Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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Moonlit prayers

 

Her open, glowing face pulls on my soul, insistent as the tide, compelling

honesty. A truth that whispers safely in the darkness of the night.

This light’s illumination is the gentle kind that blurs the lines and shadows,

beauty, in the ambiguities. A soft exhale of grace.

Thank you sweet Creator God, for moonlit prayers.

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Lessons in leaves

Autumn is a time for messes. Leaves fall from trees and make messes of lawns. Return to school rearranges schedules and makes messes out of lingering, lazy summer habits. Shifting weather demands widely divergent clothing from one day to the next, making messes of tiny closets forced to fit to two season’s worth of clothes.

And, I suppose, these shifts also tend to make messes in my mind. Much as I tend to live in the future – always planning for what comes next – the actual experience of the shift tends to overwhelm me and disturb me with the reminder that I really have very little control over much of anything.

Today I experienced one such reminder, and also an antidote, at least of sorts.

I spent 90-odd minutes of the afternoon watching a heartbreaking film, with my darling 7-year-old Princess Imagination cuddled beside me. The film was American Winter, and I was watching it because I am a panelist for a screening event tomorrow afternoon and I needed to know its content in order to prepare something intelligent to say about it. The film shares the devastating stories of 8 families who were basically flattened by the Great Recession. They were families experiencing homelessness and hunger, unemployment and foreclosure. They faced moments and months of stress, anxiety, and despair, and while the film also reported some glimmers of hope, there was not a nice, neat happy ending for most of them.

These are stories I have heard too many times, and stories that are in one sense my stock in trade – the reasons I go to work each day as well as the way in which I argue and plead for economic justice. But watching them with my sweet daughter at my side was something new. She kept asking questions – questions that made me stop my analytical assessment of how to frame my response and actually engage the pain spilled out across my screen. Her most frequent question was why, and the aching quaver in her voice spoke both of her innocence and of the innocence I’ve lost.

I was shaken by her horror that such things actually happen to people. That parents skip meals so that their children can eat. That children feel responsible for making sure their mom packs herself a lunch. That widows and their sons have to sleep on cots in shelters, and that families live for a month with no water and no electricity. I was shaken because these things truly are horrible, and once I get past my defense mechanisms as a professional advocate, I still don’t know how to deal with it.

I’ve committed my career to fighting poverty and I work hard at it. I can rattle off my economic arguments against trickle-down theories and list 5, or 10, or 15 policy changes that would make a practical difference for families trapped by poverty. But I don’t know what to do when my daughter’s eyes fill with tears about the pain of strangers. And when her soft, shaken voice whispers into my shoulder her confession that “I’m glad we don’t have to live like that,” my heart must honestly respond “me too.”

And so, my mind and my heart were a bit of a mess this afternoon, when the kids asked permission to go outside after the film. We took our big bucket of chalk out to our ample driveway to draw pictures and little messages of love. Then the mess of leaves strewn across our yard challenged an attack. So, we took up rakes and sallied forth to do battle. We conquered one small corner, and then conceded some of the hard-fought ground to celebratory pile-jumping and complicated maneuvers involving the red wagon as a transport device ill-equipped to move children and leaves in the same load.

It was a simple, silly afternoon and I was poignantly aware of just how fortunate we are to have that chance.

AND – I watched the light dance in my daughter’s eyes more delicately than the leaves she was throwing into the air, and that light lifted the cloud from my own heart.

The mess isn’t gone. My heart is touched anew with the pain that drew me to this work. I’m chafing at my own inability to bring order to an economic system that is leaving millions behind. And yet – the falling leaves call for play. And my guilt won’t help the families who have lost their own lawns. And sometimes, the best thing we can do with a mess is let the children play in it – knowing that, at least, I am teaching them to want enough for everyone.


 

To rediscover joy in curled brown leaves,

To squeal with giggles just to watch them fly

To live a moment wholly free from griefs

Despite a world that tells my heart to cry

 

To rake up leaves then scatter them again

To watch sun set and know we’ll still have light

To feel the stab of joy that’s taught by pain

This blessing and this weight I feel tonight.

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Happy Poem

This poem is by no means a reflection of my entire experience of parenting. My husband could give painful witness to just how frustrated I became by my little blessings tonight, scant hours after the golden moment the brought on this inspiration. However, the moments do happen every once in a while, and when they happen they should be celebrated. So, here is my celebration.


Simple Happy

To float on damp air,

dancing light on laughter’s song,

popping with a squeal,

blowing bubbles together,

this is the exhale of joy.

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Liebster Award

liebster-award

I am so excited! I have been nominated for my first blogging award – twice. Thank you to Because I Can and Abysmal Heights for the honor, and for the chance to participate in this fun opportunity to find and share other worth-discovering blogs.

What is Liebster Award?

