Monday, December 7, 2015

promise



Once upon a time, we made each other promises: to love, to honor, to cherish until death would us part.

We kept those promises in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, joyfully and grudgingly, even when it was phenomenally difficult.

And then, one day, death did us part. And the terms of our promises were fulfilled.

My choices have reshaped my life into one unlike the one we chose together, but I make you new promises:

I promise to have your picture in the house where your children can see it.

I promise to use the things you created until they weather with age.

I promise to tell your stories, but I promise to tell all of them because I promise not to turn you into a saint.

I promise to learn from our mistakes.

I promise to remember.

I promise not to wallow.

I promise to honor your contribution to my happily ever after.

Friday, November 27, 2015

begin again

Over the course of the last two-and-half years, I've talked a lot about inhabiting the liminal space between end and beginning, and recently a beautiful drawing captured this so well:

I can hardly believe I'm putting a Mitch Albom quote on this blog,
but I couldn't resist the artwork by Mike Medaglia at http://mikemedaglia.com

The King James translation of Psalm 90 tells us that the alotted time of a human life is threescore years and ten. I feel like in half that time, I have lived an entire life.

My thirty-six years have arguably checked all the major boxes: childhood, youth, college, marriage, homeownership, babies, graduate school, widowhood. I have loved and birthed and buried and mourned.

The vision that I had for what my threescore and ten would look like died with Adam. That was a frightening, almost paralyzing, realization.

But as I learned to make my way through the dark wilderness, I realized that it was also liberating.

I get to choose a new life.

I get to make all the decisions of early adulthood over again: Where do I want to live? City or country? What kind of partner do I want? Do I even want a partner?  Do I want more children? Do I want to stay in academia? Is it the right place for me? Is it the best way to support my family? What other job would feed my soul?

I can choose differently than the last time I answered those questions. I get to reimagine the second half of my threescore and ten.

Some of those decisions are still under consideration; others have been made; some of the latter may yet change.

Selling Rambling Farmhouse and Rustic Lakehouse and moving several hundred miles to Lovely Apartment felt like the beginning of beginning. Having said good-bye to our cat Jack feels like the end of ending, the end of the season of leave-taking that began with #1 Cat's death just a month before Adam's. Although I know that there will always be periods of loss and grief in my life as long as there is love, at the moment, the light of hope is gaining on the darkness.

This is a good place to be at the beginning of Advent.

Friday, November 6, 2015

deliciousness in dough

So there we were, Chris and I, drinking beer on a Sunday evening, as happens not infrequently, and we started talking about how delicious food is.

Especially how delicious food is when wrapped in dough.

Especially how American cuisine does not have enough savory deliciousness wrapped in dough.

Especially how much we envy other cuisines their dough-wrapped deliciousness: Salvadoran pupusas, Bolivian salteñas, Mexican empanadas, Russian pirožki, Chinese dumplings, Indian samosas, Italian stromboli, Korean mandu, French crêpes.

So we hatched a plan to ride our bikes from one local ethnic restaurant to another sampling all the deliciousness wrapped in dough.

At its grandest, the plan has included a dozen restaurants and as many miles, but we're running out of biking weather and free weekends, so when the meteorologists told us today promised record-breaking high temps, we decided to do what we could in an evening: three South American restaurants outbound along Columbia Pike and two Asian restaurants inbound toward home.

And it was delicious.

I think the pupusas from Abi Azteca were the oddest. They looked like pita on the plate, but were more like thin pancakes (but not crêpes) with beans and cheese or pork and cheese contained by the sealed edges. The cabbage garnish was quite delicious.


The sulteñas from Pan American Bakery are a strong contender for my favorite. We got one with chicken and one with beef.


I brought one home for Anna. 

All in all, it was a delightful evening of cycling, fellowship, and deliciousness wrapped in dough. There are more picture in Chris's version of the story: "3.5 hours, 4 bellies, 5 restaurants, 2 bikes, and a whole lot of deliciousness wrapped in dough."

What better way to spend this day, the warmth of which we won't see again until after winter?



