Mother-in-law May I

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

My husband and I met our senior year of college and got married a few years later. We've now been together for almost a decade and I still feel lucky that we happened to meet and that circumstances allowed us to grow as people and build a life together. Our families, both immediate and extended, are an important part of our lives. We hang out with our siblings often and we're happy that our two-year-old daughter can experience the joys of a close family.

Here's the problem: From the earliest days of our relationship, my husband's mother wasn't warm or welcoming to me. Maybe it's her personality; maybe it's that my husband is the oldest of 5 and she didn't have experience with how to treat potential new members of the family; maybe it's that she and I just didn't click because we're incredibly different people with very different approaches to the world. At this point, I'm obviously part of the family, so I don't think she realizes that my perspective is colored by how she treated me for the first few years of our relationship, basically until we were married.

In many important ways my mother-in-law is a generous person who certainly has the best of intentions. I recognize that and I want to focus on it, especially since my daughter adores her. Unfortunately, when we're together for extended periods of time, like family trips, I find myself getting increasingly annoyed and frustrated. We're always going to do things differently. She's always going to correct me. She's always going to insist that she's right about everything. I can't change that, so I just need to accept her and not let all these little things bother me. Any tips?

Thank you,

Throw Grandma From the Train?

 

Dear Throw Grandma From the Train,

Recently, I went to a panel discussion of faith leaders who are seeking non-violent resolution of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank.  The theme that kept coming up was forgiveness.  I rose my hand, and asked my burning question, the one I keep returning to in my life, “How do you love people that are hard to love?”  The answer I got was to try to find the humanity in that person, to separate their actions from who they are, someone worthy of love and in need of care.

I think that is what you've been trying to do with your mother-in-law.  You've been trying to see the bigger picture, be the bigger person, just enlarge everything until it all doesn't bother you anymore.  But it's not the big things that get us, with those people that are hard to love.  It's the little, petty, constant shit that wears on us until we just can't take it anymore.

I actually don’t think the key here is accepting your mother-in-law.  It sounds like some of the things she does to you are simply unacceptable.  It is not okay for her to just decide not to like her daughter-in-law, and to correct everything you’re doing in your home.  It’s okay for you to be really frustrated when she does those things to you.

But you’re right that you need to let go of them, after you feel your feelings around them.  Another thing I heard at this discussion is that holding onto resentment is like eating poison, and expecting the other person to die.

So my advice to you is: stop trying to accept your mother-in-law.  Put all of those acceptance efforts towards yourself.

Accept the way you love your husband.  Accept it so much that it can never be questioned, never be swayed even the tiniest bit by your mother-in-law.  Let it live in the swing of your hips and in your thoughts when the two of you are apart.  Love the shit out of the way you love your husband.

Accept the way you run your household.  Accept your habits, even the ones you secretly think are gross.  Accept your home just as it is.  Accept your choices for food and work and daily routine.  Meditate on your imperfections, embracing all the very things about you that she criticizes.

Accept your parenting.  Celebrate your relationship with your daughter.  Let your acceptance for how you are raising your child ooze out of you to the point that your mother-in-law’s comments about it are deflected, as if your love for your daughter is suit of armor, gleaming and true.

I say all of this as a person who has gone toe-to-toe with her own mother-in-law several times over 13 years.  Early on, I realized this woman was never going to understand me.  But she didn’t have to, because her son did.  I realized this woman was never going to agree with me about most of the choices I made.  But she didn’t have to, because I wasn’t asking her permission or even her opinion.  I brazenly made mistakes, apologized when necessary, kept my distance when I needed to, or called her every week when I felt the desire.  I know for a fact that she doesn’t accept me as I am.  But I am certain that she respects me, and even loves me.  And the reason for that is that she knows I’m not waiting for her approval, and I love her even without it.

So, you have to be your own existential detective.  What are you insecure about?  Is your mother-in-law putting her finger in some open wounds?  Then do more work in those areas, until you can shine out your acceptance of yourself so boldly that she’s blinded by it.

And for the rest, for the hurts she’s inflicted on you in the past, and the ones that she’s sure to incur in the future, forgiveness is the only sane option.  Not just acceptance, but deep, life-altering forgiveness, that does indeed bring your mother-in-law’s humanity to the fore so her actions lose their sting.

The way to love people that are hard to love, like so many mother-in-laws, might just be to love yourself harder.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Finding My Story Again

finding my story

By Shelley Abreu Last year, as my daughter’s official recovery period from a bone marrow transplant drew to a close, I stopped writing. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my creative withdrawal happened during the same month she stopped all of her medication.

For the previous two years, we followed a treatment protocol designed to cure her of cancer. This medical plan of attack was my armor. Even when things went wrong there was always a back-up plan. In fact, when the worst happened and her cancer relapsed during treatment, the doctors simply drafted a new protocol. Of course, it wasn’t really simple. She would need a risky stem cell transplant. It was done with a lot of deliberation, care and thought. But I felt like a warrior. No matter what the test, I had marching orders.

Whenever I felt like I was slipping into a worm hole of grief, I merely had to focus on what was next---what action would move us one step closer to her cure. I knew it was dangerous. Her protocol didn’t guarantee us anything. Still, I felt protected by the task of executing each phase of her plan. There was always something on the horizon to focus on. And with my writing, there was always something positive to report. Yes, I could write about my fear and worries, but there was always tangible hope.

This past October, after ten months of post-transplant isolation, my daughter took her last dose of cancer related medicine. It was a day of celebration. I hung a banner, and we made a special dinner. I felt elated.

Then there was nothing left to do. Suddenly, the worm hole widened its mouth---jaw chomping like a wild beast. What now, it taunted?

When I sat to write, I found myself reflecting on the past or contemplating the future. But I couldn’t bear either. I was done reliving everything we had endured. And the future carried the burden of “what-if.” All we could do was wait and see and pray that the cancer didn’t return. The battle part of the story was over. And all our friends and family were declaring victory.

“You must feel so happy,” or “you must be so relieved it’s over,” people would say. It felt like they wanted me to write the final chapter. Of course, I felt those things in part. But I’m not ready to wave the flag. I keep asking myself when will that happen? When will I feel like we’ve won? Cancer will snarl at me for the rest of my life. Sometimes I feel like I’m crouching behind a rock in a flat open field waiting for the enemy to return.

What was the point of writing anymore? Why did the story still matter if I couldn’t sum it up with positive inspiration? How many ways could I write about the endless tunnel of fear that loomed around each corner of my mind. I guess the act of not writing was my new protection, my new armor, my way of not facing the unknown.

The next few months, I began to feel depressed. Disconnected from life. Strangely, even though my daughter was doing better than ever, I felt half alive. I see now by denying by fear, and my story, I was holing up in my own emotional bunker.

Last month, our family took a spur of the moment trip to the Caribbean. It was our first vacation that required a plane ride in three years. The night before our departure, I nervously threw flip-flops and bathing suits into our luggage. I was excited but also scared. It felt perilous. We had spent the last year living safely in our home, tucked away from people and their potentially life-threatening germs. Now we were free.

When we made it to our destination, I watched my kids splash around in the pool, my daughter full of life and energy. I felt the worm hole contracting just a little bit. The warm wind hushed the snarling sound in my mind. I realized it wasn’t time to just wait and see. It was time to start living again.

When we returned home, and the kids were back in school, I opened my laptop and started to write. Why? Because I realize my story does matter.

I might not always have a happy feel-good chapter to write. But who does, really? Life isn’t about outcomes. It’s about the experience of it: the beautiful, the absurd, and the horrific. Stories teach us about living, and therefore the act of writing does too. Writing helps us shed our protective armor. It makes us vulnerable. And it leads us back to ourselves---when we are lost, we find in our words the story that connects us to the fullness of our life.

