A love letter to Colombia, Part IV

eternally nostalgic
P1000240

Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I | A love letter to Columbia, Part II

This was a summer of questions. I lived in them. I learned how to design and conduct qualitative research piece-by-piece.Inquiry became my home in Colombia. It was a summer of cómo and por qué?  I struggled with shifting from my previously service-based roles in conflict-affected areas to being here in an academic capacity, with asking questions without being able to immediate use the answers to implement an initiative that responds to needs. I asked myself what the service of academia is, and whether it is immediate enough and close enough to the source of the need for me to feel that it can be a true service. I watched my communities shift and the often-solitary-occasionally-lonely rhythms of academic fieldwork give way to a group of thinkers who would proofread my every word, assess the effectiveness and ethics of my every interview question, and give my Spanish translations their correct subjunctive forms. I will miss spelling my name on the phone. In Colombia, I am Rossan, as Roxanne is too untenable. I will miss the workers at Auros, my neighborhood copy-scan-fax store. They, too, are part of the routines of my research, and I can tell they are perplexed by the formalities of the process. I credit them with having taught me how to say 'stapler' in Spanish and with having helped assemble my every consent form.

And then I was silent. When the questions died down and the music quietened, I found myself sitting alone on the Cartagena city walls. Colombia can be uncomfortable with solitude, and Cartagena is a city that demands affection. It is a country of two and many, one in which you can always squeeze in an extra seat at the table or an extra person in the airport line to say goodbye. This summer has blurred the lines between solitude and loneliness, raised the cost of distance from loved ones, and lowered the barrier to entry into becoming a loved one in the first place. This country is full of loved ones, my loved ones. It is full of love.

I have felt small this summer. It is the kind of smallness I crave, the kind that emanates from being humbled and cannot be corrected by high heels. I have felt lighter too. I have laughed more easily, stumbled more confidently, made mistakes less shyly. When I'm abroad and alone, unshielded by familiarity or company, I say yes more. I dare more, especially after midnight when the words fall out of my mouth without fear of the Spanish subjunctive.

***

I sometimes feel about Colombia like a photographer who only wishes to capture her lover's dreamier side, all the while aware that another side exists, having pushed up her fingers right up against the underbelly. I cannot definitively reconcile my memories of Colombia, those of almonds and rainbows, with the memories Colombians have narrated to me. I know they exist side-by-side, almost unfolding in parallel universes. I understand that the differences in the hues of these narratives partly emerge out of my biased eyes: those of a Colombia-loving foreigner whose multiple layers of privilege circumvent many glass ceilings and shield her from some of the challenges of life and work here. I do not wish my fondness for this land to render me blind to its injustices or to push the many conflicts that continue to unfold away from the capital to the periphery of my own vision.

At the same time, I am hopeful -- not out of ignorance or bias, but by choice. I choose to be hopeful because I have met so many Colombians who are, who believe in Colombia, who have dedicated their life to peace. During one of my interviews, a human rights defender explained to me: "We push and ask questions, even when it feels as though the mountain is not moving. Why do we do it? Because every day when I get out of bed to do this work, when I see more of us committing to it, I can feel the space for impunity shrinking. That is enough, even if I can't see it. I believe it is there. I believe it is shrinking. When you believe, you have no choice but to keep working, to keep pushing."

P1010175

By the time you read these words, Roxanne has returned to Boston, which she (also) calls home. Her field notes from Colombia may have wrapped up, but her adventures will continue, in life and on this page.

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.

A love letter to Colombia, Part II

Previously:  Return | Firsts | Memory | Solitude | Nostalgia | Graffiti | Needs | Narratives | Trauma | A love letter to Columbia, Part I  

I will miss the jasmine tree, whose scent transports me back to Jerusalem and to every home I have loved.

My favorite moments under the jasmine tree unfold around 7.30 PM each night, when the security guards of the K-9 teams allow the bomb-sniffing puppies to run around the park. For ten minutes, if you are lucky, you can catch dogs sniffing each others' butts and wagging their tail as a sign of affection, not violence. There are more such dogs now than during my last time in Colombia, or maybe I am more attuned to their presence. This realization makes me cherish the whimsical butt-sniffing even more. When the security guards notice me smiling, they will sometimes oblige and give their German shepherds a cuddle. I know they are performing for me, but in so doing, they unite my Colombian universes: a single gesture blends a reminder of the conflict with unbridled affection.

The affection is unavoidable here. Desire is one of Colombia's many currencies. This is a country that touches and stares and whispers 'belleza' as you walk down the street. This is a country of princesas, and preciocas, and amorcitas. All these epithets are gendered in ways I cannot bear to ignore and, in the same breath, I cannot be cynical about calling someone mi vida. My life. When my assessment of the culture of affection becomes too rosy for my Colombian friends, they remind me of how fleeting and broken love can be here. They remind me of the men who are perros -- literally, dogs -- and of the men who cheat and of the women who cheat and of the ones who don't call and of the ones who call you princesa for two weeks before they disappear into thin air. They speak of rigid expectations, often crushed, that define the reality of a challenging love, that render longevity in romance difficult. On a rosy day, I will remind them that these quandaries of life and love are not confined to this land.

On a keenly aware day, I, too, feel choked by the rigid conceptions of masculinity and femininity. This is one of the countries in which I most notice the performativity of gender and how narrow the expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman can be. On a flight to Cali, I noticed every single woman had her nails done. On the same flight, a passenger asked me if this is my natural hair color. When I nodded yes, she asked me why I don't like to go to the hair salon to get 'this beautiful hair' straightened. Sometimes, I feel as though I provide Bogotá with its only messy curls. Sit at Juan Valdez long enough and you will observe there is a uniform for women here, one of many: leggings, tucked into boots, topped off with a leather jacket. And straight hair, of course. I am torn between finding these expectations suffocating and appreciative of a type of beauty, between finding them endearing and superficial.

