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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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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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.


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Speaking of shame

It had been a while since I posted. This is not for lack of potential content. Actually the last month and more has been full of experiences that fulfill the potential of this European adventure to expose me to reflection-inspiring ideas. However, it turns out that the life that inspires writing actually takes a lot of time to live. Funny how that works. Now that my travel schedule and language training is taking a bit of a break, I have (at least in theory) a little more time to reflect on what I have been learning. Which has brought me to reflect on how this recent phase of frenetic activity started with my long-delayed return to formal learning: Italian classes.

Learning a new language, especially this beautiful latin tongue, was one of the many wonderful promises of our expatriate assignment. I studied spanish for 6 years in jr. high and high school, but while I did relatively well in class I never spoke with fluency. The ability to actually speak, not just stutter through basic requests, but to speak and think easily in another language has been a long-time dream. Since virtually all experts agree that immersion is the only efficient way to obtain such facility in adulthood, I moved to Italy full of expectation. As I have reflected in an earlier post (Mother Tongue and Limited Proficiency), all has not gone as easily as I expected. Simply being surrounded by the language is not sufficient in and of itself to produce facility with an unfamiliar language.

Perhaps an example can best illustrate my point. Immersion allows a language learner to repeatedly hear common phrases as they occur in daily conversation. Unfortunately, hearing a phrase over and over only embeds it in your brain when you can accurately hear the pronunciation. “Va bene” (roughly translated as “it’s good” or “OK” although the literal translation is “it goes well”)  sounds very much like “fa bene” when you are still learning italian pronunciation. Moreover, “fa bene” could very well be a perfectly reasonable phrase for all sorts of situations, because “fa” is the third person, singular, present tense of fare and fare is the most ubiquitous word in the Italian language. The dictionary definitions for fare fill up three-quarters of a page and include meanings as diverse as “do”, “make”, “build”, “be”, “manage”, and “act”  among many others. When first learning Italian it seems like “fare” is without limit in its applications, and the fact that you hear “_a bene” twenty times a day in all kinds of situations seems to match well with this versatility. I do not know how many times I said “fa bene” in my first months here before my husband was kind enough to correct me. To accurately learn a new language one needs more than just exposure – one also need instruction that can prevent the embarrassment of mis-learning.

Despite the mental fog brought on by the endless permutations of “fare,” however, I have approached my language acquisition task with gusto. For more than 19 months I consulted my Italian-English dictionary, drilled with written verb and grammar exercises, and compiled questions for my language exchange partners in my efforts to learn the language. But mostly, I just dove in and tried it. I knew I was making many, many, mistakes, but my other alternatives were worse: either simply staying silent, or speaking excruciatingly slowly as I stopped to conjugate every verb and to figure out the gender and number of each noun to assign the appropriate article. I just kept trying, mistakes and all, and looked forward to the day when I would finally have the child-free time to take real lessons and kick-start my fluency.

My first activity in my very first Italian class was a reading/conversation activity. We were given a list of statements in Italian that presented opinions about the necessary tools and activities for learning a foreign language. We were supposed to read them all, pick the three with which we most agreed and discuss our selections with a partner, in Italian, of course. The statements were all written in very absolute language (i.e. – “it is impossible to learn a foreign language after the age of 18″; or “the most important thing is to read something every day”). As a result, I only completely agreed with one statement of the ten, the contention that (in my rough translation) “it is better to try to speak even if you make mistakes.” This had certainly been my experience in the prior 19 months. My italian language experience to that date could be fairly accurately described as an extended exercise in “speaking even if you make mistakes.” While I believed this was important to the learning process, however, I was hoping to move beyond this phase now that I was in a formal Italian course.

Looking back over the past 8 weeks since I began my course, the unreasonableness of that expectation seems as obvious as the parallel pipe dream of fluency through “immersion.” Of course a mere 45 hours of classroom instruction were not sufficient to transform me into an easy bilingual conversationalist. Of course I could not decipher the complicated formulas of Italian grammatical structure through 1 hour lessons on roughly 15 specific grammatical topics. Of course the mistakes I made blithely for 19 months of halting speech in my new adopted language would not simply disappear once I finally got formal help to “learn Italian.” It just is not that easy. I was recently informed by an American acquaintance who has lived in Italy for 20 years that Italian still does not feel natural — and that is with the help of an Italian husband and a bilingual daughter.

