Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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

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Driving toward Cheer

Driving in Milano is a challenge. The lane markers are inconsistent, the signage is sparse, the traffic rules are unpredictably enforced, and the roundabouts could double as roller derby competitions. I have a number of expatriate friends who are duly licensed drivers in other countries who simply refuse to drive here.

While I understand their intimidation, however, I am an American and my car is important to me. It lets me get my children to school before the gate closes (on most days). It lets me go grocery shopping at the one supermarket in the South East section of Milan that is actually a supermarket – and to bring home more bags that I could shove into a rolling shopping bag. It let’s me travel outside the city (to church, to the lake country, to picturesque hill towns) without being subject to the timetables of the Italian rail system. It is not the sole means of transportation that I use in my daily life, as life in the US usually entails, but it is still important. So, I have learned to drive in Milano without fear, and without any accidents (knock on wood!).

Parking in Milano, is an entirely different story. As in any large metropolitan area, the number of parking spots available is inadequate for the number of cars that roam its streets on any given day. The Milanese are perhaps more creative in their response to this problem than the citizens of other cities. There is some double-parking, of course, but much more frequently drivers simply stow their vehicles in any open space of pavement that is not the active driving surface of a roadway. Such “parking spots” can include the curbs of medians or the painted stripes that are meant to substitute for a median when a roadway splits. More frequently, however, the preferred parking spots are on the sidewalk. Provided that you do not obstruct pedestrian crossways, and that you allow sufficient space for other cars to squeeze past along the open portion of the sidewalk (with side mirrors tucked in tight and parking sensors blaring the single note that is supposed to indicate “you are too close, buddy, BACK UP”), such parking opportunities are apparently free to all takers.

This permission to park unconventionally, however, has not alleviated my anxiety with the inevitable conclusion of journeys completed by car. I will frequently take long or convoluted trips on public transportation, braving ugly weather and trying to balance stroller, bags, umbrella, and metro card, in order to avoid the requirement to park my car at my intended destination. If I do not know there is a parking lot, with marked stalls that are actually wide enough to fit anything larger than a fiat, I think twice. In part this is because of the particular car I have. Now, I really should not complain. Tyler’s company has provided us with a very nice Volvo S80 sedan. This meant nothing to me before I moved here but I now know this model to be a very safe and comfortable vehicle complete with seat warmers, navigation system, ample trunk space, and room to accommodate our family of four quite comfortably (and occasional fifth passengers somewhat less comfortably). Unfortunately the consequence of all that space is that is has wide bumpers and a long wheel base, making parking in smart-car-sized spaces a nightmare!

Thankfully, the blessed relocation package has come to the rescue yet again. Whatever parking disasters I face when touring Northern Italy in my trusty Volvo, I know that when I return home there will be, waiting to receive my unwieldy chariot, a box. No joking – that is really what the Italians call a garage unit in an underground parking structure. Our box is not exactly a heaven of open space. Parking the Volvo in our box (which is mockingly situated at the far end of a corridor of much bigger boxes), requires that I reverse the car the length of the corridor and execute a precise 4-point turn. The car can still only be pulled into the box, of course, after manually opening the garage door, pulling in my side mirrors, and allowing right-side passengers to exit the car (because they will not be able to open their door once the car is inside).

All these requirements aside, I love my box. It is my guarantee that I do not have to scrape my bumper, or someone else’s trying to squeeze my car between the side of a building and a long line of other cars in order to maneuver it into the one narrow strip of open sidewalk in a four-block radius. I rarely even look for street parking anymore. Now that I have mastered the tricky angles of my 4-point turn, I just head straight for the big metal gate that marks the entrance to our parking garage, located just below our apartment building.

But yesterday my progress toward the oasis of my box was blocked by a little red car parked at a slight angle across the sidewalk cut-out. Now, I should explain that there is a clear exception to the implicit Milanese permission to park on any sidewalk wide enough to admit a vehicle. Sections of sidewalk that need to remain free to admit other vehicles are always clearly marked (in a marvel of Italian consistency and clarity) with the words Passo Carrabile. Of course, the prohibition is not always absolute – there are some passo carrabile notices that mark only the large portone, or front entrance to a building. Milanese drivers all understand that the prohibition in these cases is only against abandoning your car in this spot for any extended duration of time. It is perfectly acceptable to just pull into one of these spots for a moment or two or run up a delivery, or to load or unload your car. I have done so numerous times in front of my own building, or when picking up friends. However, when the passo carrabile sign marks the entrance to a parking garage, it really is discourteous to block it with your car unless you remain with the car to move it in the event that someone needs to pass.

In this case, the driver was most definitely absent, and repeated honking did nothing to effect his or her appearance. My response was not gracious. It was the end of a long day. I had both of the kids in the car and a drizzling rain outside. I did not want to have to walk from whatever street parking I might miraculously be able to find juggling an umbrella and school bags, and two squirmy children who delight in splashing through puddles. My parking oasis was supposed to save me from that!

My kids were in the car, so I did my best to control my temper and to respond calmly to their innocent but annoying queries about why someone had parked so we couldn’t get it. I honked a few more times, looked around futilely for someone rushing from a nearby building in responses, and then decided to chance it. Thankfully, the training of 20+ months of driving and parking my boat of a car around Milano had given me a very keen awareness of its dimensions and turning angles. Inch-by-inch I was able to slide it past the little red obstruction and angle it through the heavy metal doors down the ramp to safety. I let out an explosive breathe that was a substitute for the expletives I would have liked to scrawl on the back window of the blockade. Then I heard an incredibly sweet sound from the back seat. Clapping.