The Liebster Award is an award for relatively obscure bloggers (under 200 followers) to get them more exposure and form new connections in the blogging community. The rules of the competition are as follows:

  • The nominated user must provide a link back to the person who nominated them.
  • Provide 11 facts about yourself.
  • Answer 11 questions set by the person who nominated you. 
  • Choose 11 more people and ask them 11 questions.    

I love the idea, and the following content is my best attempt to comply with the rules in a way that will be consistent with my blog’s tri-part “focus” of faith, family, and focaccia (otherwise known as “cultural observations”). First, however, I have a confession and a random observation.

Confession: I actually have no idea how to find out how many followers another blogger has, so I am making my best guess. I ruled out blogs that get tons of comments (100+), since that probably means they have a lot of followers. If any of the folks I linked below have more than 200 followers, my apologies for underplaying your following and let me say – you deserve the numbers you have!

Random Observation: While I have been formulating my responses to these questions I happened to listen to a RadioLab podcast about numbers. “Eleven” was a somewhat featured number because, apparently, it represents the infinite (under the theory that ten represents wholeness or completion, and therefore eleven goes beyond completion). I just found that symbolism interesting considering the numeric pattern in this project. Eleven cheers for the infinite potential of the blogging community!

OK – now for my facts, answers, and questions:

Eleven Facts about myself.

(Faith)

  1. My first distinct “faith” memory is of listening to a radio evangelist in the car with my Dad just before Christmas in 1980; I was not quite 4 years old. The preacher was laying out the classic “plan of salvation” and I was absolutely convinced. Dad talked it over with me when we got home and he led me through a prayer that night to begin my Christian walk. While I now find that brand of evangelism generally distasteful and my theology has transformed dramatically since the very simplistic roots of that childhood prayer, this memory helps me remember that God works in many different ways. Just because a given theology seems manipulative from my current perspective does not mean it is impossible for God to start something truly amazing and transformative in that context.
  2. I was baptized at the age of 8 and it is a beautiful memory for me. At that age I was almost painfully shy, and saying anything at all in front of all the members of my church community was terrifying, much less having to say in my own words what Jesus meant to me. All the same, I did it. Maybe that was the beginning of learning that saying something important, something that really matters to me, makes it so much easier to find my voice.
  3. I earned my Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. I went into the program knowing that I didn’t intend to go into pastoral work, but also that theological training would be essential to any work I did for the rest of my life. Just because I don’t have a pulpit doesn’t mean my work is any less ministry that my classmates’.
  4. The very best thing for me about being in New Jersey (other than my nuclear family who would be with me somewhere else as well) is my church. If any of you are local and are looking for a community that will act out the love of Christ in all the messiness of real life, come check out Living Waters Lutheran Church!.

(Family)

  1. I am the middle of three daughters (the same as my Mom). Whenever I am tempted to assume that the differences between my son and daughter are the result of gender difference, I just think about me and my sisters. My sisters are massively different from each other and from me. I love them both very, very much.
  2. I am an ACOD (adult child of divorce). Dad left when I was 12 – a lifetime ago, and I sometimes forget that the experience shaped the person I have become. It is not something I still grieve about and I even think that it was probably the best solution to a really bad marriage. Also, I need to always be aware of the ways that the experience shaped my way of interacting with the world, so that it can make me both stronger and more empathetic, rather than more detached.
  3. My in-laws were thrilled when Tyler and I started dating, but when we decided to get married at the young age of 23, they were scared that we were too young. Looking back, I can totally understand where they were coming from. We were still kids, and figuring out how to be married at the same time that we were figuring out how to be adults was really difficult. I also think we were right. I would not want to lose a single one of those tough years and I would not have wanted to grow up with anyone else by my side.
  4. The first thing I ever wanted to “be when I grow up” was a mother. I am beyond grateful that I have the chance to be just that to two wonderful, healthy, happy children. Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster have changed my whole world in such wonderful ways. They have also helped me realize that in order to be a really great mom I need to be more than “just a mom.” I am most present and responsive and excited about parenting them when I am being nourished by the other things that stimulate my soul: prayer, social action, writing, my marriage, and friendship.

(Culture)

  1. I am really uncomfortable with patriotism. I went through a phase where I got really squirmy about anything blatantly patriotic (I once forbade my father-in-law from planting red, white, and blue flowers in my garden) because I associated it with Us versus Them nationalism that bothers me on a moral and interpersonal level. My experience as an expatriate in Italy for three years gave me a new view on my own culture, and in some ways reinforced my belief that America sometimes gets things very wrong. At the same time, that time away helped me realize that I love my country. It is mine. It is the context that introduced me to life and even when I see its faults, I still would not want to live anywhere else for more than a few years.
  2. I want to love other cultures (national, racial, political, religious, etc.) more than I actually do. I am in love with the idea of diversity and I firmly believe that exposure to really different ways of interpreting reality is vital to personal growth. I make an effort to interact with these other perspectives. When life gets real, however, I don’t want to listen anymore. I want to be comfortable in my own assurance that I am right. sigh – not nearly as mature as I like to pretend.
  3. Focaccia is seriously the most amazing culinary creation in the history of the world. It is even better than chocolate. I can’t think about the fact that I may never again taste the salty, puffy, dripping goodness that is the pinnacle of taste produced at Forno Ambrosiano, the bakery that was just down the road from our Milan apartment. If I think about it, I might just start crying.