Things Remembered Over Ragu Sauce

ragu_sauce

By Eliza Deacon I’m cooking dinner on the stove, a 3 hr slow-cook lamb ragu with a bottle of good Chilean Merlot thrown in to help it along. The kitchen is dimly lit, soft sounds on the radio, I have a glass of wine on the surface next to me. The house is surprisingly quiet; my nephews asleep, tucked up in the room that was once mine, its eaves still painted with clouds.

I’m in my father’s house in England, the house I grew up in. A house that still carries, in its very fibres, all the memories both good and bad: a happy childhood, sunlit days like old 70s images, a little faded around the edges now but still remembered, and the loss that shaped all of our lives.

I flit through memories as I stand here barefoot on the wooden floor. As I stir the pot, I can see my mother sitting at the kitchen table in front of a stand-up mirror. She deftly applies her make-up, her “modeling face”, before she leaves to catch the train to London. I watch her transform, big eyelashes that make her eyes appear huge, a perfect mouth that kisses me before she goes, her scent---Rain Flower---lingers on after she has left.

She comes home and cooks us crispy pancakes for supper, the ones with the cheese filling which we love. Kate and I are both bad eaters, fidgety and easily distracted, so Mum leaves out what she calls our “bird table”. We come and go, furtively for whatever reasons at the time; she pretends not to watch as slowly the plate empties.

She and Dad gently coaxed us through our childhood. Soft, sweet memories: a handsome father, a beautiful mother, both slightly unusual in their own ways, a little different from other people’s parents and I will always wish I had appreciated it more at the time. Dad with his wealth of stories and personas: depending on his mood he could either be a ballet dancer to rival Nureyev, a brain surgeon, a Great White Hunter in Africa (he still tells people he ‘taught me everything I know’), a Russian count, an Arabian sheikh, a BBC language advisor, hired to help radio announcers properly pronounce world leader’s names such as Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Ndabaningi Sithole. Funny, I still remember all that as clear as day. He loved that people would often believe him, but Kate and I were wise, we would have him hold his left-hand little finger up in the air if he was telling the truth; needless to say we were never really that sure.

When Kate and I were new babies, and we lived next to London’s Regent Park, he used to take us there every day in the big old-fashioned double pram. “Meet my sons Tom and Jerry” he would say, or sometimes we were “Knightsbridge and Kensington”, Knight and Ken for short. Mum would just shake her head and raise her eyebrows with good humour.

I remember the parties they gave where my sister and I would sit at the top of the stairs listening to the strains of Lester Lanin at the Tiffany Ball whilst the guests mingled below us. Trips to the sea where we ate hot sausage sandwiches and walked for hours through “elephants graveyards”, the rock pools exposed when the tide went out. I remember we were always wrapped up in many layers of clothing, or perhaps we never went there in the summer, although I’m not sure that would have made any difference knowing the vagaries of British weather.

As children we were given a free rein, far more than is considered common sense now. But this was the 70s when playing in the woods near our house never raised even a thought of the horrors that it does now. As a teenager I used to cycle for an hour each morning, leaving the house pre-dawn to go and ride my horse, a flighty thoroughbred, bareback through the fields; no hat, no saddle, no cares in the world.

All this I remember clearly, like I’ve only just walked backwards a few steps to find it. This house that is the caretaker of all our memories and carries them physically and soulfully: pictures on the walls, Mum’s modelling finery in the closet, cloudscapes on the wall. In this evening light, it all blurs, then slides into sharp focus then blurs again. Beautiful, soothing, healing. I know I’m home.

This piece was originally published here and is being republished with the author's permission.

Meet the Local: Lisbon, Portugal

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 Jose, a former teacher who is making a new living in tourism after being laid off during the economic crisis.  

Meet the Local Jose Guerreiro

What do you like about the place you live?

I don’t really know how to explain…I just feel like it’s here, where I belong.  I lived in Spain for a few months, I lived in Romania for a few months, but I always feel the need to come back home.  I feel I have my family here, and I have everything here.  I really feel at home here.

What don’t you like so much?

The politicians.  Because they do all of this to our country.  The economic situation of Portugal, I think it’s their fault.  Because we work, we do all of the things we have to do, and they ruin everything.  I think this is very common in Europe, the politics are each time less credible, so the people don’t really trust anymore in politicians.  In Portugal, 40% of people don’t vote.  So the people who do vote don’t really represent anything, and the politicians can do whatever they want, because the people don’t care.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

Three slices of bread with butter and chorizo.  Coffee with milk.

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

I was a teacher, teaching sports.  I really like to work with children.  It was nice, I was doing something different than other people, because I used to work in summer camps too so I was taking the way of teaching in summer camps inside the school.  So I was not teaching sports, I was teaching games, and I was trying to teach values with those games.  First I would read the story, then I would do a game, and then I would relate the game with the story and real life.  I went to a small village to teach, but I was not from there, so when the crisis started, the people who don’t have friends are the first to leave.  So they asked me to leave.  Now, I do tourism, I run a walking tour company.  I really like it, because I can stay in Lisbon where I like to live.  I meet a lot of people, so even though my friends are leaving to get jobs in other countries, I can make new friends.  Of course, it’s not the same thing, but it’s okay.

What do you do for fun?

I go out at night, I go to the cinema.  I like to climb, but I don’t climb anymore, since I started the tours.  Because most of my friends that climb, they do normal jobs so we don’t have the same schedule.  I also like to run with my father, my father and I run together.  And travel.

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

I live with my father.  I see my mother one or two times a week, just to talk with her.  I see my sister when I see my mother – they don’t live together, but she’s always there.  My grandmother also lives with us.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

Right now, I don’t have many dreams.  I just want to make sure the situation doesn’t get worse, or at least the tours keep running as they are now so I can at least have a stable life.  Some of my friends, they are really bad in their lives.  They were married and have children but are living back at home with their parents, or they have moved to other countries and don’t really like their jobs or the conditions that they live in and I don’t want that to happen to me.   So I don’t have a dream, I just don’t want to have a nightmare. But if I had a dream, I would want a small house with a small garden where I could sit in the plants.

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

Here.  When I was younger I always wanted a house with wheels---a mobile home---so I could travel, but I think if I had that now, I would always come here.

What are you most proud of?

Now, it’s the tours.  When I came on and my friend was running them, they were almost dead.  Nobody would trust them---if you asked someone about our tours, people would say, “don’t go!  It’s terrible!”  And now we’re the sixth most popular thing to do in Lisbon on TripAdvisor, and I’m really proud of that.

How happy would you say you are?  Why?

From 0 – 10, I would be a 6.  I think everything is going well in my life, but I would like to have more friends, and a girlfriend.  My friends left---but the girlfriend, well, I’m a bit shy.

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

Healing: A Sense of Community

memory and loss

A new sense of community emerged this week in Boston. Last Monday we watched in fear as tragedy marred one of the most beautiful, treasured days of the year in our city. We held on through an anxiety-ridden week, hugging our friends a bit tighter and smiling warmly at strangers. Friday night closed with the end of a day-long manhunt and city-wide lock down. The city breathed a collective sigh as the suspect was caught. People ventured out into their neighborhoods, finally turning off the news.

This week, signs of strength are everywhere. Café signs show love for the city scribbled in chalk hearts, restaurants offered free meals to law enforcement personnel, and Syrians sent a message love through a painted sign---that was shared thousands and thousands of times on Facebook. The spirit of this city is still here, yet the questions of mourning and healing are only beginning to emerge:

 

As a community, how do we grieve? How do we heal?

