To the Moon and Timbuktu

To the Moon and Timbuktu

Nina Sovich shares the first chapter of her new book, To The Moon And Timbuktu, with Equals. 

The cab driver assures me his sister Salima runs a lovely hotel.

“It’s a very good hotel, yes, very good hotel. No noise, no bother. Very clean. They have many, many Western tourists. Many women. Salima is a good woman.”

He leaves me in front of a squat two-story building made of poured concrete that sits on the edge of the desert next to the army airport. The second-floor balcony is hanging off its anchor bolts, and the windows are murky with sand and pink goo that looks a lot like Pepto-Bismol. The only light in the hotel emanates from a first-floor pool hall that smells of fish heads and burned felt. Cigarettes, empty milk cartons, and black plastic bags skip down the street in the midnight breeze, accumulating in a huge pothole in front of the hotel. Clean, I suppose, is a relative term.

© by Nina Sovich. Published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest. All Rights Reserved. 

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Head Down, Blinders On

Although it doesn’t feel like it here in the Midwest, the calendar insists summer is winding down.  I am skeptical.  Each day my inbox is flooded with shopping offers and pictures of scarves and sweaters, as I stare at the thermostat and contemplate turning it down one more degree. Despite the humidity and soaring temperatures, I find myself taking a deep breath and settling in.  The summer for me has been a whirlwind full of longer than average work weeks dotted sporadically with weekend trips to see friends and soccer matches.  I remember a girl’s weekend in June, viewed through a telescope as if it were distantly in the past, perhaps a year ago instead of a mere two months.  My 30th birthday the same month seems a fuzzy memory, clouded through a haze of disproportionate time.  The July weekend spent in Chicago visiting friends and family and watching soccer stars while sipping overpriced beers is a little closer to the surface, but only sporadic moments of it. This summer for me was all about work.  Regular jobs, new freelance opportunities, and expanding projects crowded together to fill my waking moments.  I read a quote in a business magazine once about a start-up and the phrase they used to motivate and drill the importance of the task at hand: Head Down, Blinders On.  By May I knew I was in for longer hours, later nights, and consequently bigger paychecks.  I alerted my family that I would be doing little else. Side projects and hobbies fell to the wayside.  I stopped reading and writing, stopped watching television, stopped sewing.  Head Down, Blinders On.

That’s not my normal method.  I enjoy working from home for the diversity and casualness it allows my day, I can bounce from one thing to another, take a break from a project to sit outside with a notebook or rip out a crooked seam in a sewing project. Blinders are as foreign to me as Celsius temperatures and the British Pound.  I neither use nor understand how to use them.  But without planning or consciously trying, I found myself with near tunnel vision.  Another person might say they had bitten off more than they could chew, but for me, the full days, the near constant switching between three major projects, the Head Down-Blinders On mindset was invigorating.  A sign of success in my chosen path, I was being paid to do things that I was good at from whatever place I chose to be.  I was not tied to a cubicle or a business casual dress code.  I could do what I wanted, and this summer, what I wanted to do was work.

For months work was almost all I did.  Until August hit and I decided I’d had enough.  I released responsibilities I no longer cared to hold.  The fact that I made the choice, and it was followed through, was just as empowering as the extra paychecks I’d been receiving.  Just as I began to lift my head, and remove the blinders, as soon as I began to miss the evenings spent in bed with a book, or a Saturday with nothing to do, the pressure lifted and the work flow lightened. And I breathed deeply the end of the summer air.  I sat and did nothing. And soon I began to fall back into the loves I left behind in May, the click of keys as I typed, the sound of a record as I read, the simple joy of going to sleep at the same time as my husband.  I don’t believe absence makes the heart grow fonder, but returning to my favorite things has reminded me to be grateful of the many ways they nurture my soul.

Choosing Simplicity (When Applicable)

As the summer winds down, a funny thing has happened for the two of us. For as long as I can remember, the academic calendar has provided the framework for my sense of time. The year was a double marathon of two semesters, split on either end with recovery time: the intermission of winter break and the longer pause of summer. Even after I finished graduate school and drifted from the semesterly ebb and flow, my husband’s academic schedule held it intact as the background music for our lives. But since he finished his doctoral coursework in the spring, we’ve been cut loose from its contrasts for a while. Our pace held steady as we worked through the summer, and the impending change of seasons won’t hold as much significance for us this time around. Back-to-school sales and the return of students to campus don’t register as much from where we stand. I take note momentarily, then carry on as usual.

What’s left is the sense that the end of summer is a time for reflection. Even if the temperature is the only thing that changes for us between here and September, I can’t shake the urge to take stock of what I’ve learned in the previous year and what I hope for in the year to come.

A little over a year ago, I settled into this space with a question or two about simplicity. What is it, exactly? And how does it work? And is it really even possible?

Of course, I didn’t find all of the answers, but I did catch sight of a common thread as I wondered aloud about simplicity in different contexts, from eating to writing to making a wedding. It’s a thread that’s become even clearer as I make my way through the book I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Bird by Bird.

It’s that most things, from eating to writing to making weddings, are not particularly simple. It would be naïve to imagine that we could ever simplify our feelings about the daily rituals, momentous occasions, and creative errands that shape our lives. Each is layered with memories (our own and others’) and colored by place and time, culture and nostalgia. And even if complexity is often a source of stress, it is also a source of richness and depth.

The opportunity for simplicity, then, is in the process, and we get to choose when and how we’ll make it work. Even if I can’t simplify how I’ll feel about writing on any given day, I can know when and where I’ll write, what tools I’ll use to do it, and what I’ll do before and after. And while we can’t simplify our own and others’ feelings about life cycle events, we can seek out opportunities to simplify the material aspects of the occasion. And although every dinner will not be simple, we can discover simplicity in the fact that a meal may be composed of whatever is at hand and that we’ll have a chance to try again at about the same time tomorrow.

My task, I think, for the coming year, is seek out those spaces where simplicity is possible and to find beauty, too, in the spaces where it isn’t.

Assateague

Assateague Island

I awoke suddenly, to find my vision held by a girl with a choppy, asymmetrical haircut, one I'd given her the previous week before our band's first show.  Her eyes were wild as she told me, "We're driving to see the ponies. Get up!"

My roommate grumbled at me as I stumbled around in the dark, throwing my favorite thrift store sweater and used CDs into my denim shoulder bag, “Shut UP!  I have a test in the morning.”  She rolled violently over to face the wall.

My friends were always breaking in to do things like this---grabbing me at 11:30pm to drive to Philly to get soft pretzels from the factory the second they came off the oven rack, whole gaggles of boys (which was against the rules at our university) in the middle of the night, picking me up in my pajamas and throwing me down the wet hill, as I screamed and laughed and rolled.  She requested a single room for our second year.

I shuffled into my shoes and ran to catch up with my friends in the parking lot, who were already hopping into their huge old cars, sturdy Cadillacs and Buicks that once belonged to their grandmothers, all with names like "Marge" or "The Porkchop Express", based on our favorite movie vehicles of the 80's.

I angled to be in a car with Sam, because I knew he would be quiet most of the way and that is what I craved: hours of this dark night to be spent staring out at towns going by that I'd never seen before, drawing designs on the window whenever they got foggy enough.  Alas, Chatty Cindy climbed in beside me, sodden down with snacks and jokes.  She proceeded to build a nest in the hatchback of Sam's car, which we took turns wiggling back into, to take little snoozes on the three hour ride.