But here is the irony: the one statement I agreed with about learning a new language is less comfortable to me now than it was that first day that I stepped into the classroom. On an intellectual level I can agree that you have to just speak and not worry about making mistakes, but I am just tired of making them. What is worse, now that I have a little instruction under my belt, I am more aware of making them. Where before I would chatter away blithely ignoring the subjunctive tense, now I am paralyzed every time I begin a phrase by introducing uncertainty (“I think that…”, We hoped that…” etc.) because I now know that I need to conjugate the following verb as congiuntivo and I cannot remember how to form the verbs. Where before the versatile pronoun/participle “ci” was just another baffling mystery of the Italian language, now it is a a very unnatural part of speech (to a native English speaker) that I nevertheless feel that I should be able to use, and use correctly.

There is another memorable moment from my first day of class: I learned the word vergogna. At first I thought it meant embarrassment, because in the Italian-only context of the class where everything must be learned from context, this seemed the most appropriate translation. When I later looked it up however, I learned that the more precise translation is shame. Whether used to substitute for embarrassment or shame, the word has been painfully relevant in the weeks that have followed.

At the suit shop when we are buying Tyler’s new suit I deliberately interaction with the salesman in English. I don’t feel like I have the vocabulary to discuss cuts and fit in Italian and as an international company I know the staff speak English. At the end of an extended conversation he learns that we are not visiting; we actually live in Milano. “Oh, how long do you leeve here?” (English is not easy for him, you see) “Almost 2 years.” I feel vergogna that I have demanded this interaction be conducted in English, when it is now obvious to him that I have far less excuse than he does for my difficulty in my non-native tongue.

I meet the mothers of the Gigglemonster’s classmates and I try valiantly to converse with them in Italian. They are patient with me, and listen politely while I struggle, and stammer — a direct result of my new-found consciousness about just how poor my Italian really is. They make a point of calling me over to their group as we wait outside the gate for school pick-up to begin and they do their best to include me in their developing friendships. But they chatter away in Italian, talking over each other and exclaiming dramatically, true to all the classic Italian stereotypes, and I stand there in silence, able to follow only part of what is being said, and feeling like an outsider. I am wishing there were a polite way that I could just stand alone to avoid the embarrassment of my incompetence, and I feel vergogna for this response to their friendliness.

I snap back in response to my wonderful mother-in-law’s effort to encourage me about just how well I am learning Italian. Twenty months of frustration and embarrassment and loneliness come gushing out as I deliver an impromptu lecture about the difficulties of struggling with language every day. She doesn’t understand; she doesn’t hear all the mistakes I make and how humiliating they are; for her Italian is a fun exercise while for me it is a necessary tool that I do not wield as well as I need to in order to function in my daily life. She is as gracious in receiving this undeserved outburst as she is in everything else, but again I feel vergogna. I have received her kindness and support with recrimination rather than gratitude, and that is something of which to be ashamed in any language.

Shame is not a comfortable emotion. I have had moments in the past few months were I began to long for this experience to just be over. I began to anticipate the luxury of living in an environment where I speak the language better, not worse, than most people I meet. I began to dream of escape from days punctuated by embarrassment, and the shameful light that embarrassment casts on my own lack of maturity. As the limits of even intensive study have killed my dream of easy fluency I have wanted to throw up my hands and say “what’s the point? I am leaving in a year anyhow. Why keep struggling?”

But the answer is that there is a lesson in shame, if I will only learn it. If I abandon my efforts and resign myself to the shame, then it really has been pointless. All the study, and the effort, and the embarrassment will have borne no fruit in my life. I will not speak Italian well, and, even more importantly, my understanding of myself will not have been transformed by this experience. BUT. If I keep trying even when it is frustrating and difficult, I will have learned that I can do things even when I do them poorly. I do not like doing things poorly. It is not comfortable. But it is also NOT shameful. To continue to try, to make mistakes and not give up, to be the slowest person in the conversation and keep trying to participate; that is something to be proud of.