Acts of violence, so close to our home affect us. The effect may be new or it may trigger old emotions. In the past week, I have watched those around me struggle with emotions spanning from indifference to shock to deep sadness. I urged my immediate community to be compassionate with the experience and allow yourself to be affected:

It is okay if you feel off this week. It is okay that you can’t concentrate or don’t want to sit in the library, even though you have so much to do. It is okay if you feel grief, or emotions you can’t identify, even though you don’t know anyone who was physically hurt or weren’t even at the event. It is also okay if you don’t feel anything. It is okay if this tragedy reminds you of other losses in your life. It is okay to miss people or moments that have nothing [on the surface] to do with what happened on Monday.

In consideration of healing, I return to stories. The world of grief and healing is full of stories. Stories that make our hearts ache and bring tears to our eyes. Stories that touch us deeply, resonating with our experiences, bring our losses closer to the surface, and in their own way, heal us. My own story of the Boston Marathon encapsulates one of my best memories: the spring, the sheer accomplishment of running 26.2 miles, and, which I did not know at the time, my last day with my father. In honor of that experience and the events of the week, this past Tuesday, I put on my running shoes and Red Sox shirt, and headed out the door into the spring air. What I needed to do was run, remember that joyful day, and spend time feeling through the grief that bubbled up out of the surface in the face of new tragedy.

Feeling, hurting, and all the other associated emotions are signs of life, signs of caring for one’s community. Be compassionate with yourself in this process. Do what feels right for you. Heal through allowing yourself to engage with the process. This is our first step as individuals that make up a truly wonderful community. As a community, we can soak in the love pouring from all corners of the world. And, within our responsibility to love these “corners” back, as individuals did by holding up a sign sending love back to Syria in Davis Square, we can reflect this sense of healing and hope.

The city I envision heals fear through love and community.

 

 

An Adopted Dad

adopted dad

By Cindy WaiteRead the first piece in Cindy's series here

I never planned out my wedding. I didn’t imagine the decorations, or the finger foods, or even my dress. I told my family, defiantly, that I’d wear jeans and a sweatshirt on my wedding day because, “Ew, dresses.” I made the sour milk face you’re envisioning. Then I did back flips on my mom’s bed, made mud cakes in the backyard, and fell asleep reading, a flashlight hidden under my covers. I was maybe a strange child.

I always said I wanted a chocolate cake on my wedding day.

“No, honey, that’s what the groom has. The bride’s cake is white,” My mom impatiently told me, again. I made my sour milk face so contorted I might have passed out from disgust.

I can see her now, my Mom, at our scratched wooden kitchen table, the plastic covering pulling over the edge, the kitchen garbage pail at her feet, a Russet potato in one hand and a peeler in the other. She would have looked up at me without missing a beat with the potato.

“Why can’t I have a chocolate cake, too? Who said only boys can have them? I’m going to have a chocolate cake.”

It made all the women around me laugh whenever I said things about my chocolate cake and jeans wedding, so untraditional was I, so my cake grew in brown, sugary divinity each time the conversation arose.

“It’ll be a BIG chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, covered in M&Ms, with chocolate sprinkles on top of that.”

Then I bested myself, “It’ll be a three layer chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, covered in M&Ms and sprinkles on top.”

I didn’t spend my young years daydreaming about my nuptials, but I did spend a lot of time wondering who would walk me down the aisle.

I call Rob, my mom’s best friend, “Adopted Dad.” He spoils me. He got me my first perfume, “Romance” by Ralph Lauren, for my birthday because I smelled it in a magazine and liked it. I liked the name as much as the scent.

I’m moderately more graceful than a baby giraffe, only slightly lighter on my feet than Shrek. I smelled Ralph Lauren’s newest scent when I peeled back the bulky page in Seventeen, and I saw myself transform from my not-quite-or-at-all-grown-into-myself body to a romantic heroine starring in my own meet-cute love story. I’d be sophisticated. I’d be urbane, a word so sophisticated, saying it put me in a new class.

Adopted Dad is divorced. He’ll be happily remarried in a few years, when I’m 17 or 18. He’ll stop being Adopted Dad then, but I’ll hold on to the title for keepsakes. Divorced Dad can be a Dad to me; he has room and time in his life to adopt me into it.

Adopted Dad lets me drive. He’s okay with me behind the wheel, guiding me from the passenger seat. He doesn’t grip the door handle and dashboard until his knuckles turn white---that’s Mom’s job, and she should get a pay raise she’s so excellent at it.

I’m driving out to Six Flags with Adopted Dad and his 10-year-old son, my babysitting charge. Adopted Dad took the day off, and he handed me the keys. I didn’t know my palms could produce sweat so fast, but those keys felt like they were dipped in oil they were so slippery. I drove through Newnan straight on to 85 North, headed for Atlanta.

I’m on the interstate, driving through Spaghetti Junction---six, eight, fifteen lanes twisted like noodles, my heart racing with nerves in the snaking, speeding traffic. This is my opportunity to prove my maturity.

I’m 16, but I swear it’s more like 20-something because that’s what everyone says. I’ve grown up in single parent years---that’s 1.5 for every 1 normal kid year. I sort of get how dogs feel, passing everyone by.

Rob tells me, “It’s okay to speed,” as matter-of-factly as though he’d said, “There are cars on the road right now.” I stare at him out of the corner of my eye, my peripheral vision stretched as I also try to keep both eyes straight ahead, my hands at 10:00 and 2:00 and my heart from fluttering straight out of my chest onto the console.

“If you have the money to pay for a ticket, then you can take your chances exceeding the speed limit,” he continues. “You can choose to break the rules if you know the consequences and accept them.”

I feel immensely loved in this moment.

This is real dad advice. This is a life lesson that seems absurd on the surface---one a Mom would yell about, eyes bulging out of her head, demanding to know what on earth he was thinking telling a 16-year-old something so irresponsible. But Dad would know that he has a smart daughter, one with a head on her shoulders that got it, that gets him, that will be a more responsible driver and person because now she’s empowered with choice and the weight of responsibility.

I’m choking up because he said this and I’m imagining that scene, and a car cuts in front of me, and my reflexes jerk the wheel enough for us all to notice, but Adopted Dad doesn’t critique. And I’m calming down now because I can do this.

Men bonded with Chris mostly, growing up. What’s a boy without a dad? They went fishing and hunting, and he learned to tie knots and change a car tire, all while I played beneath the towering oak tree in the front yard. Men lent me a lap to crawl on when I was little and reassuring, big hugs as I aged. Men taught Chris and comforted me.

But Rob took me on busy Atlanta interstates and taught me to trust my gut. He taught me the tools of the Dad trade---lecturing me on too much time spent online talking to boys and wondering if I’d like to learn how to change a tire, after all.

I still wear Ralph Lauren’s Romance. I still think of Adopted Dad when I spritz it, pushing my shoulders back and my head high and entering the mist as any urbane woman might do.

I put Adopted Dad in the “maybe” column to walk me down the aisle.

Ready to Go

ready to go

By Rebecca D. Martin "There was a great tree---a huge poplar with vast limbs---visible through my window even as I lay in bed. I loved it, and was anxious about it. It had been savagely mutilated some years before, but had gallantly grown new limbs - though of course not with the unblemished grace of its former natural self; and now a foolish neighbour was agitating to have it felled." ~J.R.R. Tolkien, Collected Letters

The big front yard maple finally came down today. All the branches had been taken off last November. In absence of any friends who could manage the substantial trunk with a mere chain saw, the official tree men returned today and took that away, too.

The baby and I watched through the gable window as the two fellows alternated at the base: chain sawing, axing, tossing wedges of wood aside. Saw, axe, toss. I expected this to go on all around the perimeter of the tree for the next hour, slow but sure. But just as the baby was losing interest in favor of the cord pull on the window blind, the unexpected happened. The entire, enormous ten foot trunk creaked and groaned. The men did some circling and pushing. Then a sharp crack, and 72 years-worth of sprouting, spreading, anchoring, and reaching fell into the road with a shuddering thump that set our dog a-barking.