I kept trying to get Patti Smith's Horses in the CD player, but mostly we listened to Modest Mouse and Cat Power, which got no complaints from me.

Sam looked over at me and smiled.  "Have you ever camped on the beach before?"

"I haven't done much camping at all.  I was always more of a take-the-train-to-NYC kind of girl."

"Well, we'll hook you up.  It's going to be so magical."

Sam was one of those neo-hippies who was always saying things like this, when he talked at all.  His hair was floppy and his clothes were simple, fitting his soccer body in an effortlessly attractive way, without attention to what was hip to wear.  He was also never seen without his guitar, on which he played sparse songs leaning more toward experimental music than hippie rock.  An enigma for sure, he was my first friend at college.  I was considering ditching the high school boyfriend I'd hung on to to make out with Sam, but sometimes I wondered if he was quiet because he really didn't have that much going on up there.

Cindy was babbling away in the backseat, creating little songs about her round tummy, and making Erin, the botched-banged girl who had woken me up, laugh beside her.  Erin had a great laugh, one of those honking ones that made everyone in the cafeteria stare.  It was also a bit rare, as she was a severe gal, more prone to tell you to get the fuck out of her face then laugh at your jokes.  But Cindy was so absurd and relentless that eventually everyone joined in.

When we finally got to the beach, it was still dark out, and I helped carry equipment that made no sense to me, eventually dropping it with a clamor on the sand.  "Where's the campsite?"  My voice sounded louder than it had in the cramped car.

Len, whose afro was listing to the side from the door he'd slept against in the Suburban on the way there, replied, "There isn't one.  We're technically not allowed to camp here.  But it's such a huge beach that they probably won't catch us."

Probably.  We were a sober bunch, so with a lack of alcohol or drugs to give us thrills, we were often taking these kinds of risks, to get the feeling that we weren't wasting our youth.  I was plagued with a constant fear that I wasn't living big enough, that I was going to look back with regret, wishing I'd jumped from higher peaks.

With that fear riding on my back like a dark-cloaked demon, I stripped down to my underwear and ran, legs akimbo, into the sea.  Allison, always eager to be in some version of nudity, splashed in after me, Sam at her heels.

I floated out on my back, astounded at the amount of stars that clotted the sky.  Sam started pointing out constellations, a skill I'd never quite mastered.

"Wait, where's Orion's Belt?"

"Right there, don't you see it?"  He pointed one spindly figure up, outlining the curve of the famous symbol.

"Ohhhh, yeah. . ."  I hoped no one could tell I was lying.

Len and Erin were building a fire when we came dripping out, and we warmed up and ate the snacks Cindy had brought, and some we'd scored at Wawa on our way out of Pennsylvania into Maryland.

"So, what do we do now?"  I asked.

"We wait. . . for sunrise.  And hopefully, for the ponies." Sam answered.

"What, are they just going to come running through here or something?"  I looked around me, picturing a herd of animals tearing down our precarious tents with their hooves.  The sky was changing, from pitch black to midnight blue.

"Maybe.  They're wild."  I snuggled down closer to him in our sleeping bag.  Even if I wasn't going to cheat on my chicken-haired boyfriend with Sam, I was at least going to feel his body alongside mine, like when I was on family vacation with my boy cousin, and we shared a bunk, my body alive with his otherness and what could not be.

Eventually Cindy finally ran out of things to say, or perhaps she went on a walk to look for the ponies, a huge woven blanket draped around her shoulders, her steps small and plunking.  Either way, she quieted and I dozed off.

I woke up to find the light around me hazy orange, the sun a fiery beach ball floating up over the sea.  I sat up and pulled my knees to my chin, careful not to disturb Sam, looking impossibly young in slumber beside me.

Erin was awake, standing just at the edge of the campsite.  The light made a halo around her skinny rockstar body, ringing it and burning it into my memory.  She turned to me and pressed her finger to her lips.  "Look.  The ponies!"  she stage-whispered.

I scrambled out of the bag and hurried over to her, my glee unconfined.  On a dune, amid some grass, were several beasts, horses so unlike the groomed ones I'd seen on farms and in Central Park, they could have been a different species.  They didn't look my way, lost in their own world of breakfast grazing and spraying each other with sea air as they whinnied.

I looked back at my own pack, all laying on top of one another in a semicircle around the fire.  I went over and nudged Sam with my nose, mouth clamped shut to stave off a whiff of my stale breath.  I pulled him up with my hand and stood him beside Erin, who slung a gangly arm over his shoulders.

Our smiles were like we'd figured out some precious secret.  My hands felt tingly and numb, with the knowledge that for at least this one moment, I was doing it.  I was living flat out all the way up the stars.

My Mom and My Son, the Style Icons

me without you

When the much beloved and mourned magazine Domino folded, its publisher tried to make up for my unfulfilled subscription by sending me Lucky magazine. I hate this magazine. Besides being a poor Domino replacement, it's basically a SkyMall for beauty products masquerading as a fashion glossy. Of course, there are pretty people in it and products! clothes! and stickers! But beyond its unmitigated advertising blitz, there wasn’t much for me to latch onto, except for one feature: the last page of the magazine was dedicated to the column "My Mom, the Style Icon" (based on a blog, which became a book for Chronicle). The one-page feature included an old photograph of a mom, dressed fabulously ahead of or very much of her time, plus a brief write-up from her admiring daughter.

I also grew up admiring my mom’s sense of style. Whether rock-show casual, girls’-night glitzed, or gussied up in her Sunday best, Mom could put an outfit together with flair. When it came to clothes, Mom operated with an instinct that I did not inherit. I loved clothes as much as she did, but my fashion sensibility was (is) more sweaterista than fashionista. Mom loved big costume jewelry, brooches, even (gasp) shoulder pads, but managed to craft those otherwise gaudy elements into something sophisticated and luxe.

Mom tried to impart her style on me to disastrous effect. I recall the epic fights we would have getting me dressed before school. She always wanted me in skirts and shirts with ruffles or — horror of horrors — to pop my collar. (Clearly, she always envisioned me this way.) I wanted to blend into the scenery, and she wanted me to burst out of it like the Kool-Aid Man. This struggle continued throughout my adolescence. In high school, after lamenting that none of the boys noticed me, she declared, “Sweetie, we just need to sex you up a bit, is all.”

She was basically the fabulous queer eye to my conformist straight guy.

While I never had the gumption to wear my fashion fantasies on my sleeve, it appears Mom’s sense of style has skipped a generation. My four-year-old Henry loves dressing himself. He regularly incorporates pieces of flair and elements of drama into his preschool outfits. Sometimes it’s a turban; often it’s a cape. He tucks muscle shirts into pink and purple tights, requests pigtails (like the girls at school) and buns (like Mulan) atop his head, and morphs his sleeveless shirts into tube tops. At the heart of this sartorial inventiveness is a pair of Hello Kitty rain boots worn so thin that they may disintegrate off his feet before he grows out of them. And lest you pigeonhole him as a rigid aesthete who is all form and no function, these outfits always leave room for a weapon. The tube top doubles as a holster for a foam sword, and the elastic waistband of his hot pink tights provides a secure spot for a plush baseball bat, should a villain present him/herself.

My son: the fashion warrior.

