday evening I walked across the main square in Tirana, where I could see an enormous red flag unfurling the two-headed black eagle across a backdrop of snow-covered mountains, and I felt that familiar romantic pang of affection I get for a place. It’s like a pre-nostalgia, anticipating leaving. Gimli calls it the “smell the loons” mood. I have loved and left so many, many places. Pieces of my heart are scattered around the globe – South Africa, Bolivia, of course Peru, New York state, Virginia (oddly enough, I can’t seem to form an attachment to the US as a whole, just parts of it), and now Shqiperia.

I’m glad we came to Albania (so far). The aspect I’ve enjoyed more than any other, by far, has been learning the language.  I’ve learned that I really am good at learning languages. I never actually had to learn a language from scratch like this before; I studied Quechua, and did very well, but I grew up hearing it spoken and the rhythms and a lot of words were familiar, so I attributed my rapid learning to that familiarity instead of innate ability. It’s been really flattering, I guess, to hear from so many people so many times that I speak Shqip really well. I’ve certainly nailed the Motherese register, anyway. Gimli’s vocabulary and grasp of grammar is better than mine, since he actually studies and reads every night, but my accent and ear are far better than his since I actually talk to people.

But I don’t think we’ll be staying on. The implications for Gimli at the university in the US are not favorable for staying on here, and I think he feels just enough ambivalence that it precludes him from taking a drastic, proactive measure – which is what it would take for us to stay. Staying another year would be nice – but in the end, we’d still be leaving, and dealing with all the same issues and questions as we are now, just a year later.

I think the hardest part about leaving will be saying goodbye to Dhurata. She pours love on my kids, and Oscar especially is attached to her. I feel incredibly bad about leaving her, actually – just as I felt incredibly bad about leaving my BFF in the US when we came here. I know Dhurata is my employee, but she’s also a friend. We borrow each other’s clothes, we gossip about people we both know from church, we do “troubles talk” (which, according to Deborah Tannen, is a primary way women bond with each other). I don’t think I could find a better nanny anywhere in the world, and I’ve told her so. She in turn has thanked me again and again for the employment we give her. I know our leaving will not only be personally hard, but economically hard for her family as she is the primary wage-earner (her husband has been unemployed for six years now), cleaning house and babysitting for missionaries and Christian expatriates. Our departure will leave a big hole in her roster and budget.

So I feel bad. I wish we were staying another year, just for her sake. But then… a year from now, what would be different? We’d be having the same tensions, sadness, anxieties, and fears anyway. Just a year later.

So yeah, I feel myself shifting – with a mere six months ahead of us here – into early departure planning: mentally sorting out the toys and books – what to take, what to leave; mentally marking small items to gift to Dhurata and her family (a sweater for her, a backpack for her older son); thinking about whom to contact in the US about preschool recommendations, thinking about how to organize our home back in the States. We’re toying with the idea of moving to a bigger house, maybe somewhere in the county, although if we stay in the city we might be able to get Illyria into a dual-immersion bilingual kindergarten program the year after next which would be FABULOUS (English/Spanish).

And this is familiar too; this living with one foot in either world, neither entirely here nor entirely there. I have to be careful not to do it so much because then I’m never really present where I am.


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?


The requisite post about goals and resolutions

January 5, 2012

Welcome to 2012!

I’m still sort of mulling over in my mind the requisite retrospective on 2011, meanwhile penning multiple (albeit short) lists of resolutions.

Yesterday morning at 7:45 I headed down the hall to wake Gimli up for work. Oscar was stomping along in front of me in his sister’s shoes, and I scooped him up in one arm and swung him into my hip so he wouldn’t make quite so much noise. As I straightened, the walls tilted and spun and I caught myself with the other arm against the wall to keep from falling over.

It scared me.

I took a deep breath, then hefted myself away from the wall, took two steps and had to find the wall again. The word “swoon” comes to mind as the perfect word to describe the feeling of the room spinning around me, the way gravity went out of balance/alignment, the way my head felt. Vertigo.

I waited a little longer this time, and when I stood up again I was fine.

I’m not sure if it was from lack of sleep, dehydration, or wonky blood pressure – or all of the above – but it scared me and scares me still when I think about it, especially because I had Oz in my arms.


This year, my top resolution is to lower my blood pressure and cholesterol through diet and exercise. I don’t want to become dependent on medications to keep my bp low, although I will if I have to. I’m too young for that (so much for aging gracefully). One of my college frenemies has become an ardent vegan, and thanks to his persistent posts and links on FB I’ve decided that my second resolution is to decrease consumption of meat. I don’t think I’m ready to go vegan, or even vegetarian at the moment, but I’ve realized that my favorite 3-4 dishes to cook are, unintentionally, vegan. But I still enjoy the occasional steak, and we can’t get stuff here like tofu that would make me feel better about the kids getting enough protein (Oz won’t eat eggs or cheese so that kind of limits us as well). So I’m not sure where I’m going to fit the exercise in – ideally I’d like to work in a combination of yoga and pilates somewhere – but I think the first two resolutions do dovetail nicely. And will hopefully preclude any further dizzy spells. Because that – did I mention? – was scary.


I sat down this morning (back at Cheers! Yay!) and added up my work hours over the past year, working out the monthly average for the year, and quarterly. The encouraging result is that from the first quarter to the last I more than tripled my monthly average of work time, and overall showed a steady increase. My best month was August, when we didn’t go anywhere and didn’t have any visitors. I have an abstract to write for this year’s professional conference in November, and I HAVE to finish transcribing my interviews so I can do some proper data analysis. I have about 7 hours’ worth to go. And I realized that I really should start thinking about job applications… it’s early, to be sure, but I need to be in a position to start interviewing at the conference in November. Gimli has said he’s willing to relocate to any place I can find a job, and is encouraging me to look outside the US (of course). But on the other hand, a friend of ours who teaches at the big state university in our city in the States sort of gave me a tip that there are plans afoot to dramatically expand the humanities and social sciences programs there in the coming year or three, and my specialization would position me extremely well for a strong application there. So there’s that. Lots to think about in both the short and long term.

I was mulling over Magpie Days’ post on goals (she’s an American poet living in Switzerland), and what it made me think was that even though one might not have reached or exceeded one’s goals for the year, there is still value in setting the goals – let’s say you only achieve 60% of your goal; what if you hadn’t set the goal at all? Or what if you had set a much more modest goal? 60% of a more modest goal would be much less than you actually achieved, and 60% of zero is zero. So maybe it doesn’t matter if I failed – by a really long shot – to meet my original goals for 2011. I did a lot more than nothing, and I am a lot closer now to my ultimate goal of a PhD than I was last January. So I’m choosing to think positive about this one and not beat myself up about it. At least for today.


And I do have another goal for 2012 – to read every post on the 2011 Creme de la Creme list (and the 2010 one because I missed that one almost entirely).


Best to all who stop by here, for 2012. May your deepest wishes come true.

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?