I worry about Bogotá's rigidity, about the -isms that come up in every interview: machismo, classismo. Most are born out of certain expectations that are etched into the lives of the few -- expectations of where to live, where to eat, where to go out. Not complying with them, or flagrantly defying them, is met with palpable indignation. Can empathy grow in sheltered spaces? Of what service can narrowness be, other than protecting the interests and lifestyles of the few?

Next: Wherein, amidst the rigid expectations, I find hope.

How It Will Come Back to the Beginning

postcards from france

More than seven years after I first meet her, Madeleine has a baby girl named Cléa. On Facebook she looks like any other baby, small and pink and bundled in blankets, but I can tell that she’s different. And I get to meet her in less than a week.

I’ve been working on the lavender harvest outside of Aix for two weeks, followed by a week at Juliette’s house helping her to make cheesecakes and scones to sell at the market. I’m making my way up north, stopping to visit Alice in Paris, where she is living my adolescent dream with her small apartment, her French boyfriend, and her studies at the Sorbonne. Now I’m catching the train from Paris to Caen, where Clémence, Roger, Pauline, Fréd, and Madeleine are waiting. And now Cléa.

I imagine her seventeen years old and coming to stay with me in San Francisco late one summer. She’ll speak classroom English and will be surprised that the bathroom and les toilettes are the same room in the United States and she’ll discover a newfound love for bagels, like Clémence did. She can stay for as long she wants, I’ve decided. It’ll be the least I can do.

[you can read all of Liv's postcards here]

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.

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.

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 State of Inaction

Landscape

By Allison Valiquette  The heat wave has passed; on Friday it was climbing up well past ninety-eight, today it’s a subdued eighty-something. Even that slight drop felt more refreshing than a cold shower ever could. There was something about the wind that felt chilly like a fall morning, a welcome relief in the middle of a sweltering July.

On the back porch my family sat smoking cigarettes and passing around the Sunday paper. Doughnuts bought that morning littered the table, some half eaten, and others about to become a fine feast. Inside in the living room our family dog knocked into the end table next to the couch and a large glass of milk came crashing down, just as he did. His legs buckled beneath him and he found himself sprawled out, looking around confused about how he had got there. We all ran over to help him, and my brother collected some paper towels for the cleanup.

Scenes like this were becoming more frequent. Sam was thirteen, and even though he still looked like a puppy to me, my mother reminded us that thirteen was almost over a hundred in dog years. He was an old man now, and I don’t remember how that even happened.

The first scare came about a year ago, when the vet told us Sam had arthritis and that’s why his legs were suddenly giving way as he walked. Medicine helped, but I for one prepared myself for this dip in the pool to be his last. I found myself wishing that he could have one more winter to be able to jump into piles of snow, his favorite pastime.

And we got that wish. Sam lived a full year after that. He swam in the pool, jumped in piles of leaves, and buried his head in mounds of snow, albeit much more slowly than in previous years, but he did it. And during that time he was my energetic, full of life puppy again. I didn’t see his knees shake as he tried to stand up. I didn’t see the white hair begin to creep around more than just his eyes. My brother didn’t see that he was having trouble walking on his left leg because his leg “must have been asleep.” It wasn’t. It was his age and arthritis starting to show again. This time, I wasn’t sure if he would get another winter.

We tried to discuss our options that night after dinner. We would take Sam to the vet tomorrow, and figure out what to do depending on what she said. Somehow cremation was brought up during the discussion and my brother stormed off. We decided to just take him to the vet and we would see what she said, and make no decisions until that point.

So life returned to normal for the rest of the evening. My mother watched a movie on her laptop, my dad mowed the lawn, and my brother escaped the house to meet up with friends. I sat myself on the back deck after petting a sleeping Sam for a few minutes. The house was still; the world was in its usual place.

But we all knew that this was just the quiet before the storm. This was the peace before the trauma. Tomorrow we might be returning home without our beloved Sam, whom we have had for over half of my life. My Dad had suggested that if the vet thought we should put Sam down that we would take him home that night instead and wait for the morning. He wanted to give Sam one last night in his home, on his puppy bed. I couldn’t bear the thought of living through the night knowing the next day would be the day we had to say goodbye. I didn’t want to plan it that way.

So for now we wait in peace. We wait in the quiet, unsure of what will happen tomorrow. We pet Sam and hold him and kiss him and silently are saying goodbye in our minds with every stroke of the hand to his almost all-white fur. We don’t know if this is goodbye, but it feels like it. Sometimes inaction doesn’t bring the comfort of a happy ending. Sometimes it’s just the in-between before the great unrest. Sometimes it’s what we need to give ourselves to not think about all of the pain.

[image]

Better Half

A week ago, we said goodbye at the bus stop, and he made his way—by bus and train and plane—to Scotland for a week. The days that followed were a string of flashbacks to the year, not so long ago, when we were long distance. He was here in Atlanta then, I was in Boston, and our lives intersected each evening around nine by way of our glowing screens. I always found it so funny that we could be together, in a way, while living separate lives, each built for one. He rose early and biked to the library; I slept in late and let the morning slap me in the face on my walk (read: run) to class. We ate our meals at different times, and we ate different things. In some ways, it seems easier to coordinate basic aspects of life when you’ve only got one body to consider. But I longed so much to build and be a part of a life shaped for two.

