Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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Missing To Me: Day 2 of the April Poetry Challenge

This week has been resurrecting some of the initial sting of loss that I felt when we left Italy in December. There are some obvious triggers: Tyler is back in Milan for work, taking photos of the Duomo, and eating gelato from GROM, and having dinner with old friends whom I deeply miss. His absence, and the knowledge of where he is, has also prompted a few sniffles from the kids bemoaning “my real friends” left back in Milano. Then there was the poignant blog post from a good friend who, this week, is following us in her final departure from our former adopted city, recollecting memories and emotions that had been, for a time, swallowed up by the quotidian tasks that have grown to fill my days here in Jersey.

And then there was a snatch of overheard conversation at the grocery store yesterday. It was just an inexpert effort of the checker to reach out to an Italian-speaking customer, but it struck home, making evident with sudden clarity just how much I am missing the loss of daily exposure to my second tongue.

And so, today’s poetry offering reflects upon that loss.


Missing To Me

The grocery line – a checker salutes a man he clearly knows.

“Mille grazie.” A thanks for bagging milk and bread.

The words flare up inside me like a fire with no smoke,

invisible flame that burns inside my head.

 

I miss the language of the land I sojourned for three years.

Though, then, I mangled it in daily tasks.

The lilting roll of opera’s tongue seduced my willing ears.

“Will I now always miss it?” my soul asks.

 

Italians say “mi manca” to express this kind of loss.

The literal translation means “(to) me it’s missing.”

The agency is with the missing object, far across

the sea, while I stand silent,listening, wishing.

 

I try to keep my effort up, insert familiar phrases,

when speaking to the kids throughout the day.

But missing is the boisterous hum pervading public spaces,

the sound that now just memory can replay.

 

My heart now knows, I understand a language is much more

than words and grammar structured to give meaning.

This language lives inside the lives of people, at its core.

The life I left behind is what I’m grieving.

 

I can almost hear the hum of the crowd that waits outside the downtown GROM for spring gelato.

I can almost hear the hum of the crowd that waits outside the downtown GROM for spring gelato.


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Bravo for Uncertainty

For the past several months I’ve been undergoing a struggle with the presence of uncertainty in my life . It would be reasonable to connect this state with our imminent return to New Jersey, and the fact that I have virtually no idea what I will be doing for work once I get there. Strangely, though, I am not actually feeling terribly anxious on that front. Unbelievably for a slightly OCD, highly goal-oriented, hyper-planner like myself, I find myself strangely calm in the face of the vast blank canvas that is the next landscape through which my career will pass. I have this strange, passive, peace posture that has taken up residence in my mind and that keeps telling me “you’ll figure it out in due time. Don’t stress about it.” I’m a bit bemused by this development, and I am hugely grateful.

I am, however, wrestling mightily with a very different source of insecurity. The main catalyst for this struggle has been the church we are attending here in Milan. Given the fact that we are a Protestant, English-speaking family living in 95% Catholic Italy, our choices for church fellowship are what I would call limited. Add the fact that we have two young children, one of whom is voracious for a sunday school program that can feed her insatiable appetite for learning about God (in English), and “limited” turns into one church option. This option can, in my opinion, be fairly categorized as fundamentalist. I, in the opinion of anyone who has ever had a conversation with me lasting more than five minutes, cannot be so categorized. In my more irreverent moments I may have occasionally referred to myself as a recovering fundamentalist, but usually I am content just to recognize that my faith journey has been a long one and leave it at that. I have walked in the shoes of biblical literalists and gotten painful blisters from them, and then come to realize that God didn’t make my feet (or my mind, to really stretch the metaphor) to fit those shoes. God has instead prepared much more supportive footwear that speeds me toward eager knowledge and worship of Jesus, and to the scandal of some I still deign to consider those feet shod with “the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15).

For many years I have felt at peace with the answers I have found to foundational questions about how God speaks through the Bible and how I can most responsibly engage the task of reading and applying scripture in the context of my life. I won’t pretend that these answers were easily come by, or that the process of finding them was without pain, and doubt, and anxiety, but until a few months ago I would have said those struggles were in my past.

But it appears that I can only be hammered on by fundamentalist preaching for so long before developing some bruises. My confidence began to shake. What if I’m wrong? What if “historical context” is just a screen I am hiding behind to excuse God and myself from things in the Bible that I don’t like? What if I’m really making an idol of my own mind by thinking that I have to wrestle with difficult texts instead of just submitting to them? What if I am rejecting God’s right to be God by questioning the absolute authority of the “plain meaning” of this or that text and subjecting it to the test of cultural changes that could alter its application.

I imagine that even the language and framing of some of those queries might have just alienated any of my readers who have not been frequently immersed in the theological morass of arguments about Biblical inerrancy. If that is you, and if you are still reading (thank you!), I apologize. It’s unfortunately ground that I have covered with too much angst, and argued with too many words to be able to just boil it down to plain talk. If I were to try, however, I guess I would summarize it this way. My pastor says that the Bible is God’s Word (and by that I think he literally means that it is essentially dictated by God with no interference from the human authors God used). The consequence of this position is that it’s my job to just do what the Bible says, no questions asked. When I put it that baldly it seems clear to me that some of the mystery of God is missing from that equation, and yet the absolute certainty of the position has a compelling seduction. Oh to be so sure of everything you believe. Oh to know, with no doubt, that all you have to do is read your Bible and you will know exactly what God wants you to do in every situation in your life. I don’t like a lot of the places that view takes my fundamentalist brothers and sisters in terms of beliefs and behaviors, but the assurance of it does demand some attention.

And so, I’ve been struggling: reading my Bible with renewed appetite to know what it says; praying painful prayers of confession about my own pride and of requests for guidance; talking to myself so incessantly that I am sick of my own voice inside my head; and reaching out to a few trusted family members and friends to seek community and advice. One of these friends recommended going back to trusted resources that have helped me with this struggle in the past. Again, my immediate context imposes limits on this endeavor, because most of my precious seminary books are locked away in some storage bin in Memphis during my European sojourn. There is one book, however, that I happened to pack in the Italy boxes (or that the Holy Spirit guided me to pack — fundamentalists don’t have a corner on that market!). It is a book by one of my former seminary professors called Cultural Interpretation and it applies the methods of sociolinguistics to the process of scriptural interpretation. Now, I may have just lost whatever hardy readers had been hanging with me through the first batch of ten-dollar words, but if any of you are still there this is the “basic tenet” of the theory of sociolinguistics: “context shapes the creation and use of language” (Brian K. Blount, Cultural Interpretation, Fortress Press, 1995, p.vii).

It is not such a complicated or controversial idea, really. Especially not after nearly three years surrounded by a context and language that are palpably foreign to me. I had academically assented to this proposition when I studied it eight or nine years ago in seminary. I now experientially know it’s truth. Languages do not simply differ in terms of the sound combinations they associate with a given concept, as though the concept were an abstract reality that has some independent being apart from language (sorry Plato!) — the concepts themselves are bound up in the language. Alright, there are actual concrete objects, like a chair or a ball, where the difference in language is really just one of sound. But the important ideas (like what English-speakers mean by faith, and truth, and even God) cannot be so easily dissected from their linguistic roots. To speak a language with any level of fluency, you have to be inhabited by the culture and the perspective on reality that birthed it. I have noted frequently that I actually undergo a noticeable personality change when I speak in Italian rather than English. Suddenly I am more social, more friendly, more ready to agree with conversation partners and more hesitant to pose a counter point. This is not just a function of the limits of my fluency; it is the cultural context of the language itself. The language subtly changes the way I see the world and my role in it.

The point for this post is that language matters, not just which words you choose, but the bank of words that you have to pick from. For those who may have never experienced this language/culture shift, perhaps there is an example that can shed some light on the idea. A number of Italian words have made their way into English usage and thus will be familiar to my readers. This fact may appear to undermine my point, but stay with me, because the migration of languages can have an impact on the words’ meanings. In other words, borrowed words, at least more “conceptual” ones, don’t simply transfer all of their meaning from one language to the next. The cultural context of their new usage shapes their meaning. One such word is “bravo.” I have heard this phrase often enough in America, almost universally in the context of rather high-brow cultural performances. It is a word that is shouted to a performer from the audience to indicate appreciation of their mastery in a given performance. It is a very clearly defined and straight-forward usage, with a self-satisfied veneer of culture that relishes the European roots of the phrase.

