Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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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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