Up until very recently when people ask me if I speak Italian, or when Italian friends assert that I do speak Italian, my response has been embarrassed denial. “No, no, no. Non davvero. Not really.” But I recently realized something. The very first Italian phrase I learned, before even moving to Italy, was  “non parlo bene l’italiano” – “I do not speak Italian well.” From the very first days of my residency here I have been using this phrase to apologize when I do not understand something said to me, or to explain why I am speaking so slowly, or thinking of the right thing to say. I do not say “non parlo italiano” – ” I do not speak Italian.” I say “non parlo bene.” And that is true. I don’t speak well. But I do speak Italian. And that is quite an accomplishment.

I speak Italian poorly, and there is no shame in that.

 


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Talking “the Talk”

I started this post two weeks ago, but could not finish it. It felt too unsettled and raw. I didn’t know how to conclude my observations honestly while still leaving the possibility to move forward in a positive direction. Well, I think I am starting to see that way, but I am leaving the beginning as I started it, because it is honest and hopefully witnesses to the important lesson I have learned. I hope the resulting narrative is coherent enough to make a good read…

Well, school has started. If I were to judge by Facebook posts from other stay-at-home moms, or advertising targeted at the same audience, I should be in a state of delirious bliss. For the first time, both of my babies donned school uniforms and backpacks and set of on the adventure of formal education. This leaves me with that previously elusive commodity; free time. Time to walk the city without a stroller or diaper bag; time to exercise; time to read non-picture books; time to engage in activities because I find them personally enriching (with no offense intended to the Itsy bitsy spider or Giro giro tondo).

While all of these things are a blessed luxury that I know I am incredibly privileged to have, I do not find myself luxuriating in the promised relaxation. Rather, I am feeling anxious. Anxious because of the one thing I am not free to do. I am not free to help my children deal with the stress that comes from being some of the few foreign children in an environment of Italian children; children who all share a common language and culture which creates unintended barriers to friendship.

Despite the fact that Princess Imagination has already spent nearly a year and a half attending their English-language school in Milan, the challenge for her of being a shy, American child has come home to me in a new way this year. Perhaps this is because I myself have begun to feel more comfortable here. I know the routines of the school schedule; I know the other parents in her class; I am even her class’s parent representative to the Parents Advisory Board, with some share of responsibility for welcoming new families. With this is mind, I sat my Princess down a few days before the start of school to have “the talk.” I was inspired by a wonderful entry on the momastery blog (see: http://momastery.com/blog/2012/08/23/the-talk/), although I simplified it down to be appropriate for a newly five-year-old. In essence, “the talk” is the exhortation to one’s children to be aware of other children in the class that are excluded, and to be intentional about including them. It is a wonderful lesson to teach children from a young age, and I am very committed to teaching it to our children. I also know that it may be a challenging lesson for Princess Imagination, given her shyness. Nevertheless, I talked about this responsibility to Princess Imagination. I reminded her how it felt to be the new kid in her class when we first arrived in Milan it February 2011. We talked about her first friend here (a sweet, Milan-born, British girl who has since moved to Australia), and what a difference this friend’s welcoming smile made in her first months at school. I encouraged her to be actively looking for any children in her class who were having a hard time fitting in, and to make a point of being a friend to them. We talked about all these things, she agreed, and I felt very good about my parenting.

Then I picked her up from school the first day. When I entered the classroom the children were busy talking and playing together. Or I should say, almost all of them were. My sweet Princess was sitting alone on the little reading couch looking around at all the other children with a sad little look on her face.  When she saw me she ran up for a big hug and was suddenly all smiles, but that look of loneliness had struck at my heart.

On the walk home we talked about her day. She liked her teacher. She liked being back at school where she could engage in focused learning activities. She liked the praise she received from her teachers for her good behavior and academic work. They had a music lesson that she really enjoyed. Then I asked about garden time (“recess” for my American readers).

Me: “How was garden time?”

P.I.: “Ummm, OK.”

Me: “Who did you play with?”

P.I.: “No one.”