Questions from Abysmal Heights

1. How old are you?

I am 37. I think it is a pretty good age. I am young enough that I can still do most physical thinks without my body breaking down and I am old enough that I no longer think I know everything (and that fact no longer bothers me). The only bad part of this age is that, being born in 1977 places me between generations – I was just too young to be Gen X (a cut-off that I remember feeling excluded by in high school), but I am not a millennial either (being born well before the internet). This birth year has always left me feeling a bit generation-less. I have loneliness issues as it is, so that’s a bit tough.

2. What is your favorite song?

“You are my sunshine.” The song has always has made me smile. The fact that my son has been singing it to me for the past week and a half in preparation for the mother’s day concert as his pre-school might have something to do with it too. That, and that fact that since my kids are singing “you are my sunshine” they are not singing (and I only use that term for lack of a better one) the frozen soundtrack…

3. Who is your inspiration?

From a distance – Mother Theresa. I am overcome by the fact that she helped so many people with no interest in what it brought her; that she identified a whole new kind of vocation that was desperately needed but no one had had the courage to do before; that she never lost her focus. I spent a semester studying her in college and was both humbled and inspired by the exposure.

From up-close – my sisters. Both of my sisters have battled some intense challenges over the course of their lives and rather than just surviving them they have grown through them into amazingly strong women.

For both perspectives – Jesus. Jesus is both a transcendent figure that I can only gaze at with awe, and also the most constant and faithful companion of my life. I fail every day to follow his way, but I do believe it is the perfect way.

4. What does your blog mean to you?

This blog is my public journal. It is a journal in that is it my place to process my life experiences and to try to figure out how to grow through them. While it is sometimes hard for me to be vulnerable and honest in face-to-face conversations, the medium of the written word somehow frees me to think through my life in a way that isn’t constantly second-guessing how my conversation partner might react. I can’t really explain how I am able to do this in a public way, except that I feel called to share my writing. I have discovered that my own processing can sometimes speak to others, and that gives it another layer of meaning for me.

5. What is the one thing you want to do before you die?

There are a few ways to answer this question. If I look just at the word “do” then I have to think about the actual doing of the thing, rather than the result. Seen that way, I want to be there for my family. That activity is the most important “thing” I “do” in any given day. If, however, I consider what I want to “have done” before I die, I suppose the answer is to publish a book…or actually three…at least. I have these three stories that have been swimming around in the craziness of my very busy life for several years now and they are just refusing to drown. I take that as a sign that they really want a life on the page and even (dare I hope) in others people’s minds. One at least is very near completion in the manuscript form, so I am hopeful…

6. What is your favorite book?

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers. Sayers is by far my favorite author, especially her detective fiction. She is a master of writing a compelling story in the “who dunnit” genre that could stand as masterful fiction even without the mystery component. Her characters not only make me really care about them, but they make me think about my own way of being in the world and want to do a better job of it. Since Lord Peter Whimsey was also my first (and most powerful) literary crush, it’s only natural that the book where he finally gets the girl is my all time favorite story.

7. What is, according to you, your best post?

The one that still stands out in my mind, even after the sixty or so I have written since, is The Wind on the Water. It came from a spontaneous sense of connection to both my daughter and the heart of God. I get shivers remembering.

8. What is your idea of a perfect life?

I think the circumstances could be almost infinite. The crucial component to a “perfect” life is the liver’s approach to it. And I think the perfect approach would be one defined by what Jesus defined as the first and second commandments: To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. I fail every day, but that is my goal.

9. If you could choose between money and esteem, which would you choose?

My answer depends on the details. If choosing one means deprivation of the other, then I would choose money. I study poverty and I know just how destructive it is. I would rather live without the esteem of others than try to survive in a condition of abject economic deprivation. On the other hand, if the choice is about which I would like more of (assuming an adequate share of the non-chosen item), then I would choose an abundance of esteem. It would be hard to continue to earn it, but I know myself and I know that recognition and esteem are what I crave more than monetary wealth, so I have to be honest about that. All that said, I know that excess of either money or esteem is morally dangerous, so my life would probably be best with just a reasonable share of both and excess of neither.