And the best part? The kid pops his own collar. I never taught him this or did it for him. Though he won’t know the stylish and fabulous woman she once was, Henry is definitely taking after his grandmother. (Though Mom always said she would never be called “Grandma”; it made her feel too old, and she was too vain. “What are you going to have my kids call you, then?” I asked long ago. “Can't they just call me Lee?”)

Whether this love of dress up is a phase or some strain of inherited fabulousness, Henry and my mom would have had a blast together. I imagine Henry picking through Lee's stash of costume jewelry and her dutifully rummaging through old clothes and fabrics to help him realize his Little Edie-cum-superhero visions. They'd have made a great (and well-dressed) team.

A Taco and Something to Drink

A Taco and Something to Drink

By Catherine Close

Last night, I got together with a friend for dinner. I ate a greasy taco and washed it down with a beer. Tacos — in fact, almost any kind of Mexican food — are my happy food when I need a little culinary comfort. While crunching on my taco, my thoughts ran to my grandmother Frannie, as they so often do. Frannie introduced me to Mexico, and at the end of her life, I supplied her with tacos.

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Cherish is the Word I Use to Describe

Asking For It with Sibyl

Sybil,

You've actually answered a question for me before. I'm back again because your advice was excellent. I feel guilty coming back for round two; I want to give someone else a shot. But here I am because I need ya.

I am in love. Absolutely, without bounds, in a way I didn't know I could be. I know because I am full of goodness and forgiveness and understanding (I guess you'll have to take my word for it). But the man I love? He doesn't cherish me. He doesn't treasure me. He says he loves me. He doesn't act like it. I've carefully and calmly and sweetly explained what I need, what I want. I'm not a princess. I'm not a nag. I'm demanding the kind of treatment I deserve.

My question is, Sybil, does someone cherish you? If they do, how'd you get them to do that? Did you have to ask? Did they just do it naturally? What do I have to do to be cherished? I love myself; I know that comes first. I am loving, and I'm pretty sure that comes second. What am I missing? What am I doing wrong?

Sincerely,

Not a Princess

 

Dear Not a Princess,

Your question has been this little voice in the back of my head, the past week.  As I'm doing the dishes, crossing the street, lighting candles or checking the mail, I hear, "Sibyl, does someone cherish you?"  And then, when I answer internally, "I believe so," a further question arises, "How do you know?"

What satisfies the human heart?

I am beginning to believe that only gratitude does.  And that gratitude is not some little addendum to one’s spirituality, something you make lists about at Thanksgiving or consider when prompted in a yoga class, but the secret to living a sustainable life of joy.

So, am I cherished?  Well, my spouse loves me, in the cracked-yet-beautiful way that humans love one another.  I do not always feel the fierceness of his love in a way that I connect with, no.  Sometimes it is too tentative, and I lose myself in the complicated folds of where desire turns in on itself and into contempt.

I want it to burn.

But some years, it just smolders.  I know it is there, right under the surface, keeping me vaguely warm by its glow.  It doesn’t feel like enough and I am cold.  I shimmy under a blanket of self-love, treating myself like the most precious, fragile object I can find, trying not to starve out my desire until it can come in the form of the perfectly balanced fire I so crave.

Here’s what keeps me going on those nights when my toes feel like they are going to fall off: I do believe my beloved is capable of loving me how I need and want to be loved.  And he is trying, as I am trying, as we are all really fucking trying.

It does not always come natural.  Love, like gratitude, is a life-changing practice that starts within but emanates out into action.  And I am so, so grateful to have someone who is trying, with his whole heart, to love me as I am asking to be loved.  When he falls short, there is grace for that, just as when I do I meet his grace.  We share the values of committing to one another while also letting each other change, and sticking with it even when it isn’t perfect.  And trying.  Sometimes I think it’s all in the trying, in the arching, and that the satisfaction of the actual connection is just a fleeting by-product.

So the main question for you and your partner is, is he built to love you how you need to be loved?  For instance, are you asking for monogamy and commitment from someone who is not oriented towards that kind of relationship?  Are you asking for a quiet, steady kind of love with someone who loves in these huge bursts?  Are you simply asking for kindness, which everyone can learn how to do? Can you be grateful for his form of love, or does it really not even register as love to you?

If what he can offer is not what you need, and if you do not share the same values around love, then you’ve got to let him go and find another heart to attach to.  But if you see a glimmer in there of the love you want, and he has the willingness, then keep trying.  Keep arching.  Keep coming back to love.  Even if it all ends, you won’t regret the striving towards love.  You may even find you are grateful for it.

Love,

Sibyl

"I Don't Want a Bigoted Friend"

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

A college friend of mine has an attitude problem when it comes to race. We met 12 years ago and lost touch a year into our studies when our programs diverged. At that point she had already made 2 racist comments, one which I pointed out was unfair and biased, and she conceded. But when the second comment occurred, I cut my losses and went on my way.

Five years ago she moved to my city and sought out my friendship again. I was happy to hear from her, because she does have a lot of good qualities and has turned out to be a fairly loyal, if somewhat self-centered friend.

She had done some traveling after college and I was hoping her mind had opened and she'd matured with regard to her unconscious views on race. Not totally. There were a few less-overt comments that I let slide, due to my passive nature and just general cowardice (ugh). I never thought that she would remain my friend for this long, or that she'd figure it out eventually by interacting with more folks from different backgrounds (our city is fairly diverse and she's since entered a multicultural graduate program).

Alas, that's not really how privilege works, as we both know, Sibyl! The recent release of the film Fruitvale Station, and its confluence with the Trayvon Martin verdict have produced some ugly & awkward moments with her—which unfortunately I've heard of second-hand. Her comments were to the effect of, people are just saying nice things about this movie because of the trial, subtext being that ... black people are getting away with "it"??  It makes no sense. It's getting to the point where I have to run interference with other friends because I'm (perhaps selfishly) afraid this reflects badly on me. I don't want a bigoted friend, but at this point she has become so important to me that I can't just cut & run either.

I think I know the right thing to do, which is to gently bring it up and act like I just don't understand why an otherwise nice person seems to hold these views, and to sort of cushion it by saying I think she's much smarter than that. But I'm afraid that instead I'll start shaking with rage and go off about white privilege (I'm white too, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize what's right in front of our eyes). Any tips? Thanks so much!

Losing the Race

 

Dear Losing the Race,

In the past month, people all over the country have had some unfortunate surprises, seeing how folks close to them reacted to the Trayvon Martin murder case, and the film Fruitvale Station, which depicted the murder of Oscar Grant III.  It’s been awkward, depressing, and downright enraging to see that people you thought were allies are actually indifferent, ignorant, and/or even full-out racist.  How is it 2013 and so many white people just don’t “get” the effects of institutional racism?  Well, privilege is a sneaky thing, and no one wants to give up power they don’t want to believe they have in the first place.

The message I heard, over and over, from the black folks in my life was, “White people who are conscious, please handle your people. We are tired of explaining racism to them.  It’s time for you to step up.”  So, although I recognize that my efforts are far from complete, I’ve been using every platform afforded to me to discuss race in America, and I thank you for another opportunity to do so.

What I am finding is that since most people avoid talking about race like the plague, they are clunky with it.  Their opinions are not fully formed, untested by debate and expression.  They are a bit like teenagers in Health class on Sex Ed day - there’s all kinds of jokes where there should be depth, and the level of tension in the room is palpable.