Last fall, I'd mourned as the tree branches came down: no more green leaves dancing at the upstairs window; that lovely play of sunlight and shadow shifting across the downstairs living room---gone. Not to mention the temperature protection during our unairconditioned summers. The loss felt inordinately tragic, both physically and emotionally. But I thought all my sorrow had gone with the limbs. The stripped-down body left standing in the yard was merely a sad reminder, not to mention an eyesore---a ten foot high one. I was more than ready for it to go.

Imagine my surprise at the tears that sprang up this morning as the tree trunk fell, so suddenly, so heavily, down. It seemed so, so . . . irreverent. It seemed wrong. There lay the tree, bottom-up, all its striated glory exposed for the world to see. Suddenly, the blossoming circles amassed over three quarters of a century, the grey bark running its length in stripes and curves, were a surpassing beauty. The tree men seemed not to notice. They swung their axes and tossed the tree in bits and pieces into the back of their flatbed. They took a break and lit cigarettes. For them, this was any day, any tree, any job.

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, "I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals." This morning, as the tree pitched over, I could hear the clanging and banging of Saruman's machinery, as it was so explicitly interpreted in the movies, and the ground-shaking thud at each felled tree. The neighbor who frowned and made a wide berth around our yard this morning on her daily dog walk seemed to channel Tolkien's disappointment at me. "Those trees were my friends!" Darn that movie.

Still, I knew it was just a tree. I know it is just a tree. And it was dying, after all. These Norway Maples were planted when our three neighborhood streets were first developed, back in the 1940’s, and none of the trees are going to last much longer. Each yard got two maple trees, in fact, and a good third of them have come down already. More than half of the ones left are dying. Windblown and ice-laden limbs fall into the streets where cars park and children on bikes race by. The resident tree expert says that, actually, there's only one healthy maple left, back in a corner lot. He speculates about environmental incompatibility. Others have suggested bugs or disease. Whatever the root cause, our particular tree was sick, and it was time for it to go.

But there's something to be said for putting in a lifetime’s work toward such a strong and quiet beauty. It doesn't seem like something so long-lived should go as easily as this fifteen minutes of sawing and chopping have done. It seems, for a moment, that the tree should get something better than a cigarette break in memorium.

But really, there is nothing that needs be done for the tree, or that could be done, except what we did. Instead, I know what I will do. As I watched this morning, I resolved to plant another. We'll do our research this time. We've been told something called the Black Oak does well in these parts. I also have a particular soft spot for Dogwoods. Yes, we'll start another tree in this one’s place, and make our own contribution to this tiny patch of land and its future, and to the neighborhood it belongs to.

And then we'll get on with our day. With all respect to the dog-walking neighbor, and to Tolkien, and to my own sappy emotions, it was only a tree, after all. And it was ready to go.

A Fatherless Girl

fatherless girl

By Cyndi Waite

My mom runs her hand softly along my cheek, like moms do with their babies. Maybe I asked the question, "Who is my dad?" or "Where is my dad?" or maybe she preempts it. She strokes my cheek again and smiles at me.

“My beautiful girl," I imagine her saying it in the wonder-filled way she still says it today. "My beautiful girl, your daddy was a good man, but he is very sick."

This refrain is so palpable and entwined in my childhood, I know the words like a nursery rhyme whose repetition tattooed it on my memory. But there’s not a nursery rhyme for my story.

I was born in Hollywood, a fact that fills me with undue glee. I was a kid who had "a lot of personality," a euphemism for having been histrionic. I wanted to be an actress, a screenwriter, but always, I dreamed of being a Los Angeles Resident.

Because what I leave out is the "Florida" part. I'm from Hollywood, Florida, home of the Cuban and land of the retirees. It’s a far cry from the iconic “Hollywood” sign and yet, it’s true, I’m from Hollywood.

We lived in an apartment building. I can see the outline of it, and I wonder if that's my earliest memory shining through or if I've re-created a memory from pictures. It had a giant, humongous, can't-see-the-end-of-it-can't-touch-the-bottom-of-it pool. We lived there until I was three.

Mom has always been a fish, happiest near the water and stressed, searching for air away from it. Mom's angry? Let's run her a bath. Mom has to get away from work? Let's pack a bag of towels and ham sandwiches and find the nearest lake. Water is Mom's Valium.

Mom's love of the water seeped into Chris and me in the womb; pregnancy didn't keep her from floating weekends away. We came out with our arms failing in freestyle. Outside her belly, we split our time the way she had done while we were in it: between the pool and the beach. I learned to walk in the sand.

***

Mom and Chris hold my hand as we walk to the water, waves lapping my feet and calves and thighs and stomach. I’m pink and round---a perfect Gerber baby, squealing with delight at the touch of the cool south Atlantic waters (that are somehow, someway perfect, while northern Atlantic beaches are drab, the water the color of the gray sand. It’s a mystery I’ve never solved).

Chris, four years older than me, maybe six or seven, swims his way away from Mom and me. He probably travels three feet, but I swear it’s 10 feet---half a football field, even. Mom holds me over her head, and teases me, “I’m going to do it! I’m going to throw you!” and her threats aren’t threats at all but promises. And she tosses me through the air, and I’m soaring what feels like stories above the water shimmering below, and I land, laughing, in my brother’s open arms. They throw me like a football, calling plays, “Go left!” I was a precursor to my brother’s glory days on the football field, a human ball. I wonder if that’s where he learned a perfect spiral.

***

We move from Hollywood that same year, when I’m three. I still suck on a pacifier, a fact that embarrasses and endears me now---a childhood in tact, still so innocent it maybe seemed stalled, in slow motion, behind. Precocious and clever, my brother knows my sun rises and shines with him. Where he goes, I go. What he does, I try to do. Sometimes he uses his powers for good, and sometimes he uses them for evil. The line is always blurry.

We pack up the family Chevy S-10 and move to Georgia.

We say goodbye to our family and friends, and Mom says it’s time for an adventure. She drives stick shift in the small three-seater pickup truck. My legs swing around it; it's hard for her to switch gears sometimes, and I talk nonstop, except when I'm sucking on my pacifier.

She got lost, often, on that long drive. I asked a dozen times if we were lost, and she always said, “We’re not lost, we’re finding a new way," just like she says today. Sometimes I ask her when we're standing still to hear those guiding words.

Hours into the drive, Chris pipes up. “I dare you to throw your pacifier out the window.”

I eye him cautiously; at three, going on four, I’m already stubborn and incapable of turning down a challenge.

“I double-dog dare you. I bet you won’t do it.” The taunts keep coming.

I pull my pacifier out of my mouth, and he rolls down the window, and Mom intervenes.

“If you throw it out the window, I won’t get you another one,” she warns.

Chris smirks. “I triple-dog dare you.”

I can’t take it anymore, and I throw it out, watch the wind whip it, bounce it off the side of the truck and fall onto the hot asphalt. It’s gone. It’s really gone.

I start to cry.

“I love you, but I told you if you threw it out, I wouldn’t get you another one,” Mom reminds me.

Chris looks at me, pride in his eyes. “You’re a big kid now.”

I cry all night, furious and unable to sleep. Mom doesn’t buy me a new pacifier.

The next morning, I’m calm and grown up when we pull into Carl’s driveway.

New Growth

city flower

As flowers go, crocuses are excellent role models. Every spring they stretch their resilient little faces skyward and unfurl their tight little petals to whatever it is that will greet them. It doesn’t matter how much dirt and debris lies on top of them, how much snow or sleet or rain falls on them, they always seem to find a way to wriggle through winter’s thickest layers and emerge triumphant.