10. What do you do when you are sad?

My reaction to sadness varies a lot. When I am in a healthy place I pray and I talk to those I love the best (my husband, sister, closest friends). I also hug my kids a lot. There is nothing as healing as their warm, snuggling affection. When I am in an unhealthy place I eat lots of chocolate, sleep too much, and lose myself in books or TV shows that distract me from my pain. I have a lot of experience with the wrong method (4 bouts of depression), but thankfully that hasn’t been a recent part of my life.

11. Describe yourself in one word.

Loved.

Questions from Because I Can

1. If you could go into the past or future which would you choose, why?

Honestly, I am not particularly interested with going to either. I am repelled by the treatment of women and the lack of indoor plumbing in the vast majority of the past, and with the way we are treating the planet and each other I am not particularly sanguine about the future. That being said, there is one moment I would desperately like to experience. See my next answer.

2. If you could go back into the past or the future when would you go, why?

I get shivers at the thought of going back to the moment where Mary (sister of Martha and Lazarus) sat at the feet of Jesus to learn, and was emphatically and definitely praised for this choice. To be able to sit and learn from Jesus side-by-side with Mary would, I believe, change me in ways that nothing else could.

3. What is your favorite piece of clothing and why?

My wedding dress. I have never felt more beautiful than I felt on the day I was married. It was a dress that represented all the hope and joy of the commitment I made that day and those memories are golden and shining. Even running my fingers lightly along the beading, or watching the soft chiffon float back into place when I move the dress makes me smile.

4. What is your favorite book, and why?

(See my answer to question 6 from Abysmal Heights).

5. What is your favorite movie, and why?

I don’t really have one at the moment, but the first “favorite movie” I ever had was Dead Poet’s Society. Part of that was almost certainly Ethan Hawk at his awkward, dreamy best. The more important part, however, was the inspiration to think and dream and engage the world, whether or not the way you are called to dream fits into the rules. “Oh Captain, My Captain!”

6. What is your least favorite household chore?

I really, sincerely detest cleaning the bathroom. I shudder to think of the germs that are in there (and how they would be multiplying if my husband were not really great about doing this chore).

7. If you could change jobs what job would you want instead?

I love my job (I work for a non-profit that promotes policies and programs to fight poverty). The one thing it is not, however, is explicitly faith-based. I am most certainly and explicitly faith-based. So, my other dream job would be a regular contributing writer to Sojourners Magazine. This magazine was the first publication that introduced me to the wider world of liberal evangelicals whose faith calls them to pursue social justice. That orientation and the chance to actually get paid for my writing would be just amazing to be part of!

8. What would be your dream car?

First off, I am not a car person. To me, a car is a tool and nothing more – a way to transport myself, my people, and my stuff from one place to another. That being said it is all about practicality for me. My dream car would be the (nonexistent) vehicle that runs on solar power, has no distance limitation, has plenty of space for at least 8 people, is easy to get little kids in and out of, easy to clean, and is easy to park. Get working on that, would you Detroit?

9. What is the one charity you would give all of your money to?

There are so many great charities out there that do amazing, important, necessary work. There are also a lot of wonderful people who give to charities (although there is always greater need). If I am asked to pick just one, I guess I would choose one that isn’t that well-known and where “all my money” (modest as that might be) could make a huge difference. So, I would choose my church, Living Waters Lutheran in Flemington, New Jersey. It is a community that makes me feel like New Jersey is actually my home. It is also a community that is always looking for ways to help people (in our congregation and in the broader community). Thus, I know the money would be used to do really good things. It is also a young church without a lot of financial resources, so a little money could do a lot to give it more security.

10. What is the one thing that you want to do with your life.

In one sentence: I want to love well.  What that means to me is probably best described in my answer to #8 in the prior set of questions from Abysmal Heights.

11. What makes you happy?

What makes me happy is seeing love lived out on every level – in my own relationships, in lives around me, in society, wherever. Not to be too cheesy, but I think the Beatles were on to something. All You Need Is Love.

Now For My Nominations

(As I said above, I don’t know for sure about the 200-follower limit. But whether or not these are “good” nominations by the rules, they are unequivocally good blogs. Check them out!)

A Happy Stitch

Rascals Among Royalty

A Touch of Cinnamon

Like Birds on Trees

Flourishing Tree

Purple Perceptions

Peace Love and Patchouli

The Discerning Christian

FosterCare Q & A

SMHallisey

I Miss You When I Blink

Your Questions, Should You Choose To Accept Them

(Along with my “about me” facts, these questions are organized roughly around my three blogging foci – faith, family & “focaccia” (a.k.a. cultural experience))

  1. What does the word “faith” mean to you?
  2. Were you raised in a particular faith, and what meaning does that faith (or non-faith) upbringing have for you now?
  3. Assuming there is a God, would you want a personal encounter with God tomorrow, and what would you expect?
  4. What do you think is the best role that faith can play in interacting with culture?
  5. What does the word “family” mean to you?
  6. What is your first memory with your family?
  7. Growing up, did your most important influences come from inside or outside your immediate family?
  8. What role does “family” play in your life now, and why?
  9. What does the word “culture” mean to you?
  10. How do you feel about the culture you were raised in?
  11. If you had to live in another culture for the next three years, which culture would you choose and why?