This was my framework for understanding the meaning of “bravo” when I moved to Italy. I was almost immediately struck, upon entering the country, that something very different was meant by the term here. Setting aside the Italian particularity in terms of number and gender (“bravo” is only applied to a singular man or boy; for women/girls or groups the word is changed: brava, bravi, etc.). Beyond this variation, the word itself is thrown around with almost careless abandon. If I understand something said to me in Italian, I am awarded with a “brava.” If my children are well-behaved in a store, people comment to me that they were “bravi.” In fact, this is one of the most common positive descriptors that I hear. From to teachers, to nannies, to local business proprietors, everyone is described as “bravo.” Bravo isn’t just an expression of praise, a way of saying “well-done,” it is a character trait. For my first few weeks I was under the vague impression that Italians were simply mad for extravagant expressions of praise, but I slowly came to understand that the word just means something different here. To understand that meaning, I needed to learn more about the culture that used it. When a friend talked about wanting her son to be “bravo” she was describing a desire for his character that didn’t really translate to English when she switched languages and said she wanted him to be a “good boy.” Yes, she wanted him to be “good,” to be “well-behaved,” but there was another element to it as well, a component of conforming to a certain standard for behavior that would be worthy of eliciting praise. It’s an echo of the performance-centered American meaning, but it looks totally different as a character trait.

The point of this extended linguistic discussion to my struggle with uncertainty is this: once I understand how dependent I am on language to shape my way of seeing the world, and once I see how incomplete any given language is in its ability to express things that are outside the scope of its generating culture, the yearning for certainty cannot survive. To grasp such certainty I would have to condense truth down into a concept that could be fully contained within the English language, and that is palpably absurd to me.

I am not making any claims about absolute relativism with this statement. I am fully convinced that God has a concrete essence that isn’t dependent on any language, but that in fact illuminates the very inadequacies of that language. The greatest truth of my life is the experience of contact with that God who leaves me speechless in awe and love and gratitude for the chance to know (even if only dimly) and be known (utterly and completely).

My point here is not that God is relative, but that God is not relative, while language is. God isn’t limited by language and it is one of the greatest of all miracles that we do have revelation from this God, but one of the primary mechanisms for that revelation is the written word, and to access that revelation I am dependent on my language as an access point. This dependence on language creates uncertainty, the recognition, when I am honest with myself, that I cannot possibly have an absolute lock on truth. My language isn’t that big. It is shaped by my culture and by experiences with words in all kinds of mundane settings. As such, all I can hope for this side of eternity is a small and shadowy approximation.

It’s not certainty, and that can be really hard. But after months of struggle I am starting to settle down with uncertainty. I’m starting to feel, after all this, that perhaps uncertainty is bravo.


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Fashion Miss

I have officially missed my chance to experience the couture euphoria that is the bi-annual Milan Fashion Week.

Although I have never been a fashionista, I had always assumed that IMG_0886I would take advantage of this emblematic experience of the fashion capital of the world at some point in my nearly 3-year residence. It’s the sort of thing you are just supposed to do. It’s like seeing the Sistine Chapel when in Vatican City, or taking a Gondola ride in Venice. The experience is not complete — you have not felt the beating heart of the city — without that essential component. These icons may not be elements of the daily life of the locals, but they are still bound to the identity of the city itself and thus are not to be missed, however far they lie from any individual visitor’s natural interests.

Of course, having introduced those parallel examples, I have to admit that my first visits to the cities of the Popes and of the canals did not include the requisite sites.

The cupola of St. Peter's Basilica

The cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica

For our family’s first trip to Rome we had budgeted only one day for Vatican City and we hadn’t booked our tickets ahead of time. When we arrived in the square of St. Peter’s Basilica the line for the Museum (the only way to access the Sistine Chapel) had already wound the kilometer or so from the Museum entrance into the square. With a 21-month old in arms we weren’t eager for that 3-4 hour wait. So, instead we opted to climb the cupola of the Basilica. Of course, we hadn’t really thought through the whole infant-in-arms factor, since he certainly wasn’t climbing all those stairs, nor was then 4-year old Princess Imagination! Once we had recovered from that cardiovascular stress test, we called it a day!

View from the top (almost worth the climb!)

View from the top (almost worth the climb!)

The Gigglemonster found Daddy's hat much more entertaining than the view.

The Gigglemonster found Daddy’s hat much more entertaining than the view.

We did manage to hit the Piazza San Marco...

We did manage to hit the Piazza San Marco…

My first trip to Venice also lacked the quintessential experience of the canals because I was there with my Mom, my older sister, and my two little ones (rather than my husband) and I figured I would save the romance for another trip.

That’s one of the things about “visiting” Europe as a resident — it has always felt like I would have the chance to catch the things I haven’t yet done. In the last 3 years I have spent exponentially more time as a tourist than I had spent in my entire 33 years prior to landing in Italy, but I have done all that touring with the background knowledge that I’m not really that far from home. I would read my guidebooks and make my plans, but when the reality of travelling with young children inevitably derailed my schedule that was OK. I could always plan a do-over.

In the case of the Sistine chapel and the gondola ride, this was well-placed confidence. Along with Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting, I now do know what it smells like in the Sistine chapel (sweaty tourists) and also what it sounds like (low murmurs in countless languages regularly interrupted by staccato loudspeaker demands for silencio). Less of a disappointment were my two gondola rides – the first with my younger sister who shares my enamored response to the city of magic waterways, the second cuddled next to my husband watching the delight play across the faces of our children. Both floating adventures offering a unique celebration of the romance of the canals.

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In the case of Milan, however, my casual assumption that I would eventually get to a Milan fashion show has not be fulfilled. The fall fashion week overtook the city last week, and I barely noticed. There was one electronic announcement of Vogue’s Fashion Night Out that floated through my inbox, but my life was too busy with grocery shopping, and sick children, and school events, and birthday parties to take much notice. I wasn’t even engaged enough in the manifestation of the city’s obsession to really regret my non-involvement.

To be more accurate I should say that I felt no regret UNTIL I drove past one final event yesterday afternoon. Our apartment, in a very non-posh residential area of the city, is strangely close to a permanent Calvin Klein showroom. This venerated space is usually closed up and walking by the tinted windows yield my curious eyes only glimpses in shaded silhouette of monochromatic clothing racks . Yesterday, however, the exclusive doors were thrown open and a small crowd of beautiful people were gathered on the street, the creative parking of their luxury cars blocking traffic and their air of sophisticated ennui gliding down the sidewalk to intimidate my mommy-blogger soul as I slunk past in my bright blue Citroen Picasso.

I suddenly hit me that this was it. I was never going to have a chance to blend into that chic crowd and experience my moment of glamour by association. The realization was painful. I don’t think my vanity is exceptional for a thirty-something American woman, but neither do I relish the obligation to think of myself as a fashion outsider. Considering my attire as my longing gaze slid past all the pretty people, however, I had to face facts. I was dressed in a plain, white, cotton sweater, boot cut Lucky jeans, and (cringe) scuffed up brown clogs! Back in the States this get-up would be perfectly acceptable attire for any number of social events (not to mention Sunday errands, which was what I was doing). In Milano, however, Lucky is not recognized as a brand, the only recognized style of jeans are skinny jeans, and I have never, ever, seen one single other person in the city wearing clogs. If I had tried to enter the fashion show in that pitiable outfit, it’s entirely possibly that the illustrious brand being presented would have permanently banned me from ever purchasing their clothing. They might not have actually sent wanted posters sporting my picture to all of their international stores, but then again…

It was a low moment for me. I wanted to be above it all. I wanted to be able to hold my head high and confess without shame that “fashion isn’t my thing and I don’t really want it to be.” I’ve always been happy to ignore name brands and style trends and just wear what looks good on me. But the fact is, Milan is contagious. Just as I could not visit Vatican City without absorbing some level of awe for the grandiosity of the Roman Church, and I could not escape Venice without inhaling a craving for the fragile beauty of blown glass and floating palaces, so it seems that I have not walked the streets of Milan without succumbing to the endemic worship of the god of fashion. I can roll my eyes at the price tags and wince at some of the more extreme attempts of the select fashion plate moms who frequent the kids’ school, but deep down I envy the women who could step out of the school corridors and onto a magazine spread. It’s not just their perfect size 2 figures (although that doesn’t help), or their glowing olive skin long after my summer tan has disappeared, it’s also the posh image they project. They look beautiful, and stylish, and like they belong, which leaves me feeling unattractive, and frumpy, and like an outsider.