“Great job, Mommy! You did it!” The Gigglemonster was cheering for Mommy, and when I looked into the rearview mirror I could see that his face was split by his signature grin of gleeful delight. It was a humbling but joyful moment. He was right. I had done it. While the absentee driver’s parking selection had been inconsiderate, it hadn’t actually hurt me in any way. We had reached our destination unmarred, except for my evil mood. And that mood was entirely my responsibility. If I chose, I could be happy instead. After all, I was getting a round of applause from my son for my driving skills. How frequently does that happen?

So, I am trying to learn from my little three-year old to drive and park in Milan with more cheering, and less muttering. It’s not easy. When I came home from school drop off today in the continuing rain I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see a large delivery truck completely blocking my access to the garage. As I wound around the extended route of one-way streets to circle back to the garage entrance my frustration rose on each of three circuits. But I breathed deeply, and I tried to hear my son’s sweet voice in my head. “Great job Mommy. You can do it.” You can stay calm even when you are tired, and have a cold, and just want to get home to some hot tea. You can put things in perspective and realize that having five minutes to waste driving in circles is an incredible luxury. You can remember that the world was not actually created to serve your own convenience, and that the people getting in your way might actually be doing something much more important with their time than you are.

So, when the driver finally emerged and waved his apology, I waved back and smiled. It might not have been my warmest smile, but I smiled. And I know what my Gigglemonster would say if he had seen it. “Great job Mommy. You are not being cross.”


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Slowing Down

A few days ago I started re-reading the New Testament letter of James as part of my morning devotional time.

[Please note – I’m not sharing this out of any self-righteous desire to appear holy, especially not holier-than-though. My devotional efforts are consistent only for their inconsistency, so I could never hold myself up as a model in that regard. But I am grateful to be experiencing a new vitality to my spiritual life ever since I heard the “wind hovering over the water” in Tinos. Since some of the things I have been learning in the process may be interesting and relevant to others, I am making bold to share them. Whether or not you identify with the Christian faith, I hope these reflections can still have meaning for you.]

So, as I was saying, I have started re-reading James. It is a letter I have not studied in a long time — at least 5 years — although I am fairly familiar with its content as it is a much-quoted book. However, an allusion to one of the sections of the letter in a song recently drew my attention. So, on Thursday morning, I picked up my bible and started reading from chapter 1. I got 18 verses in and then I came to a short little section that I have heard or read innumerable times before:

 “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” James 1: 19b-20 (New International Version).

Now, I do not consider myself an angry person. My father had some issues with anger and that has always been a strong motivator for me to avoid that particular emotion. What it more, I think my natural temperament is relatively calm. My parents named me Serena because of that intrinsic serenity, and as recently as two weeks ago yet another acquaintance observed that this name is particularly apt. A variety of friends have even commented on the calm attitude I maintain in dealing with my children. One friend insists vehemently that she does not believe I ever yell at my kids, despite my assurances.

I believe, however, that it is the change in my status from non-parent to parent that drew these two verses to my attention so unavoidably a few days ago. The moment I read them it was as though a not-so-silent movie began playing for the benefit of my mind’s eye: a flashback of the last few weeks with my children. I saw moment after moment of impatience and frustration; of exasperation and ill temper; of sharp words and snappy gestures; in short, of quick jumps from my natural calm to petulant anger in response to what were usually fairly mild behaviors from my children. These memories struck me with particular force because I know these weeks were relatively stress-free, comprising as they did the last few weeks of summer vacation with relatively few time-pressures or external expectations. In the next few days I became more conscious of these little fits of temper and I realized that they were the result of cumulative frustrations. The first time Princess Imagination grabbed onto my leg and in the process nearly pulled off my skirt I just asked her to stop. The forty-eighth time she does it I erupt with “DON’T pull on my skirt!” The first time the Gigglemonster tried to sit on top of the back of the couch I told him firmly, but calmly, that we don’t sit up there. The sixty-third time he goes climbing I pull him down not quite gently and issue a sharp rebuke. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that I love my children deeply, they have an incredible capacity to get under my skin with little misbehaviors that feel so big when I have to correct them over and over. I know I am not a unique parent in this respect, but somehow that does not give me much comfort.

My discomfort is because it means I have failed to achieve a standard I set for my own parenting. Despite my many promises to myself to the contrary, my children deal with my anger on a nearly daily basis. Certainly the anger in question is not violent or explosive. I have never even considered exploding in a torrent of cursing or putting my fist through a wall. In my current surroundings, a culture that is much more emotive and expressive than my American heritage, I witness much more obvious parental anger almost every time I take the subway or go to the park. By comparison to many of my gesticulating Italian neighbors my temper is quite mild.

But the forcefulness of parental expressions of anger (so long as they are not abusive) is not really the relevant factor for comparison. What concerns me more about my frequent descents into anger is their overall effect. The fits of temper I saw from my Dad as a child frightened me, certainly, but their general impact was to impress upon my young mind a desire to avoid such extreme expressions of anger. While they taught by negative example, at least they taught a positive lesson. In contrast, I wonder whether my mild, seemingly innocuous fits of anger might not actually be more insidiously damaging to my children’s development. Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster show no signs of being frightened by my anger or dissuaded from exhibiting anger themselves. Much to the contrary, they also demonstrate a readiness to snap at each other in response to small annoyances, or to break into peevish whining or temper tantrums when I do or say something that makes them unhappy.