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My Mother’s Kitchen Ceiling: Memories of Quiet Love

Today my mom celebrates the completion of another year. 25,933 days of life, most of which have garnered scant attention from me. I think, perhaps, that has always been one of the most generous gifts she gives me as my mother: our relationship has never been primarily about her. Mostly it has been about her giving me the care, support, resources, faith, confidence, and love to lead the best life I can live.

But, for today at least, I want to celebrate her. I want to acknowledge what she has done for me and just why she is the kind of mother and person who is worth celebrating. Happy Birthday Mom!

My Mother’s Kitchen Ceiling

*

I remember the ceiling in my mother’s kitchen

the bumpy surface of mid-century construction

random bits of plaster

shapes in silhouette

that take form in the imagination of a child.

*

My favorite shape was an oblong patch

off-balanced by a bulging side.

My mind’s eye saw there expectation,

a mother waiting for the life inside to soon burst out,

cradling love, protectively, with a sheltering arm.

*

Over the years I spent hours staring at that form,

because it looked down on the sink where my Mom washed my hair.

Lying on the counter,

my back pressed against peeling formica,

I would passively, unthinkingly, accept this act of care.

*

I didn’t like water in my eyes

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So, Mom would clear the counter for my ever-growing body to stretch out.

She would cradle my head in one hand while testing the water’s heat on her own fingers,

and she would wash my long, thick, often tangled hair

while I stared dreamily up at the ceiling,

letting my imagination explore familiar, abstract shapes.

*

I remember so many ways she made space for my mind to explore:

books she read to me and asked me to wonder about;

projects she created for me to practice my creativity;

time she gave me to play, to learn, to explore

with the confidence that grows when a child is not constantly corrected,

told the right way,

told to follow the rules.

Of course we had rules in our house,

but only the necessary ones to keep us safe and healthy,

the rules to help us grow in care for others and our world.

Not rules to make her job of mothering easier.

*

What I don’t remember is her ever complaining about her lot in life;

how tired she was;

how she never got a break;

how her back hurt.

I don’t remember hearing any of the complaints my children echo back to me.

A witness to how much I must complain.

*

What I don’t remember is her ever interrupting my long, hard-to-follow child stories/

or her not having time to listen/

or her demanding that I wait until she was free to hear/

in painstaking detail/

about my latest discovery, or hurt, or question.

*

What I don’t remember is her distracting me with mindless activities so that she could do her own thing.

No television babysitter,

or “why don’t you go color in the other room,”

or “if you’re bored, I have a chore for you,”

just to keep me busy

so that I wouldn’t bug her as she cooked, or cleaned, or hung-up laundry.

*

What I don’t remember is her ever worrying about money –

although I know she must have done so –

in the lean years when we wore hand-me-down clothes

and got surprise gifts from “Angels Anonymous” to replaced the sagging, stained, green thrift-store couch.

She always found a way to put a full meal on the dinner table,

and if I complained about the frozen lima beans

she never heaped guilt and shame on my plate

by telling me it was all we could afford.

*

I don’t remember her complaining.

I don’t remember her being too busy for me.

I don’t remember her feeding me distractions.

I don’t remember worry.

But I remember the ceiling of my mother’s kitchen,

and I remember the space to dream.

It is a good memory.


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Waiting for the Bus: A Poem for Everyday Motherhood

With our return to the States, my little family has been introduced to a classic American ritual: the twice daily wait for the school bus.

Not only for Princess Imagination, but also for me, this is an entirely new experience. Having had a relatively unique elementary education in the comfort of my own home, my limited experience with school buses had been transportation for summer camp day trips. These memories are fuzzy: mostly involving the slightly sweet smell of childhood sweat, the uncomfortable sensation of legs in short cotton shorts sticking to vinyl seats, and the awkward anxiety of hoping to find a seat buddy who would be friendly to the shy, gangly girl who didn’t really know anyone.

Thankfully, Princess Imagination is forming much different associations with the school bus. The news that she would finally get to take the bus to and from school (rather than suffering – apparently – under the chauffeuring of Mommy) was one of the greatest benefits of moving back to the States and a new school. In her mysterious world, the chance to take the school bus is unaccountably afforded a rank of high esteem. She had repeatedly begged for this privileged transportation to her expat school in Italy, but that service came with a heavy price tag and I liked the chance for regular contact with the place and people who filled her day, so her pleas were emphatically refused. When we finally arrived in the US only to be marooned temporarily in out-of-district transitional housing, she visibly chaffed at the delay. It was unclear whether the chance to take possession of her fondly remembered “flower room” and be reunited with all her toys from the overseas shipment, or the chance to finally start taking the bus, was the more desired objective.