Which leaves me with a question about I would change, if I could. Would I spend the time to follow each new trend and the money to adhere to it? Would I fill my closet with dry clean only couture that requires a second closet for matching shoes? Would I actually wear the daring fashions that look so chic on others because they have the attitude to pull them off? I can’t pretend that I don’t sometimes long to look like that, but do I really want to change myself? Because, really, fashion is not just the clothes one wears, it’s also how one wears them.

I am aware at this point that this post could read as very judgmental, and that is not how I mean it. I am not judging the spiritual depth or the personal admirableness of any of the moms whom my jealous eyes follow. In fact, some of them have become my friends and the last 3 years have taught me a lot about judging by appearances.

But the realization this last fashion week has brought to me isn’t about them, it’s about myself. If were to embrace the world of fashion, committing the time, and energy, and money that would be required to keep pace on the streets of Milan, it would mean changing myself. It would mean a reprioritization that pulled away from things I really want to value more. I can confess that all the pretty people make me jealous, that they even make it hard to hold to my personal integrity. But jealousy is slightly different that value. And at my core I know that’s just not me.

So, the fact that I have missed out on fashion week is a bittersweet reality. I don’t doubt that it would have been fun. Had I managed to wrangle a ticket to some minor show I could have wrestled something from my closet that would have spared me total humiliation. I would have enjoyed the glimpse of glamour, and sophistication, and the life of another world. But ultimately, I can’t really regret the miss. The truth is that I am more than a little eager to escape the streets of Milan and their ever-present pressure to present a fashionable face. Italy I will miss: the language, the food, the many friends we have made. But I won’t miss the fashion that is so central to this city. It’s beautiful. But it isn’t me.

My family are the only accessories I really need.

My family are the only accessories I really need.


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Listening

This entry began more than a week ago. We were entering the last week of our 28-day whirlwind trip to California without Daddy and it was bedtime. For the last 8 nights the kiddos had been sharing Gra’ma’s living room floor with relative peace, thanks to a couple of reasonably comfortable foam pallets and a schedule of full days that left them blissfully tired each night. On night 9, unfortunately, the situation had deteriorated substantially.

Actually, that lead-up is not really fair to Princess Imagination as it suggests sibling feuding as the source of the problem. The true friction was along the Mommy-Son fault line. I won’t dwell on the un-pretty details but to summarize: the Gigglemonster was offering a master class in the art of behaving like an over-tired, defiant, needy 3-year-old. After a slow start (during which I naively tried practicing my “positive parenting” skills by acknowledging his frustration before suggesting alternative ways to express it), I finally started picking up what he was laying down. Within about 45 minutes I was totally acing the test on combining petulance, whining, and stubbornness with my oral essay entitled “Fine! You can lay on the floor and scream if you want. I’m going to go cuddle with your sister because she just asked my sweetly!” Every true master, however, can deflate the ego of a self-congratulatory journeyman and my instructor was not about to concede the podium. His lecture in response was a masterpiece of manipulation along the lines of “No, Mommy! I’m sorry. I’m listening now. I will lay down in my bed. I will listen. Please don’t leave me. I need you!” Oh crum! Now what do I do? I need to reinforce his decision to calm down and try to use this opportunity to get him to sleep, but his sister really did ask so sweetly and it’s not fair to give him all the attention just because he’s tantruming. My fumbling response was a quick hug and cuddle to the Gigglemonster and a promise to be back soon, then 5 minutes with Princess Imagination singing and rubbing her back (marred by anxiety lest my absence spur a renewal in my instruction), concluding with cuddling my now docile professor just as long as he wanted. Eventually the course concluded with a demonstration of exhausted slumber and I crawled to my own bed eager for a fresh start the next day.

Unfortunately, the pale light of that day revealed that the master-class turned show-down had produced a casualty, and, as so often happens, it was the innocent bystander who had been hurt. I didn’t notice the injury at first, because I was distracted by my internal debriefing about the strategies employed by both sides in the conflict. My analysis focused on the pivot point of the confrontation, and the unsettling impression left by the Gigglemonster’s radical switch – “now I’m listening.” Is it really listening if he only wrestled control of his behavior after the threat of my removal? I wasn’t convinced, but I struggled to formulate any alternative strategy that could produce from him more genuine “listening” to my pleas for cooperation and consideration of the needs of the whole family.

Ironically, I think Princess Imagination had to ask me about three times before I actively listened to her request that I come with her to the bathroom. When the plea finally penetrated my distracted mind I was confused.

“Sweetie, why do you want me to come with you? You can go to the potty by yourself.”

“Please, Mommy! I just want you to come with me. Please come.”

I was confused, but finally compliant. The mystery resolved itself as soon as the door closed.

“Mommy, I feel like (the Gigglemonster) gets all your attention at bedtime, and it’s not really fair. I don’t ever get to have you cuddle with me for a long time and he always does. It makes me feel sad that you never give me attention.”

I don’t imagine that you need to be a parent to guess at just how painful that particular blade is when it twists around in a mother’s insides. Princess Imagination’s complaint might have been worded in more absolutist terms than are strictly true, but the general complaint was valid. When it’s just me and the kids, my son and youngest offspring tends to “need” a lot more of Mommy’s time and attention, especially at bedtime, whereas my older daughter is wonderfully independent and generally able to soothe herself to sleep with limited parental involvement. It’s not a willful preference on my part, of course, but the imbalance in bedtime attention is indisputable.

Aside from the massive lump of guilt that threatened to strangle my tearful apology, I had two lingering reactions to my daughter’s calm, quiet plea for more attention. One was actually mingled pride and joy at the way she had expressed her needs. Joy that, at 6 years old, she is already showing such emotional control and clear communication skills, including the patient strategy of contriving a private, focused context for presenting her clearly worded complaint. Pride because I get at least some of the credit for this, considering that I have (inconsistently, but intentionally) modeled for her this type of calm presentation of my feelings and observations. In whatever context, it is one of those priceless parenting moments when your child shows that they have understood the lessons you have tried to teach. On the other hand, the context in this case gave me no cause for pride. Princess Imagination had recognized the need for this effective model of communication because it was apparently the only way to focus my attention on a very legitimate complaint. At least, I assume that she had determined this strategy to be the only way to get me to listen that didn’t involve following her brother’s tantruming example (which she has learned generally gets less traction from her because she is “older”). That’s not really the stimulus I wanted for fostering my daughter’s emotional maturity and communication skills.

Princess Imaginations request was successful in drawing my attention, not only to the imbalance of bedtime attention, but to the problems with my attention more generally. Put simply, my attention is usually focused on what I am trying to achieve, as opposed to understanding the needs of those around me. Thus began my week of trying to actually practice the behavior I am constantly requesting from my children: “listening.” Listening to the sounds of rising tension in a game in the next room and interrupting my own activity to help diffuse the tension before it erupts into fighting and tears; Listening to the sadness in my husband’s voice as he comes home for the fourth straight week to an empty house, and recognizing that a daily phone call is really important even though we will be home in just a few days; Listening to the pain of other family members who are going through life-altering challenges and trying to remember to offer comfort rather than unsolicited advice.

This discipline of intentional listening brought with it a realization: listening is really hard work! It requires putting aside your own agenda, whether that be the activity you were engaged in or your own thoughts on the topic at hand, and instead focusing your attention on what the other person thinks is important.

Our family recently began another discipline as part of our nightly dinner routine. We each have our own hand-made “Bible memory book” containing passages of scripture we want to learn my heart, and we quiz each other each night on these verses. The very first passage I chose for this task was James 1:19b-20:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. For man’s anger does not produce the righteous life that God desires.

When I memorized these verses my attention was focused on the part about anger, but the past week’s reflection has reminded me that being slow to become angry comes after being quick to listen. Listening to what other people need provides the foundation for being able to respond to them in a way that accounts for those needs. Of course, I can’t meet every need of every person all the time, but if I can at least strive to listen long enough to understand them.