Recently, when I returned back to the city after a weekend away, I noticed a cluster of the royal purple variety peeping through the tops of leaves and trash that had accumulated outside of our building over the winter. I nearly swooned. But I also got to work. Seeing that one tiny sign of life made me want to see more. I went inside to get the garden gloves that I usually reserve for my own window box gardening and I got to clearing.

I yanked up overgrown ivy, I did my best to disguise hideous garden sculptures, I filled an entire trash can with leaves and sticks and plastic bags and yes, even dog poop. The work felt good in the get-your-muscles-moving-and-the-wind-in-your-hair kind of way. But after spending just an hour outside, I realized that the real work had little to do with flowers and everything to do with people.

There was Luca, age 3.5. He  lives on the 22nd floor of a nearby building and his favorite thing to grow are flowers. He told me. Then there was Jordan, mother of two and a woman who I have passed roughly 300 times without ever introducing myself. She and her sister cleaned up the gardens in every apartment they ever rented, she said. And finally there was the young man who lives in our building, whose name I didn’t catch, but who has a soft spot for tacky garden sculptures (alas) and a visiting father who wanted to make sure that I have a green thumb.

In the single hour that I spent outside clearing brush and debris from the front of our building, I had more actual conversations with my neighbors than I have ever had. It’s not surprising, really, but it is encouraging. New growth, two ways.

Boston: Stories of compassion

boston

Earlier today, explosions rocked the Boston Marathon, resulting in deaths, injuries, and widespread fear through the city I now call home. I have never quite known what to say in the wake of a tragedy and my inclination has always been to say very little and, instead, to watch, to hope, to hold humans in my heart.

As phone calls and text messages started pouring in, the irony was not lost on us or on most of our friends that we have had to do this before: The shock after a bombing, the cycle of calling and texting, the confusion, the indignation at injustice. The brain has a way of linking these experiences together and every image of the blasts in Boston calls back the sounds of blasts in Uganda and Gaza and Bogotá and Jerusalem.

We are safe, and blessed with love---and, as we heal, we count those blessings.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that the Red Cross blood banks are full, only hours after the events transpired.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that some marathoners ran straight from the finish line to the hospital to donate blood.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that Bostonians are opening their homes to stranded runners, spectators, and their families who may need a place to stay for the night.

Boston is a home so full of compassion that in my graduate school community, within minutes of the explosions, students created a spreadsheet to track down runners and spectators, offered one another rides to get out of the blast zone, tracked down those who were momentarily unaccounted for, and held one another in kindness as we struggled to process what happened. Boston is a home full of humbling compassion.

The Atlantic is compiling these stories of kindness here today, and it is to these that we turn for hope in the wake of tragedy.

So now we wait. We share meals and feed one another. We watch TV together because companionship alleviates pain, and we turn it off when solace and quiet serve us better. We resist the inclination to judge or to jump to conclusions or to spread rumors. We photograph the beautiful sunset, or walk our dogs, or fold the laundry, in search of beauty or normalcy in the face of injustice. We shower our first responders with gratitude, and we are thankful for those who keep us safe and informed under these circumstances. We hold the wounded and those whom we have lost in our hearts, and open our hugs to those still in shock or grieving. We mourn together, as a community. We look for the light in our collective home. We ask questions, with patience through the slowness of the answers. We extend compassion. We love. We keep our hearts soft, stirring for hope and for the stories that will continue to fuel our faith in humanity.

This essay was originally posted on Stories of Conflict and Love.

A Family

family

By Erin R. Van Genderen Photo by Judy Pak

My husband and I will have been married for nine months this month. That’s enough time to grow a baby, to start a family in a real, grown-up sense of the phrase. And I get that question a lot as a stay-at-home military wife.

“When are you going to start a family?”

A few days out of the week I help out an elderly couple in town who have experienced several medical mishaps in the last few years. Mr. and Mrs. Bond are still mentally sharp and living in their own home despite their declining health, and I’m only there to make sure a meal is cooked, things are tidy, pills get taken and blood pressure gets measured, and everyone gets into bed without issue.

They are frail, with Bible-page skin and fingers like bird bones. They have matching armchairs next to one another in their sitting room. They have family photographs on every wall and covering the refrigerator.

And even though Lillie’s voice is more of a whisper now and often too faint to register through Kendall’s hearing aids, she still calls him “honey.” They clasp hands at mealtime and offer up a prayer asking for blessing over the food and claiming thankfulness for all the many gifts they have received.

As tempting as it is to consider them fragile and naïve, childlike in their near-helpless old age, I can remember that they were once like me when I see these things. When Kendall lets go of his walker long enough to lift Lillie’s legs and swivel her onto her side of the bed, then tucks her in and kisses her cheek, I see a love that comes from more than fifty-seven years of life together. When he gets down on his knees to pull her chair, with her in it, closer to the dinner table, then struggles back to his seat with both hands on the tabletop, I see years of sacrifice, for better or worse.

Their marriage, more than half a century old, retains the respect and care of a relationship that many my age have still yet to taste.

So when I am asked when my husband and I will get around to “starting a family,” I get a little ruffled. Even though it’s just the two of us, in the end it will be just the two of us — and for now, just the two of us is all of the family that we need.

A Year

I’ve been in the same place for a year.  I know because the lease is up.  It’s one of those weird tricks of time that it feels shorter and longer all at the same time.  Shorter because I can vividly remember the beginning: Slowly moving in, unpacking things I hadn’t seen in over a year, little treasures and mementos, my furniture unpacked from storage and graciously carted the hour and a half journey by my parents, the elation at being in our own place and the shock that we ended up here in the middle of nowhere. Longer because there’s been so many memories made between then and now: visits from family, traveling around the state, eating at the local diner.  There’ve been new jobs and adventures, afternoons spent playing video games and sipping cocktails and quiet nights sitting and reading together.

A year ago I dropped my husband off at work, and drove the thirty miles to our new home. I found the key where the landlord said it was hidden, unlocked the front door and walked in.  I walked through all the rooms, making sure they were just as I remembered. I open and shut cabinets, peered into the refrigerator, flipped light switches, and then I danced around in the living room like a total spaz.  My husband and I had been living with family members for a year and a half, having our own place again was Christmas morning to me.  Family (both his and mine) are amazing, but there’s so much freedom when it’s your own.

[gallery columns="5"]

A year ago I was excited to be moving into a place of our own.  But I was also a little lost.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I was going to do, I was still job searching, scouring the internet for a job I could do from my new home. I was also still a little broken; I hid it well, but deep down things weren’t peachy. I was upset about the way I came to be back in the states, I felt the universe had forced my hand and I didn’t understand why. I was afraid to examine the feelings too closely so I shuttered them deep within and ignored the fact that I couldn’t speak about the fact that our plans, my plans, went up in a cloud of smoke. I ignored the fact that I wasn’t sleeping well.

Soon I found a job, one that I could do online with a company I respect.  Not long after that I found the Equals Record, summoned up my courage and sent a fan-girlesque letter to Elisabeth and Miya. Slowly I started hanging pictures on the walls and setting out knick-knacks. I settled in to this strange new existence and accepted that maybe things do always happen for a reason, and maybe this was the reason. Maybe I needed time away, time spent in a quiet rural area, time spent with just my husband for company.  Maybe I needed the time to slowly heal and accept, and then I needed the time after that to celebrate and see the possibilities again.  I needed mornings spent sipping mimosas, afternoons full of video games, and evenings spent writing thoughts on a page.  I needed the room and the place. I didn’t know it, but I found both a year ago.