I like that you are willing to examine what having a bigoted friend says about you.  What it says about you is you are a human with human friends, that are complicated and imperfect and not totally aware of themselves.  Everyone has their equivalent of your bigoted friend in their lives.  It’s like the embarrassing uncle who you used to love as a child for all the reasons you now hope he doesn’t show up at the family functions—his loudness and silliness was fun for kids, but less funny as an adult.

You probably enjoy the bluntness of your friend, in other contexts.  You like that she tells it how she sees it, doesn’t hold back, and isn’t always perfectly PC.  However, you were hoping she would evolve over time.  Ignorant views in college students are to be expected—I’m so lucky I still have any friends who knew me in my early 20’s, a time of bizarre absolutes all over the political spectrum.  However, in adult life, friendships are really difficult to hold on to, and for all the effort one puts in, you don’t want to feel like you’re giving your time to someone who is on the wrong side of history.  It feels like collusion.

This friend has been placed in your lap so you can do your part in making change, starting right where you are.  Relationships are the only thing that change people.  The person with homophobic beliefs has to reconsider when they find out their beloved piano teacher is gay.  And someone with unconscious racist beliefs won’t change them unless people they care about start to stay, “Listen, this is not cool.”

So what you need to do is practice.  Talk about this issue with people you know agree with you, first.  Practice with people you don’t care as much about, too.  I remember when I first started confronting racism in conversations, and the visceral physical reaction you described happened to me.  I shook, I cried, I had to leave the room and hyperventilate.  But, over time, I was able to get those somatic responses under control and speak more freely.  I actually think it’s fine if you shake and cry—it could be compelling for your friend to see how much this means to you.  However, it would be best for your health if you didn’t go into anaphylactic shock every time you talk about this, so practice and breathe.

I actually don’t think you should pretend not to understand why an otherwise nice person holds these beliefs.  Because you do know.  You should be forward, direct, and use examples.  You can do this compassionately, in a way that helps put your friend’s statements into context, showing her that it’s not her fault that institutional racism exists, but it is her business and duty to recognize it and stop propagating it.

I suggest following up your conversation with some reading material for her to peruse.  An article your friend may connect with is Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which includes a list of day-to-day examples of how white privilege works itself out in real life.  She may not want to believe that all of the examples on the list are true, but there are at least a few that she will be unable to refute.  I do understand that this article is problematic, but it seems that your friend really needs to start slowly, although she should be encouraged quickly to move on to bell hooks.  This could be the beginning of a really important personal growth journey for her.

People do not want to acknowledge their own ignorance and privilege.  In order to get them to do so, you have to provide both positive and negative reasons.  For instance, you’ll be saying, “It makes me really uncomfortable and upset when you say these things.  It is why I didn’t call you for years.”  So, the message is, “your racism hurts your friends and makes them not want to hang out with you.”  But also you can tell her your journey, from unconsciously enjoying white privilege to being aware of it and trying to call it out when you can.  What have you gained from this process?  What personal growth can you offer her by becoming awake to how the world really works?

I think it is great that you don’t just want to cut this friend out of your life—that would be a missed opportunity for you both.  Just being aware of white privilege is not enough.  We have to have the courage to speak out about it when we see it, calling it out and encouraging the people in our lives to do the same.  And, what have you got to lose?  You said yourself you don’t want to have a bigoted friend, so give her the chance to evolve, and see what happens!  I really believe this is the only way things are ever going to change—one-on-one conversations with people we love.  The personal affection makes it matter in a way that a movie and a court case never can.

In Solidarity,

Sibyl

Homemakers

By Nora Hill

When I was eight years old, my mama went to Atlanta for four days. I gave her my journal to take with her and write in every night, so that when she got back I'd know what she'd been doing and thinking. That's the first time I remember being at home when she wasn't. When we were little, she was the one who took my brother and I camping in Maine, brought us to visit relatives in Pennsylvania, drove us twelve hours to Toronto to see our cousins. Dad got two weeks of vacation a year; as a teacher, she got the whole summer. And so when Mom went away, we were with her.

When my mother goes away for the weekend, the rhythms change. There's coffee left in the press at the end of the day, since I'm the only one drinking it. At dinner, there's a hesitation before I remember that it's up to me to say grace. Small things, to be sure - but they cause a slight disturbance in the force, a difference in the way home feels.

With a weekend trip, the difference is negligible; my mom comes back after three days, and we slide back into the rhythms of home. But my family has reached an age of change, when 'home' is being redefined for all of us. Three years ago, my brother went off to college. For the first weeks after he moved out, the house felt empty - until my parents and I adjusted our habits around his absence. When he comes home each summer, we must adjust again, imperceptibly shifting to make room for him in our daily lives.

A year from now, I'll be preparing to head off to college myself. Chief among the myriad worries about that huge step is the fear of leaving home. I have lived in this house since I was four; I know the precise creak made by every step of the staircase and the every crack in my bedroom ceiling. But I'm realising it's not the house I'll miss, it's the way I live in it. What makes it home isn't the kitchen table — it's knowing where to sit. It's not the food — it's making and eating meals with my family. Home is as much about the people I share it with as it is about the place. The habits we share, our rhythms of interaction, are what makes the place we live become our home.

What About Your Friends?

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sybil,

A little over a year ago my husband and I moved to a new city. We both value community and relationships and digging into a place in an attempt to give it all we've got. Unfortunately, especially as a couple, we have not been able to find "our people". The few friends we have made fit into these categories:

1. We have connected as a foursome but one is moving away this week.

2. We have reached out (they are really interesting and like-minded) but they are so busy that they never seem to be free.

3. I have connected with one, but he hasn't connected with them.

and lastly (the question is coming, I promise)...

4. We were connected by mutual friends- I can find ways of tolerating and enjoying them, and he is (rightly) at the end of his rope.

So, I want to talk about the last couple. They are not bad people, just one of those couples who are difficult. She, as an individual and one on one is kind and sweet- as well as negative, critical, and needs to be right. They, as a couple, are extra hard. They are much more spendy than we are, constantly needing to be at the best or most popular restaurants. She talks down to him and regularly brings up her ex in weird ways which is super awkward. Recently they offered to sell me tickets to a festival, and when I couldn't afford it at the price they offered- he proceeded to offer them on facebook for half the price without telling me he was willing to do that.

This last thing sent my husband over the edge. He is over it. He feels they are rude, difficult, and obnoxious. I sometimes feel the same, but also have had some sweet interactions- and I want to be careful because we really love the mutual friends who connected us, and whom go really far back with this couple.

This couple is trying to get pregnant and the way that is unfolding is also annoying to me. That sounds weird, but too much to bother going into. She is a lot of work.

I am aware that if we end up having a kid here, that others with children will be valuable and especially other women will be important to me. I am also aware that sometimes I am too tolerant. I would like to keep a connection but even if I do, I will at some point have to confront that my partner pretty much never wants to hang out with them again and if he had to he'd probably stick it to them. I have this sneaking suspicion that the more forward and clear I am the better she will take it, and that she can actually take it. It's possible things could grow with her.

Is it worth the slow (possibly unfruitful) effort? Should I accept being lonely over tolerating an exhausting friendship? I sense it's not time to let go completely.

HELP!

Yours,

Exhausted but hopeful

Dear EBH,

Moving to a new city is a chance to reinvent yourself, but isn’t it interesting that people are difficult, everywhere you go?  People are difficult, and worth it, but at what cost?

