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…


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.