Of course, I do understand that this is common behavior for two- and five-year-olds. I cannot take the full blame for what are developmentally common behaviors. Nevertheless, I have come to recognize that there is an ironic cycle at work in our domestic patterns. The Gigglemonster lets out a shrill scream when Princess Imagination touches his new monster truck toy and tries to grab it from her hands. I respond by sharply raising my voice as I tell him to share and I snatch his hand away from her. Princess Imagination whines that she doesn’t want to clean her room right now and I whine right back that I am tired of her whining and disobedience. Whether they are learning from me or I am learning from them, the lesson being learned is clearly far from ideal. Do as I say, not as I do comes uncomfortably close to the mark. If I want my children to learn how to treat others with respect, to be patient and kind, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, then I certainly need to begin by modeling such behavior.

Man’s anger, Mom’s anger, does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. This warning matters to me, and not just because of any eternal consequences linked to “unrighteousness.” I believe in a forgiving God who knows my brokenness and loves me through it. But I also believe that the righteous life is worth living for its own sake. A life characterized by love, joy, peace, and the rest of the fruits of the spirit is, in fact, a happy life. And it is the little things, like the way we treat those closest to us, that really determine the character of our lives. I may be serene and free from obvious or violent fits of temper to the casual observer, but I am realizing that I am not slow to anger. Even if my anger is mild, it is anything but slow, and I want this to change.

In the last several days I have been working on being slow. It is amazingly hard. The habit of the quick jump to peevishness is difficult to break expressly because it is not slow— it is automatic. I have been impressed, however, by how quick my children are to respond when my efforts succeed. When I am firm, but calm in response to their misbehavior something miraculous happens: they do not escalate, at least not nearly as fast. When, instead of snapping, I get down on their eye level and talk to them about why they need to stop a given action, they are much more likely to listen, actually LISTEN!

Of course, they are still two- and five-years-old, and I am still imperfectly serene. Our progress is slow. But I will take slow. Slow is good.

Last day of Summer vacation – enjoying the time together!

[Books and materials used in my efforts to help myself and the kids learn Italian]


Mother Tongue and Limited Proficiency

ImageMy European experience has complicated my relationship with language.

I have always loved language. I am a communicator, and language is fairly essential to good communication. While I have heard the statistic that 90 percent of all communication is non-verbal, I am not sure I am entirely convinced. For one thing, this would suggest that the written word is a relatively ineffective form of communication. However, I have frequently found books and articles to be extremely powerful. They have given me new perspectives on everything from specific issues to my understanding of myself and how I relate to the world. This is one of the primary reasons that I blog. The carefully crafted written word can expose us to new ideas and give us the time to really engage them without all the distractions that come with conversational language.

Moving to a non-English-speaking country has further convinced me that words, while not everything, are much more than ten percent of the equation that makes my conversation partner’s comprehension equal my intended meaning, and vice versa. Words matter.

At this point, those of you who have travelled in Europe may be tempted to retort with the truism I heard so many times before we moved to Italy. “But, everyone in Italy speaks English!” Allow me to correct that misapprehension. While in tourist zones, yes, most Italians you encounter have at least a functional acquaintance with English. This same does not hold true at the local dry cleaners, or the gas station, or the reception desk of the hospital where my son had to go for an EKG. [He is fine, just an innocent heart murmur.] Moreover, while a friendly smile and mime-worthy sign language can accomplish a fair amount in basic information-sharing, it has clear limits.

Thus, despite my clear incompetence at speaking the language of Dante, I generally make the attempt in all interactions where I am not certain that the other party is comfortable and competent in English. At least this way I am fairly certain I will be aware of any gaps in understanding, since they are likely to be mine. Although visiting family members have expressed their admiration at the speed and apparent ease with which the beautiful Italian language falls from my lips, this is because I only sound good when you don’t know what I am saying. After 18 months in Italy, I am painfully aware of the mispronunciations, improper conjugations, and English-style grammar errors with which I butcher virtually every sentence I utter. Speaking Italian makes me feel stupid.

This has introduced the first complication into my love-affair with language. I have come to realize that one of the reasons I have always loved language is that I have always been above average at using it. Throughout my academic and professional life I have received consistent approbation for my skills with both written and verbal communication, and that has naturally made me feel kindly disposed toward the tool that brings such accolades. My limited exposure to foreign language in my Jr. High and High School Spanish classes and brief travel to Mexico and Costa Rica also resulted in positive feedback. I thought of myself as “good with languages” and actually looked forward to the opportunity to immerse myself in a foreign language environment so that I could achieve true fluency.

The reality has not exactly matched my day-dreamy expectations. Of course, my life in Italy does not really reflect the state of true immersion. My family all speak English almost exclusively, with the exception of school yard objections that Princess Imagination has picked up from her classmates and taught to the Gigglemonster (“basta” – enough/stop; “questo è mio” – this is mine; etc. – I’m thrilled!). My really crucial interactions can generally be carried out in English, since our children’s school is British and we have been able to find all English-speaking doctors. The expatriate community in Milan and the upper class Italian parents of Princess Imagination’s schoolmates, who are eager to speak in English, provide ample friends and social connections. Even entertainment – once we jumped through six months of bureaucratic hoops and inefficiency that could only be the product of an Italian service system — is now readily available in English, grazie to the ubiquitous satellite TV-provider of Western Europe. Add to the mix that my first official Italian language class will begin next month, and I acknowledge that I have had limited opportunities to really master the tongue of my temporary country. All of these caveats, however, do not change my daily experience of language being much more often a source of frustration than of gratification.