Now that this elusive goal has finally been grasped, she is glorying in the possession of it. No longing for a bus buddy for Princess Imagination. Despite my perpetual fears that my shy, introverted daughter will be haunted by my own childhood traumas, she has had no trouble making friends for the circuitous ride through the neighborhood. I hear more about these girls than most of the children in her class; each day her backpack is crammed with little notes and art projects they have made together on the ride; and today, when one of these girls was absent, she came home with a present from an entirely new friend whom she had never met before today but who was apparently captivated enough by my sparkling daughter to give her a color-change pencil.

Clearly, the bus is living up to all of her glorious imaginings.

My feelings for the bus, however, are not so sanguine. I am no longer fearing that she will endure the painful social awkwardness I faced. I am not suppressing panicky anxiety at the thought of my sweet baby stepping out of my protective sphere of influence (Little Miss Independent’s confident attitude – and the strong safety record of the school buses – make any such fears feel absurd). I am not even missing the sense of connection to the world where she spends her days (thanks to a teacher who is highly accessible via e-mail and several chances to get involved in class parties and PTA activities in the first few months). No – none of these typical and understandable associations with bus transportation are polluting my pleasure at the arrangement’s convenience and the satisfaction my daughter finds in them.

Instead, I am struggling with a banal but nevertheless alarming frustration. I hate waiting for the bus. It’s boring. It’s this weird, brief interlude in my day that gets under my skin and itches just enough to make me realize how pampered and self-centered my life can become in the blink of an eye. So this poem is both my confession, and my appeal to all the other moms out there who struggle to find meaning in the moments of daily drudgery.

Five Minutes

It’s only five minutes to stand on my driveway,

eyes fixed on the curve of the road;

squinting to read the black, block numbers in relief on school bus yellow;

the number that will distinguish her bus from all the others that lumber past;

alert for one whose speed slows just a bit more than the bend demands,

for the signal of my relief: the slow, quiet flash of yellow lights.

*

It’s only five minutes to stand in the cold, or the sunlight

not seeing the evergreen trees that line the drive;

not thanking them for the oxygen they give to fill my lungs;

not noticing how the fresh, clean air has cleared our habitual winter sniffles;

not marveling at the play of light and wind that make

the small ice crystals dance across the white expanse of winter lawn.

*

It’s only five minutes to shuffle in empty irritation,

without activity to keep me moving,

without tasks to keep accomplishing,

without the comforting jolt of anxiety to keep pushing me to do,

without the distraction of a broom, or a box, or a phone

that can fill any empty space in my soul with the command to attend to outside demands.

*

But…. I could be five minutes to breathe in the beauty of my surroundings;

eyes stroking the soft and sharp lines of snow on pine;

ears dancing to the rhythm of small animals rustling in the dense brush across the road;

senses drinking in the intoxicating scent of freshness;

skin relishing the chill that very soon will be removed with jackets

as our warm, dry home embraces me and my daughter together.

*

It could be five minutes to anticipate my daughter’s return;

to savor the sweet curve of her smile in my mind,

to know how it will float down the steep, bumpy steps

propelling her toward me with news of her day,

and also to remember the content of her daily schedule so that,

if her words lull, I can be ready with questions that will speak of my eagerness to know.

*

It could even be five minutes to commune with my God;

to contemplate the beauty surrounding me, and it’s source;

to appreciate the provision of this space to stand and wait;

to know, to really know, that I am blessed;

and to allow my heart to well and overflow

with thankfulness that changes simple moments into shining drops of time.

*

But it is only five minutes;

and so, most days, I stand and wait in shuffling impatience,

straining against inactivity,

made jittery by wasted energy that can’t be bothered

to fill up five minutes

with meaning.

 


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Lessons from Repatriation

The snow can't cloak this sign warning of a signal light ahead - Stop-Caution-Go - which will it be?

The snow can’t cloak this sign warning of a signal light ahead – Stop-Caution-Go – which will it be?

I seem to be experiencing a long period of living in between.

We have left Milan. The departure, with all its associated stresses and sorrows, joys and juggling is completed. We are no longer residents of Italy, and although saying goodbye to my beloved city and many dear friends was a wrenching pain, I am glad that the phase of anticipated loss is behind me. Living through an extended goodbye is a kind of exquisite torture – trying to relish all the last moments that I knew I would miss; trying to offer a meaningful arrivederci to all the friends who would never again be part of my weekly life in the same easy way. By the end of the month of leave-taking I was ready to be done: to move out and move on; to establish myself back in New Jersey (despite past experiences of poor welcome); to pick up the threads of daily life and weave for myself and my family a new daily routine that could wrap us in the comforts of home and predictability. There would be an interval of continued flurry, of course. The three-week Christmas holiday with its successive family gatherings and unpacking and repacking of bags, but then we would fly back to New Jersey and we could start to settled down again.