My father always told me, “Be careful who you hang out with.”  He was worried that my friends would get me into trouble, but also was trying to impart to me that human nature is that you are influenced by the people you spend time with.  It has taken me a long time to listen to my dad’s advice, and, to be honest, sometimes I still ignore it and dive into friendships with people who are very dodgy and could get me into some situations I’ll later regret.  But I’m starting to be more and more careful to only hang out with people who I actually admire, not just enjoy.  I’m spending time and effort on those folks who really enrich my life in some way, who have things in their life I want to grow in myself, and that simply make me feel more alive when I’m with them.

Friends are not charity cases.  Someone who is “a lot of work” is work, not friendship.  That’s a client.  Friendships should never be “tolerated”, and leave you at the point of exhaustion.  This relationship is the equivalent of you wearing a terrible dress that feels itchy and looks awful, even though you have other ones in your closet, because you like the person that gave you the dress.  Take that ugly dress off, and give it away - it could be someone else’s favorite garment!  But honey, it’s not doing you any favors.

The nature of friendship should be a mutual affection, and desire to get to know one another, rather than any kind of duty, especially to a third party, like the friends who introduced you.  You have a duty to your family (and even that is negotiable), but friendships have to be free of “shoulds” to thrive.  So, to answer your most pressing question, yes, you must stop hanging out with people who consistently make you and your husband uncomfortable.

The unpleasantness of slowly having less contact, declining invites and not adding them to your evening plans will be undercut by the space this will leave for you to make a different friendship.  Believe me, it will come, but you have to create time for it.

This couple might be perfect friends for someone else, but for you and your husband, they are crazymakers.  Stop trying to be someone you’re not by continuing to invest in these relationships.  Listen to your husband’s judgment here, and just stop calling those people.

If your mutual friends ask about it, be honest.  Say, “We didn’t click with them.”  I have a suspicion that your friends will know why.

The main message I want you to hear is TRUST.  You have to trust yourself, your gut, your desires.  So, the people you really do like but your husband doesn’t?  Hang out with them when he’s busy, and enjoy them thoroughly.  The people who never have time for you?  Let them go, pursue someone whose energy flows back to you.  And believe me, when it is time to have kids, your friendships will go through another overhaul, so there’s no use stockpiling people who could be parent-friends in the future.  Your people will come to you at that time, in weird and wonderful ways.

Friendships go through ups and downs, and what holds them together is love.  And love cannot be forced.  Love can bloom in loneliness but not in resentment.  Create space in your life for the relationships you really want, and trust yourself to know who to dig deeper with. If you keep digging with your current options, you’re just going to keep hitting stone.

Love,

Sibyl

On Gardens

Screen-shot-2013-06-27-at-8.57.22-PM

By Allison Valiquette Today the air is of the perfect quality; it’s cool with a hint of summer behind it, showing potential for warmth once the sun settles in the sky. I always think of my grandma on days like today. When her neighbors across the street left for vacation, they invited us to come by their garden to pick all of the green beans we wanted. Not wanting them to go to waste during their long trips, and knowing my grandma would put them to good use in a summer stew, they sought it fit for us to be invited in. Those summer days were always just like today. There was a sweetness in the air that I could swear was just a natural side effect of a perfect day, but was probably just my head spinning with a belly full of too many eaten beans.

With our gloves in pocket and wicker baskets in hand, we made our way to the neighbor’s backyard, and it always felt like we were breaking in. We both delighted in thinking that this was the case, and we giggled as we entered through the wooden gate. We piled our baskets high with beans and marched home, proud of our collection. I would always ask if we could stay in the garden forever, instead of going back home. She would laugh and tell me no, that our time in the garden was over, and that’s just how it goes.

And when the wind is blowing in nice and steady and the grass smells in that perfectly dewy way that summer grass smells, I miss her. When I try to cook and fail miserably, I miss her. When I find a random piece of jewelry in my vanity that was hers, or a photo of her holding me close to our perfectly matched faces, I miss her.

I would never again watch her curl her hair, or cook in that big yellow kitchen. When missing her becomes unbearable, I want to run to that green bean garden and live amongst the tall plants forever, where no one would find me. And if Grandma needed me, she would know that’s where she could go to see me again. But in my dreams of escaping to that garden, she never came looking for me.

But since she died, life has moved on, too quickly, as it seems. I lived to be sixteen to my grandma. She left this world with that as her memory of me forever. But I’ve lived a whole other life since then. I graduated high school, went to college, got a job, and became an adult. I’ve had boyfriends, travelled across the country, wrote stories, and lived as a whole other, grown-up self, one that she will never get to meet. I regret not soaking up every possible moment that I could with a woman who taught me that life is beautiful. That everything has a beginning and everything an end, and that is just how it goes.

I’ve been back to her old neighborhood just once since she died. The neighbors across the street put up a large fence and I couldn’t tell if the garden was still there. I like to think that it is, growing tall and feeding someone else’s family. It will continue to grow, and die when the ground gets cold, and grow again when the soil is ready. My grandma never saw me grow up all the way, and I will never see her through any more of her years. But there is still growth here, and there always will be. We all see pieces of the growth that we each have to give. Some see all of it, others a little less. But Grandma taught me to love and enjoy things while we have them, just as I loved and lived happily to have her while she was with us. And even if that green bean plant we loved so much is long dead and gone, at least I was there to see a part of its very special life.

Glass Pebbles and Life Changes

word traveler

I am greedy. Not greedy for money or clothes or pasta or jewelry. I am greedy for an exciting life. I expect it to be exciting all the time, yet I find excitement in the small things, too. When I was a kid, I remember I used to go to the beach with my dad to look for glass pebbles from long ago discarded bottles, and I literally was the happiest kid when I found a smooth and well-worn piece of glass. It was the size and the color of an apricot, light orange. Where did that come from? From a faraway shore? It was so big compared to the others. Was it the remaining of a bottle or some other object? Whatever its story was, I kept it to this day on the bookshelf of my old bedroom, to remind myself how little things can make you happy for a long time. But in time I have grown, and my needs and wishes have obviously grown with me. The dictionary states that excitement is a state of exhilaration, enthusiasm, stimulation or emotional arousal. Life doesn’t always gift us with strong emotions, there are days when happiness consists of the simplest things–a cappuccino on a Sunday morning, a good book in your hands, a walk in your neighborhood to try out the new ice cream parlor’s flavors, the cake that you always fail but that finally comes out of the oven with the perfect shape and taste. Or a simple photograph shot in a moment that doesn’t look so special, but that will be your only handhold on an instant that will never come back. Life isn’t always an exciting ride on a roller coaster, or something that leaves you breathless. This is why, at this point of my life, I feel guilty. Because months of roller coasters are ahead of me, and I’m not sure I will match up with the challenge of such a wild ride, or if I’ll need an oxygen mask to breathe.

I am about to leave with my better half for the most undreamed-of destinations, a one-month trip that will take us along paths we never walked, in Asia. We’ll meet the snow monkeys in Japan, see the Mount Fuji I remember from some cartoon I used to watch in my childhood, we’ll be in Hiroshima on August 6th, cross the Sea of Japan on a boat to reach Seoul, and then fly to Vietnam for an on the road journey all the way to Thailand. Feeling lucky. This is the best way I can describe myself at the moment.

