Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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Love in Photographs: Reconnecting to Joy

Moving can be tough on relationships.

This is not shocking news. The oft-cited Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory lists “major changes in living conditions (.i.e. new house…)” among the 30 most stress-inducing life events. If you remove from this inventory those events that are expressly negative (like death or divorce), moving house makes it into the top 15. And even a momentary reflection on the whole moving process gives ample explanation for this categorization. Disruption of daily routines, living out of suitcases and boxes, large and unusual expenses, not to mention the imposition into already full lives of the obligation to miraculously accomplish manifold frustrating tasks (like registering cars with the DMV and reassembling IKEA furniture without the instructions)… all of this comes along with the experience of moving. Add to that mix the reality of sharing all this stress with another adult who feels equally responsible for addressing the long list of tasks, but who might have different instincts as to how to prioritize and accomplish them and… well… let’s just say that the passion and fireworks produced might not be the kind usually associated with Valentine’s Day.

I knew all of this 2 months ago when I was watching the contents of our Milan apartment get packed into boxes and loaded onto a sea container to make the slow journey across the water to New Jersey. Tyler and I have been through enough moves together in the last 15 years that I knew essentially what to expect. I knew that he would be really focused on the “repair-type-jobs” (like painting and replacing door hardware), while I would be most concerned with organizing the kitchen, the kids’ schools and the transfer of medical records. I knew that we would both desperately want healthy, balanced meals at the end of long, physically exhausting days but that we would also both be too tired to cook so we would eat the frozen, American excuse for pizza more often than I am prepared to admit to all my Italian friends. I knew that I would want to take the lead on (a.k.a. assert strict control over) the unpacking of every room except the garage, and would then irrationally complain about how tired I was after 12 hours a day on my feet for a solid week.  I knew that Tyler would get frustrated when my organizational obsessiveness utterly distracted me when he called to talk over an item on his to-do-list while I was elbow-deep in a box full of kitchen utensils. I knew that we would both have less energy for the kids and for each other and that this would inevitably devolve into short tempers and tantrums at bed time (I’ll let you guess about the author(s) of said tantrums).

I knew all this, and it didn’t really worry me.

It didn’t worry me because I knew it would be temporary and the light at the end of the tunnel makes such a difference to how heavy the darkness feels. It didn’t worry me because stress is what you make of it and forgiveness covers a multitude of sins. It didn’t worry me because the end destination would be worth the bumps in the road. It didn’t worry me because Tyler and I have been through much worse than this and made it through all the stronger.

So, I wasn’t worried, but I still kept my expectations at a low. We would survive the inevitable rubbing of egos and stress-triggers, and probably learn a few lessons in the process, but most of all we would get through it. That was the important thing. Just get through it.

I wasn’t expecting the magical, TV-commercial-moment listening to the rain on our roof for our “first night in our new place.” I wasn’t expecting easy family dinners where a healthy meal manages to materialize on the table despite the boxes piled beside it and everyone is so excited to talk about/listen to “what happened at school today.” I certainly wasn’t expecting a romantic Valentine’s Day, complete with sentimental expressions of love directed across a candle-lit table while Tyler and I gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes. That’s just not realistic.

But I have to say, for all my low expectations, I’m incredibly grateful that this particular move had a little more to offer than what I was expecting. That “more” was something small, silly even. In unpacking box after box of possessions we had sent into storage for our European sojourn, I ran across a lot of pictures.

I didn’t really mean to pause in my organizational rampage to look at them, but I have always had a weakness for photographs. Photographs capture moments in history, and for over 15 years now my history has been linked to Tyler’s. So, as the colorful paper envelopes called to my fingers to open them and beckoned my eyes to peruse their glossy images, I was drawn back into that history.

The most striking things in the pictures were our smiles. I looked at photo after photo of me and Tyler as a young couple, and there was one consistent theme: our smiles were electric. Just being together, holding hands, or arms wrapped around each other, we were beaming from the pure joy of being together.

It was a wonderful reminder. Joy is an important part of marriage – the kind of joy that comes not from a specific experience or accomplishment but from the simple fact of togetherness; the kind of joy that requires nothing to fulfill it other than the presence of the one we love, in our lives, at our sides, showing in their smile that we are the one with whom they find joy.