I'm looking forward to our northward swing on a tour of European restaurants when next the weather cooperates. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

labyrinth

I used to see life as path opening up ahead of me, sometimes winding and hilly, mostly direct. Occasionally, there would be moments in which I was aware of standing at a fork in the road, when I had to choose between two things with the consciousness that choosing one likely meant giving up the other forever. As when reading a which-way book, I was only able to see the decision right in front of me. In this model, the unchosen paths sometimes branched off sharply and disappeared from view and other times wound their own way nearby, still visible but not accessible.

Lately I've been thinking that life is more like a labyrinth, in which there is one path, but it is folded neatly around itself so that from any point, one can see the whole pattern.



The first time I set foot in a labyrinth, I fell in love. We were camping,* and my friend Karen looked at her husband Mike and said, "You know what we haven't done in forever?" No, love. What? "Made a labyrinth." You're right! I'll pick up ten pounds of flour when I go to town.

When Mike came back with the flour, they first defined critical points in the pattern and then started drawing curving lines from point to point. Even as I helped lay the lines, I had no understanding of  what we were creating. As the flour ran out, Karen declared the labyrinth complete.

"Now what?" I asked.

"Start here," Karen positioned me at the open space in the edge of the large circle full of lines. "Just walk. Keep going forward without crossing the lines. When you get to the center turn around and come back."

"But I'm not very good at mazes."

"It's not a maze. You don't have to make any choices, just follow the path. People have been doing this for millennia."

"But why?"

"You'll see."

She was right.

Since then, I've taken advantage of the few labyrinths that have appeared at my feet, and walking a labyrinth is always a profound experience. Not long ago, I was struggling to explain the experience of meditatively walking a labyrinth to Lou, so today I walked twice, once with a camera.



Even though I know what to expect, I'm always nervous to take the first step. It is a step over a boundary from the everyday to the sacred.


There is no wall stopping me from walking straight to the center. Taking this first curve in the path marks the choice to be obedient to the structure of the labyrinth.


I have to remind myself that getting straight to the center isn't the point, and yet early on the path winds close to the center, as if to give me a glimpse of where we are going.



And then, the path swings out to the outer edge of the labyrinth, and I feel so far away. Because even though I know that it's all about the journey, I still think of the center as the goal.


And then the path and I are back by my shoes at the entrance. Why are we back by my shoes?


So. Close.


Finally. Arrived.
On my second walk, sans camera, I sat down here and wept. I can't even say why. I sat down on the beautiful concentric cobbles, and there were tears. And when they were done, I stood up.


 Here beginneth the return. This is where I get cocky, thinking, I have walked all the inches of this path, I know you now, labyrinth. 



And I walk faster, and then, the path folds where I expected it to sweep.


Sometimes the folds of the path turn me in such a way that I can see neither the center nor the start. It's okay, though, because I know all the curves and sweeps of the path fit between those two points.


Look, path! We're almost there. So close to my shoes! 
I'm beginning to think that some of those unchosen choices from my past are more like this moment in which I can see something that I have not yet gotten to, something the path and I will reach later.


Oh. Just one more turn. Why are you done, path? I'm not ready.






__________________________________

*This camping trip was probably ten years ago, so all conversations are the paraphrase that survives in my memory.

This labyrinth is on the grounds of the Advent Lutheran Church in Arlington, Virginia, and I found it through the Labyrinth Locator.

Friday, September 18, 2015

vanity and honesty

My hair is a pain in the ass.

It's thin enough that it needs to be kept short, because if it gets too long its own weight pulls it flat against my head in sad and unflattering ways that highlight its sparseness.

It grows quickly enough, however, that I really should have it cut every six weeks to keep a short haircut neat and not shaggy.

It has just enough wave, though, that it really needs to be cut by someone with more than half a clue, which means not going to the cheap places, which means that in service to economy I try to stretch 6 weeks into 8 weeks into just-before-the-next-big-event.

All of which means I spend an awful lot of time not liking what my hair looks like.