And yet, this is precisely opposite to the way that I, and I think most parents, usually talk to my children about listening. Instead, “listening” is more commonly a word of command, as in “listen to me and do what I say!” I learned the Italian word for listen (ascolta), very soon after moving to Italy precisely because I heard it so constantly in the interactions between parents and children on the playground. Actually, you hear it frequently in adult conversations as well. The energetic Italian matron who helps me with  house-cleaning every other Saturday frequently prefaces her remarks to me with the phrase “Serena, ascolta…”. It is her way to gather my attention so that she can make a suggestion or ask a question. It is her way of politely, but directly, insisting that I focus on what she is saying.

The use of this phrase in Italian interactions may be more ubiquitous than in American conversations, but I don’t think that reflects an underlying cultural contrast. When it comes to listening, Americans (like Italians and I would guess members of most Western cultures) are generally primarily interested in demanding that others listen to them. Just consider the level of political debate in the U.S. From campaign “debates,” to radio talk shows, to Facebook comment threads, everyone wants to be listened to, and scant few demonstrate the capacity or willingness to really listen to anyone else. I am clearly guilty in this regard so I don’t make these observations from any moral high ground. Rather, I confess this difficulty as a serious challenge to the daily demand I make of my children.

How can I constantly ask my children to do something that most adults in both my native and temporary culture find so difficult to do? I expect this of them as though it were such a simple thing. And in one way it is. In the past two years I have learned again that comprehension comes before speaking in language acquisition. But, listening requires more than just the capacity to comprehend. As Princess Imagination so powerfully reminded me by sequestering me behind a bathroom door, listening requires also the ability to attend – to block out other stimuli in order to focus on the person speaking. True listening requires one more component as well, the receptivity to hear the other person’s perspective without interrupting this attention with a reversal to one’s own needs and point of view.

That requirement became all too clear to me on our 19-hour journey back to Milan on Thursday & Friday of this past week. Countless friends and family members have expressed some level of awe that I routinely make this transcontinental journey as a solo parent. I generally down-play the difficulty with some remark about the kids being really good travelers or the lessons I have learned about equipping myself with adequate entertainment and snacks for them, and I often throw in a little anecdote about how impressed my fellow-travelers express themselves to be at the end of most of our flights. Well, this last trip eroded my self-congratulatory confidence just a bit.

It’s not that the kids acted horribly, they just didn’t want to sleep. This trip we had departed from our usual preference for a long red-eye flight from the west coast to Europe and a short second flight to Milan that would land us home around dinner time. Instead we had departed from California in the early morning to make our transfer in New York and then fly directly to Milan for a morning arrival. It is not a terribly significant difference for adults, who can mentally adjust our internal clocks to a 9-hour time change. For the kids, however, it was a disaster. The early departure virtually guaranteed a longish nap on the first flight, which left them wide awake when we took off for our 8-hour flight across the Atlantic. Mommy, of course, hadn’t taken a nap earlier because I understood that the precious 8 hours of flight time would have to encompass both our dinner and our only sleep for the night. I tried to account for the kids’ west-coast time orientation, but when my watch showed me that there were only 4 hours left in the flight I got serious about bed time. Unfortunately, the kids didn’t want to “listen” to my demands that they go to sleep. They weren’t tired, and there were so many more interesting things to do, like watching movies on the personal entertainment device, or investigating the wealth of toys and books and snacks that I had so cleverly packed into their carry-on bags.

The next several hours demonstrated just how far I have to come in my effort to become a better listener. In that dimly lighted cabin, surrounded by sleeping passengers who weren’t likely to compliment my children’s docility on landing if we woke them up, all I could focus on was my need for the kids to be quiet and go to sleep. I cajoled, I hissed, I issued toothless ultimatums. None of it was successful, and none of it attended to my children’s needs. The Gigglemonster said he was hungry. “Then you should have eaten earlier when I was offering you food.” Princess Imagination wanted her backpack. “No, it’s time to sleep,” followed by “Fine, but you have to be quiet!” And my crowning parenting moment (delivered through angrily clenched teeth): “If you don’t stop making noise, I am going to take away all your cars!”

It’s not that I was wrong in my goal. We did need to be quiet so that other passengers could sleep, and we would have certainly benefitted from getting some rest ourselves (the last 3 days of painful jet lag are ample evidence of that). But my children were right too. They had needs that they were trying to express to me, and they couldn’t just suppress them because I was hissing at them to listen to all my practical reasons why they should go to sleep. Maybe if I had taken advantage of the available snacks promised by the business class menu the Gigglemonster could have filled his stomach with more substantial food and been able to get to sleep. Maybe if I had offered Princess Imagination her books, rather than free access to her whole bag, she could have settled down with a less-stimulating activity. Maybe if I had remembered that the Gigglemonster needs my physical presence to soothe him to sleep in unfamiliar beds I could have earned us both a few hours of rest. Maybe if I had listened, rather than just demanding that they listen to me, I could have actually achieved my own goal.

And so, as I struggle to emerge from the time-change/jet-lag fog that has held my family captive for the last three days (and nights!), I am confronted by the question of just how to teach my children and myself the skill of listening. It’s an important thing to be able to do. It’s a skill that could help our family to be much more connected and could help each of us individually to communicate much more effectively. I am beginning to understand, however, that it is not the simple task I imply by my frequent demand for my children’s attention. Especially, it is not easy for them to learn it when I am so inconsistent at modeling it for them.

It’s not impossible. Princess Imagination proved that she has listened to my teaching about how to share her feelings. I’m so proud of, and challenged by, her example. The last week hasn’t defeated my ambition to both practice and require respectful listening.  What it has taught me is that teaching and practicing listening skills starts with genuine attention.

I think it’s time I stop writing and start offering some of that attention now.

(We had a lot of fun on our trip too, so the pictures celebrate the joyful time)

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Collaborative Joy

This post hails from the beautiful sun-drenched, ocean-breeze kissed, ever-friendly land of California. The kids and I are temporarily “home,” and aside from a nasty head cold and the absence of the patriarch of our little family (thank you for staying in Milan to work, Tyler, so that we can have this wonderful life! We miss you!), life is good!

One particular manifestation of that goodness occurred yesterday, thanks to the creative thinking of Papa. He suggested a surprise trip for the kids to one of the local outdoor malls. Not to buy anything (other than ice cream), but rather to play in the amazing walk-in water feature that was apparently designed expressly for the purpose of delighting children on hot days. The “water feature,” for lack of a better term, consists of one central fountain/statue with a waterfall flowing down the back, surrounded by 30 or 35 grill-covered water-spouts that shoot up sprays of alternating heights for the pleasure/soaking of the children running over them.

My first thought as we approached this phenomenon of child-entertainment, contemporaneous with the delighted squeals of my children, was that this must be the greatest idea ever! The evidence of at least 40 children (ranging in age from approximately 18 months to 12 years) giggling and shrieking with delight quickly confirmed this initial assessment. When I noticed the designated “stroller parking” in a specially designed niche, the experience was complete. I was really home! I was back in a land where families are expected to do things together, and where, as a consequence, public space designers don’t devote their attention exclusively to one age group or the other. Not only can I look forward to nearly 4 weeks in which every restaurant I go to will have a children’s menu, and almost all public restrooms will have baby changing facilities (we don’t need them any more, but I still consider this a sign of advanced civilization), but even the shopping malls have made a supreme effort to balance the needs of children and parents. Looking around I completely understood the indulgent, relaxed smiles of the accompanying parents and grandparents lounging on the abundant supply of chairs surrounding the play area. This was a good experience for them, not just their children. They could sit in the shade watching the little ones’ delight in a context that didn’t require a separate trip and an expenditure of entertainment cash. They could divide their time – one adult staying to supervise while another stopped into a shop to make a purchase. I imagine at least one of the solo parents in evidence had probably negotiated whine-free shopping time with the kiddos: “If you can give Mommy 15 minutes to try on shoes, we’ll play in the water fountain before we go home.” Although there was no evidence of it that day, the parents could even join in if they so wished. In fact, when we go back, I think I just might!