The end of each visit was the beginning of a countdown toward the next. In between, my physical space would gradually descend into utter disarray. I wanted things to be better, but since my space and the life I was living in it felt temporary, I didn’t put much effort toward change. When we were together, though, for those brief whirlwinds, I caught glimpses of my best self. She was someone who strode toward life on purpose, rather than bracing herself as if life were coming at her like a train.

After my return from the bus stop last week, I couldn’t stop noticing the shape of our life. Two sets of keys in a cup. A rack with space for his shoes and mine. Two placemats on the table. A note on the coffee pot in handwriting other than my own. I rolled around in our cozy apartment like a lost marble. I couldn’t quite get comfortable because all the best spots fit two.

I also slid easily into my old habits, staying up late and eating toast for two out of three meals a day. By Thursday, I was tired and more than ready for my better half to return.

When they say “better half,” they usually mean the other person, and I mean that too. I mean the partner I love and admire, who surprises and delights me every day. I also mean my own better half, who lives life on purpose in the context of a life lived together.

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.

The art of staying

eternally nostalgic

For Kate and Erhardt

In what is perhaps a twist of irony, I am writing these words as I sit on the floor next to a packed suitcase and a printed boarding pass. By the time you read them, I will be in Colombia,  where I will be spending this summer conducting the kind of field work and research that has made 'leaving' so rewarding for me in the past.

On August 5, 2012, I landed in the United States after four years of near-constant motion. From Sudan to Guatemala, from Egypt to Uganda, from Colombia to Jerusalem, from the Jordan-Iraq border to the Lebanon-Syria border, I cherished the many lessons that stemmed from conflict management, gender analysis in conflict-affected settings, and mindful presence with a generous side of faith in humanity. The past year required that I put the suitcase and boarding passes away and learn lessons of groundedness, emerging from libraries and owning a permanent mailing address alike.

My friend Kate has been an invaluable companion on this journey. Hers was the home I would always visit between stints of field work. My every transition was marked by sitting at her breakfast table, with each of us in the same seat every time, as though they were assigned. There were crepes and endless cups of coffee and whispered daydreams of living a mere walk away from each other. It was through glimpsing into Kate's life that I first realized that some of the images of permanence began to resonate. I loved her pantry---never mind that I do not cook unless there is an emergency. I loved the idea that one can be rooted long enough in a place to fill a pantry. I loved her shelves, carrying all the books she had read. Even though I have always been an avid reader, my books would either nest in my Kindle or would be gifted in paperback form to other traveling professionals I'd meet along the way. Permanence allows one to own books and anchor them in bookshelves.

On August 5, 2012, Kate and I did get our wish, as Elijah and I moved a mere 15-minute walk away from Kate and Erhardt's apartment. The breakfast table became a fixture in my new Boston routine. It held pistachio muffins and macadamia nut coffee, red wine after a particularly bad day and ice cream once the healing had started. We gathered there to share our anxiety and fear, our anticipation and hope. We gathered at Kate's place to recover from the Boston bombing, to cheer the Boston Bruins on, to eat popcorn 'just because' on a Sunday evening. I have had a lot of practice in the art of leaving, the art of transition, and---recently---the art of returning. It is through Kate that I have slowly learned that staying is, indeed, an art.

On the weekend before my departure for Colombia, friends came together to celebrate Kate and E's engagement party. In many senses, for me, this was not only an ode to love, but also an ode to Boston and to staying. There was lobster, which all but one of us had no clue how to eat, thus flinging it clumsily on hair and fishing pieces of it out of our bibs. There was clam chowder---or, as Elijah corrected me, chowda. You can't live in Boston and not be tempted to pronounce it like that. There was wind in hair. Courtesy of said wind and my own clumsiness, I spilled red wine at least twice and nobody cared. More giggles. The evening capped off with a walk through the North End, Boston's famous Italian neighborhood. There was a table of rotating desserts. The table could hold no more than 4, but we managed to park all seven of us there, as well as our gelato, tiramisu, limoncello, and array of cakes.

Thanks to Kate and Erhardt, and their love, I now know this: The art of staying tastes like rotating desserts, dug into with the same spoon, with your friends affectionately shoving bites of gelato in your mouth.

By the time you read this, Roxanne is in Colombia. Follow her journey there on Stories of Conflict and Love. She promises she'll be back in Boston in the fall, as she feels accountable to her friends, to love, and---naturally---to chowda.

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.

Slippery words of another tongue

eternally nostalgic

Every so often an article catalogues untranslatable words from around the world. For example, as this Matador Network piece tells me, mamihlapinatapei means "the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start" in Yagan, an indigenous language of the Tierra del Fuego. According to the same article, the word 'tartle' in Scottish refers to "the act of hesitating when introducing someone because you have forgotten their name." And then there is my personal favorite: saudade. Not quite nostalgia, not quite longing or yearning, not a blend of both. There is more to saudade---and perhaps its magical grip lies in that untranslatable space the other words do not quite capture. I grew up in a word-loving family, with Greek as my mother tongue. Tallying up the score of Scrabble games with my father exposed me to double-digit addition and to the perennial "is that a word?" any game of Scrabble inspires. Studying for the SATs as part of the process of admission to an English-speaking university in the United States exposed me to a whole other family of potential Scrabble words. While I excelled at the questions that required knowledge of words with a Greek root, I struggled with the ones that required test-takers to pair an animal and their young. What do you call a young lamb in English? What do you call many doves flying together? The kind of knowledge that one acquires in her childhood when English is her native tongue was foreign to me. And so at the age of 16, I scribbled on flashcards: "An ewe is a baby lamb." "A calf is a baby cow." "A constitution is a group of doves, a pride is a group of lions, a pack is a group of wolves."