But this isn’t it. The real life twist happens in September, when my family of two will move to Washington, D.C., a place that was home and shelter to us for two years in the past. So this is not a new feeling, or a new place to visit that carries secrets and unexpected discoveries. It’s a deepest perception, a sense, somehow, of going back home, and starting a new life in a place that we have always found welcoming and warm. Why do I feel guilty, then? And worried? Why do I spend some nights staring at the ceiling and wondering hey, what’s wrong with me?? Partially because I know I’m lucky, too lucky—we will have a second chance to live in a city we loved back in time, but with new prospective and hopes. And second chances are made of gold! But part of me feels bad, because this time I see the down side of a dream that is coming true. My parents and grandparents lives in Italy, and damn I will miss the daily life with them. I feel like I’m robbing them of the time we have left together, of Sunday meals to be shared, of coffees with grandma and shopping sessions with mom. A tennis match has been playing in my head for a few months now. The ball that is being batted to and fro has “Is this the right thing to do?” written all over it. It falls in the yes court, and then bounces in the no court. Back and forth, giving me headaches. And then I think I’m not the type who wastes second chances. I feel guilty, and greedy for wanting more every day, yes, but I also want to play my opportunity as good as I can, making sure that my beloved ones see the positive side of my life choices as well.

At the moment, I am suspended above the unknown and the many issues that present themselves as we are making this important decision, but after all this is who I am and I can’t deny it. I love feeling that I’m walking along an invisible thread staggering over a canyon---I want to see what’s below, and get goose bumps, and fear, and enjoy, and scream from happiness when I get to the other side! Me and my glass pebble, all safe in my hands.

Wish me luck :-)

 

I sat down and tried to rest. I could not; though I had been on foot all day, I could not now repose an instant; I was too much excited. A phase of my life was closing tonight, a new one opening tomorrow: impossible to slumber in the interval; I must watch feverishly while the change was being accomplished.” --- Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

 

 

Meet the Local: Accra, Ghana

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we travel to Ghana, where it's typical to have both a Christian name and a local name---so meet Jane, or Nana Ama Nyamekye.  She was born in Kumasi, and now lives in Accra, Ghana's capital, where she works at The Hunger Project, a NGO that focuses on empowering people to end their own hunger.  

Meet the Local, Ghana

What do you like about the place you live?

The people around are quite warm.  They show their communal spirits, and I communicate well with them.

What don’t you like so much?

The roads.  They are untarred, they are dusty.  When it rains, it becomes quite difficult to get anywhere, to even walk, because it’s muddy, and there are a lot of potholes so if someone is driving and someone passes by, you can get quite wet if the driver doesn’t avoid it.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I like local porridge, it’s made from millet and ginger and a little chili pepper.  We call it koose---it’s made from black eyed peas.  You can eat bread with it, but I feel like the bread is too heavy, so I mix it with the porridge.  Sometimes I have hot chocolate with it.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m into small scale banking, so to speak---I’m in micro finance.  I work with a NGO whose goals I really admire.  My job makes me feel fulfilled in that I grew up in an environment where people could be very intelligent but because they lacked the financial ability, they couldn’t reach whatever targets or goals they set for themselves.  My job looks at ensuring that people are economically self sufficient.  It aligns with myself, my personal feeling and hope for the world.  I expect people to be okay, I expect people to be looking out for a world that embraces people, that people will be given opportunities to make ends meet.  I believe that everybody has potential, and that, given the opportunity, they can meet the goals they set for themselves.  This job allows people to be uplifted.

What do you do for fun?

I like to be with kids---they’re adorable.  I like to admire their innocence.  But mostly, I unwind my day with a movie, or sometimes I end my day by listening to gospel preaching.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

The last time I saw my family was in the end of May, a little while ago, but I will see them this weekend.  With my cousins, they are a little older than me, but they are all involved in corporate institutions, so first I try to talk about how we can help women, and women in the workplace.  But sometimes we just talk about family.  Last time we met, they asked me to help plan my auntie’s birthday.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

My dream is to be able to get a PhD, something that will be beneficial to other people. I want to do research, and maybe to lecture as time goes on, so that the experience that I’ve gathered can be combined with the academic world so that I can be efficient and effect change.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I always want to be in Ghana, because the people are warm, and because I have the chance to improve upon the systems.  I want to make it so most people can go to school, and then most people can give back to society, especially in the rural areas.  So yeah, I would want to be in Ghana.

 What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of being a change agent.  In my line of work, I work with people who want to take a step forward in their economic adventures.  I get so happy and proud when people tell me how their lives have changed from nothing to economic self-sufficiency.  I have more than a hundred women who had nothing, no savings, but have saved now amounting to more than 500 Ghana cedis (approximately $250 USD).  They’ve been able to send their children to school, some to the tertiary levels.  I get so happy when I realize that people are not always just sitting down folding their arms but they are always trying to work, to change their lives.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I would say I’m happy, I’m fulfilled, even though I haven’t gotten to my limit yet.  There is always room for improvement.  I know that I’m working in a good team, and my team members are all working together to achieve the same goals.  In my home, there is peace---with my husband, everything is okay.  When I go to the field, I meet my women who embrace me with huge smiles because of the changes they’re seeing in their lives.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo, Sydney, and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

The Chickens Wake At Five

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, The chickens wake at five.

I swing open the creaky door of their coop and they dart out into the yard. They high-step through the garden, bobbing through basil, pecking at tomato plants. Sometimes they scratch up a cloud of dust then sink their bellies into the dirt.

The chickens are named Himalaya and Buddha. They are both thick and strong, but Buddha is a little smaller and more docile than Himalaya. Their glossy feathers are red and black and they shine like oil slicks in the sunlight.

I don’t know much about chickens. I assumed the eggs would come in the morning. But when I open the lid to the hay filled box where they sleep, all I find are two chicken shaped indentations. It’s not until late afternoon that they appear, those two pastel ovals in the yellow straw.

I collect the two eggs in the afternoon. Each egg is smooth, warm, and oblong. Holding them in my palm I’m reminded of the symbol for infinity. Like the symbol, the eggs are matched halves---shells containing, curves repeating.

I blame Alice Walker for thinking like this about chickens, for trying to see the universe in a bird, for trying to see poetry in poultry. Around this time last year I was reading Walker's  “The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories.” I found myself enchanted with Walker’s meditative and philosophical writing, and entertained that her observations where drawn from contemplating the behavior and being of her flock of chickens.

I should probably explain how I came to have chickens in the first place. I’m housesitting in Brooklyn in exchange for chicken keeping, dehumidifier emptying, and acting as liaison to a visiting French family who will be staying in the upstairs portion of the house.

The place is stunning. A classic Brooklyn brownstone on a quiet tree lined block. I’m here with my dog and my computer and not much else. We’ve retreated here so I’ll have time and mental space to complete my documentary project and to apply to grants. At home my attention dissolved into chores, work, television, more chores, more television. Here I get up early for the chickens and the dog, work on editing and writing and transcribing, walk to get a coffee, loll in the park.

This is not my real life, I remind myself.

This is a single six-week escape. It’s a special time for working and writing.

It's time I’ve come to understand I need in order to actually make progress on creative projects. I hardly leave the apartment. I walk the same loop to the grocery store, the coffee shop, the park, the apartment. Oddly enough, if I were to trace my daily walking routines on a map they would take the shape of an ellipse. An oblong, egg-like trajectory. Contained, repeating.

Bridesmaids: Broke Edition

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm honored to be a bridesmaid in my dear friend's wedding later this summer. The only problem is that being a bridesmaid costs approximately one million dollars and I'm a starving grad student.