Lessons from Springtime...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

We thought it would never come but sunnier days, warmer breezes and little shoots of green are finally on their way.  After winter seemed to return again and again this year, I think springtime has finally arrived.

When I notice the days finally getting longer, I become a happier person.  It’s a gift to see the seasons renew right before our eyes and here are a few things that help celebrate the coming spring season:

  • Go outside on that first really gorgeous day: Drop what your doing. . . sneak out of work early. . . cancel that evening you planned to spend inside cooking or studying or cleaning.  This is the time to enjoy the fresh air, to grab sandwiches and enjoy lunch in the park, to walk the long way home. Inevitably, the winter chills always pop back once or twice after we see the first signs of spring but if you make the time to enjoy it, it will stay springtime in your heart.  Don’t let those first warm rays of the season pass you by.
  • Clean out your closet: Go through and assess what doesn’t work for you with the change of the year, and figure out what won’t work for you at all anymore.  If it’s too old, needs too many repairs or needs too many pounds one way or the other, lose it.  You’ll feel better going into spring when you look at items you actually wear in your closet---somehow with less things, we often have more options.
  • Buy something in color: Now that you have all that room in your closet, you can afford a little treat.  We spend so much of winter in practical blacks, browns, greys. . . at least I do.  Celebrate spring by buying something in color---it might be a shirt, or a scarf or a necklace. . . it doesn’t have to be big, but just a small thing that helps you celebrate the fresh start of spring.
  • Take a walk in the rain: While what we often appreciate most about spring is the sunshine, the thing that really makes spring possible is the rain.  When living in Normandy, I couldn’t wait for the rains to stop until someone reminded me that if it didn’t rain so much, we wouldn’t have so much greenery to enjoy.  Make the time to enjoy a rainy walk and just look around to see how much it feeds the colors and growth around you.  Take that same walk in the sunshine afterwards and you’ll appreciate a whole new world around you.
  • Have a happy new year: Your Christian roots will teach you to celebrate this time of year as a renewal in the church calendar; your Persian roots will teach you to celebrate spring as a new year of new beginnings.  Like January for calendar years, and September for school years, use this variation of a new year to wipe the slate clean and reset yourself for a fresh start.  If you made New Year’s resolutions, check in with them to see how you’re doing---where you need to refocus, and where you need to reframe.  The beautiful thing about new years of any kind is that they are full of new beginnings, take advantage of that.

All my love,

Mom

Ten Years Ago

10 years ago

By Madeleine Forbes Ten years ago I said goodbye to my parents at Heathrow Airport. I remember they bought me breakfast, a dry croissant that stuck to the roof of my mouth. Later, I wrote in my diary that I felt “removed, relaxed, a slight sick feeling in my stomach”. I did not cry, I noted proudly, until I was walking through the tunnel from the gate.

I was eighteen years old and it was the first time I had ever been on a plane.

I feel sad when I think about that time. Sad for all the things I thought might happen that never did. The possibilities that once seemed to stretch over the horizon have gradually dissolved. That’s not a complaint, it’s just the way life is. With every year that passes, opportunities pass too. I will not, in all probability, have published my first novel before I’m thirty. I’m too old to be a prodigy, and unlikely to be a millionaire at any point: I’ve made too many choices in other directions. Ten years ago these were still things that had yet to be decided.

I thought I was an adult. I had stayed out all night at grimy raves in East London. I had been assistant director of a play which we took to the Edinburgh Fringe festival, sleeping in bunks in a hostel in the depths of the city. I’d spent three days in Paris with a boy I loved, who had subsequently broken my heart. I thought that one of the things that the trip would achieve would be finally moving on from him.

I had been waitressing and working front of house at a children’s theatre, so I was financially independent. Kind of. I had saved for the trip myself but as I was still living with my parents and paying no rent or bills, I now see this for the delusion it was. I knew how to roll a joint, flirt, write essays, and drive a car. I had secured a place at Oxford University to read English Literature, and now I was off on my requisite gap year travels. I was going to become a Well Rounded Person and Find Myself, and write some kind of Great Work in the process.

So when the volunteer program in Northern India, which I’d written about lovingly on my university applications, fell through, I was unfazed. I’d read a lot of Lonely Planets by then and Southeast Asia sounded easy. A piece of cake. I don’t remember feeling any fear as I found the cheapest flight, which happened to feature a change of planes in Kuwait. In 2003 the second gulf war was just starting and I remember that I was worried a US invasion of Iraq might disrupt my plans. I felt kind of glamorous as I speculated about it, as though I had already gained something of what I wanted from traveling, without actually having gone anywhere.

I had nothing booked and no contacts. I read and read, my way of making sense of the world back then when I still trusted words above all else. I had memorized almost every aspect of my potential route, train connections and visa requirements and areas to avoid. I had a tiny first aid kit and a travel towel and a money belt and a mosquito net. I had reduced my possessions, as advised by the Lonely Planet, to the bare minimum. I had I think one pair of shorts, one pair of trousers, a couple of t shirts. I planned to be away for at least six months.

As things turned out, the boy I was getting over is the same one I’m planning our wedding with now. I thought I was starting my career as a writer, filling notebook after notebook with smudges and stains from the cheap blotchy biros I bought on the road. This year, finally writing again, I finished the stack of blank books I brought home with me, like little neon tiles, adorned with kitschy asian cartoons. It was like picking up a baton from eighteen year old me.

There was that long patch in between. A decade, in fact. When I tried out wanting other things. I tried so hard I went full circle and had to go away again. That’s another story, involving bicycles, wild boar and a Uruguyan nomad, and that’s how I find myself here.

All those miles later, back where I started. Eighteen and stupid. I didn’t understand anything then, and yet I knew more than I thought I did. In a funny way, I already knew everything.

Grand Cayman: A Home Away From Home

grand cayman

By Eloise Blondiau Grand Cayman looks exactly like the postcards: white sand, a calm ocean and a diamond sun set in an azure sky. The hot, salty air hits you as soon as you step out of the plane and onto the steps leading down to the runway. I think if I had only been here once, it would be easy to dismiss the island as just that: a pretty picture on a postcard. But having spent almost every summer there---though I've lived in big, grey London all my life---Cayman looks a lot like home.

Before I could walk I used to climb up my Godfather’s globular belly as he reclined on the balcony overlooking the ocean. Not long after, I chipped my front tooth on edge the bath in his apartment and had to have it removed, leaving me with a comical smile until it grew in eight years later. I accidentally spilled most of my first beer in the jacuzzi with my older sister and her cool friends. In Cayman, I had my first kiss; first date---coincidentally still the only date where I've been picked up on a waverunner. I had my first holiday with a boyfriend here, too.

I learned how to snorkel in Cayman. My twin brother and I used to race into the ocean clumsily in our fins and headgear, smashing through the soft, glassy turquoise. We would splash gracelessly to the nearby reef to explore, searching for great whites. Although we did once come face to face with a barracuda, and the odd lobster, we never did find those sharks. If we were lucky, our parents took us to Stingray City, where schools of stingrays glide over sandbanks in open water. You can wade in the shallow water, their silky white underbellies tickling as they brush past. You can even feed the rays from an outstretched fist and watch them suck out the squid with an abrupt slurp. Although these stingrays are generally harmless unless threatened (read: trodden on), doing this still makes me feel like the fearless adventurer I longed to be as a child.

Last summer may have been one of my last in Cayman. My Godfather passed away a few years ago, leaving his huge, worn armchair empty beside the seaside view. I like to fill this vacancy by sitting there myself; thinking about him watching the news in his flip-flops and his swimming shorts. We miss him and remember him always, recalling the many stories he told us and all the wisdom learned from him as often as we can. My poor Godmother misses him the most. Now she lives alone in that beautiful apartment in the sunshine, with no one else to care for, to chatter to, to scold, to cook dinner for. She won't want to live alone there forever, and soon we will all have to leave Cayman behind.