For my American readers, this soliloquy might seem a trifle exaggerated, so perhaps I should explain. Two days before departing on this visit I received a survey from an English-speaking mom’s group in Milan. The survey was trying to collect information on baby/toddler/child-friendly resources in the area. The survey listed nine categories for which they were collecting information, and I struggled to produce answers for even four. For example: “restaurants offering healthy children’s menus” — well, since the only restaurant I have ever encountered in Italy that offers any children’s menu is McDonalds, and I don’t think Happy Meals qualify as healthy… sorry. “Restaurants that are otherwise child-friendly — including high chairs, play cots, diaper-changing facilities, etc.” — we have sort of re-adjusted our definition of child-friendly since moving to Milan. That now means restaurants that understand to bring out the children’s plate of pasta in bianco (plain pasta, no sauce) as soon as it is ready and that don’t give you dirty looks about the excess noise and mess that accompanies young children. “Facilities that provide private space for breastfeeding mothers” — I used to get strange looks for covering myself with a nursing wrap while breastfeeding in public because most mothers just whip it out … there is no perceived need for a private space. I have accepted the differences about how things are done in my new home, but I am still aware that my American assumption that we will do most things together as a family (rather than leaving the children with a sitter or the grandparents when I go out) means that the world we go out to will not be precisely designed to meet our needs. I can live with it, but it is oh, so nice to experience the alternative. So, in keeping with the patriotic theme of this particular week in the year, I LOVE AMERICA!

The gush of appreciation that welled up in my soul as I settled into my chair, however, was followed immediately by a surge of anxiety. If my quick guesstimate was right, there were significantly more children running around the water fountain than there were spouting water jets. This was a recipe for conflict. I braced for the inevitable collision when two tikes made for the same spurt of aquatic fun, or the cry of complaint that “the girl in the pink isn’t sharing!” In their natural state, children have this tendency to be selfish hedonists. We, as parents, try to moderate this intrinsic quality, but that effort takes years of consistent struggle. I was certain that we would have a problem within five minutes of entering the fun zone.

But the minutes passed and I heard nothing but laughter and exclamations of excitement from my children. Five minutes, ten minutes, 15 minutes, and no disputes. My anxiety slowly ebbed into incredulous amazement. There was no fighting. It wasn’t just my two little devilish angels. NONE of the children were fighting! They were just running and jumping and waving their arms wildly through the spray, and miraculously NOT hitting each other! In fact, in nearly an hour of water play I observed only a single glancing collision and one mild confrontation. The Gigglemonster had gone to investigate the reason that three children were standing crouched over a temporarily dormant geyser, and “the boy in the Lightening McQueen pants” had apparently told him to mind his own business. He shared this indignity with me, and then went back to playing. That was it!

If by nothing else I was flabbergasted by the apparent spatial awareness being displayed by my two little ones. I have been toiling literally for years to try to adequately explain the concept of not pushing past people when you are in a confined space (i.e. – when exiting an elevator, walking on the stairs, going through a door, etc.). We have talked about courtesy & kindness; we have evaluated the unnecessary nature of injuries that sometimes result; we have applied the Golden Rule and Jesus’ teaching on “the last shall be first” (that’s the only thing that has made any discernible impact so far, and it’s usually followed by a proclamation that “I’m really first, because the last shall be first.”). Despite all my parenting efforts, they still seem oblivious to the space being occupied by other people’s bodies when they have a destination in sight. And yet, in that chaotic context where their entire attention seems riveted on the water spurting from the ground, I saw my children flawlessly veering from their set trajectory to avoid a collision, and even pausing in their headlong race to allow another child to cross their path. This was nothing short of miraculous!

Then, disaster! The water spurts stopped. For some reason (likely water conservation, given the drought) the sprays shooting up from the ground took a break, leaving the horde of water-mad children with only the single waterfall flowing down the back of the statue. As the elimination of their amusement dawned in their disappointed faces I anticipated the mad rush of squirming, slippery little bodies endeavoring to claim their spot under the one remaining flow. I perched on the edge of my seat, ready to jump up and rush to the rescue if the scrum produced casualties. But, my vigilance was unnecessary. A good number of children abandoned the game now that the geysers had disappeared, but around 25 remained, gathered in the general vicinity of the waterfall, and then… took turns!

Again, perhaps my expectations have been a bit jaded by my last two+ years in the land of the anti-queue. I have become accustomed to the expectation that a new register opening at the grocery store immediately draws shoppers in inverse relationship to how long they have been waiting – since those at the end of the line can most quickly and easily shove their carts into the new line. I have learned that the only way to prevent new arrivals from jumping ahead of me in the line to enter the subway car with my stroller (and then plant themselves squarely in my way as I try to maneuver through the narrow opening) is to ram that wheeled conveyance into their shins or run it over their toes.  I have drawn too many blank stares when I have attempted to politely suggest that people respect the line of people waiting to weigh their produce rather than just shouldering their way to the front. Italy has cost me my faith in the sacredness of the line.

But, even in America, to see such polite and considerate group behavior from a mass of frolicking children?! That really seemed amazing. And so, as I watched my suddenly considerate offspring waiting patiently for their dousing, and then quickly moving out to provide space for the next child, I pondered the motivation for this consideration. I found it in their smiles.

JOY! I was watching a group of children bursting and bubbling with joy. And this joy melted away the petulant selfishness that too often mars the faces of those from one to 92. The fun was too marvelous to be spoiled by bickering and shoving for position. Much better to watch the enjoyment of their peers and build their own anticipation of how fun it would be to dunk themselves under the spray. What is more, the children weren’t looking out for number one and the rest be damned, because the rest were part of their joy. The water sprays would have been fun if Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster were the only children present, but they were much more fun with everyone else. The joy was contagious, it was exponential. Each squeal of delight from one child drew an echo from two or three others. They were reveling in the group experience and in that joy they found unity.

That realization was sweet with just a tinge of sadness. Clearly, our world is in great need of more unity. From the wars that ravage too many countries to list, to the economic exploitation and crisis that mar nearly every life on the planet, to the renewed anger and name-calling that have been stoked by last week’s historic Supreme Court decisions, we are a broken and divided species. I try to protect my little ones from that truth to a large degree, but the truth is that some of their playmates from yesterday will eventually land on the other side of some issue or resource that they hold dear, and then where will be the joy?

And so, I have written this story as a reminder to myself, and to them, of what they are capable of. I hope I will remember to pull this out when life is no longer so simple for them and they are struggle to know how to love their enemies. The child with whom they have to share the water is not really an enemy, and yet in knowing how to share their joy with this playmate, they are demonstrating their understanding of the ultimate unity of humanity. We are all better off, we share more joy, when we see the needs of others as well as our own, and work together to meet all needs. True joy is not maximizing one’s own joy. True joy is sharing it.

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Sharing with a little one

Sharing with a little one

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"It says 'No Climbing'!" Princess Imagination is so proud that she can read!

“It says ‘No Climbing’!” Princess Imagination is so proud that she can read!

families welcome!

families welcome!

"My bum is all wet!"

“My bum is all wet!”


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Deadlines and Lifelines

Although my relative blog silence may not indicate it to most of my readers, the past two months have been very busy for me. Much of this business has involved very prosaic activities (laundry, errands, carnevale & Easter goody bags for the kids’ classes). Of course, the unique context of my current sojourn in Italy colors even these day-to-day activities with unusual challenges and rewards, and it also offers amazing opportunities to otherwise fill my time (ski weekends in the Alps, school field trip to the Triennale Design Museum, shopping day-trip to Venice — I’ll stop before you all stop reading out of pique!)

The particular business of the last two months, however, has involved a few longer-term commitments that have combined into a lesson I didn’t realize I needed to learn. The first part of that lesson is just a reminder of something I already knew about myself: I am the kind of person who likes clear, concrete, defined goals, especially when said goals offer specific deadlines against which I can track my progress. Aficionados of psychological testing will nod their heads sagely when I reveal that my dominant personality trait all three times I have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test has been “judging.” This doesn’t mean that I am judgmental (I hasten to explain, since we “Js” highly dislike both ineffective communication and mis-categorization). What it does mean is this: while at different points of my life my score for my source of energy has slid across the line between introversion and extraversion, and my preference for making decisions has tended to balance nearly equally between thinking and feeling, there is no doubt that my lifestyle is governed by a preference for structure and organization.