Of course, joy isn’t the deepest element of marriage, or even the most important. If a divine messenger suddenly appeared before me with the option to live forever in one of two moments: my current life situation or the bliss captured in those fading photographs, I would pick today. I understand love so much more deeply now than I did then. I know Tyler (and myself) so much better. Beautiful as our smiles are in those old pictures, they are smiles that only float on the surface of love, dipping their toes with delight at how the ripples sparkle, rather than plumbing the depths of knowledge and commitment and a life lived in partnership.

Still, I’m glad for the reminder of that joy on this Valentine’s Day. It is a reminder that I am unspeakably lucky to be living through life, with all its distractions and stressors, side by side with a wonderful partner, a man who can still make my smile glow. Maybe there is time for a little besotted eye-gazing in our Valentine’s Day after all… Happy Valentine’s Day, My Love.


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I Never…

Esselunga

Even saying goodbye to “my grocery store” brings a tear to my eyes.

I have been playing a dysfunctional game of “I never” with myself the last few weeks. It goes a little something like this. I will be hurrying down the sidewalk, huddled up in my puffy, black coat to ward off the frigid winter air, mind swirling with the hundred and one tasks still to complete before our looming move date, when my eye is caught and my steps halt. The object of my distraction is a cute little coffee bar, or boutique, or family restaurant that I have noticed in the neighborhood before and about which I have always thought: “that looks like a fun place. I should check it out one of these days.”

Only now, the internal dialogue has changed. Propelled by a longing sigh, my now-heavy feet move off as my stress-fatigued heart laments: “Now I’ll never get the chance to go there.” Technically, I still have just over a week in my beloved Milano, but that week is so crammed full of errands, and movers, and goodbye meetings that there is no practical way to schedule in these little side-trip. Particularly because it’s not just a local coffee shop that I am bemoaning, it’s also all the destinations we never visited. I never spent a weekend in Sienna, or Torino, or the Cinque Terra. I never got to visit Germany, or Austria, or Istanbul, or Normandy. I never even took many of the easy day trips from Milano, like Pavia, or Bellagio, or Lago di Garda.

Then there are the experiential I nevers. I never went to a concert on the roof of the Duomo. I never booked a make-up lesson with the fashion professional who advertises in the English newsletter. I never took the kids to do a “test drive” on the children’s level of the Ferrari store. I never took an Italian cooking class. I never even learned how to make homemade focaccia! Even my lovely twice-a-month cleaning lady, maestra of all things domestic and Italian, failed to teach me this art. I shuffle through the endless, frenetic tasks that are my unwanted responsibility in the process of ending my Italian residence and my mind meditates on the “I nevers.” It is not a wonderful way to experience a goodbye.

I shared some of this pain in an e-mail to my patient, long-suffering husband yesterday. With understated wisdom he acknowledged my sorrow, and then subtly shifted my perspective with the suggestion that we “try to enjoy the time we have left.” Zing!

Once I ventured a foot outside my little pity party I felt a bit embarrassed. It wasn’t really fair for Tyler to be the one to have to remind me how much I have to be grateful for in this whole experience. After all, he has a few big “I nevers” himself, that I was able to check off my list. He never saw the original of DaVinci’s Last Supper. He never saw a performance at the historic La Scala Opera House. He never had the tremendous privilege of staying home with our children for the precious years of their early childhood, and exploring the amazing city of Milan with them into the bargain. Perhaps I am feeling more pain about the departure than Tyler not because of all the things I never got to do, but because of all the things I got to do: all the experiences of daily living that have been so precious and that I do not want to give up.

But, perhaps it is possible to think about these experiences not as things I am losing, but in things that I have had. “Better to have loved and lost….” There is a much better I never list that I could be rehearsing in my mind while I fill out endless paperwork, or stand at the post office waiting to mail yet another contract-cancelling disdetta. I never thought I would live in Italy. I never expected my children would visit seven countries before the age of seven, and talk casually about how cold it is on top of the Eiffel Tower. I never anticipated that I would be able to gain conversational competence in a foreign language (even if I wish I spoke more fluently). I never imagined that I would discover in my soul a love for travel, or in my taste buds a love for spicy salad greens. I never dreamed that three years in a country known for nominal Catholicism and opulent cathedrals could awaken in me the greatest spiritual revitalization I have experienced in my adult life. Plus… I never thought I’d live in Milan forever, so why am I complaining?