On a rare sunny day in England, I can close my eyes and, concentrating very hard on the sun above me, transport myself to Seven Mile Beach. What is beyond simulation in London, however, is my Cayman sunset.

There is no better way to end the day than by sitting before the great ocean and all the life within it. The sun smoulders orange, until it disappears over the horizon and is swallowed by the cool sea.

Marriage Equality

equality

This week, the Supreme Court is hearing cases that will determine the constitutionality of DOMA and the legality of Prop 8. It saddens us that we have to even write this, but we believe in the fundamental equality of all human beings. Love is love is love. Here are three pieces from our archives on the subject: Renee explores the difference between Civil Unions and Marriages: The Same, But Not Equal

Nora ponders what she and her wife will tell their son about marriage inequality: On Inequality

Miya argues that marriage equality is about families, and has ideas about what laws should come from this battle. Family Equality and the Legacy of the Struggle

Please read, enjoy, discuss, and share.

Meet the Local: Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

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, meet Neno, who was born in Sarajevo and has lived there ever since, including four years spent largely underground during the siege.

What do you like about the place you live?

I like, first of all, the people.  The people and the size of the city.  Sarajevo is a quite good city to live because it’s quite a small city---it’s only 400,000 people---so you know everyone.  It’s like one big family.  And also the history, the culture.  But mainly the people.  The people are very friendly in this city, so you can always count on someone helping you in the city.  I like that feeling.

 What don’t you like so much?

I don’t like politics in the city, and the politicians.  It’s affecting the every day life---we could have better public transport, we could have more investments, we could improve many things in this city.  But unfortunately we have a lot of bureaucracy.  We have three governments, and three presidents.  It’s a small country---only four million people---so to make one decision when you have three presidents. . . it’s quite impossible.  Nothing gets done.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I drink tea, or sometimes coffee.  Then scrambled eggs, with cheese.  No pies!  Because people think we are eating the pies for the breakfast.  The pies are more for the lunch or for the dinner.  People think we are eating pies every day, but it’s very, very heavy on your stomach.  It’s more like a fast food things.  I eat pies only maybe two times in a week.

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

I’m a student of political sciences and diplomacy and international relations, getting my masters.  I lead walking tours when I have free time from my studies.  I think I will stay in tourism.  I’m studying political sciences, so people always think I will be involved in political life but I think I like history, I like the political philosophy, but I don’t see myself in a political life.  I want to send a message from this city, this country.  I think we have more to offer than just the recent history.  That’s the reason I started doing walking tours.  Unfortunately, this country still has a reputation as a war torn country.  When you say Bosnia, the first image people have is the war in Bosnia, Sarajevo under siege, but I truly believe this country is a country with a long and rich history, friendly people---I think we have a lot to offer.

My job is very important to my sense of self.  It’s very difficult life in this country.  You know, I’m 27 years old and I’m still living with my parents.  But in some ways, I have freedom because I earn all of my money.  So for my self-confidence, it’s very important that I also earn something.  Most people live with their parents till they are married, because they are close with their family, but also because of the economy.  It’s a very high unemployment rate---43% at the moment.  So unfortunately people can’t afford to have their own flat.  And also Sarajevo is a very small city, so even if I rented a flat, I would go every day to my mother’s to eat something.  So at the moment, I think it’s better to stay with my family.

What do you do for fun?

I like to hike, when it’s sunny weather, in the [1984 Sarajevo Winter] Olympic mountains.  I also like photography---I like to walk around and take photos.  I like to bicycle---there’s one part of the city that has bicycle infrastructure, so I go there and I bicycle.  I also like bowling, so I go there with my friends for bowling very often.  I also like to read, and to travel.

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

I live with my family.  We are very close, because I was here during the siege so we were always together then.  The sense of community in this country is very strong.  The people are close to each other; the neighbors are close to each other.  The siege made us closer, because we survived together the most horrible moments. I think the siege of the city affected people in a positive but also negative way.  I think that people in this country appreciate small things more.  Maybe like some other countries or the younger generations in this country, one small thing is nothing.  For example, I like to eat everything.  I’m not choosy, but I have a niece, and she was born after the war.  And we all have a Sunday lunch together and she is so picky---I don’t like that, I don’t like that---and I get so frustrated, like, you need to eat everything, because you don’t know the feeling of when you have nothing to eat at all.  I appreciate the food.  I try to enjoy small things.  But also the war had negative effects---like, I never celebrate New Year’s Eve on open squares.  I don’t like fireworks.  Whenever I hear fireworks, I get flashbacks, because it’s the same sound as the shells exploding.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

To travel around the world.  Now, I’ve traveled almost all of Europe, except the UK and Ireland.  Personally, I think that’s the best spent money.  When you learn about other cultures, you start to appreciate more about your own culture, and your own life.  But after traveling, to again always return to this country.  No place like home, no place like home.  I experienced the worst things in this country, so why not stay?  I think this country deserves a better future with smart and educated people.  We will not have a bright future if all the smart and educated people leave the country.  So we need to stay, and we need to fight for the changes.

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

I like Spain and Portugal.  The people are very similar to us here---they’re also very friendly, very open.  They also have not very good economy, like this country, but they’re like, let’s enjoy life!  Things will improve!  I can imagine myself living in Lisbon for one or two years, but like I told you, I then want to come back to Sarajevo.

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of my family.  I’m proud of my mother, my father.  Because I think they directed me in a good way, they raised me to be a good guy.  My mother for me is like a big hero because I was with her during all of the wartime.  She was also working every single day, walking back and forth through the snipers, because she needed to do something, to occupy her mind, to not be in a basement all the time.  She was working not to lose her mind, and a little bit to keep her job position. She was working for free.  Sometimes she got paid in cigarettes.

How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I am very happy because I have a good family.  I have my mother, my father, my sister, my niece.  It’s a very small family, but we are very close to each other.  That’s my biggest happiness.  Also, I’m happy because I live in Sarajevo.

To read the answers of a local Londoner, click here to meet Carleen.

Making My Time Worthwhile

breathless

I am no stranger to leading a quiet life. My junior year of high school was spent moving between bed and couch after a crippling case of mono left me unable to do much except journal and wish for more sleep. My life from that point on has involved much less “doing” and much more “resting” than it ever had before; I have learned to value quietness and contemplation, in addition to big dreams and grand accomplishments. Still, even after eight years of this new life, I find myself struggling on a regular basis with my own need to be doing something that looks and feels “worthwhile” and “productive” with my quiet time.

Days before Christmas, my husband and I took a romantic trip to the labor and delivery unit of our local hospital to figure out why my then-28-weeks-pregnant self was contracting regularly. Although we never got many conclusive answers, we didn’t have a baby that week either, and eight weeks later I am still pregnant—and still contracting.

These last two months have seen me confined to the couch for a new reason: pregnancy complications. Once again, I’ve found myself spinning through the same old doubts and worries, letting the same anxieties creep back in to my head and my heart.

A week or two ago, I decided to put together a to-do list comprised of productive, worthwhile things that I could do from my resting place on the couch. For a few days, I worked industriously on my list, checking things off and feeling proud.

And then, one day, I was tired. The contractions had kept me up for most of the night before, and I was physically and mentally exhausted. I sleep-walked through the morning, doing little bits of nothing here and there, my sluggish brain unable to keep up with much of anything.

Halfway through the day, I found myself locked in a round of internal self-castigation. Look at you, wasting your whole day, said the nagging voice in the back of my mind. Can’t you do anything that would be worth something?