Me: “Why not?”

P.I: “They were all playing with their friends from last year.”

Me: “But you have friends from last year.”

P.I.: “Um, not really.”

Just 16 words, but they hit me like a wrecking ball impacting somewhere in the region of my solar plexus. Emotions went spinning off from the point of impact in a variety of directions. I was devastated at the thought of my sweet little girl wandering around that play yard looking for a friend and not finding one – for an hour! I was overcome with the awareness of just how much I loved her and longed for her happiness. I could sense my mother bear instincts let out an internal roar, and I felt an instinctual impulse to protect her from anyone and everyone who hurt her with this rejection. I wanted to cry, and hug her, and tell her that she was the most amazing, kind, fun, lovable girl in the world and that anyone who did not recognize what a privilege it was to know her was blind.

Then another thought supplanted all of these emotions with a new fear: that I had made this experience worse before it even happened. Suddenly “the talk” we had a few days earlier sounded much different when I considered how it may have sounded to her little ears. I had initiated “the talk” based on the blithe assumption that my daughter would be in a position to offer inclusion to any excluded child. But how would my encouragement to include others sounds to a little girl who felt excluded? Would it sound like an irrelevant instruction that was outside her control? Would it sound like a judgment of the other children, with whom she nevertheless wanted to be friends? Would it sound like a declaration of her failure to be included?

I had to do something, both to help her overcome this difficult experience and to manage my own swirling emotions. So I started to game plan with her. I identified children she should approach at playtime (based on friendships from last year and facility with English). I coached her on strategies to coax others to include her. I reassured her that the first few weeks of school it was hard for the Italian children to get back into the habit of speaking English. And I, perhaps belatedly, reminded her that she was a wonderful friend and that she did in fact have friends from last year who knew this.

My sweet, patient, little Princess accepted all of this well-intentioned Mommy interference with more grace than it deserved, and faithfully implemented most of my advise in the coming days. Each day after school I would ask about her day, and (I blush to admit), would quiz her about her social interactions when the information was not forthcoming. Some days the reports were good: she had played with a friend, she was getting to know the new girl in class, she wanted me to invite this or that friend over for a play date. Other days, she reported solitary garden time “just walking around”, or replayed an interaction where she sought inclusion and was rebuffed.

As we engaged in this daily report three things slowly began to dawn on me that have both humbled me and made me incredibly proud. First, I began to realize the intensity of my own reactions to her reports. When she talked about time spent with a friend I was elated. When she reported difficulties I was crushed. All mothers, of course, are invested in their children’s well-being and want them to experience acceptance and friendship, but I started to feel that perhaps I was taking this too far. Perhaps I wasn’t entirely reacting to Princess Imagination’s feelings of happiness or loneliness, but was rather projecting my own past experiences onto hers. As a shy child myself, who often felt excluded and longed for inclusion and friendship, perhaps I was responding more to my own unresolved insecurities than to her current feelings. As I confronted this possibility I made my second discovery: that Princess Imagination’s reports did, in fact, lack the emotional intensity of my responses. There were shades of sadness in descriptions of “not being able to find a friend to play with,” but no desperate loneliness or self-loathing. There was some happiness in reports that she had played with a given friend, or been included in another group, but not elation. In fact, Princess Imagination was generally taking whatever came as it came, and not making a big deal out of it. And this led to my third, most humbling realization: my own anxiety was creating a much bigger crisis for my daughter than would have otherwise existed. She was now required to report each day on her success or failure in a task that she found challenging. She had to process my emotions and insecurities as well as her own, and mine were substantially more volatile. She had to implement my strategies and solutions to improve her social standing, because if she did not she would certainly face questions about this failure. I had turned the understandable social awkwardness of an introverted American 5-year old in a class comprised almost entirely of Italian children into a problem that had to be solved.