[Books and materials used in my efforts to help myself and the kids learn Italian]

Then, we went to Greece.  Encountering Greek, with its unique alphabet, and basic words that are counter-intuitive for English-speakers —“yes” is ναί  (pronounced nai) and “no” is όχι  (pronounced o-key) — cast an entirely new light on the Italian language for me. Compared with languages spoken only a few hundred kilometers distant from my new country, Italian is easy! I actually studied biblical Greek for a full year in Seminary and did quite well (part of the I’m-good-at-foreign-languages delusion), but when faced with the challenge of asking the price of a Parthenon-shaped refrigerator magnet, I was helpless. It does not help that we managed to misplace our Greek phrasebook in the course of our three-day road trip to Athens. Even if we had had it, however, I’m not sure it would have helped much. My seminary Greek did begin to resurface a bit in helping me to pronounce Greek words on menus and road signs, but only with excruciating slowness. The added step of translating letters as well as words was just too much for me, and so I defaulted to English in all interactions and hoped for the best. Thankfully, we frequented primarily tourist locations, and thus the truism proved true. Everyone really did speak English, to a serviceable degree. However, the experience still left me feeling uncomfortable. I caught myself speaking loudly and slowly, with gesticulating hand motions, when the English of a given shopkeeper or waiter was inexpert. Ugh! I’m the Ugly American Tourist: expecting everyone to speak my language and unintentionally treating them like idiots when they do so imperfectly. And thus, I encountered a further complication in my relationship with language: the unflattering light it shines on my own self-centeredness.

When our Greece adventure transferred us to the Island of Tinos our tourism frenzy crawled to a halt and we spent most of our time relaxing by the pool, on the beach, or in our comfortable, lazy villa. My complete reliance on English was not an issue because I was surrounded by English-speakers again. The villas owners were Greek, but had been educated in English schools, the villa manager was from South Africa, the other villa occupants whom we met by the pool spoke English well, even the evening yoga instructor was a transplant from New Jersey. This languorous setting, however, held still another new encounter with language for me. The lovely French family that occupied the villa next to ours included a daughter, probably in her late teens, who decided to get her scuba diving license at a local dive school during their vacation. This struck me as incredibly brave, not because of the arguable dangers involved in the sport itself, but because this decision meant that she had to study and be tested on fairly complex material (her mother told me there was quite a bit of physics involved) in English, a language she has only learned in school and in which she has never been immersed even to the degree that I am immersed in Italian. A language, moreover, that was also not the mother tongue of her instructor. I found myself both incredibly impressed and incredibly jealous. That sweet young woman, and so many other friends and acquaintances whom I have met here in Europe, are able to function quite effectively in multiple languages. This is a cultural expectation in many western European countries (though less-so in Italy) that is palpably missing in America.

So this is the final complication in my relationship with, not language in general, but my own language of English: I am not sure whether or not I am glad to be able to claim this heritage. In Milan there is a commonplace acronym, EMT, which is used as an abbreviation for English Mother Tongue. My daughter’s school proudly publicizes that all its teachers are EMT, the English-language bi-weekly newsletter features numerous advertisements seeking EMT nannies or language exchange partners, and I have personally experienced the social prestige that derives from being EMT. Without a doubt, speaking English as my mother tongue opens doors for me and makes travel easier for me than is the case for the native speakers of any other language. Far from being shunned as an outsider here in Milan, I have been approached by numerous people wanting to meet with me to work on their English, several of whom have become good friends as well as language exchange partners.

And yet the fact that English is the de facto international language, in a sense, closes me off from an international community that is brought up understanding the importance of multilingualism. In contrast, the operative acronym in America is LEP: Limited English Proficiency. In my former life as a researcher and advocate in the arena of public policy I frequently encountered the challenges faced by LEP populations. In America the experiences of these populations are often far from the welcome I have experienced.  People who work in the tourism industry are not expected to know foreign languages in order to assist foreign visitors; it is not the rule for people to eagerly seek out acquaintance with foreigners in order to improve their own Italian, or Spanish, or Chinese, or Hindi; and there is certainly no social prestige associated with speaking, as your primary or exclusive language, a language other than English. In contrast, there is a broad social sentiment that resents immigrants or visitors who “can’t even learn the language.” While I have always been repulsed by such ethnocentrism in American politics, I now have a much more personal understanding of just how ignorant that perspective is. It is no easy thing to “just learn the language” of another country, even when you live there. Language acquisition takes time, and resources for study, and perhaps most importantly it requires gracious people in the host country willing to work with you patiently as you struggle and mangle their language.

I have always understood that language is power. I now understand how much the English language has a greater share of that power than is proportional to its native population. This gives me advantages that have made much of my European experience possible, and I am grateful for this. I am grateful to be EMT, but I am also grateful to have had the chance to experiences life as LIP (Limited Italian Proficient). I can never again take for granted the power that I have through no merit of my own. I hope rather to find ways to use that power to celebrate the international community and its appreciation of multilingualism. May this reflection be only a start.

[Some more photos from Greece, for the Grandmas.]