Suddenly, instead of just feeling overwhelmed and defeated, I found myself rising up against that nagging voice. Isn’t it worth something to care for myself, and for my baby? I found myself asking. Isn’t it worth something to take some time to cherish my body so that it can stay strong and do what it needs to? Isn’t it worth something, sometimes, just to rest?

I have always struggled with this idea—that resting, taking care of myself, can in and of itself be a worthwhile task. That I don’t have to be filling every single quiet hour with efficiency and the kinds of accomplishments that can be crossed off my beloved to-do lists.

That day, I created a note on my computer and wrote these words as a reminder to myself: “I don’t have to be curing cancer in my resting time. I can be doing whatever I need.”

Sometimes, what I need is to be busy, to be getting a lot done. But sometimes, what I need is just to go easy on myself. To give myself a little grace. To let go of all my often-unrealistic expectations and just be.

In a society that values busyness and accomplishment, that can be a difficult pill to swallow. But still, I imagine that if I ever get the art of “simply being” down someday, I will be a better person for it.

Do you struggle with allowing yourself time to rest and rejuvenate?

On Steubenville

steubenville

Yesterday, in Steubenville, Ohio, two teenagers were found guilty of rape.  Two sixteen-year-olds were tried in juvenile court for the rape of another sixteen-year-old last summer. It’s a sordid case that’s captivated many because of the way it came to light through social media and YouTube. The case has inspired conversations about many things including issues of consent, acceptable Internet use, potential conspiracies, and the power held by high school football players in Steubenville. The last part is probably hard for some people to understand, particularly those who aren’t familiar with the fervor that surrounds high school football in some parts of the country. I grew up directly across the Ohio River from Steubenville, Ohio, and went to an equally football-crazed high school in Wellsburg, West Virginia. When I went off to college and told people stories about the role football played in my high school and community, I was always rewarded with agape mouths and disbelief.

We had pep rallies every Friday of football season, regardless of opponent or game importance. These pep rallies took forty-five minutes, and happened during the instructional day, the last forty-five minutes before dismissal. However, their impact was greater than that as both the players and the members of the marching band were dismissed from classes even sooner, in order to prepare. Before we were dismissed from our classes to go to the rallies, the band marched through the school’s hallways as a signal that it was almost time, effectively ending class. The routine was always the same, the coach spoke, the cheerleaders cheered, the dance team danced, the band played, the players marched in (hand-in-hand and in matching ties, slacks, and blazers), and the football captains made “speeches,” which were the same every week, a simple “Beat [name of that week’s opponent].” The coach spoke again. The crowd cheered. We were dismissed.

The rallies weren’t mandatory, but virtually everyone went. Sometimes I chose to go to the alternate activity, a study hall, to join a handful of other students, primarily Jehovah’s Witnesses (who considered the rallies blasphemous). I didn’t have any meaningful reason as to why I skipped some of the rallies, other than that on some days I wasn’t in the mood for all the pageantry and noise. I wish I could say it was some sort of principled stand, but it was more apathy than anything, and sometimes simply the nerdy wish to get some homework done before the weekend.

I remember one football Friday in particular when we had a two-hour delay because of snow, yet we still had our pep rally. This meant that classes that day were, if memory serves, about 23 minutes long. I knew that was insane then, but as a teacher now, it feels really, really insane. Yet none of my teachers seemed to notice or mind.

When I was in tenth grade, sometime in the first couple weeks of school, the football coach (who had been my ninth grade health teacher), came into my study hall, and said, “Nora, you’re coming with me.” I grabbed my stuff and followed Coach. He explained that he wanted me to work with him in his office during that study hall period and knew I would do a good job. I was a pretty cynical sophomore, but I felt honored in spite of myself. Coach was as big a celebrity as our county had. For the next three years I spent my study halls at a table adjacent to Coach’s office, doing a mix of my homework and his errands. I don’t think the school’s budget allocated money for him to have an administrative assistant, so he simply lined up students (all girls, in my memory) each period of the day to be there should he need help with anything clerical. I didn’t really mind because I gained a quieter place to study and his errands allowed me to stretch my legs and sometimes chat with friends I saw in the halls. Now, whenever I wish I had someone to help me make photocopies of tests, or put up a bulletin board, I realize that Coach’s influence meant that he could command certain benefits no other teacher could.

Our football team was very good, and often a contender for the West Virginia state championship, just like Steubenville’s is a perennial contender for Ohio's.  The stadium was and is huge, and it was often a ton of fun to go to the games. Everyone from town was there, and it was festive and communal and often exciting. Places shut down on Friday nights, and the biggest radio station in the area played all of the games. I liked hearing my friends in the marching band play. Something about being at the games with my friends, bundled up, cheering, and drinking hot chocolate, felt quintessentially wholesome and American.

Of course, at a macro level, very little of it was actually wholesome. The football program took resources away from other sports and other educational programs. The players were treated as heroes, which often led to disappointment for them when high school was over, not to mention bad behavior during high school spurred on by their lionization. The culture of the school was a social pyramid with the players and cheerleaders on the top, with little room in the social stratosphere for the appreciation of those with non-athletic talents. But when the team was winning, we were all in something together, and people were willing to forget the other stuff for that fleeting feeling.

Well, for Steubenville, that fleeting feeling has been eclipsed by a horrifying story. It’s a dark mark on a grey landscape. In the Weirton-Steubenville metro area, the steel mills have all shut down, and the unemployment rate has gone up in the last two years when it’s gone down elsewhere in the country.  The average household income hovers right around 35k a year. High school football, for many, has long been the bright spot on that grey landscape, but now the whole country knows that football simply can’t be its savior.

 

 

 

 

What it sounds like

I didn’t notice how quiet winter was until spring came along. Last night, I fell asleep to birds chirping, and this morning, I woke up to more of the same. Since the frenzy of our wedding came and went in October, a funny sort of quiet has settled over our lives. It is the quiet of two quiet people smiling at each other over steaming cups of tea. It is the quiet of a sleepy dog curled up in a pool of light beneath the window and the quiet of a corner apartment at the end of the street.

It is the quiet of working hard, mostly, or of searching and watching and waiting for work. You can count on the gentle clacking of keyboard keys and the clicking of mice at any point during the daylight hours. Sometimes the hum of the dishwasher or the rumble of the dryer kicks in with a sort of baseline, offering signs of domesticity.

It is the quiet of staying in on Saturday nights for any number of reasons, the foremost of which is that we like each other’s quiet company. It is the quiet of a few plants nearly dying every few weeks and then graciously coming back to life when I remember to water them. Much to my surprise, a certain hand-me-down orchid has been quietly sprouting tendrils right and left despite my careful neglect.

It’s the sort of quiet I’ve always wished for, and it’s even more lovely than I’d imagined. I grew up in a tiny, noisy house where the TV was always on and voices were always raised. I wanted nothing more than to shut out the constant tumult of lives lived stubbornly, passionately, and loudly, but the sounds always seeped in through the crack under my bedroom door and boomeranged off the walls. I hoped very much that one day, I would trade in all that noise for a quiet place to read and rest, to love and be loved. I might have even been convinced, until last weekend, that keeping quiet is the surest path to a life well lived.

But when we arrived in Baltimore last weekend for the wedding of friends, I was bowled over by the raucous, brilliant sound of joy. The singing and dancing and stomping and toasting and clapping and whooping and laughing kicked off on Friday night and didn’t stop until the lively mass of revelers reluctantly dispersed toward sundown on Sunday. I may or may not have enjoyed the expert plucking of both harp and ukulele strings in the very same weekend. And I can’t say I’ve ever witnessed so many blessings shouted from the tops of tables and chairs and anything else that would help the sound carry. I was exhausted as we drove away, but I left with a full heart and a certainty that love can, and should, be lived loudly too.