Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.

Love in Photographs: Reconnecting to Joy

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Moving can be tough on relationships.

This is not shocking news. The oft-cited Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory lists “major changes in living conditions (.i.e. new house…)” among the 30 most stress-inducing life events. If you remove from this inventory those events that are expressly negative (like death or divorce), moving house makes it into the top 15. And even a momentary reflection on the whole moving process gives ample explanation for this categorization. Disruption of daily routines, living out of suitcases and boxes, large and unusual expenses, not to mention the imposition into already full lives of the obligation to miraculously accomplish manifold frustrating tasks (like registering cars with the DMV and reassembling IKEA furniture without the instructions)… all of this comes along with the experience of moving. Add to that mix the reality of sharing all this stress with another adult who feels equally responsible for addressing the long list of tasks, but who might have different instincts as to how to prioritize and accomplish them and… well… let’s just say that the passion and fireworks produced might not be the kind usually associated with Valentine’s Day.

I knew all of this 2 months ago when I was watching the contents of our Milan apartment get packed into boxes and loaded onto a sea container to make the slow journey across the water to New Jersey. Tyler and I have been through enough moves together in the last 15 years that I knew essentially what to expect. I knew that he would be really focused on the “repair-type-jobs” (like painting and replacing door hardware), while I would be most concerned with organizing the kitchen, the kids’ schools and the transfer of medical records. I knew that we would both desperately want healthy, balanced meals at the end of long, physically exhausting days but that we would also both be too tired to cook so we would eat the frozen, American excuse for pizza more often than I am prepared to admit to all my Italian friends. I knew that I would want to take the lead on (a.k.a. assert strict control over) the unpacking of every room except the garage, and would then irrationally complain about how tired I was after 12 hours a day on my feet for a solid week.  I knew that Tyler would get frustrated when my organizational obsessiveness utterly distracted me when he called to talk over an item on his to-do-list while I was elbow-deep in a box full of kitchen utensils. I knew that we would both have less energy for the kids and for each other and that this would inevitably devolve into short tempers and tantrums at bed time (I’ll let you guess about the author(s) of said tantrums).

I knew all this, and it didn’t really worry me.

It didn’t worry me because I knew it would be temporary and the light at the end of the tunnel makes such a difference to how heavy the darkness feels. It didn’t worry me because stress is what you make of it and forgiveness covers a multitude of sins. It didn’t worry me because the end destination would be worth the bumps in the road. It didn’t worry me because Tyler and I have been through much worse than this and made it through all the stronger.

So, I wasn’t worried, but I still kept my expectations at a low. We would survive the inevitable rubbing of egos and stress-triggers, and probably learn a few lessons in the process, but most of all we would get through it. That was the important thing. Just get through it.

I wasn’t expecting the magical, TV-commercial-moment listening to the rain on our roof for our “first night in our new place.” I wasn’t expecting easy family dinners where a healthy meal manages to materialize on the table despite the boxes piled beside it and everyone is so excited to talk about/listen to “what happened at school today.” I certainly wasn’t expecting a romantic Valentine’s Day, complete with sentimental expressions of love directed across a candle-lit table while Tyler and I gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes. That’s just not realistic.

But I have to say, for all my low expectations, I’m incredibly grateful that this particular move had a little more to offer than what I was expecting. That “more” was something small, silly even. In unpacking box after box of possessions we had sent into storage for our European sojourn, I ran across a lot of pictures.

I didn’t really mean to pause in my organizational rampage to look at them, but I have always had a weakness for photographs. Photographs capture moments in history, and for over 15 years now my history has been linked to Tyler’s. So, as the colorful paper envelopes called to my fingers to open them and beckoned my eyes to peruse their glossy images, I was drawn back into that history.

The most striking things in the pictures were our smiles. I looked at photo after photo of me and Tyler as a young couple, and there was one consistent theme: our smiles were electric. Just being together, holding hands, or arms wrapped around each other, we were beaming from the pure joy of being together.

It was a wonderful reminder. Joy is an important part of marriage – the kind of joy that comes not from a specific experience or accomplishment but from the simple fact of togetherness; the kind of joy that requires nothing to fulfill it other than the presence of the one we love, in our lives, at our sides, showing in their smile that we are the one with whom they find joy.

Of course, joy isn’t the deepest element of marriage, or even the most important. If a divine messenger suddenly appeared before me with the option to live forever in one of two moments: my current life situation or the bliss captured in those fading photographs, I would pick today. I understand love so much more deeply now than I did then. I know Tyler (and myself) so much better. Beautiful as our smiles are in those old pictures, they are smiles that only float on the surface of love, dipping their toes with delight at how the ripples sparkle, rather than plumbing the depths of knowledge and commitment and a life lived in partnership.

Still, I’m glad for the reminder of that joy on this Valentine’s Day. It is a reminder that I am unspeakably lucky to be living through life, with all its distractions and stressors, side by side with a wonderful partner, a man who can still make my smile glow. Maybe there is time for a little besotted eye-gazing in our Valentine’s Day after all… Happy Valentine’s Day, My Love.

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Author: Serena Gideon Rice

In early 2011 my family moved our home, temporarily, from New Jersey to Milan, Italy. In the process I quit what had been my dream job conducting policy-directed social science research, to focus on my other dream job, raising our two young children. The three-year adventure was exciting, exhausting, disorienting, fulfilling, and countless other contradictions. It also birthed in me a desire to share my reflections on life's joys and challenges with anyone who cares to reflect with me. Now that we have returned to the US I'm finding that the new perspective I gained in Europe has come with me, and gives me a whole new way of interacting with my home. There's still so much to learn and share! I hope you'll share the journey, and add your own lessons to my daily education.

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