I got a pretty decent (but expensive!) hair cut in mid-July (right before a family reunion). I probably should have planned for another haircut in late August just as the semester was starting, but I didn't. So, then I started thinking that maybe I could stretch just a couple more weeks to right before my dissertation defense....and I spent the last two weeks like a toddler with a clip holding my bangs back.

Wednesday, I went to a different salon, one that is less pricey and within walking distance, with two photographs of the sort of short pixie cut I was thinking might work.
source 1
From Marie Clare, December 2010
I came home with something much shorter. 


For about five minutes I truly hated it. Then I realized that I haven't loved my hair in ten years, not since it was thick enough to wear long and long enough to be braids or a bun.

Like a lot of women with thin hair, in collusion with our stylists, I had been trying to preserve the illusion of more than was there. I had been chasing the image of femininity that American culture feeds us, the image that pushes so many women toward dyeing the grey or wearing a wig or artfully arranging thinness into the illusion of volume. 

Ten years. I spent ten years trying to preserve an illusion. That's just bullshit.

I love all the rest of my imperfections, why not my (lack of) hair?
 
It feels funny, more like soft fur than hair, but it matches my freckles and my laugh lines.

Whatever else it is, this haircut is honest.



Sunday, August 30, 2015

a glimpse of rest

I had the privilege of hearing a great sermon about the importance of taking a sabbath this evening. Mark talked about how the moments of rest are an integral part of the creative process: In Genesis, the seventh day is one of the days of creation, not an extra day after a six-day creation was complete. In music, it is the rests that shape the phrases and create beauty rather than cacophony.

In the breakneck pace of twenty-first century American life, and especially the diffused nature of academic work, it's sometimes hard to imagine what sabbath rest looks like. For me, it looks like this:

dissertation shelfie
That, dear readers, is all the books and articles related to my dissertation on the shelf, which really only happens on sabbath.

Most days, they look more like this:

piles like this populate floor near my desk
Over the course of the working week, the piles around my desk multiply and grow precariously taller.

When I'm done working on Saturday, I save and close my working dissertation file and minimize the browser window with related websites. My teaching materials find their way into my backpack, and the sea of books and articles surrounding my desk return to their shelves.

And then I rest.




Thursday, August 13, 2015

the framing is the hardest part *

This is my rock and shell collection, and I love it.**

I love it so much, I brought it with me all the way from Rambling Farmhouse in the car, in the bottom of a round laundry basket, with only soft things packed on top.

I am happy just to look at them. Occasionally, I turn some over or bring new things to the top.

Some of these rocks and shells have been with me since childhood when I gathered them on Long Island's south shore. Some have crossed oceans in my backpack from Lake Baikal, from Paris, from São Paolo. Some have been gifts from other people's travels.

My grandmother thinks a rock collection is ridiculous. She has lots of reasons: they all look pretty much the same when they're dry, they don't say where they're from, there are too many for me  to remember acquiring each of them.

And she's right. The origins of most of these are now a mystery, and the overwhelming colors are greys and tans.

She's also wrong. In the aggregate, my rocks and shells are my travels. They are pieces of my world, the places I've visited and the places I've lived, and it doesn't matter that I can't tell you their individual origins.

They are beautiful to me just as they are because when I look at this basket, I see the world as I have known it.

My choice to keep these rocks and shells piled on top of each other in a basket on a shelf, however, means that other people, like my grandmother, see just a pile of random rocks and shells gathering dust.

Sometimes I think about framing some or all of the collection. Like this:

Photo Credit: http://www.completely-coastal.com/2012/05/wall-of-beach-and-sea-memories-in.html
And then I start thinking about all the decisions: how to group them, how to organize each group, what kind of frames, glass or no glass, how to mount them, permanently or not, where to hang the frames. And the basket of no decisions starts to look better and better, and I just...don't.

In a fit of pique this week I realized that my dissertation is exactly like my rock and shell collection.