The realization of my own English fluency sank in when I began to dream in English, when the English words started seeping into my subconscious, displacing the Greek ones. When I started learning Spanish, or German, or even fledgling Arabic and Hebrew, I noticed that there came a moment when the precious few words I had mustered would find their way into my dreams---or, indeed, my nightmares, as that one night in Bogotá when I dreamed that I could no longer speak a word of Spanish in front of a room of 750 ex-combatants would attest to. I still maintain my connection to my mother tongue and actively try to cultivate it, even when there are few people with whom I can speak Greek in my daily life at present. I read the Greek news, and I return to my favorite book of Greek poetry by Odysseas Elytis when I am homesick for Greece or hunting for inspiration. And still---I can feel the words slipping away as soon as the language of my dreams shifts away from Greek.

It is not just the words that slip; it is also the fundamental functionalities. For a long time, I spoke 'professional Spanish.' You could ask me to lead a conflict management training and I would produce polysyllables comfortably. Put me in a bar surrounded by Spanish speakers and I would be effectively mute. The casual rhythms of a language often lag for me. I long for familiarity with those words that break the stiffness. When I aspire to fluency in another language, I hope for those words of wit and smiles, the teasing words or casual words you only learn by living somewhere and listening closely for motifs and idioms. The more of those I accumulate in a language other than my mother tongue, be it in English or in Spanish or otherwise, the more the informal Greek slips away from me. Put me in a bar in the Greece of 2013 and I would struggle with not having the ease of conversing naturally like a young person who knows she can find the word that best describes what she wants to express---the perfect word for saudade or mamihlapinatapei.

When I first arrived in the United States as a college student, I felt the impact of words in Greek. "I'm sorry" was a concept I understood by relating it to its Greek iteration: συγνώμη. "I love you" was Σ' αγαπώ. It was as though I experienced the full weight of those words only if I uttered them in my mother tongue. "I love you" did not feel intimidating in the way that saying 'Σ' αγαπώ' for the first time did---because I associated the nerves of young, unuttered love with Σ' αγαπώ and not with "I love you." Saying 'I love you' in English initially felt like performing in that way that speaking a second language often does, thus robbing the words of their full power which only existed in Greek in my mind at the time. After living in Guatemala and Colombia, I became conscious of the many linguistic iterations of "I love you", of the difference between Te deseo and Te quiero and Te amo. Despite the beauty and benefits of multi-lingualism, I never quite want the impact of αγάπη to fade---I never want the Greek iteration of words to feel more foreign or distant to me than the English word 'love.'

Every time I arrive at a new country for my job, there are words I am immediately curious to learn how to say. Empathy is one such concept, as are the words that express gratitude or respect or compassion. English is the default language in which I think now; every new word learned in a foreign language gets translated in my head to English before it's fully comprehended. And much as I celebrate fluency and linguistic curiosity, a little part of me grieves for the Greek words that quietly slip away.

*If you have a moment, look up my favorite untranslatable Greek word: filotimo -- φιλότιμο, as telling of my mother tongue as it is of my people.

Saying Goodbye

This is the story of our first house. We bought it when we moved back from a failed attempt to live in Seattle. It was the house we bought out of defeat, when we truly just needed some place to live. But it was also the house we bought from the desire to dream big. We had big plans for the place. We were going to transform it from ‘barn’ to ‘beach barn’ to ‘modern cabin’. In two and a half years we did transform many things. We renovated four bedrooms and put two and a half new bathrooms in. We removed popcorn ceilings and installed laminate floors and repainted every room. But at the end of the day, there was still so much to do and we realized we weren’t the family to do it.

This is also the story of the first years of our marriage. Of the countless fights at Ikea about bathroom sinks and faucets. Of nights spent dreaming and deciding how large our family should be. I’ll never forget the orange tile we didn’t replace and how dark the living room was. I won’t miss the countless spiders and broken French doors. I already miss the perfect location though, at the end of a dead end street, just a short bike ride to the ocean.

In the end it felt like the house won. We tried to modernize it and change everything, and in the end we changed more about ourselves. Perhaps moving makes you introspective. We thought we wanted the big house with two big cars and a bunch of kids. Instead we realized more isn’t more. A big house meant more cleaning and more junk accumulated. Now I long for a simpler life, with a little house, or an apartment. (Apparently we are the worst with yard maintenance). Charming and older, where we can raise our two boys and dog and focus more on that than renovations. It’s amazing how much change two and half years can bring. When we moved into the house we thought we wanted several more kids, and then maybe only one, and then brought home our last and final baby to that front stoop. We learned much about ourselves and our marriage, where we wanted to go and what we wanted to accomplish. And now, are suitcases are packed, the house is almost empty and we are ready for our next great adventure. When people ask where we are going, we tell them we aren’t sure. But isn’t that kind of exciting?

You can follow my moving saga on Instagram @shannon_oertle

Don't unpack the coffee-maker yet.

eternally nostalgic

On the first day in our new apartment, we got locked out.

He had done all of the moving, from the bookshelves to the suitcases of clothes and the food to the curtains. Every time he reminded me, I reminded him that "I did all the packing", as though that were somehow the same -- as though one needs to equalize the burdens of transition. While he was lugging our lives' belongings up the new windy staircase, I was presenting my research on wartime sexual violence at a conference in Canada and putting the finishing touches on a conflict assessment in Pakistan.