I should have known it would not really be that simple when New Jersey “warmly” greeted us with a very physical flurry less than 48 hours after we arrived. The first snow storm of the new year was not quite the storm of the century to which news outlets in Milan apparently compared it (judging from concerned messages I received from Italian friends and acquaintances), but it disrupted deliveries, closed schools and roads, and reminded me effectively just how much I dislike having cold feet.

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Today we are just on the other side of the second big snow storm, and my hatred of the cold is chilling my mood and making my temper as brittle and jagged as the icicles I kicked off my car’s bumper this afternoon. In fairness to frozen precipitation, however, the snow is not the real problem. I would be a bit emotionally fragile even if, by some miracle, New Jersey had put to doubt all questions about global warming and drawn the Southern California sun across the continent to warm my icy toes. The deeper source of my discontent is the unavoidable fact that in some very important ways, we have not yet arrived. True, we are back in residence in our sending state, but we are still waiting in a holding pattern of “not yet.” Our household goods are stuck in customs (thanks to the holiday, the foul weather backlog, and a random 1% chance screening that will take an undefined amount of time to complete). This means that we are stuck in a temporary furnished rental until crucial items like beds and cooking pots are confirmed to be just that by the hard-working men and women who protect our borders. (I don’t mean that to sound snarky, but – like I said – my temper is not on the most even keel these days). This stasis also means that my future planning is on hold, since my first responsibility is getting our household settled, before I begin the daunting task of seeking gainful employment after three years out of the workforce.

As I type these words I am conscious of just how whining and pretentious they would justifiably sound to the vast majority of the world’s population. Poor Little Rich Girl – you can’t move into the house you own yet, so you have to stay in a perfectly good furnished apartment. You have a whole 40-foot container of household goods that may take customs officials a while to clear. You have to take a few months to settle your home and your family before you start looking for a job that apparently is not required to pay for groceries this weekend. What a rough life!

Fair enough. Once I type it all down like that, I feel a bit petulant and I would really like to just erase the last two paragraphs, but that wouldn’t be very honest. So, I will let them stand and move on to the other way in which I am living in between.

I feel a bit suspended between cultures. I almost wrote stuck, rather than suspended, but that wouldn’t be right. I don’t feel squeezed into a space too small to accommodate me. Rather, I feel tugged in two directions, levitated off of solid footing by the magnetic pull of two places and two ways of being.

It’s not exactly that I am longing to return to Italy and reestablish my life there, but more than as I repatriate to America I am aware of how Italy has changed me.

Oddly, some of the things that I missed the most about the US upon first landing in Italy are now the very things that feel uncomfortable as I try to resettle into my home country. This includes as prosaic an item as food. OK – that’s not such a shock. The food is better in Italy, and I miss it. That much I expected. What I did not expect was my dislike for foods I used to crave. For example:

  • I used to miss Chinese food. There was no palatable Chinese take-out on our side of Milan, and I taught myself to cook wok-seared goodness because my cravings were unbearable. But now the noodles from our favorite take-out place in Hillsborough seem so much greasier than I remember.
  • I used to miss donuts. The Italian corollary (ciambelle) are dense and doughy, with a funky after taste not worth the calories. I literally dreamed about sugary, air-puffed donuts while I was exiled in Italy. But after sampling just one of my old favorite variety (boston cream) I’m disinterested. It felt like a thin veneer of fat covered my tongue and the roof of my mouth after only one bite.
  • I missed my flavored, American coffee. When October brought Facebook posts from American friends celebrating the return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, I would weep into my iPhone. I wouldn’t order coffee after 10:00 in the morning, since past mid-morning only tourists order cappuccinos and I just couldn’t imbibe the stronger macciato or caffè (what Americans call espresso). But now, I’m foregoing both Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts in favor of my inexpertly prepared cappuccinos on the machine my lovely husband bought me for Christmas.
This is the half cup of hazelnut coffee that froze in my car because it wasn't appetizing enough to finish.

This is the half cup of hazelnut coffee that froze in my car because it wasn’t appetizing enough to finish.

In point of fact, I have converted to the general European snobbery about American food. So much of it tastes greasy, or over-salted, or just plain fake! The food that it supposed to be my comfort food is no longer comfortable.