I have gathered 138 pages (double-spaced! Times New Roman! 12 pt font!) of beautiful ideas. Ideas about the role of narrative in society. Ideas about why we tell some stories and not others. Ideas about how narrative changes. Ideas about faith and science and fairy tales.

Ideas with very little connection to one another.

They're not quite as random as my basket of rocks and shells, of course, because they're loosely grouped into chapters by topic. And truly, the grouping and the ordering makes sense in my head.

It's articulating the connections and guiding the reader through my thought process that I'm struggling with.

Putting the ideas on paper is not enough. Unless I can polish these gems and frame them beautifully, my work is just a pile of dusty rocks that are only valuable to me.


______________________________________________________________

* Bonus points if the title made you hum.
** Did you know that rocks are my first love? When I was little my parents used to take me for walks on the beach because it was close and it was free. Most days we all came home barefoot because I had filled our shoes and socks with rocks and shells.
When the crew working on water and sewer lines under our street found out I loved rocks, they started bringing me the most interesting ones at the end of the day. When we moved, my dad refused to put the (many! heavy!) rocks on the truck, and I wailed because he was making me leave my friends behind. (In my dad's defense, some of the rocks from the workers were quite large.)

Monday, August 3, 2015

be the tortoise, not the hare

I measure my life in tally marks these days.



At the end of each 25-minute pomodoro of dissertation,  I make a tally mark on a piece of paper on my desk. Then I reset the timer and get up from the desk for 5 minutes of not-writing.

I'm at the stage of the dissertation process where I can feel it starting to gather energy as we roll down a steep hill. It's tempting to embrace the heady momentum and stay at the keyboard for hours at a stretch.

That way lies madness, though. Taking my hands off the breaks and my feet off the pedals and giving myself over wholly to the writing means forgetting to cook or even buy groceries. It means forgetting to make important phone calls and pay bills. After a few days, I have no brain for words and no energy for thinking and the life outside of my desk is in shambles. I've done that before, and I always hate myself for it.

So, now I aim for six poms a day, every day but Sunday. Most days, I make it to six tally marks by mid afternoon and then come back to the desk for two more poms (and two more tally marks!) in the evening.

Making myself stop feels like a bizarre kind of discipline.

I can attest that it is a fruitful discipline, though. The document on my computer is growing longer and more complex. The rest time away from the keyboard often leads to connections among chapters and solutions to knotty problem spots.

This is a mountain stage, not a sprint.

And the tortoise wins.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

a glimpse of family

At the aquarium today there was a manipulative that taught about how objects moving independently of one another may appear to be coordinated if they are following the same rules (as in the natural laws of physics), and this appearance of coordination is heightened when the objects look alike. The manipulative used black spheres on strings, but it was teaching about fish and schooling behavior.



I was visiting the aquarium with assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins spanning three generations, and we moved through the space with a minimum of coordination. But we all had the same goals:

1. Enjoy the fish.
2. Be with each other.
3. Keep track of children.
4. Avoid toddler meltdowns at all costs.

Sometimes we were all together in a clump, showing each other the same thing. Sometimes, we were spread out into smaller clusters. At the end, we left the aquarium, as we had arrived, in small, nuclear-family groups.

This evening we sat around looking at old family photos. Over and over again, we collectively marveled at how much we all look like each other, each of us resembling different others of us at different times in our lives.

Most of the time, we are fragmented into clusters by geography and the quotidian demands of our individual lives. Every once in a while, though, we gather, and there is some critical mass of natural law that helps us hang together.

Photo courtesy of Alison Griffin.

In those brief moments, we are a glorious school of fish dancing individually together.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

free at last

Over the last two years, I've written a lot about inhabiting the wilderness between end and beginning. Moving halfway across the country a month ago was a huge step toward exiting that liminal space.

The more momentous occurrence of the last thirty days, however, was the official closure of my late husband's estate.

This most recent letter from the probate court is the matched pair of the first letter designating me as the personal representative of the estate. It puts a seal on all of the official actions I have taken to dissolve his corporation, sell his real estate and his vehicles, and distribute his investments among his heirs.