This controlling preference has expressed itself directly, as I said, in a few longer-term commitments that have been dominating much of my time in recent months. The first such commitment is my writing. No, not my blog, I know. This particular medium of expression has been consistent only for its infrequency and its failure to meet even my modest self-imposed deadline of one entry per month. I’m referring instead to my commitment that before I leave Italy I will complete a long-term dream: to write a novel. I first dreamed this dream when I was 8 or 9 years old and tried my hand at penning a fantasy adventure story (that particular effort petered out after three or four chapters and is now lying in repose in my mom’s garage, if it hasn’t ended its sad little life in the recycle bin). My more mature effort, however, has been germinating for over a year and a half, and is the proud owner of an entire notebook filled with plot outline and character sketches, snatches of dialogue and random draft scenes. Until January of this year, however, the translation of all this planning into sequential written prose was going very slowly. While I love to write, there always seemed to be dishes to wash, or groceries to buy, or friends to meet for coffee, or blog entries to write, and I found it very difficult to carve out the time demanded by this serious ambition.

Then, one of those cappuccino-loving friends challenged me to start setting deadlines for myself. Not the vague, future goal of “finish before I leave Italy,” but a week-by-week schedule of chapter completion that would get me to my goal with a little room to spare. What a difference a deadline makes! The novel has transformed from an idea to an actual story, with nearly eighty pages and 8 1/2 chapters of substance stored on my hard drive. Granted, the schedule of completion charted in the margins of my calendar had me completing chapter 10 by April 5, but considering that I was only part way through chapter 2 in late-January (after 6 months of work) I will celebrate this page-count as a practical victory.

I am all the more inclined to revel in this progress because of the other goal that absorbed a lot of my time in the last two months – training for my first 10K race. Unlike the novel, this achievement had never been a long-cherished desire. Before February of this year I had never even run 5 kilometers at a go in my life and I have never considered myself an athlete. At another January coffee date, however, another friend suggested that I try to run the Stramilano of the 50,000 with her in March. That evening, just to see if it was even plausible, I went surfing the internet for a 10K training schedule for first-time racers. Of course, once I had that clear, beautiful schedule beaming off my computer screen, with the first two training runs fatefully set at the exact distance I was already running twice a week, I was hooked. This wasn’t just the gratifying structure of regular deadlines. This was a professionally constructed schedule of deadlines specifically prepared for runners in my exact situation. I organized my daily routine around that schedule — never scheduling coffee for Tuesdays or Thursday so that I could do my runs; trading my vacation morning of watching the kids (so that Tyler could ski) for an hour to run on the hotel treadmill; scheduling a babysitter on the weekend that Tyler was away so that I wouldn’t miss my first 3 mile training run. As the race day approached and my fitness improved I added a bonus incentive: the measurable goal of a run time. This system of deadlines, goals, and measurable results was magic. On the 24th of March even a sudden bout of vomiting minutes before the race did not dissuade me (note to other novice runners – don’t add an orange to your breakfast on race day, too much acid). When the loudspeaker boomed our “Via” and the hundreds of red balloons released into the sky above the Duomo, I was off: dodging race walkers (it’s a very non-competitive race), puddles (it rained the entire morning), and real runners coming up from the rear (a few of whom I gratifyingly re-passed later on once they ran out of steam). I certainly didn’t set any records, but at 68 minutes I beat my goal time by 2 minutes and felt the rush of a goal achieved.

So much for the affirmation of a character trait that 36 years has firmly established in the understanding of anyone who knows me at all well. The real point of this entry in the caveat that I must now add to my assertion that my soul yearns for structure, and organization, and deadlines: deadlines don’t work for lifelines. You see, the last two months have also contained the season of the Christian church year termed lent, and this year I tried to impose a deadline schedule on my spiritual practice for observing this season. Although the practice of “giving up” something for lent is relatively unusual in the generally evangelical branch of Christianity to which I belong, I have come to deeply appreciate this discipline in the past 7 or 8 years. It provides a chance to temporarily eliminate some small thing from my daily life that it not intrinsically bad, but that can be more fruitfully replaced with prayer or meditation. So, for example, when I gave up chocolate for the span between Ash Wednesday and Easter, my predictable daily yearnings for that sweet, rich confection provided a dependable reminder to re-center my awareness on gratitude to the God who gave up so very much more to reestablish a bridge for direct relationship with human beings, myself included.

So, this year my spiritual “fast” was from Facebook. I don’t think there is anything wrong with Facebook. To the contrary, since my move to Italy it has become a valued point of contact with “home” that allows me to know what is happening in the lives of my friends and to keep them informed about my European adventures without spending hours on the phone or e-mail, or composing generic mass letters. All the same, this useful tool can be a wasteful time drain and a distraction from precious moments with my children and husband. So, I committed to abstain from the little blue app on my phone for 46 days. The negative side of fasting, however, the “giving up” is not the full purpose of lent. Rather, the Lenten practice is aimed at replacing the denied pleasure with one that is spiritual in nature. And so, before signing off from Facebook on February 13 I made a list of all my Facebook “friends” and committed to pray for each of them at least twice during lent. Thus was born my Lenten schedule of deadlines. What a wonderful plan for my organizer’s soul. I could stay indirectly connected to all those distant friends and family in a spiritually vital way, and redeem some of that lost time I had been wasting clicking on electronic posters proclaiming familiar truisms as though they were the newest idea since the iphone5. This might be my best Lenten practice ever!

Well, yes and no. It was certainly good to pray for my friends and extended family, although this practice brought with it the uncomfortable realization of just how infrequently I do this except when I am aware of moments of crisis in their lives. It was also both good and uncomfortable to shine a spotlight on my inconsistency with prayer in general. While I aim for a daily time of prayer, early wake-up from kids and unplanned phone calls or class e-mails often disrupt these plans, and I was not aware of quite how often I miss my goal until I had a daily schedule. Planning to pray for 6 friends a day suddenly makes missing “a day or two” much more concrete when that list grows to 24 the next time I actually sit down with it.

Unfortunately, this spotlight was not very motivating. It turns out that prayer is really not much like running. When illness or travel temporarily derailed my training schedule I would sit down with my calendar and schedule out a shift to avoid getting behind in my progress toward my goal. When the Gigglemonster started his morning yell for “Mommy!” 45 minutes early, however, I would write myself a bleary mental note about doing my prayer time later that day, and then forget about it until the next day, when my reaction to “reading” that mental note was a mumbled “Oh crud, I only have 20 minutes, how am I going to get through 12 people plus reading scripture?” That’s not how I want to feel about prayer. I expect to have to drag myself to lace up my running shoes — that’s why I need a training schedule — but my prayer schedule seemed to work in reverse: it made into a burden what should have been a source of joy and renewal.

Now I want to be clear, even in my organizationally-obsessed mind prayer is not subject to formula; it is not a magical incantation that needs to be said just perfectly in order to “work.” Just the opposite, I experience prayer as a conversation that only “works” in the sense of the relationship it builds. The effectiveness of prayer thus depends upon the conversation partners, and in this relationship I have no illusions about where the problems come from. The God I pray to is no baal – he does need to be woken up, or called back from a journey, or interrupted in the midst of relieving bodily functions. God is always present and is always worth talking to, if I can get my head into the space where I can actually engage. And this is where my prayer schedule ran me into trouble. This Lenten journey has brought me to the realization that despite my type A, organization-loving, schedule-dependent nature, deadlines are limited in their utility. Deadlines are for things that you need to do despite the fact that they aren’t always fun — important, good for you, even necessary, but things that you are tempted to put off when there are competing options for how to spend your time. Problems come when I apply this model of motivating myself to activities that offer their own intrinsic motivation, because the deadline mentality replaces this motivation.

This pattern applies not just to prayer. The same danger arises when I start evaluating and calculating the minutes I spend in “quality time” interacting with my children (“Oh no! we haven’t done any art projects this week – quick, pull out the paints even if Princess Imagination would rather play let’s pretend and the Gigglemonster is screaming for the Wii”), or connecting with my husband (the compulsion to try to force a substantive conversation rather than another night of cuddling in front of the TV — regardless of how physically and mentally exhausted we both feel). When I start thinking in terms of quantifiable goals or benchmarks of adequate achievement the joy of the interaction gets lost in the task-nature of creating it. When I apply the patterns and structures of work to my sources of meaning and joy, then they become work. But while work is important for life, and I do sometimes need to put work into these sources of life’s meaning, I also need to remember the difference between life and work. The most important relationships in my life, with my God and with my family, are my lifelines to an existence that means more than a series of schedules and goals.