I have recently been reading Dorothy Sayers’s amazing book The Mind of the Maker in the later pages of which she lays out a very detailed and cogent argument for why the habit of approaching life as a series of “problems” to be “solved” is both irrational and dangerous. I can now add my response to Princess Imaginations lonely garden time as another illustration of her point. When I approached it as a problem, with whose solution I was obsessed, I lost sight of the life that was experiencing this challenge and I forgot the truth that each day of her life is a part of her story that is building her character and providing her with the opportunity to grow into a strong and creative young woman who can cope when life is imperfect. A young woman who can even cope, with amazing tolerance and love, with an interfering, anxiety-ridden mother trying to re-write her own past through my daughter’s present.

As I said, this past few weeks has been very humbling. But it has also been a blessing. I am blessed to have a new vision of my daughter’s strength and wisdom as she takes a challenging experience she never asked for and makes the most of it. I am blessed with the knowledge that my mistakes are not irrevocable because she can forbear them and find some nuggets of helpful advice mixed with the garbage. And I am blessed with another reminder of just why I am not relying on my own goodness to perfect my soul, but instead resting in the grace of my Savior.

I have heard it said that parenting is the hardest job you will ever love. I would add that it is also among the most humbling experiences that will ever make your spirit soar.

Although I sometimes fail to recognize it, my Princess has her own kind of confidence

They always have each other.


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Conjugation

Just a short reflection today inspired by a question on a medical form.

Today I trekked Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster across town to visit a pediatric eye specialist. The Princess had some indications at her last well-visit that she might be having some vision problems with one eye, so I conquered my fear of Italian-over-the-phone, made her an appointment with the recommended specialist, and made the 50-minute, two-subway-line trip with my massive double-stroller and two munchkins in tow. The good news from the visit is that, despite a slight astigmatism in her right eye, the doctor thinks we can wait and see if the eye corrects itself. It means repeating the whole process in 4 months for a re-check, but at least glasses and an eye patch are not a current necessity.

The part of the visit that inspired this entry, however, was the parental release that I had to sign before she could be seen. Of course, the form was in Italian, so I am not entirely sure what it said, other than asserting that I was her parent. The receptionist (nice as she was) didn’t seem terribly concerned that I understood what I was signing, as long as I completed all the relevant personal data. For the most part, this was within the capacity of my limited Italian: date of birth, place of residence, fiscal code (what functions as the Italian social security number), and country of citizenship – no problem. Then came this mysterious completion of my prescribed self-description “e essere coniugata con ____________”.

Huh?! After 19 months my conversational Italian has advanced to the point where I no longer carry my handy Italian phrase book around, although I doubt it would have helped me in this situation. I stared at the mystifying phrase for a minute or two, trying unsuccessfully to get a few moments of quiet from my little chatterboxes so that I could concentrate. Then I gave up and pulled out my iphone and appealed to google translate. After carefully typing the query, I got this helpful translation: “to be conjugated with.”

Huh?! It felt almost like a deliberate insult – “not only do you fail to correctly conjugate Italian verbs in the majority of your sentences, but you don’t even know that the word conjugate means”! Embarrassed but undaunted, I stuffed my pride into my purse with my not-so-smart-phone and asked the receptionist. “Yes. If you are married?” she explained. Ah!

Ok, so there is an English reference point. In my defense, the description “conjugal” is generally restricted to correctional institution references to marital relations. My first reaction to the revelation was to giggle and text my husband to let him know that we are “conjugated.” As I thought about this unfamiliar application of the word, however, it began to seem quite appropriate. I think about verbal conjugation very frequently in my current context. I am really making an effort, in my Italian conversations, to not simply speak in the present tense and ask my conversation partners to figure out what I mean. This means constant struggles to figure out how to talk about things that used to happen, or have happened, or I expect to happen, or I hope will happen. Conjugation is the way that all of these things are communicated. Conjugation expresses the way that people and events verbally travel through time.

What a lovely way to describe marriage! Tyler and I are travelling through time together. We have a rich history together, including both past memories and continuing patterns. We have a present that includes current realities as well as some “shoulds” and “woulds.” And we look forward to a future with concrete expectations as well as hopes and dreams.

So, despite my giggles, I love the idea of being conjugated with Tyler. This phrasing reinforces the understanding that our marriage joins us together in the passage through time. This time in Italy is a special period in that passage, one that offers us so many new opportunities to learn and experience together. And there is no one I would rather be joined with in the process!