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My Hero

During our August vacation last summer my husband, Tyler, had his first extended encounter with my life as a stay-at-home Mom. We spent three weeks travelling around Italy, staying primarily in self-catering apartments or villas. While this set-up is ideal with young children, who need space to spread out and play and who rebel if asked to eat too many restaurant meals in succession, it means that Mommy’s vacation looks much like everyday life. I still have to cook, do dishes, and wash load after load of laundry, as well as getting the kids ready every morning, organizing all the snacks and paraphernalia needed for day trips, and arbitrating the daily disputes and crises that inevitably arise with close siblings. I do not mean to suggest that I did all of this with no help from Tyler. He certainly pitched in with the food preparation and the child-wrangling. But it was his vacation too, and since I was used to all the daily tasks of child-caring, I generally took the lead. At some point during the third week of our trip, most likely after some insignificant but traumatic episode of toddler rebellion, Tyler collapsed on the couch in exhaustion. He turned to me with a new-found respect in his eyes and said:

“Don’t get me wrong. I love spending time with the kids, but I don’t want to switch jobs with you!”

I have to admit I was highly gratified by this tacit acknowledgement. Much as I treasure the opportunity to take this time off from paid employment to focus my energy and my ingenuity on raising our little ones, it is really hard work! I sometimes feel like 35 is simply too old to be caring for a two-year-old and a five-year-old, who require endless supplies of enthusiasm and physical endurance. At other times I feel that I need another ten or twenty years of maturing to be able to respond to them with the wisdom and patience they need and deserve. Nevertheless, I work very hard at the job of mothering and my husband’s appreciation for that work means more than anyone else’s.

On this year’s August vacation, however, it has been my turn to come to a new appreciation of what my husband does as my co-parent. It is not simply all of the things he does for and with the kids (bathing, playing, carrying, disciplining, etc.), or even the way he does many things I cannot do (like tossing them high in the air and catching the wriggling mass of giggles this creates, while playing in the pool). What has really struck me on this holiday is the way that he steps in to handle things when I am at my wit’s (or patience’s) end. My husband has a way of coming to the rescue, and he does so without playing the hero.

A simple, but very telling, example is the best illustration of this quality. Our hotel room in Athens was small but more than adequate in all ways but one: the sofa bed. This second bed, which allowed a fifteen square meter room to accommodate our family of four, really does not deserve to be included in the category of sleep surfaces. It had by far the worst mattress I have ever slept on, and that competition includes some fairly robust rivals. It felt like it was constructed entirely of thin springs, which had worn unevenly over a long life of hotel guest abuse, with nothing but a thin layer of upholstery fabric to hold it together. We arrived in Athens late in the afternoon after three long days and 30 hours in the car. Our first stop was the roof top pool, then showers and dinner. It was not until we were all semi-comatose with exhaustion and ready for sleep that we opened the sofa bed. Tyler simply pulled it out and set up the inflatable bed rail for Alaina’s side, then crawled in with no comment. I was too tired to really pay attention to that act of self-sacrifice at the time, but in the blazing light of the Athens morning I could easily see just how far Tyler’s 6 foot 4 inch frame was hanging off the edge of the bed. I immediately decreed that he couldn’t sleep on that bed again, even without having yet felt the mattress. That night I felt it – all night long. Have I described yet just how bad that mattress was?

On the third night I knew that neither Tyler nor I could hope for a decent night’s rest on the sofa bed. Unfortunately, one of us had to try since our kids are at an age where getting them to sleep in a hotel room requires the night-long companionship a parent. Trying to stay positive, I reasoned that at least part of the discomfort must derive from the mattress’s position atop the rickety metal frame of the pull-out couch. So, Tyler man-handled the unwieldy mattress off of the frame and somehow managed to balance it precariously on his back (since there was no available floor space in the tiny room) while wrangling the bed frame back into the sofa. Since Tyler had not shrunk nor the mattress expanded in the process, it was obvious that I still needed to sleep on the repositioned mattress. The change had made a marginal improvement, very marginal. By the fourth night I was desperate. My sleep deprived brain reasoned that, since the kids were also exhausted by travel, sight-seeing, and swimming, their exhaustion would remove their need for parental bed-sharing. I was able to convince Princess Imagination that it would be really fun sleep on the couch cushions while the Gigglemonster slept down on the floor. By putting his favorite short film on the video player as an alternative to a bedtime story the Gigglemonster also happily climbed into bed to watch. Tyler and I had 30 blessed minutes of hope that the kids would drift off to the soothing twang of Tow Mater.

Any parent of a toddler will realize just how futile that hope was. The moment the movie finished the Gigglemonster realized that Mommy was not in the bed next to him, and that this was a crisis of monumental proportions. If possible, our Greek surroundings have actually magnified our son’s already significant oedipal complex. He launched himself at me screaming “I need Mommy!” and without a word Tyler moved to the mattress on the floor, leaving me and my little Momma’s boy the comfortable bed for the rest of the night.

It is not simply Tyler’s willingness for self-sacrifice that impresses me. It is the way he just does it, with no comment and no need for effusive gratitude. I am conscious that my own acts of self-sacrifice are not so silently born. Following the nights I slept on the mattress-of-discomfort its abuse of my body and my sleep cycle was a major topic of conversation. But even though the ill fit of the mattress for Tyler must have made it even worse for him, he didn’t complain. He was doing what was needed to help his family, and there was nothing to be said. This is what I mean about the way Tyler comes to the rescue. He doesn’t play the hero, he just is one.