What is it that grounds us in a new home? Is it our feet on the ground, physically through the new doorway, keys in hand? Is it the first story that you tell about it, the first memory you make?

My initial answer has always been that a home needs to look like a home in order to feel like a home -- whatever that means. From Sudan to Guatemala, I have always been a fervent unpacker. Once my feet are on the ground and I have shut the door behind me, I need everything to find its rightful place. In this vision of settling in, it is irrelevant whether my belongings are as sparse as a few changes of clothes and a toothbrush or as weighty as desks-and-shelves-and-curtains. My usually vast patience for transition and uncertainty evaporates the second I am graced with the perception that I have arrived somewhere and, once that perception sets in, the cardboard boxes need to be out of sight, as do all tokens of impermanence.

This is why, on my first night back from the conference on gender and armed conflict, I was building a desk, still in my slacks and blouse.

What if it is the first memory you make that grounds you in a new home? The first narrative that emerges that can guide all the other stories along?

On the first day in our new apartment, we got locked out. I departed for my conference from our previous home, zigzagging a carry-on suitcase past cardboard boxes waiting to be transported. That was the last time I walked out the door of that place, parting with that site of memories. I did not even have keys to the new place; they, like all our life belongings, were with Elijah, patiently supervising the move in my absence. At the end of a day of lugging and carrying and lifting, he came downstairs to let me in ... and the door closed behind him. That is how I found myself on my new patio, still in heels, googling locksmiths. It was our first night in the apartment, and we essentially had to break in.

"How do you usually open this door?," the locksmith asked. We just stared. "I have yet to open it," I admit. He looks at me dumbfounded.

"You two don't live together?"

"We just moved here," Elijah offers. "Idiots," is written all over the locksmith's face.

Locksmiths learn an awful lot about a couple's life, as it turns out. They know, for instance, how her conference presentation went and, if they eavesdrop carefully enough, they may also know a thing or two about the patterns of wartime sexual violence. They know he paces on the patio, exhausted from moving, frustrated that this is how they have to make their new beginning. They know she taps her foot because it is too early to appreciate the humor of it all. An hour later, she crosses the doorway of the new apartment and adds the carry-on suitcase to the pile of items that need unpacking in the foyer.

Memories of homes in which I have lived are attached to patterns of light. The early Saturday light hitting our bed in Somerville, the Jerusalem light flooding the window seat in the afternoon, the light on the tin roof in Bogotá, reflecting onto my face as I sit at the kitchen table. Watching the light move through this new home, finding its sunny corners and cozier coves, is how memories start.

But truly, what grounds me in a new home is not the fervent unpacking -- though I can admit that less than a week into our stay here, there is not a piece of furniture that has not been assembled and a cardboard box that has not been recycled. It is routine that I find grounding. The start of a story is, in part, marked by that first moment of memory and in part by new light gracing unexplored spaces. But the next chapters, the threads that tie it together and let the patterns emerge, float out of the small motifs of daily life. New stories begin with an exhale, as though we are trying to breathe life into a new home. This is why I asked Elijah not to unpack the coffee-maker quite yet. I am trying to hold on to that moment of brewing the first pot of coffee, finding a corner in which to read, and opening one of the books on my summer reading list.

We are still bruised. On our second day here, I hit my head on the mantel so hard that I still have a bump on my head to prove it -- and this was before the first grocery run that would have supplied the frozen peas to stick onto my head and take the burn away. Our knees are bruised from bumping into furniture in the night. I still walk with my hands outstretched, feeling around for the new space, squinting in the dark. I do not have the seamless routine of 'home' quite yet, of knowing where the sharp edges are, and where the light switches are hiding, and which cables not to trip on, and how to stick the key in the lock smoothly and unlock it with the confidence of someone who repeats that motion every day. I am holding on to that first cup of coffee and to the exhale that will accompany it.

Home begins with light, with a story and a memory, with an exhale. Home begins with a cherished ritual.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading

Erin Riley was born in Los Angeles, spent some time living in Maine and Boston, and currently lives in the Scottsdale, Arizona.  She has four kids—two grown up boys (men, really) and two little girls.  Riley graduated from law school, but doesn’t work as a lawyer.  Her real training is in philosophy, but as everyone knows, the call for professional philosophers has really dropped off in the two hundred years or so.  She recently started a blog, Ordinary Good Fortune, as a forum for her musings about everyday life.  She loves to write—almost as much as she loves to read, which is a lot---and would someday like to achieve the goal outlined in her third grade career day essay and be “the authoress of many, many books and stuff.”  For the time being, she tries to squeeze in some writing between getting her little girls to eat their dinner and clipping money saving coupons.  She’d also like to let everyone know that she is the woman who is married to the best guy in the world. She sincerely hopes everyone else is very happy anyway, though.

Here's the thing you should know about me and books:  I read a lot.

I wasn't always a promiscuous reader.  At first, I was a serial monogamist, a dedicated lover of an author or series of books.  My first serious involvement was at six, when my mom introduced me to Nancy Drew.  This was after a brief, unsatisfying, encounter with the Bobbsey Twins.  I could never really get close to them though, because, honestly, two sets of fraternal twins (one blond, one brunette) solving the candy-coated mysteries they stumbled into at ski lodges and amusement parks?  It seemed pretty far-fetched to me.  I felt like I was being lied to.