Therefore, in my last week in Milan I have a new goal. I will drink in every last luscious drop of joy that this city has to offer. I will look at the beautiful architecture of random apartment buildings as I scurry down the streets. I will relish the flavors of our favorite restaurants when the movers kick us out of our apartment for our last few nights. I will giggle with Princess Imagination as she experiments with the Italian phrases that she is only now absorbing. And, when I feel the pangs of sadness and loss washing over my heart, I will turn instead to face the future. And I will hold my breath for whatever new adventure lies just around the corner, cherishing the realization that I never knew I wanted it.


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Love in the Balance

Apparently, the emotional turmoil of moving inspires poetic rather than prose responses in my soul.

There are so many things that I could say about my impending return to my home country. Even more that I could say about the consequent departure from the city and country that have become my loved, if sometimes uncomfortable, home. I could reflect on the sometimes humorous, sometimes hand-wringing challenges of culture-crossing. I could expound on the idiosyncrasies of the Italian language that continues to enchant and frustrate me. I could reminisce over sweet memories and mourn the imminent changes to dear friendships. I have feelings and thoughts on all of these elements of this incredible experience, but these are not the truths that welled in my soul as I walked to the kids’ school this afternoon (for one of the last times).

Instead I reflected on the ways this experience has changed me, and as often happens these thoughts brought me back to the faith that is at the core of the “me” who has changed. There has been a lot of change in me, that is clear, at least to me. And I suppose my faith has changed as well, but not in some linear sense of conversion from one form to another. Rather, these years have brought a new sense of synthesis. This is not a direct consequence of one or another element of my experience. My years in Europe have, on the one hand exposed me to much more variety within Christianity than even my seminary years, at least in terms of lived experience. But on the other hand they have in some ways left me on a spiritual island – isolated from the friendships where I feel most free to talk honestly and openly about my faith, marooned with my faith and my God to try to work out for myself what I really believe.

And I am emerging from this experience with a new sense of balance, an appreciation for the life of “the now and the not yet” that was academic in seminary, but is now experiential. In describing this, however, my prose escapes me. Instead, I share the poem that evolved from a prayer walking through the rare autumn sunlight of a crisp November Milan afternoon.

This morning's view of the Basilica in the sunlight.

This morning’s view of the Basilica in the sunlight.

Love in the Balance

Constancy that’s ever changing

as I shift my point of view.

Your face can ever bring me wonder,

every morn Your love is new.

*

First I knew You as a savior,

hung for me up on that tree.

Oh, the breathless love of sinner

called by One who welcomes me.

*

Then I knew You as a Father

firm, though loving, in command.

My call, I knew, must be obedience

always submit to Your demand.

*

I’ve also known You as my Abba:

Daddy, dear, who holds me close.

Nestled in Your sweet protection

perhaps this face I love the most.

*

A mother’s longing You have shown me

when I hold my children near;

a love that yearns toward my potential

balanced between hope and fear.

*

In blessed moments I have known You

as the Lover of my soul,

igniting passion for Your presence,

for only in You am I whole.

*

More often You’re the still small voice,

so hard to hear amid the din

of life that presses with demands

so urgent, as I am worn thin.

*

But other times Your voice seems absent

even when I call in pain.

Your silence deafens me from shouting

leaves me hopeless, Spirit drained.

*

Until I learn to sit in patience,

let the silence fill my soul,

find the peace of true surrender,

choose my faith despite the toll.

*

Your words are sometimes those of comfort,

sometimes challenge, sometimes call,

hope, rebuke, forgiveness, wisdom.

At different times I’ve needed all.

*

Such contrast can all seem disjointed,

“Who is the true Word hid beneath?”

But Truth can hold them all in tension,

each is true, just incomplete.


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A Psalm for a Rainy Day

I had no intention of writing poetry today. I had far too much to do. Today marks exactly 4 weeks to zero hour for our anticipated/dreaded move to New Jersey and departure from Milan. I have Italian contracts to cancel, and insurance inventories to complete, and preschool programs to research. I don’t have time or emotional energy to even read any poetry, much less to write any.

But, today seemed determined to draw from my soul a psalm of lament. To begin with, it began far too early, after the twelfth or twentieth night cut short by the demands of life. And as I opened the shutters to let in the daylight, there was precious little light to see. After a few blessed days of daylight savings sunshine, the grey Milano overcoat of approaching winter had descended again to cloak the city in melancholy.