And so, as I embark on my 37th year of life, I have a new goal: to distinguish my lifelines from my deadlines, and to put them in their proper order. I can get satisfaction from meeting deadlines and achieving goals, but that is not what makes my life alive, and no deadline is more important that making sure that I really live each day.

(A few of the things that have been filling my time, and bringing me joy:)

What an awesome backdrop for a run!

What an awesome backdrop for a run!

Uno...due...tre...Via!

Uno…due…tre…Via!

Reason #417 that kids are fun: you get to go sledding again!

Reason #417 that kids are fun: you get to go sledding again!

Call her Princess Skier

Call her Princess Skier

 

"Look, Mommy! I such a fast ski person!"

“Look, Mommy! I such a fast ski person!”

The Giggle monster had a unique way of putting on his ski helmet.

The Giggle monster had a unique way of putting on his ski helmet.

 

Carnevale in Parco Sempione.

Carnevale in Parco Sempione.

Our first AC Milan match at San Siro.

Our first AC Milan match at San Siro.

She actually had fun at the match, I swear!

She actually had fun at the match, I swear!

I finally went to see the Last Supper (Genius!)

I finally went to see the Last Supper (Genius!)

It's finally warm enough to play on the terrazza again!

It’s finally warm enough to play on the terrazza again!

 

Look who lost her first tooth!

Look who lost her first tooth!

"Look what I can do!"

“Look what I can do!”

"Look. Mommy, I can do it too!"

“Look. Mommy, I can do it too!”

They're still my little babies!

They’re still my little babies!

Too cute not to share

Too cute not to share

They so don't appreciate that they are playing in a gorgeous medieval square.

They so don’t appreciate that they are playing in a gorgeous medieval square.

My beauty.

My beauty.

I love that they are friends.

I love that they are friends.

I actually got a decent picture of all three of us!

I actually got a decent picture of all three of us!

...love, love, love that they are friends.

…love, love, love that they are friends.

 

Gra'ma brought Easter egg dye from the states!

Gra’ma brought Easter egg dye from the states!

 

For book-character-day at school Princess Imagination went as Fancy Nancy

For book-character-day at school Princess Imagination went as Fancy Nancy


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Encountering My Privilege

Today brought me an unexpected encounter with my own privilege that has left me floundering for an adequate response.

The day started out normally enough. I woke up a bit late because of yet another epic battle with the Gigglemonster about going to bed and staying asleep in his own bed all night (we are into week two of this new phase and it is leaving Tyler and I both exhausted, frustrated, and completely at a loss for how to master this new emergence of the monster side of our son’s personality). Consequently it was a bit of a rush to get the kids dressed and ready and out the door in time for school. We missed my target departure time by 11 minutes, but we still managed to enter the school just before the fateful hour when they close the main gate and the only entry available is through the shame-shrouded side door.

From there I waved a greeting to a few moms from the Gigglemonster’s class who were all looking very sleek and Milanese on their way to grab un buon caffe, and despite their warm friendly smiles I was painfully aware of my unwashed hair and muddy jogging shoes . Then I was off for my training run. I am signed up to “race” in the Stramilanino in 4 weeks. It is a non-competitive 10 kilometer organized run through the heart of Milan, and it is only a race in the very loosest sense. In my case the goal is simply to run/jog the whole way (completely disregarding time), but the fact that until a few weeks ago I had never in my life run even 5 kilometers in one go means that I am in training. Today the goal was 6.4 kilometers (4 miles for all my American friends) and it was my longest run to-date. I had mapped a circuitous course that took me from the school through some of the quieter neighborhoods of Southeastern Milan and up around Porta Romana to finish up at my own front door (I’ll walk back to school the afternoon where my car is conveniently waiting the drive the kiddos home). The run started out a bit labored with the cold air hitting my morning-fogged lungs, but my route offered lots of sunshine and I soon warmed up. I had my ridiculously over-priced but oh-so-wonderful running jacket (thanks to my wonderful mother-in-law’s thoughtful Christmas shopping), and its convenient sleeve pocket nestled my i-phone so that it could deliver Eye of the Tiger and other suitable exercise inspiration via earphones to my waiting brain.

I managed the run in 46 minutes and didn’t even huff too much on the long hill over the train tracks, and I felt good. I decided to run a few extra meters to the end of the block where I could cross over to one of my all-time favorite spots in Milan – the Forno Ambrosiano bakery. In addition to their focaccia (which truly is ambrosia), the Carnevale and Lenten seasons bring an additional high-calorie indulgence that is worth every extra pound: tortelli vuoti. The closest corollary that I can describe for those who have not tasted this magical confection is donut holes, but those are only a poor shadow of this greasy, sugary goodness. The bakery offers two other varieties (filled with crème custard or nutella), but our family always opts for the vuoti (meaning literally empty – so that there is nothing to compete with the taste of melt-in-your mouth sugar-coated fried batter balls). Understandably, this variety usually runs out first, and thus my decision to head to the bakery first, rather than stopping home for a much-needed shower. As I sprinted down the last 100 meters of sidewalk I passed Madonna, and began an internal dialogue about how to approach my return journey to my front door.

I should explain that Madonna is a woman who begs on the sidewalk  just outside the coffee shop that is 6 doors down from my building. I first got to know her about 4 or 5 months ago, when I asked her name as I dropped a small bill into her cup. In one of my college sociology classes a professor encouraged our class of generally liberal, faith-minded idealists to consider how to make our charity more humanizing. She suggested that one of the worst things about extreme poverty is the way that it cuts you off from social interaction. Those who are reduced to begging for change generally meet two reactions – either averted eyes that pretend not to notice them, or eyes that watch the small donation of loose change into their cup, but never make contact with their own. Professor Alexander didn’t insist that we should give to every panhandler we encountered, but she said that if we do choose to give, we should try to do so in a way that makes a human connection. Make eye contact, ask their name, offer an encouraging word, if time permits offer to buy them a sandwich and sit with them while they eat. Give them more than just loose change – give them the respect they deserve as a fellow child of God.

I’ve always remembered that advice and I try to put it into practice when possible. I certainly don’t give to every panhandler I see, and I can’t claim to have any admirable system or criteria for deciding when I do. Most often it has mostly to do with how easily I can access a suitable denomination of coin and how much of a rush I am in at the time. However, on my way home from school one day in late September or early October I dropped a contribution into Madonna’s cup and made eye contact with a smile. Her responsive smile was enveloping, and she offered an enthusiastic thanks. We had a brief conversation, hampered by the limited Italian that is our only common language (she is from Romania), but eased by the responsiveness of her eyes and smile. It was a moment of humanity, and since then I have felt a certain connection with Madonna. I won’t claim that there are never times I pass without offering her a contribution – when I am balancing shopping bags and whining children or when I am completing or starting a training run and I have no money with me, but I always try to at least make eye contact and smile, and she does the same, usually with a friendly “Ciao, Bella” as well.

Then came the run-up to Christmas and all the business and activity that involves. I had not talked with Madonna for a week or two with all my rushing about, and I had been thinking (with a degree of self-satisfaction I am ashamed to admit) that the next time we met I would ask her what her two children would like for Christmas. I imagined the opportunity to take Princess Imagination on a shopping trip to pick out Christmas gifts for her 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter and what a great chance that would be to reinforce the lessons we are trying to teach her about generosity and passing on the blessings we have received. When I stopped one morning to hand Madonna a small bill, however, the interaction did not go as I had planned. She held my hand in both of hers, looked into my eyes with a look of desperation and explained that she had been hoping to see me. Her son had told her that the only thing he wanted for Christmas was to go home to Romania to see their family, but she couldn’t afford the tickets. She had asked everyone she could, but she was still short by a substantial sum. The price was not really that high in the context of my life — perhaps the equivalent of two dinners out for Tyler, myself and the kids — but it was certainly more than I had ever given to someone on the street.

I was taken aback. Suddenly my warm and fuzzy sense of generosity was replaced by discomfort and even fear. Was the story true? Had the relationship I felt we had been building been genuine, or was it just part of a long-con to get a large chunk from the naïve American? I was fairly sure I had been conned by another “young mother” a few months back for a smaller, though not insignificant, sum and I felt wary. My instincts to help clashed with all the stereotypes of class barriers and I did not want to be taken advantage of. I told her I would have to think about it, which I did.