Last Monday Tyler and I celebrated our twelfth wedding anniversary. For those of you who are counting, that means we were married at the tender age of 23. I often say that, in our case, marrying young was a wonderful gift because it allowed us to grow up together. Even though we are not “just kids” any longer I feel like that start in our married life, that orientation toward growing up and growing together, is continuing to bless our marriage. On this August holiday Tyler’s comment about my role changed slightly. “I don’t want to switch job with you, but I do love this — being with the kids like this.” That simple shift in what comes after the “but” shows Tyler’s on-going growth towards the joy that I find in motherhood. I only hope that I am also growing toward the kind of self-giving love that I get to see every day in my Hero.


The Wind on the Water

Princess Imagination has fallen in love with the Wind.

Consorting with the Wind

It was inevitable that she would have some type of emotional reaction to the movement of the air on this starkly beautiful Cycladic isle. It was inevitable because the wind here is an omnipresent character of the island. Its voice and touch are inescapable the moment you step outside, and they make themselves known with resounding booms and eddying curtains even in the refuge of our villa. It was inevitable also because Princess Imagination encounters each day as an opportunity for observation and interpretation of the world around her. She studies objects and forces that the rest of us take for granted, and she ascribes to them explanations, emotions, and sometimes even analytical reasoning.

And so, she encountered the powerful breath of the island of Tinos and she fell in love. I know this because, being myself a paramour of the wind, I can recognize the symptoms: stopping short, with eyes closed, to let the caress of the air explore her hair, her face, her form; breathing in deep gulps of its invigorating oxygen; wanting its voice to echo in her mind to blow away all transient thoughts and cares. On our second day here she extended to me a precious invitation: “Mommy, come and listen to the wind with me.” It was a golden moment out of time. We sat on the porch, a little apart at her instruction, and silently gloried in the song and breath of the island. She is only 5 years old, and so the moment was soon over. She was off to romp and explore (and squabble) with the Gigglemonster. But that golden moment has taken up residence in my awareness. In those few minutes I was drawn back into my long-time love affair with the wind, but more importantly I was drawn into a new spiritual understanding. As I soaked in the sound and feeling of the wind and watched my daughter’s enraptured face, without even thinking I began to pray for her. I prayed for her present, and her future, and the life she has to give to this world. I prayed for blessings, and for the grace to make the good choices that would fulfill all the promise in her. In that prayer I felt the wind enfolding me, and breathing in my petitions. Unbidden, a verse from the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis came to me. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:2; New International Version)

I have heard or read this verse hundreds of times, but the image of the hovering Spirit suddenly awoke in me with incarnated significance. You see, the Hebrew word translated in English as Spirit is Ruach. It is used frequently in scripture to refer to God’s Spirit, but it also means wind or breath. As I sat in the embrace of a powerful wind, and prayed with all a mother’s longing for her child, I felt God’s longing for creation.

In the days since, as a have looked out my window at the whitecaps freckeling the surface of the waters, the image of God’s Spirit hovering over the waters keeps resurfacing. I can sense the powerful presence of God’s Ruach (Spirit/wind/breath) hovering over the unformed world and breathing it into existence. I feel such hope, and joy, and blessing. To bring all of creation out of a formless emptiness far surpasses a human mother’s effort in procreation, and yet I can glimpse the echo of God’s will to bless creation in my overwhelming burst of desire to see my daughter’s life blossom. I can also sense, remotely but poignantly, the pain of lost potential: the grieving for a child, a world, a universe that has missed out on a portion of its intended blessing — the price of choosing its own way. That is my greatest fear for my own children, which drives me to my knees in petition for their future as the wind moans its song of pain. Ruach is a feminine word, and it is used as a feminine name for God. In that moment of windswept prayer, I believe I encountered the mother’s heart of God. The wind spoke to me, and continues to speak in alternating gusts and breezes, of overpowering love, and of gentle nurturing. Then, just as I relax in the luxurious support of that living breath, the wind whips past me and nearly knocks me off my feet. God’s Spirit is love, but that love is not tame. I cannot control the wind, for I am a part of the creation. I am God’s great delight, but I also sometimes push against God’s will for me, just as I sometimes fight the wind. And so, the wind speaks back to me now the prayer that I prayed for my daughter: for her present, her future, the life she has to give to the world. Only it is not only my prayer for her. It is also the Spirit’s invitation for me: for my present, my future, the life I have to give to the world. It speaks of willed blessing and feared pain. I am a daughter as well as a mother. The Spirit that birthed me breathed into me life: the potential to choose my own way. God will not control me, just as I know that I must not try to control my own daughter. But God wills me the blessings that flow from living the life I was created to live. And so, my prayer is now not just for Princess Imagination that she will live the life she was created for. It is also for me.

Ruach, hear my prayer.

The wind blows the kids across the pool!

The wind loves Alaina's hair too, although it tangles it beyond belief!

Despite loving the wind, Princess Imagination doesn’t like hair in her mouth.

The wind blowing the water out of the pool.

The wind played havoc with our hair when we tried to take family photos

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A Perfect Place for an Imperfect Parent

The Giggglemonster, has a way with words.

For all that he is still several months shy of his third birthday, he is already finding unique ways of using language to express his personality to the world. Part of the joy I find in this is the bubbling charisma of that personality. A friend of ours was captivated by his chatter on a recent weekend we spent with her family in the mountains. After two days’ observation she made a delighted comment that he is like “a little actor.” With a mother’s shameless pride I cannot help but agree. The boy can really deliver a line. But it is not simply his delivery that has prompted this outpouring of enthusiasm; it is the words he chooses.