That unchosen responsibility was a too-large yoke on my shoulders, and I resented it.

This most recent letter marks the end of my legal responsibility for my late husband's affairs and effects. Now, my only obligation to Adam is to maintain his presence in the lives of his children, a yoke which I will gladly bear.

I feel so free.

Happy Independence Day!

Friday, June 26, 2015

pinch me

Sometimes when I walk past the door inside the apartment, I forget that I'm in an apartment. The stack of locks and the light from the hallway peeking around the edges are somehow coded not-home.  More than once, I've caught my mind whispering, 'Gosh, we've been in this hotel for a long time,' like the ghost of a thought that almost isn't.

And yet, all my things are here.



All my books, all my yarn, my cello, my photos, my spinning wheel, my dishes, my broom, my tax paperwork for the last ten years, my clothes, my bedding, my bills, my teapots, my computer.

All of it.

Here.

In the place I picked.

Sometimes it feels so very right, and sometimes it feels unreal.

Like playing house.



Sometimes the sky is too beautiful for words.



And I feel so blessed to have found this apartment in this building on this floor on this side.

The Netherlands Carillon and the bugle calls at Fort Myer make an unexpected and pleasant counterpoint to the urban din of quotidian traffic and emergency sirens.

Yet, even as high as we are on the eighth floor, the overwhelming sound throughout the day is the birds who make their homes in the trees that reach higher than my windows.

I definitely didn't expect the birds.

Someone pinch me.

Please.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Paris, je t'aime?

Today I came closer to using my epi-pen than I ever have before.

I expected to be in Michigan by now, but I'm still in Paris, because I was careless enough to eat a sandwich whose bread included walnuts.

On the one hand, why are there ground up walnuts in sandwich bread?!?!?! Really, why?

Dear international healthful food movement,
Please stop putting nuts everywhere just because you can. Baked goods, yes. Granola, yes. Sandwich bread, please can we not?
Itchily yours,
me

On the other hand, what food-allergic person reads just the placard and not the sticker on the sandwich, eh? I grabbed a sandwich and a salad from a lovely fresh bakery after having read the placards detailing the contents, but I didn't notice that the sandwich's placard didn't say anything about the bread or that the sticker holding the wrapper closed listed WALNUTS, just like that, all caps in English even. How could I be so inattentive? I should know better.

Boarding was just getting started when I realized that I couldn't get on the plane. My ears hurt, the front of my neck felt thick, and my chest was tight. I could still breathe and talk, but I wasn't confident that would continue.

First aid came, took my vitals, and tried to convince me to just get on the plane because the symptoms would have gotten more serious faster if they were going to. Except, that's not always the case with anaphylaxis, and Paris to Detroit is a really long flight.

When first aid called for a consult, the airport doctor counseled coming in to the med center, and I went despite the first responder's skepticism. Vitals, examination, a dose of prednisone, a dose of Zyrtec, and observation time later, I had, as predicted, missed my plane, the last direct flight for the day. The good news is that, although my face and chest felt awful, I was still breathing effectively as evidenced by my stellar pulse oximeter and blood pressure cuff readings.

Air France's customer service was amazing, though. Someone met me at the clinic to walk me through the process of rebooking the flight, picking up a prescription, and finding a place to spend the night. I have a boarding pass for a flight tomorrow, a room at the Citizen M, and more doses of steroids and antihistamines.

I also have a renewed awareness of my own vulnerability.

Monday, April 27, 2015

ruins



A brief drive along the coast to the west of the city of Algiers took us to Tipasa and Cherchelle, the sites of Roman ruins. 


I have to say that I was not enthused when Stuart told me about these plans, but I was willing to go along for the adventure.

Photo courtesy of Taylor Walters Denyer.

I had forgotten how powerful it is to walk the paths trod by people two millennia ago...


...to think about how those people used these spaces...


...to marvel at how much the ancient city's structure is still apparent...


...to ponder the lives of the artisans who created this beauty.



This city was built right up to the edge of the Mediterranean, and I was ecstatic to be able to dip my fingers in the water. 