So my first true literary love was old-school Nancy, the motherless daughter of a kindly lawyer. She was an independent lass out on her own much of the time in the surprisingly dark underbelly of her idyllic town, River Heights, where there were plenty of diverted inheritances to restore and missing treasures to recover.  Not only did each book keep me going from chapter to chapter (these were the first books I read by night-light glow after I was supposed to have gone to sleep) but the series kept me moving from book to book.  I hungered for the next time I could read Nancy again.  I didn't feel like I was fulfilled until I gone through every volume I could  wheedle my parents into buying.  When Nancy and I were through, I fell for Encyclopedia Brown.

I wasn't satisfied for long though.  I got my own library card and soon, the Mission Viejo main branch was knowingly facilitating my year-long liaison with Agatha Christie.  I met Poirot on the deadly, fast-moving Orient Express, and Miss Marple in a cozy yet dangerous vicarage in the English countryside.  I devoured book after book.  I even read the Tommy and Tuppence stories, mixing it up with the bright young things of London in the 1920's.  By the time the Babysitter's Club and the Sweet Valley High series were luring YA readers in my suburban neighborhood, I was already plowing my way through Harlequin Romances, and I had started to seek fresher, more adult thrills---Stephen King and Nora Roberts and other prolific authors cranking out book after book. Even though they didn't stick with the same characters, I could still be faithful.  I proved my devotion over and over as I moved on to classic literature, having it on with Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Edith Wharton, even Henry James, sipping tea in the drawing rooms of country homes and working in the sculleries of forbidding manors and setting off on European Grand Tours with the richest and poorest of relations.  Even when they didn't appear on my summer lists of required reading for high school.

But soon, even though I still went everywhere with a "good" novel tucked into my bag, my head was turned  by the new fiction that flowed freely in the Brat Pack era---Tama Janowitz, Jay McInerney, Brett Easton Ellis---you know the types. I worked in bookstores then, and before I knew it, I was heavily into Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie and Michael Chabon.  I cruised the reviews looking for something  hadn't seen before. Then, I began to really play the field. I read memoirs and literary nonfiction. I did what I hadn't thought possible:  if a book didn't really do it for me, I'd dump it for a new one.  I'd start several books at a time, lead some on and then shelve them for months or callously return them, unfinished, to the library from which I'd borrowed them.   I could still fall in love, of course, drawn in slowly by little details, then driven to stay up all night to feverishly finish a novel, work and kids be damned.  I'd witlessly sleepwalk through the next day just to reach the conclusion of my latest literary conquest.

As real life got more hectic, I found myself inescapably drawn to short stories and essays.  Maybe it's all the time I've spent in college and grad school.  When you always have something you're supposed to be reading, like tort cases or comparisons of the good life according to Plato and Aquinas, free reading is totally cheating on your required material. Reading a short story from a collection now and then is like flirting with that cute guy at the office, where you giggle and twist your hair and enjoy a flushed, provocative moment. It gets you in the mood for some real action with your steady, serious partner. But reading a novel is like having an affair, somehow leading a double life because you become so deeply involved, you neglect your main relationship. These things often end in tears.

So what am I reading now?  Short stories, baby.  And essays.  I still read novels of course, but it's always  the same:  I tell myself I'll go slowly, but I become involved to the exclusion of everything else, staying up late to finish and swearing that I won't do it again---for a while.  But I'm so easily drawn back in.  I just can't help myself.  I'm obsessed by good prose, in whatever form I find it.

A few story collections I'm currently enamored with:  What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander;  The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham; You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett;  and Vampires in the Lemon Grove and St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, both by Karen Russell.  I've also recently loved Eat, Memory:  Great Writers at the Table: A Collection of Essays from the New York Times, edited by Amanda Hesser; Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford and Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple.

Right now, I'm in the middle of The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro and An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family, edited by Nell Casey.  Yeah, I'm reading all of them at the same time.  Don't judge---like I said, I just can't help myself.

Meet the Local: Sydney, Australia

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 meet Ben, a hometown enthusiast who has figured out the key to his happiness.

Meet the Local Sydney

What do you like about the place you live?

A million things.  Sydney is a terrific place.  It’s a very active place mainly because we have such a great climate, even in the winters.  You can always get out and about and be in the sun.  And there’s just tons to do---the bush isn’t far away, and the whole coastline is beach beach beach beach . . . It’s a really active lifestyle.  There are a ton of musical festivals every summer, there are pop up bars left right and center.  I quite like that Sydney is geographically quite disparate as well.  There are little valleys and basins and beachy areas that have different sorts of people so it’s not one flat lump; it’s a really interesting sort of tapestry.

What don’t you like so much?

A current gripe of mine is that Sydney and Australia as a whole is a very, very big nanny state.  There are rules and guidelines for everything.  As an example, I contribute so much money to the council coffers in the form of parking fines and speeding fines---it’s just silly little things.  They’re trying to make you behave a certain way---and it’s a terrific standard of living, don’t get me wrong---but you have to play within the rules.  It gets a bit stifling, a bit claustrophobic.  If you’re not of that mindset, if you’ve experienced different things, if you’ve been to third world countries, you just find it a little annoying.  It feels intensely civilized---a little too civilized, personally, for me.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

Two pieces of toast with butter on them, and Earl Grey tea.  It used to be coffee, but I’m trying to stick to one coffee per day and I need to get over that 3 PM wall, so that’s my coffee time.

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

I’m called a Community Manager.  I work for a company called Yelp, and as a Community Manager for Yelp I do a couple of things.  I throw parties, I teach people to use the website, I write a newsletter that goes out every week (I particularly enjoy writing, so that part is really appealing to me).  They often refer to it as the unofficial mayor of the city.  You know the places that are opening, you get asked so many times: where’s the best place for tourists, or for dates, or to enjoy a summer’s day, or for a bush walk?