My friend isn't a wedding-crazy bridezilla who expects us to pony up for hair extensions and matching "bridesmaid" bikinis for pre-wedding pool time (that's totally a thing---I saw it on television). She's been so thoughtful that she's even arranged for family members to host us in her hometown since she knows we all have to pay for plane tickets to get there. The expenses that go along with traditional weddings just add up -- for everyone involved.

At this point I've adequately scrimped to get the dress, the shoes, the plane tickets, and the wedding gift. Unfortunately, her bachelorette party is coming up in a couple weeks and it's a weekend trip to her family's vacation house. Between the plane tickets, the dinners out, etc, I don't see how I can swing it. This is one of my very best friends and I hate the thought of not being there for a big event in her life though. How do I handle this?

Sincerely,

The Penniless Pal

 

Dear Penny P,

It appears to be a trend that, instead of a night out of debauchery, bachelorette parties are now days-long events.  Should we blame The Hangover?  Perhaps not---in general, it is pretty great that women are asking themselves, "How do I really want to usher in this new phase in my life?" and what they are coming up with is having their closest friends around them for a weekend, soaking up support and relaxation before all the bustle of the wedding begins.  It's sort of a last hurrah before joint couple vacations happen.

But that's what this is: a vacation.  You stated you are sad not to be there for a big event in your friend's life, but the event is the wedding. This is a vacation, that your friend has invited you on, that will be totally centered on her.  I hope I can adequately explain that I have zero judgment about this practice.  I have been invited on many such weekends in the past few years, as ladies getting hitched have decided they'd prefer a fun time away with their friends rather than a sure-to-be-slightly-embarrassing "bachelorette party".

Many of us cannot afford vacation, however.  We simply don't take them.  A "weekend away" is not a reality for us, or if it is, it is rare and hard-won.  People from income brackets and lifestyles that give them actual time to take vacations and the funds to do so take week (or month) long vacations, and then consider these little weekends away to be just something you do with your Saturdays and Sundays.

Which must be nice.  But those of us without that kind of life spend our weekends at the laundromat, planning meticulous weekly meals that fit our tiny budget and shopping for them, and, often, working our second job.  Most of the time, it feels okay to do this.  This is the life we either chose because we believed in it, or are willing to accept, at least for now.  However, it goes from feeling fine to feeling like shite when all your friends are on a weekend vacation while you are wondering if you have enough pennies to splurge on the tiny box of fabric softener this week.

So, where does that leave you?  You have two choices.  The first one is: you stay home, sit with your disappointment, and work hard at not turning it into resentment.  Perhaps you can offer a special night later in the month with your friend that is just the two of you---you can cook her dinner at your place, present her with a thoughtful homemade gift, and talk about the coming changes for both of you as she embarks on marriage.

You'll have to work together on managing the fact that you can't show up for your friend in the way that you want to, because of your different lifestyles.  This is going to keep happening.  We always want to give more to our friends than we can, and often it is because it is impossible to be at the same place at the same time in our lives every step of the way.  She sounds very thoughtful and understanding, so forgiving yourself for not going on the weekend will be tantamount.

The second choice is you ask for help.  If this is just too important to miss, you must lay it all out for your friend.  You tell her you can't afford the dinners out, so can you all cook dinner at the place where you are staying?  Ask her if she has some frequent flyer miles you can use to get out there.  Let her know how much you want to be there, but you simply can't do it on your own at this time in your life.  If she can help you, I'm sure she will, and it will bring you closer to work on raising the funds together.

Either way, you have to be really vulnerable and truthful with your friend about your financial situation, and your desire to be there for her.  I really believe she is going to be understanding either way, so the hard realities will be all your own.  Your love for your friend is non-monetized.  This is only one weekend, and it sounds like you are a friend who will be with her in the grander sense, for much longer than that.

In Broke Solidarity,

Sibyl

Marriage Rules for Little Girls

peanut m&ms

By EBK Riley The other night, as my daughter Delia rearranged the peas and chicken on her dinner plate to make it appear that she was actually eating, she announced that she "wanted to marry a rich husband." Swallowing my chicken and the jolt of fear that arose because she is already contemplating marriage at six, I asked her why she thought that was a good idea. She was very matter of fact, noting that if she married someone rich, she could have a big house, go on vacations, and get lots of clothes and her own car and anything else she might need. This is the first year she has seemed concerned about our family's comparative lack of stuff, and apparently it is shaping her ideas about a lot of things. Because she has visited the houses of school friends, she is less satisfied with our apartment, and as every girl who has had to share a room with her sister is bound to do, she is lobbying for her own room. "We could all have our own rooms if we had a house," she says, though she graciously allows, "you and Daddy could still share, if you wanted to..." We do. Thanks. But before we could turn the discussion away from lifetime commitments to talk about how having a lot of stuff isn't always so important, Fiona chimed in, "M used to have a lot of money, but he doesn't anymore and I love him anyway."

Fiona is in an imaginary committed relationship with a three foot tall plastic display version of a yellow peanut M&M. He was gifted to her before we left Boston by my CVS manager, who not only wanted to get it off his sales floor, but who was also touched by the true love of a girl and her candy pal. She can call him just "M" as a nickname, because he's her boyfriend. All of her dolls and stuffed animals are their children and she tells us often what he thinks about situations that arise with 'their kids' at school and about stuff happening on television. M has a lot of strong opinions, and I don't agree with all of them, but at least I know he's from a good home and he doesn't have a motorcycle that I have to worry about Fiona riding on the back of. We hope they're very happy together until she's about thirty, which is the age my husband Mike has decided the girls will be allowed to date.

The discussion of marriage continued when I asked Delia, "Don't you think love is more important than money when you decide who to marry?" Mike was also interested in the answer to that one. Again, she was matter of fact, "Well, if he was rich, he could buy me lots of presents and then I would love him." She paused for a minute, pretending to chew some peas, and possibly because she realized that this might be kind of shallow, she added, "I'm sure I could find someone who is nice and rich, and I would love him because he was nice, and he would still be rich. Then I would have the best of both." There it was, the admonishment of parents through the centuries: It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one. Out of the mouths of babes, right?

We were at the table for a while, because Delia never did really did make any progress on her dinner, so we discussed the possibility of her becoming rich herself. She had taken this for granted, assuming she would have a career (as a rock star or an astronaut or a professor) and her own money, but she was clear that her future partner should have his own too, because then they would not have to worry about money for sure. "And I might want to take time off to stay home with babies, or he might, so we both need to have money."

It all seems so simple when a six year old explains it to you.

Still, as we finally cleared the plates, after Mike and Fiona had gone in to muck out the girls' room in preparation for bedtime, I told Delia that even though it does really kinda suck to be poor, the real trick to marriage is finding the person you want to be with, no matter what else happens. "Yeah," she said, "like they say on a wedding, for better and worse, for richer and poorer, and then they both say I do and they kiss."

"Yeah, just like that," I said. And she giggled, because she's six.

xxxxii. normandie

postcards from france

I am in a café in Bernay with Clémence and her friends. It is comforting to have these people around me, but it doesn’t always mean that we understand each other.

They keep saying this word, autruche, over and over, as part of a joke. Autruche. Autruche. I don’t know what autruche means, and no answers lie in my pocket dictionary whose blue cover is so bent from constant use these past three weeks. Fréd tries to explain to me what an autruche is, but I just can’t grasp it. My frustrated brain has turned off. I can’t take any more of the incomprehensible, nasal gibberish that is coming out of their mouths.