Photo courtesy of Taylor Walters Denyer.
These women were also visiting the ruins, and they requested that Taylor and I pose for pictures with them. Unlike many people who have seen us out and about, they didn't ask our names or where we were from. They didn't use us for English practice or even try to speak to us in French. They just touched us gently and mimed their request.
Photo courtesy of Taylor Walters Denyer.
The young man with them took many more iterations of this photo with different combinations of them and us. It's a bit odd to be cast in the role of Exotic Foreigner, but I was happy to oblige.



In hindsight, I am so glad that we went.








friendship

So far my posts from Algiers have been about the places and the things, but this trip was really about the people.

On the day of Adam's funeral, his friends gathered at my house. There was a moment in which they looked at each other and said, 'We're so glad to be together again. We shouldn't have waited this long, and it shouldn't have taken a funeral to bring us together again.' In the aftermath of that day, I thought long and hard about the friendships I value enough to put energy into, and I have resolved not to let it be a funeral that brings me together with those people.

There are few people in the world whom I could contact and say, 'I would like to buy an expensive plane ticket and spend a week in your house,' and whom I could trust to say, 'Yes, we will do the complicated paperwork required for you to come. Can you really only stay a week?'

Taylor, Stuart, and I have known each other since college. Taylor and I got through stats together freshman year. The three of us were founding members of Fellowship of Sound, a student music group which continues to this day. Stuart played the organ at my wedding.


Maintaining a friendship over time despite great distances is hard work, and Taylor and I haven't been constantly close. Our mutual effort to make time for one another and to spend energy on our friendship has been fruitful, though. When we do have the opportunity to be together we have rambling conversations about hopes and dreams and disappointments and challenges. 


It's hard to believe that we met eighteen years ago.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

vip

Algeria is not the safest of travel destinations. In fact, for my friend who is a foreign service officer, this is a danger post, and the security section is involved in many of the decisions of daily life. We are allowed to move through the capitol city freely for the most part, but traveling outside the city, and especially outside the wilaya requires a police escort.


Over the last couple of days' adventuring we've been somewhat uncomfortable with this situation. The police don't simply drive along with us just in case, they station a vehicle before ours and a vehicle after ours, and they use their authority and their sirens to make way for this trio.


This road was built to be one lane in each direction, and our escort pushed traffic to the shoulders to create a third lane down the middle just for us.

Although it was nice to bypass the traffic, we were aware that we were making the evening commute longer and more challenging for the other cars around us. In this moment, three middle-class Americans were shocked to recognize that we were the VIPs in the motorcade.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

atlas

Today's adventures took us outside the city of Algiers and up a twisty mountain road in the Atlas Range to a national park at 5,000 feet.  It was a long ride, especially for my poor, prone-to-carsickness tummy, but it was totally worth it. 

There's always something amazing about climbing higher than the clouds. 


I love the wrinkly ridges snuggled up close to one another.


The exposed rock faces reminded me of those visible in the Appalachians in Pennsylvania, although there was greater evidence of regular rock falls than I've ever seen there.


It's the height of spring in Algiers, and these lovelies grow everywhere along roadsides.


On the way back, we stopped at a scenic overlook that included monkeys. They just wander down the hill and wait for the travelers to share food.



This snap is washed out, but I wanted to show you this mother and her baby hanging underneath. It was the baby's job to stay attached as the mother moved around the rock face and gathered the croissant and cacao nibs on offer.


The image of Atlas, the defeated Titan, holding the weight of the world on his shoulders kept spinning through my mind as we rode through his mountains today. With it came Ayn Rand's image of Atlas shrugging, thereby shifting the foundations of life as we know it. 

Our hearts broke at the news of the earthquake in Nepal earlier today. With so many buildings shattered and lives destroyed, it would be easy to lose hope, but today we had driven on roads congested because of the work of rebuilding after earthquakes in this region, and yesterday we had seen scaffolding supporting earthquake-damaged buildings in the casbah. Resilience wins and life continues even when Atlas shrugs.