My job is very important to my sense of self.  I used to work in advertising agencies in the corporate world and then I got to the point where I was making ads for a living and I did everything I could outside my work life to avoid ads---I just hated them---so there was that weird disconnect there.  It was really good money, but everyone was polluted, was whinging about not having a life, and working too hard.  It was the same sort of record on repeat.  I’m a natural optimist but I heard myself getting into this really negative mindset.  So I quit my job and was looking for something else, and then Yelp came along.  I really like the idea of setting my own schedule, and try new ideas.  Being able to have that freedom is really nice.  It has a real people power, which is what I was looking for after the corporate world with everyone just chasing money.  There was a lot of talk among my friends at the time going back to when you’re young, when you have to go to school and get good grades.  Why?  To get into university.  And then you have to do well at university---why?  To get a good job.  And then you have to get a good job---why?  To earn money.  And then you’ve got to get promotions---why?  To earn more money.  Money is just the root of all evil.  What we’re doing at the moment, it’s not the antithesis of that, but it’s more about community, being hyper local.

What do you do for fun?

I like being in nature, so I play a ton of sport. Swim and surf and beaches are so close that every weekend I go for a swim.  I really like music; I go to a lot of music festivals.  I read a lot.  I really enjoy writing.

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

I’m trying to buy an apartment in the city right now, which is shockingly difficult.  I think we’re the second most expensive city in the world right now to buy real estate – a half a million gets you nothing.  So I moved back home with my mum to try and save, otherwise it’s just an untenable position to be renting and trying to buy.  So I see my mum a lot.  My twin sister lives in Denver, and my brother lives in London, so we’re quite spread out, but we Skype at least once a week, maybe twice.  And we try to have at least one family holiday a year, where we all meet up in some destination.

 What’s your biggest dream for your life?

I want to keep traveling and I want to write, whether it’s for my own amusement or professionally.  Other than that, it’s fairly simple.  I don’t want to invest in properties or anything like that – I just want a house I can live in and a life in the sun, a family at some point down the track, definitely a dog – a pug – and that’s it.  That’s pretty much it.  And to live somewhere I can be in touch with nature.

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

I really feel an affinity for second and third world countries, where the boundaries are a little bit looser and you can do more things.  You can go shoot a gun in the hills if you want, you can take a car and drive wherever you want, you can camp wherever you want, because the land is free – not everyone owns every single inch of land like they do here.  So somewhere like Mexico or Morocco would be incredible.

 What are you most proud of?

This might sound quite trite, but I’m quite proud of figuring out what makes me happy and adjusting my life to follow those lines.  I’ve figured out that the more simplistic life is, the easier it is to be happy.  If you have worries and stresses and bigger things to look after, you can’t focus and you can’t really get true happiness.  The people that have the least are the happiest.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I’m a massive optimist, I can see the good in anything, so I think I’m probably a nine.  I was probably around a seven before.  The downside of being a natural optimist is that you tend to stay in situations longer than you should because you can always see the good in them, even if they’re crap.

The change happened over the course of a year.  I had a really shitty year a couple of years ago where my dad died.  He’d worked so hard to provide for the family and it was really, really sudden.  He was riding a motorbike in the Himalayas. He was a mild mannered accountant, and he went on this trip of a lifetime and didn’t come back.  That was when I sort of found myself at a crossroads, asking myself if the corporate life was right for me.  My dad was a self-made man, an immigrant from Pakistan.  He came here with nothing and built a whole life up and all of the sudden, things were taken away.  So it sort of gave me a bit of immediacy and made me value my time a bit more.  I realized you can work and be happy at the same time – so that was my epiphany.

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

 

April Showers and May Flowers

Growing up spring always meant a trip to the nursery or garden shop to pick out flowers for the raised beds in my parent’s backyard.  My little sister and I would wander through the rows, navigating bags of mulch or potting soil and make suggestions to my mom about what we thought looked nice. My suggestions were often refuted as I almost always failed to pay attention to the sun/shade requirements.  In the end we’d each pick out a couple of pansies or black eyed susans that we particularly liked and then it was back home to plant.

Even as a child I never enjoyed playing in the dirt.  When it came to digging holes and placing our flowers in the raised beds, I always wanted work gloves and a large trowel.  Heaven help us all if I dug up a worm.  Our pansies and mums always looked so small, almost lonely in the large beds- spread apart and dug in.  But of course as the summer went on, they bloomed and spread out in a colorful sea.

I guess that’s why whenever April and May roll around and the stores begin putting out displays of flowers for planting I get a tiny tingle and start to consider.  Maybe this year I’ll put a couple flower pots out on the deck.  Maybe I’ll grow some herbs. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow with the skill of Martha Stewart.  The truth is I have a black thumb.  I have exactly one plant in my house, a bamboo that requires little to no care and only an inch of water.  Even that I’ve had some close calls with.  So I’ll continue to leave the planting to my parents who have moved on from flower gardens to vegetable.  I’ll gratefully enjoy the salsa and fresh asparagus when I visit and I’ll admire the flower displays from afar.

A New Perspective

mind the gap

Once, I called my Dad from New York.  It was the middle of December, and I’d been living in the city for three months. “Dad,” I said.  “I woke up this morning feeling so bummed, and I don’t know why.”

“Mmm,” he said.  “SAD.”

“I know.” I nodded into the phone, and stuck my lower lip out further, as if he could see it.  “It is sad.  And I felt stupid cuz it was for no reason, but I thought I could call you because you’re my dad, so you have to care.”