In particular, one of his new phrases has inspired this reflection on the joys and responsibilities of motherhood. His intention is not nearly so grand, of course. All he wants to do is to convince me to stay and cuddle with him at bedtime after the nightly routine of stories, songs, and prayer. His strategy in pursuing this goal displays a disturbing mastery of the art of Mommy-manipulation. He softly strokes the area on the bed sheet next to his warm little body and says “Look, Mommy! I make a perfect place for you!” He says it with such joyful expectation that I will respond as he wants, that his expectation is contagious. Cuddling my sweet, loving little boy is certainly much more fun than rushing off to wash the dishes or fold the laundry.

These are just the kinds of moments that I fantasized about before becoming a mother. In my daydreams motherhood offered connection with a person who loves me unquestioningly and wants nothing more than to be near me; the emotional “perfect place.” I knew it was a utopian dream, but if any human relationship offered such a connection surely it would be the one with my children. After all, their hearts, by nature and nurture, are built to fit with mine. Regardless of the challenges of sleepless nights, and temper tantrums, this perfect fit would make it all worth it.

The Gigglemonster’s nightly invitation, however, poses unexpected challenges.  In practical terms, I cannot regularly just ignore the remnants of food hardening on the unwashed dishes, or the very real threat that the piles of unfolded laundry will swallow the couch. These tasks weigh in my mind and leach some of the joy from those potential quiet moments with my son. Much as I sometimes wish that I could master the art of “not sweating the small stuff,” I find that neatness has become very important to me now that my home has become part of my “job.” I can no longer escape to the office for 9 to 10 hours a day, so when my house is dirty I have to look at it all day long. And the daily tasks of picking up after little ones who are continually making new messes has birthed in me a deep need for at least a few moments every night where my cleaning show a result.

But even if I could magically banish my mess-induced moodiness and become the truly selfless mother I want to be, the nightly pleas for extended bedtime cuddling are still a challenge. When the Gigglemonster points out the “perfect place” he has made for me in bed, or when his sister begs for “just a little more special time with you, Mommy” I am faced with the task of determining what really is the most loving response. You see, as endearing as the pleas are, they are also clearly manipulative. They are requests for attention and affection, but they are also efforts to extend bedtime just a little bit longer. They are genuine appeals for love and connection, but they are also rejections of the skills of self-soothing and independent sleeping that Tyler and I are trying so hard to teach them.

So, on any given night, the simple request to cuddle leaves me struggling with contradictory inclinations and responsibilities. Should I indulge us both in 20 minutes of cuddling or try to get us both to sleep close to our targeted bedtime? Should I meet their need for expressions of love, or their need to be encouraged in independence? Of course, the end of the bedtime routine is not the only moment of the day for expressing love or teaching independence, but it is a predictable one. And my inconsistent responses from one night to the next have me hearing the voice of my college child development professor exhorting the importance of “consistency, consistency, consistency.”

It turns out that having someone, or two someones, who love me unquestioningly and want nothing more than to be near me is not such a perfect place to be after all. Being the object of that kind of love is an awesome responsibility, and feeling responsible for people I love so intensely is anxiety-provoking. Thankfully that thought brings the echoes of another voice. My amazing sister Bethany helps to care for her boyfriend’s two little boys and her practical wisdom for everyday life extends to parenting. “Don’t stress yourself about being a perfect parent. You can’t be. Practice good-enough parenting.” Despite my life-long leanings toward perfectionism, this rings true. The Gigglemonster’s artful claims to the contrary, no place, and no relationship, is going to be perfect in this life. That’s part of the blessing that keeps me longing for the only ultimately fulfilling relationship that exists, the one with my Creator. While I wait for the ultimate fulfillment of my faith, however, it’s good enough to enjoy the glimpses of intense love and joy that parenting offers.

Tonight is my night to put Princess Imagination to bed. I’m sure there will be dishes in the sink, and the laundry has extra urgency because it needs to be not only folded, but also packed for our road trip to Greece in two days. It’s been a rather tough day for her though, and there’s no reason she can’t sleep in tomorrow. I think tonight it will be good enough – for her and for me – to forget about the important life lessons and just have some special time together.

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Home is where…

For my first ever blog post I wanted to talk about something simple, something that would allow me to dip my toes in the water of this new medium without the risk of drowning in the depths of complicated introspection. But, let’s be honest, I am not very good at avoiding complicated. So, instead I am going to just dive right in. Inspired by my recent trip to California, I want to talk about what makes a place home.

In the expatriate community here in Milan we frequently refer to visits home. The literal meaning conveyed is straightforward: home is our country of origin, in contrast to Italy which is just our current place of residence. The emotional consequences of this usage are quite profound, however, because it reflects an unchallenged assumption that we are not at home here. If not an overt rejection of the residence we share in common, the exclusion of Milan from the category of home at least makes it more difficult to feel settled here. There is always a shadow of impermanence over the events and relationships that make up our daily lives. Yet, paradoxically, the longing for home and the vague sense of alienation in our current environment are a unique bond that draws us together. So that those with whom we might have little contact or little in common if we were back “home” become allies who support us in our life lived away from home.