I thought. I anguished. I avoided walking along that stretch of sidewalk for over a week to prevent any need to confront her searching eyes again.  And finally I prayed. I came to the decision that I wanted my life to be more characterized by love than by fear, by compassion than by distrust. It was money we could spare, and ultimately I believed she did have need. Whether the money was really to pay to take her and her children home to Romania or not, it didn’t really matter. I gave her the money a few days before I departed for my astronomically-more-expensive trip home to California (paid for by the company thanks to a generous expatriate contract), and I felt wonderfully at peace. I had no doubt that I had made the right decision, and the tears shining in her eyes as she clasped me in a hug of thanks were a very special Christmas present that confirmed my faith in the value of humanity in all human contacts.

When I returned to Milan in January I did not see Madonna for a few weeks. When I gave her the gift she had said something about perhaps not seeing me again if she could find a way to stay in Romania (or at least, I think that’s what she said – our communication is imperfect). I wondered whether that had happened. Perhaps she had found work, or her husband had, and they had been able to abandon the failed hope of a better life in Milano. I was glad to imagine that possibility for them, but I have to admit that I was also glad of the prospect of not facing her beseeching eyes again.

You see, what Professor Alexander had not talked about when she encouraged us to make human connections in our charity, was how that raises all the complications of human relationships. Issues of trust, and selfishness, and relative power, and judgment arise when you acknowledge someone else’s humanity. In the particular relationship of informal benefactor and recipient these dynamics twist every interaction into a distorted parody of the more natural interactions of our daily lives. We had no natural point of connection other than the passing of money and there were no rules or standards for how to govern that exchange. What was enough? What was too much? What right had I to control how my donations were spent? What expectation could she have that she could ask a large sum from me again? Once our exchange had gone beyond the occasional coins or small bills, there was an increased stake in our relationship, and I was quite happy to avoid that prospect. And so, I wished Madonna the best in Romania.

And then she appeared again. Her smile for me was warm, but I felt something else behind it (whether genuine or born from my anxiety I am not sure). She asked when I would be walking by again. She had made a video for me back in Romania, to thank me for my help and to show me where her family lived. She would bring it if I would tell her when. We made a date a few days out when I knew I would be able to walk down that short stretch of sidewalk, and I left. When that day arrived I felt oddly hesitant. Feet that have newly accustomed themselves to run several miles at least 3 or 4 times a week felt heavy and reluctant to traverse just 50 meters of pavement. But finally I ran out of other tasks that needed to be accomplished and I made the walk. Madonna smiled her same welcoming smile as I approached and chatted in her friendly sing-song voice. At first she did not mention the video. Rather she asked about the kids, and my trip home. She then inquired about my faith. I confirmed that I am a Christian and she said she had a feeling – something about me just shone. She was not a Christian herself, but her mother in law was, and she saw the same love in me. It was a lovely compliment, perhaps one of the most beautiful I have ever received, but it laid another weight on the burden of responsibility I had grown to feel toward her. Now my actions toward her reflected not just on myself, but explicitly on God as well. I hoped even more fervently to be spared any further obligation that might come with her promised video. Perhaps she had forgotten to bring it? Perhaps I would be spared that tangible, physical tether to her need? But as I made to pass on she dug a paper-wrapped DVD out of her bag and handed it to me with a little explanation. The video showed her home and her family in Romania – so that I could see where she had gone. And, if I wanted to do something more to help her, or if I wanted to show it to my friends to see if they would like to help, she would thank me deeply.

I left with a heart of lead. My fears were realized. The first request was being followed by more. I couldn’t just reach down my benevolent hand in a gesture of humanity and then retract it, with no sense of continued obligation. I was now her benefactor, with the potential (at least in her eyes) to identify still other benefactors as well. The video sat unwatched on a shelf in my house for several weeks. The thanks it promised to give felt tainted by the expectation of further gifts, and it made me deeply uncomfortable.

So again, I avoided that stretch of pavement during Madonna’s normal hours, or I loaded myself down with parcels or schedules that did not allow for extended conversation. She occasionally asked if I had watched the video, but I would explain I had not yet had time, and then rush on with my busy life.

Until today. Today, as I walked home from the bakery toting my bag full of tortelli vuoti, I lectured myself with Professor Alexander’s words about humanity, and with the reminder that my life reflects not just on me, but also on my Savior and Lord. So I stopped and talked to Madonna, after handing her today’s contribution. She remarked on my running gear and I explained about my training, telling her I had never done anything like this before, but now I had the time. She was complimentary and enthusiastic, as she always is. I began to feel a bit of the ease return to our interaction. As I made to leave she asked again if I had watched the video, and I smiled my reassurance. “Oggi” I promised – today. After all, if I had the time to train for a 10K run, certainly I had 10 or 15 minutes to watch a video.

So that is what I did. I did my post-run stretching on my very expensive, double-thick yoga mat, laid out in my spacious company-financed apartment and watched her DVD on my big flat-screen TV.

The contrast took my breath in a way that no run ever could. Her home in Romania looks like an abandoned farm building. Only one room has a fully intact roof and walls, and it is furnished with one hutch, one chair, and a large couch. In it are seated her two children, her sister-in-law and her three children, and her mother-in-law. The only other “room” in the house has gaps between the walls and the rafters and thatching that make-up what there is of a roof and contains only large piles of fire wood and a rudimentary kitchen with some cupboards and what I assume to be a wood-burning stove. There is no electricity, no running water, and no plumbing.

She also explains that her children do not go to school because they cannot afford it. Her 6-year-old could presumably go to public school but that requires money for books, for school meals, for clothes, and for other fees. They do not have any money, so he cannot go to school. She does not say it, but it is an unavoidable conclusion that he will be trapped forever in the same poverty he lives in now, without even the basic education with which his father cannot find work.

Madonna’s sweet voice and smile narrate the film, and it is not a hard sell. It is just an account of her life, and her expression of gratitude for what I have done to help her. She and her children smile at her friend’s video camera and wave good-bye with a chorus of “Ciao Bella.”

And I sit in shock. How could I have just stood in front of her in my expensive jogging paraphernalia, holding a bag of confections with no nutritional value, chatting about the luxury of training for a race, and finally condescended to watch her thank you video after a month of procrastinating. I took a minute for self-recrimination before I moved on to the even harder question. What could I do now?

Her need is desperate. There is no doubt of that. She and her husband came to Milan to seek a better life for their children, but without work their poverty here is still desperate, even if their home here might have complete walls or electricity. But what can I do?

I have only two resources. The first is money. But the money they need to really change their lives is far beyond what I can provide. Tyler and I are certainly comfortable, but we don’t have enough excess to permanently support another family.

The other resource is knowledge. But I don’t seem to have the kind of knowledge that can make a difference. I don’t have any way to connect Madonna’s family to more sustainable support. Tyler and I have no connections that can offer her husband employment, and I don’t have the least idea what social supports exist for her in this embattled and bankrupt state. As someone whose career (prior to this move) was in the fields of anti-poverty research and advocacy, that ignorance is humiliating, but difficult to remedy. In any such effort my language barrier combines fatally with the confusion and opacity that characterize the Italian social system, which Italian friends have told me make the system nearly impossible for even native Italians to navigate. The election held in Italy over the last two days has apparently decided almost nothing and the national and European economic pressure is certainly not the context for expansive relief programs for undocumented immigrants, so I doubt any of the parties of coalitions have any solutions in mind for Madonna.

There is nowhere to look for a solution to Madonna’s problems, and I am left sitting on my comfortable couch, in my warm apartment, typing on my laptop computer about how I don’t know what to do with this juxtaposition of privilege and pain. I know there are lots of social arguments out their about personal responsibility — not having children if you can’t support them; taking the legal road to immigration if you want to work; doing whatever it takes to earn an honest living — but I can’t blame her as a way to escape from her pain. She’s a human being. Her children are innocent victims of an impossible situation. They will probably never experience the comfort I take for granted every day. And I don’t know what to do about it.

And so, I have written this entry. It doesn’t have a pithy conclusion where I tie it all up with my moral of the story. It doesn’t chronicle any momentum decision I have made that I think worthy of sharing. All it does is give witness to the injustice of the contrast between my life and Madonna’s. If I can do nothing else, at least I can give witness.