“Well,” my dad said.  “That’s debatable, but I was talking about SAD.  Seasonal Affective Disorder.”

It was my first winter outside of California or Arizona; that is, it was my first winter.  I spent awhile half listening to my father explain Seasonal Affective Disorder, and then awhile Googling it.  Like most ailments I look up online, I had most of the symptoms:  oversleeping?  I never woke up before my alarm.  Social withdrawal?  Who in their right mind would brave the gusting wind and snow to meet up with friends?  Weight gain? Well, wasn’t that just my body’s way of trying to stay warm for winter?

Because it made me feel better to say that I had something, I bought a blue light lamp that sat on my desk.  Supposedly, this was supposed to mimic sun, making my poor, confused brain think I wasn’t spending much of my year in a climate mostly uninhabitable to humans, breathing in the breath of a thousand coworkers, only going outside during the pitch dark mornings and evenings during my commute.  Did my brain think I was on a sunny beach in the Caribbean?  I’m not sure.  Did having the bright blue light shining in my eyes make me feel like I was doing something to help myself?  Let’s go with yes, although not enough for me to forget it at the office when, that summer, I left the company.

Fast forward to the next winter.  This time, I was in London, at a latitude---God forbid---even further north than New York.  In London, I’d peek out my window and find that night had fallen at 3 pm.  In London, the snow was pretty the first day and freezing and slippery for the following forty-eight.  When people asked me if I was enjoying London, I would tell them that the grey cloud layer that lay over the city like a reverse blanket was making it awfully hard to go out and explore. I’m sure I’d like London, I’d say, if I felt like I could see it.

Within the past few weeks, though, something magical has happened.  Tentatively, the sun began showing its face, finally casting away the clouds to blatantly, brightly hog the bright blue sky.  People began spilling out of their houses to fill park benches; pubs began dragging heavy wooden tables onto sidewalks and streets and roofs and alleyways---anywhere, really, which qualifies as outside.  I went to the grocery store the other day and found it closed when I arrived.  “Sorry,” the manager mouthed, pointing to the sign he’d just hung in the window.  “We close at eight.”  Eight?  I looked at the time on my phone, then up at the perfectly sunny day, then down at my phone again.  Even the sun loves London in the summer, it seems; it refuses to pack it in and call it a night.

A new London began to emerge, and with it, a new me.  I was suddenly energized in the morning.  I was eager to strap on my shoes and wander down canals, discovering the new parks that pop up in every corner of this city.  I sat at outdoor cafes and laughed as my hair became dusted with a snow shower of falling flowers from a nearby cherry tree.  I watched the sun set from the top of Primrose hill, and looked past the green grass to the shining city below me, lit amber as the sun slid beyond the horizon at near nine at night, and I thought: so this is London.

SAD?  I don’t know about that.  But suddenly, I’m finding it much easier to be happy.

Everything is Beautiful

I suppose I should start at the beginning. You want to hear the birth story, right? Whether I used drugs or did it au naturale? Was there water involved? A midwife or doctor? (Birth has become so politicized). Well, I’m not going to do that. You can imagine the details and I’ll just skip to the ending---I brought home a healthy baby boy on March 5th, one week before my toddler turned three. We named him Dash Oliver. No, we didn’t have any underlying reason. I gave my husband the parameters: one syllable, kind of vaguely preppy sounding? And he came up with Dash all on his own.

I should tell you that everything is so, so very different with this one. Everything I thought I knew before doesn’t matter. I should tell you that for the first time, it is easy. Perhaps even enjoyable? I wake up and his rounded baby cheeks greet me. He is a sweet bedfellow, all smiles and coos. I want to dress him in only white, pure and clean. I am reminded that you don’t need all the accouterments that are marketed to new moms. Just some diapers and a boob. Did I mention that I am breastfeeding this time around? Don’t worry, I won’t judge you if you didn’t, or can’t, or even don’t want to. I’ve been there. But this time, with this baby, I am breastfeeding, and co-sleeping too. It has been going well, mostly enjoyable, but mostly it just . . . is. People ask how the nursing is going, and I squint my eyes and tilt my head, “Well, I guess?” He’s eating and gaining weight and I am only slightly less exhausted than I was with bottles. I am reminded how children choose their own parenting philosophies. At the hospital, while I was trying to decide whether to breastfeed this time, the nurses kept mentioning how “he just loves the boob” and “this little guy decided he wanted to be breastfed!” I liked that. I liked that for once they didn’t make it about me, the mom. My first rarely snuggled and had a terrible latch from the beginning, and this one? Completely different in every way. Will it be like this the rest of their lives? This marveling at how genes could combine in such different varieties?

I want to grasp these early days and hold them tight. Every day he grows bigger and smiles more. My heart bursts. I tell my husband, “Did Charley smile this much? I don’t think he did.” He says he did. But I think perhaps it was the postpartum depression fogging my brain. I can’t remember any smiles because I wasn’t smiling. But this time, this time I have that new mother glow of happiness. I overflow with joy. There is none of that angry, resentful feeling I carried for so long with Charley and I am glad. Is this what those mothers at the library were feeling when I used to bring Charley after crying all morning? Those moms with the sappy grins on their faces that I just couldn’t understand. It’s as if the depression left a scar on my soul, deep and jagged, and Dash allows it to heal. Every day is better than the last. I’m not sure I will be able to say that forever. But every day is bittersweet as well since I know this will be my last. Who knows, I might just be the next controversial extended breastfeeding mom! Life is beautiful and so unexpected.

I am thrilled and honored to be writing in this space again all about motherhood and identity. Two kids is an adventure and the journey is life-altering.