This contrast between residence and home struck me in a new way on my recent trip to California with my two children, but without my husband. It was on the 20+ hour trip from Milan to Southern California that I made a passing comment to 5 year-old daughter about going home. She gave me a quizzical look and asked when we were really going to go home, to New Jersey. You see, while California is where both my husband and I were born and raised, and is also the place that we have habitually referred to as home, Princess Imagination has never lived there. Before moving to Milan we had lived in New Jersey for 10 years, so our children both have birth certificates issued by the Garden State. Princess Imagination’s first confident steps were taken on the stone path running along the side of our Belle Mead home, her first best friends were from her toddler class at KinderCare, and she still frequently talks about her “flower room”, whose walls I painted to match her first big-girl bed spread. Much as she loves to visit our family in California (I promise Nanna & Gra’ma – she adores it!), for her, New Jersey is still the place that offers her the sense of belonging and security that our exciting expatriate experience lacks.

This realization that my home-compass and my daughter’s do not point in the same direction made me think a little more carefully about what really makes someplace home. Place of residence is not necessarily the defining characteristic. In a sense of legal residence, I am caught in a vague indeterminate status between Milan (where my legal residency has a specific end-date printed on my permesso di soggiorno) and New Jersey (where we still own a home, which allows me to maintain the legal residency required to access important rights and privileges like voting and driving). The bureaucratic hoop-jumping related to maintaining this dual-residency, if anything, alienates me further from both of these places. But more than that, the time I have spent living in both of these places has been overshadowed by that sense of alienation that I described above. Despite residing in both places for extended periods of time, I have never quite felt like I belonged. And this sense of belonging is, perhaps, part of what sets apart a given place as one’s home. This may be one of the few instances I have encountered so far of English offering a more emotional vocabulary than Italian. As far as I have been able to gather (although I can claim absolutely no mastery of the Italian tongue), the same word – casa – is used in Italian to cover the two English words house and home. But these two words carry vastly different meanings. The common attraction of home among expatriates involves less the physical characteristics of a given place (since these places are different for all of us), and more this sentimental sense of belonging. The understanding of home is grounded, at least for the lucky ones like me, in nostalgic memories of comfort and security, where you know how life works and where you will always be accepted.

Not long into my California trip, and frequently throughout its duration, my two year-old son (the Gigglemonster), further complicated my musings about home by getting very un-giggly in response to home-sickness. It was no reflection on the loving family members that welcomed us so warmly on our trip. Instead I discovered that my extroverted, adventurous, happy little guy is really a homebody, and for him, that means Milano. In large part, no doubt, the absence of Daddy on our travels contributed to the Gigglemonster’s uncharacteristic anxiety, but he was also verbal enough about his distress to identify “my bed” and “my house” as a big part of the “home” he was longing for. If memories of comfort and security really are essential to our identification with a given place as home, then the Gigglemonter’s home is inevitably Milan, because he cannot remember living anywhere else. But for me, there are so many places that hold life-changing memories. My memories of childhood and college are all located in California, but my adult life has been lived elsewhere. And the experiences and learning I have had in New Jersey and Milano are just as formative to my sense-of-self as were my early years. It would be impossible to develop any scale that could even measure memories of getting delightfully lost in Venetian back-alleys, and of pledging to love Tyler for the rest of my life, and of holding my children for the first time, and of making homemade ice cream with my Grandparents in their summer home in Mendocino. Much less could any formula then calculate the relative weight or importance of these memories in defining who I am and where I really belong.

Each of these memories does, however, include members of my family, and perhaps here the Italian language does help. When I looked up the Italian translation for home in double-checking the use of the word casa, one alternativenoun offered was famiglia: family. At least for me, it is impossible to imagine any definition of home that does not require the presence of my family. Of course, I am one of the lucky ones. My own nuclear family, my husband and our two precious children, are a source of daily joy, and they daily tell me in words and deeds that I belong with them. But I have a much larger “family” as well – by blood, marriage, faith and friendship, and these connections also give me a sense of belonging, of being where I am supposed to be when I am with the people who are in some way or another members of my family.

This diffuse family perhaps finally shines a clear light on why it is that I feel rather torn in defining one particular place as my true home. My trip “home” to California reunited me with many members of my family, but my husband was “back home” in Milan. Even when we travel together to California for Christmas, and we gather with many members of our families for holiday celebrations, there are still missing elements: family members who are only part of past Christmas memories, or loved ones with their own families. And there are memories of other places, snow in our backyard in Belle Mead, the lights of Rockefeller Center, the folktales of Baba Natale, that are now part of me but not part of a California Christmas.

The three weeks in California have made me long for an envisioned future when Tyler and I may finally call California home again in the residential sense – when I imagine I will feel more centered and less lacking in a home that feels permanent. But, on reflection, I don’t know if that will ever be true. An expat friend of mine has commented on her blog about how she has “left a piece of her heart” in a number of places she has visited while living in Italy. This breaking apart of one’s heart sounds a bit painful, especially if “home is where the heart is.” For someone like me, who longs for security, and grounded-ness, and belonging, it is a bit painful. There is always an element of longing for the piece of home that lives somewhere else, with a person or a memory that is physically located far away. In my faith I have hope in a future where all this longing will be fulfilled, and all those sources of love and belonging united in the One Source. That is comforting. But in the here and now, it is also comforting to realize that there is a benefit to the pain of being torn. If it is true that home is where the heart is, and if a piece of my heart remains in so many places and with so many people, then I am the furthest thing from home-less. I am blessed with many diverse and welcoming homes.