The next day, Pauline drives Clémence and me to walk around a nearby chateau. As I climb out of the car in the bright morning sun, I blink to read the billboard just ahead. On it is a picture of an ostrich advertising for a zoo in the next town over. Venez voir les autruches! Come see the ostriches!

Oh, I smile, laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing. So that’s what it is. 

The 88 Cent Tote Bag

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I am getting married in a few weeks, and my partner and I are trying to find something to give to people as favors, their prize for coming to our wedding. Our budget is approximately one dollar per person, which rules out the fancy vegan chocolates, the tiny succulents in little tin pails, and pretty much most things I’d want to buy or they’d want to own.

I finally came up with the idea of buying cheap blank tote bags and block printing an image on them. I knew how we would present them, rolled up and tied with twine and a little tag that would say “Thank you for coming.” I could picture their future lives, like so many given-away kittens, hanging out in pantries, in the kitchen, at picnics.

I searched the internet, ruthlessly turning down totes that cost $1.86, or $2.35, and finally found some for under a dollar. I started the purchasing process and got to the part where it totalled the shipping costs: $26.45. “Well I bet I can find a coupon for that!” I thought, proud of my thrifty nature, and opened a new tab to search for coupon codes. I found a couple of dead links, and a few wedding boards featuring former brides complaining about the low quality of the tote bags from this particular site. I looked at one woman’s sad photo comparing the actual quality of the bag she received with the image on the website, and I started to freak out.

This tote bag was almost certainly made by someone working in a sweatshop, I realized. Which is obvious, given that it costs 88 cents, but which I’d been avoiding until that moment. If I’m not willing to pay a fair price, who do I expect to make up the difference? The employer? The government?

The cognitive dissonance between my vision of sweet, hand-printed gifts lovingly tied in twine and the reality of the product I was about to buy made me feel dizzy. I want to give people something I made, but who made this tote bag? And how many other tote bags did they make that day, and how were they paid for it, and what was the ventilation like? What is their name and what is their life like and what were they thinking when they made it? One thing is for sure, they were not thinking about me or the guests at my wedding. Suddenly this "personal" gift started to seem extremely impersonal, and probably immoral.

I realize that it is somewhat ridiculous to fixate on the tote bags, when I have no idea where most of the things I purchase, for the wedding or otherwise, were made—or rather, I do have an idea, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in an intergenerational feminist craft collective made up of my friends and loved ones.

Sometimes I buy things that cost $1 because they’re a good deal even though they smell like plastic and sadness, and sometimes I buy locally-sourced, organic things for too much money. Either way I hate myself a little bit.

In my dream world, we would all make most of what we use, either buying or making the materials to do so. If we wanted to buy something, it would be for a fair price, and it would be because that thing was special or beautiful, not because we didn’t feel like taking the time to make it ourselves. Things wouldn’t be cheaper to throw away than to repair. We would value the time and labor it takes to make something.

I realize that I could make my life more like this if I tried. Instead, I live in a city and buy cheap crap quite regularly.  I am often extremely happy to walk down the street eating a 99 cent popsicle with 35 ingredients.

But aren’t weddings about trying to live out our romantic fantasies of how could be? Isn’t that the point of saying the nice words and wearing the special outfits and getting everyone you love together in one place? Some fantasies include riding in a limo and wearing a diamond ring. My fantasy includes not buying 88 cent tote bags. I know that I can figure something out that will be just as cheap but that won't make me freak out. For better or for worse, I'm going to live the tote-less dream.  

Dream vs. Reality

Dream vs Reality

By Erin R. Van Genderen I turned twenty-three in June, and in no such way did I ever imagine my life to have turned out the way it has.

When I was younger, I pictured my adult life as a whirlwind of jet-setting, cosmopolitan adventures. I would graduate from college at the top of my class and move somewhere new to work a prestigious job or get a doctorate and teach upper-lever literature theory. I would be professional, impressive, independent, a bombshell. I would make my own life for myself and escape the stigma of my small-town upbringing. Eventually, I’d find someone and settle down, but only after I accomplished everything I wanted to do and worked the wandering out of my bones. I would probably be Thirty.

Move into reality, where I’m newly married to a military man and the name of our game is impermanence. In our current assignment, I’m a stay-at-home wife with a few little jobs on the side, looking forward to a more permanent station where I can pursue a couple of Master’s degrees I have my eye on. As external self-worth goes, I have very little---there is no boss to praise me, no co-workers to compete with, no promotions or raises for which to struggle---and so I’ve learn to give my own self a pat on the back when I get all of the laundry finished or meet a deadline.

And although the first scenario certainly sounds glittering, I’m happier than I could have ever dreamed with the second.

Chalk it up to the honeymoon phase if you will, but I like to think that the life I live now is so much richer because it’s taking me in directions I could have never traveled by my own volition. As a planner and perfectionist, I’m constantly stretched by the nature of my husband’s job. We don’t know where we could be going next---overseas? D.C.?---but I have to be ready to adapt at a moment’s notice. We uproot and move on every few years, leaving behind little homes and orphaned potted plants, but the excitement of a new place is always just ahead.

It is hard. Sometimes it is sad. But this lifestyle is already exhilarating.

And that’s a lot of what marriage is, I’m finding---many of those everyday details transform into something thrilling, and many of the fluttery moments become the mundane. It is an adaptive state, never one of stasis, just as we are adaptive creatures.

The realities we dream up for ourselves are a little bit short of what we should really be expecting. But what a pleasant surprise it is when, if we are adaptive, we have the forethought to reach out and grab the good things flying by and hold on tight, leading us on to a brighter adventure than the one we had stashed away for the future.

Bloom

One summer I am watering a lavender plant, which, I suddenly realize, has begun to look rather like a twig than a plant. I had known all along that it wasn’t thriving, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when the transformation had taken place. The plant had seemed mostly the same to me from one day to the next. On that particular day, I was certain that it looked much the same as it had the day before, but I was equally certain that it looked quite different from the lush lavender plant I’d picked up months before at the farmer’s market. I intercepted a wise roommate and asked for her opinion on the matter.

“Do you think it’s dead?”

“Oh, yes. Definitely.”

“Are your really sure, though? I mean, I don’t want to throw out a plant that’s still alive.” (Translation: I am not ready to let go of this plant.)

“Well,” she said, generously accommodating my denial, “try not watering it for a while and see if anything changes.”

I did, and it didn’t.

Since then, there have been a handful of plants, some of which passed quickly and mercifully and others which have persisted miraculously despite my neglect. In fact, I’ve just repotted an orchid that’s been with me for two years, and a peace lily of four is still hanging on for dear life.

There’s a little saying from the Talmud—I’m sure you’ve seen it on a greeting card somewhere—that every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow.” These two sturdy plants must have very attentive angels because their earthly guardian has no idea what she’s doing.

Still, I’m fascinated by the slow and quiet surprises of living with green things. Another summer, I remember watching with delight as the long-flowerless peace lily suddenly sprouted a few delicate white blooms. I couldn’t say what made the difference. To me, it was a summer just like any other summer, and the water was the same and the sunlight was too. It must have been something too subtle for me to notice, but in any case, there were flowers briefly and then they were gone.

So often we measure our lives in terms of how many paces it has been since the last milestone and how many more till the next. Lately, though, I’ve been learning to find joy in slow blooms and brief delights—the everyday wonders quietly awaiting our attention.