Perhaps even more surprising to me has been the shock of reentry to an English-dominant environment. During our 34 expatriate months I felt consistently that the language barrier was one of the hardest things about our Italian residency. I felt awkward and uncertain in social situations; I game-planned conversations that required unfamiliar vocabulary; I had mild anxiety attacks before picking up the phone to make a call in Italian. I expected my final return home to feel like the relaxing exhalation of a breath I had been holding for 3 years, but it has not been quite so simple. For one thing, speaking English is not always a guarantee of effective communication. In various contexts (from discussions with contractors, to requests to have phone numbers updated) communications I didn’t think to worry about have somehow gotten scrambled. I am reluctantly realizing that I still need to pay careful attention and to double-check accurate understanding. Of course, I have those skills after years of painful awareness about my tendency toward confusion, but I had so hoped to let them lie fallow.

On the opposite extreme, some English communication is striking me as far too effective. The Gigglemonster, and to some extent Princess Imagination, have become little recording devices, faithfully playing back a wide range of advertising claims and jingles. There are the toys, of course (I have come to despise the little advertising inserts that come in every set from Playmobil, especially those that line up with the “free” DVD in the package). The Gigglemonster is already making shopping lists for his fifth birthday, which comes at the end of October. The mental invasion, however, it goes beyond items specifically targeted to grab my children’s attention. After a loud and enthusiastic serenade from my youngest, I had to very sternly prohibit any vocalization of the appalling jingle Verizon has taught my four-year-old son (“I want it. I want it. I want it right now!”). He has even absorbed advertising messages meant for me. On a quick trip to the grocery store the other day he grabbed a totally superfluous kitchen implement and waved it excitedly at me saying “Mommy – you need this! The TV said so!” I have often moaned about my children’s reluctance to acquire Italian fluency during our sojourn but I am starting to recognize what a gift that was. For nearly three years we were able to watch English-language television with the kids with virtually no advertising effect. When the far-spaced Italian commercials came on the kids tuned out. It was too much work to try to figure out what the fast-talking announcers were saying, even if the picture on the screen was of a pretty pink princess castle or an exciting loop-de-loop hot wheels track.

(Sigh) You don’t know what you have until it’s gone…

For all the discomfort that my homecoming is bringing me, however, the pull is not all one-sided. This place is calling me in some ways more strongly than it ever did before we left. When I thought of New Jersey during our Italian adventure it was not with great warmth (except for the few friends I had left behind). Along with the climate, the culture is cold as well – rushed, and intense, and sometimes socially hostile. And yet… on our first morning back at our Flemington church, I almost cried at the enthusiastic welcome. I have never felt more loved and cherished by a church family than by the small congregation at Living Waters Lutheran Church. I sat in my pastor’s office just over a week later, seeking guidance on an unexpected request, and I really did cry as we prayed together – tears of joy and awareness of God’s presence with us as we worked together to seek the path that would best honor the God we both love. If for no other reason than our church, it is so, so good to be home.

But it is not just the church. As I look with eyes that have been opened by all the difference I encountered abroad, I am finding much more to love in this state I always resisted. New friends are eager to know us. New schools fill my children with delight. A new appreciation for the natural beauty of this place, in all its cold starkness, pulses at the periphery of my city-dulled vision. Although a long-term return to California is still a dream (I promise Nanna & Gra’ma – it really is!), I am finding myself wanting to settle here for this present moment. In fact, that is a real part of the difficulty I am enduring during our time of unsettledness. I am eager to dig in to our new life here and make it mine.

And that, perhaps, is the most important lesson I have learned from my experience of repatriating. I am beginning to recognize that all the things I miss about Italy, all the ways that my life there was different, all the ways that my European adventure changed me, all these factors have actually made me MORE able to embrace the adventure waiting for me here. I spent ten years in New Jersey prior to our expatriate assignment and I never really set down roots. It wasn’t where I wanted to stay forever, so it wasn’t where I wanted to stay for now either, at least not fully. The ways in which it wasn’t California dominated my thinking about my temporary home and so I pulled back and complained and cast aspersions on the impenetrable high school cliques of native New Jerseyans, and the horrible weather that is relieved for only a few weeks in spring and autumn, and the frantic pace of work and life that races up and down the northeastern seaboard. I didn’t seek to develop friendships with those whom I wouldn’t have befriended “back home.” I didn’t embrace the rhythmic shifts brought about by clearly demarcated seasons. I didn’t look to relish all the differences in East Coast life that could help me see a new perspective.

It took Milan to teach me how wonderful strange friendships and uncomfortable culture shock and previously unimagined challenges can be. And believe me, they can be truly, blessedly, transformatively wonderful.

I miss Milan, and I will continue to miss it, possibly for the rest of my life.

I still long for California, and unless and until God guides our family back to the Golden State it’s magnet pull will forever disorient the compass of my heart.

But for now, I am in New Jersey. And I am determined that my life here will not be lived as a stop-over, a reluctant in between that must just be gotten through. I have things to do here. I have memories to make here. I have challenges to grow through here. I have people to love here. Thank you, God, for bringing me back a changed woman.