Then, at pre-school drop-off, the Gigglemonster staged an unexpected and unexplained anxiety episode. He didn’t want to go into the classroom; he didn’t want to play with his friends; he just wanted to go home with me. I really don’t know what was underlying his sudden clinging (his teacher promises he was fine all day), but regardless of the depth of his emotional display he certainly knows how to push all my buttons. The peace I have felt about how we’ve dealt with some recent bullying episodes evaporated. Was he trying to tell me he didn’t feel safe? Was there some trauma he hadn’t yet told us about? Should I even make him stay at school? Eventually his lovely teacher distracted him with a helping task, and he let me leave with a smile, but I could still feel his little arms wrapped tightly around my neck.

Then my morning women’s Bible study exposed more raw emotions. Most of the two hours of talk was good, but very heavy. And then there were a few comments with which I strongly disagreed but which I didn’t have the emotional energy to fight, including an assessment of the recent tragedy in the Philippines. I can cognitively understand the position that all pain in the world is just judgment on a fallen world, but I cannot believe that is the full story. Not from a God who hung on a cross to take judgment that would otherwise have fallen on us.

A little light Facebook scrolling was not the palliative I was hoping for. So much vitriol and hatred and political wrangling! Is this the culture to which I am returning? Remarks that three years ago would have elicited passionate, rhetorical response from my socially engaged conscience now push me toward hopeless tears. This was not the balm I needed.

So, finally I turned to scripture. I thought about the psalms, but my fingers paged a bit farther to a book I’ve only read before in snatches. Lamentations. This might not be the obvious choice to dispel heaviness from my heart, but for some reason I began to read and I couldn’t stop until I had read the last verse, out loud, in the solitude of my living room. It’s not that it was comforting exactly, although it certainly put my first-world, white-girl, lady-of-leisure problems into perspective. It is nearly five chapters of utter devastation, interspersed with confessions that this fate is deserved. And yet there is one interlude that placed a value on the weight in my heart.

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’ The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” (Lamentations 3: 22-26, NIV)

OK. So maybe I could wait quietly with this heaviness of heart. Maybe there was something to be gained, something to be learned about faithfulness from letting the pain stand. And as I stopped resisting it, stopped trying to push it away, instead it poured out, overflowing in a poem. Just as the clouds began to release their heavy weight of rain, so my heart released the weight of words that couldn’t heal my vague, painful aching until they were expressed.

To feel that cleansing wash would have been gift enough. Then, miraculously, I found that a poem was exactly what I needed when Princess Imagination dissolved into tears tonight just after her bath, sobbing on my shoulder about her sorrow in leaving friends for a home she longs for, but only dimly remembers. Instead of my usual mommy-talk of encouragement, I shared with her my own pain and the revelations it has brought to me. I shared, and she smiled. Sometime words that speak in images are easier to understand.

So now I share those words with you. May they bring some light if there is rain in your day today.

The clouds are full of rain today, they can’t but overflow.

The grey sky droops above my head, grown tired before I left my bed.

Clouds steal the color from the world, and chill my heart, cause it to furl.

The clouds are full of rain today, they can’t but overflow.

*

The clouds are full of rain today, they can’t but overflow.

Yet, thoughtlessly, I’m unprepared. I have no shield, my head is bared.

I should have known the days of sun could not survive the year near done.

The clouds are full of rain today, they can’t but overflow.

*

The clouds are full of rain today, they can’t but overflow.

A drizzling patter is first to fall, a soft, slow moan to my heart calls.

Then, growing stronger, beating down rain wets my face and paints my frown.

The clouds are full of rain today, they can’t but overflow.

*

My heart is full of pain today, it can’t but overflow.

My sighing soul, weighed down by grief, for coming loss but not in chief.

More heavy is the grief of world torn up by storm, and hate, and words.

My heart is full of pain today, it can’t but overflow.

*

My heart is full of pain today, it can’t but overflow.

I read lament and misery. I reel from wrath, so stark to see.

I can’t embrace the angry claim, and yet I know the truth of shame.

My heart is full of pain today, it can’t but overflow.

*

My heart is full of pain today, it can’t but overflow.

How can my God of love require a pain that makes all hope expire?

Or nearly so, until, undressed, I see it grows from faithfulness.

Not faith I make, but must receive and finally rest in full reprieve.

My heart is full of pain and hope, it can’t but overflow.

*

My faith will rise anew each day, a gift from Light who cannot fail

So I must look beyond the clouds, must trust in grace to tear the shroud;

The sun and Son now just concealed. The world, my heart, will both be healed.

My faith will rise anew each day, a gift from Light who cannot fail.