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August in the Cold

Czech vacations 2Growing up Czech, I knew that Europeans had a different notion of how to spend a summer vacation than their American counterparts. Central and Eastern Europeans even more so.

It’s not that Czechs and other East-ish Euros don’t go on the same vacations we Americans go on – Disneyworld etc. It’s more that they have a different notion of what summer is all about.

There is a back to nature quality to the warm months. A stripping down from the complexities of modern life that manifests itself in a total re-imagining of simple living.

It’s about running around naked as much as possible. And bathing in the sea or any other body of water that is not a bathtub. Why open the tap when there’s a “natural” water source around? Spelunking, climbing trees, chewing on onion grass straight out of the ground and picking wild berries and mushrooms – especially mushrooms. Cooking your own meals, wherever you are. Even if you’re in France or Italy, where they will do it decidedly better than you ever could.

black sea woman

Lakes are a very big deal, particularly on weekends.

My Czech uncle will strip naked and dive into any old lake he happens to come across – even dubious ones just off the highway that might have signs reading “No Swimming.”

He’s suffered insults – “Hey,a**hole, what are you doing?”, warnings, “Sir, you’re not actually going to swim in there are you?”, and directives “Put some clothes on, there are children present!” Not to mention his having been escorted away from many a body of water by our friends in uniform.

But that’s never deterred him.

“It’s hot! What is the water there for if not to swim?” he says. And he’s got a point.

beware of crocodiles

Some years ago, when my husband and I were visiting Prague together, he caught a glimpse of a tiny RV with a big sign posted onto the rear bumper. It read in German, “Hotel betten? Nein danke!” [Translation: Hotel bed? No, thank you!]

“What’s that about?” he asked.

I went on to explain to him that refusing a nice, comfortable hotel was often not a matter of thrift, but ideology. We have all year to get all too comfortable in our overly-engineered lives – our Posturepedic mornings, filtered water, iPhones, multi-setting shower heads, and climate-controlled interiors. Summer, August specifically, is meant to remind us of what we’re made of. Our armpits should stink, our legs and faces should be unshaven, our beds hard and our creature comforts rudimentary at best.

It’s a time to visit family – even the people you can’t stand. And visit monuments to human achievement like the Eiffel Tower, as well as monuments to human eccentricity like the Corn Palace of South Dakota.

corn palace

But we should play games like children, strum a guitar and sing our hearts out, lie bare-a**ed in the sun, walk barefoot, scratch our mosquito bites with complete abandon, make love under the stars, and really get to know one another again after spending much of the year working and running from appointment to appointment.

“Is that how you spent your summer vacations as a kid?” my husband asked.

“God no,” I said. “We loved the American way!”

Czech vacations 5

A Brief Q & A About a Figment of My Imagination

Felix Q&AI’ve been tagged by the dangerous and redoubtable Eden Baylee to partake in a tour involving my main character. And what perfect timing, since the summer has left me with little time to ponder Cold War mayhem, Nazi jewelry design, the insanity of the Slavic race and other topics usually covered here on Cold. It also gives me a chance to shamelessly plug my novel, The Bone Church!
(LOOK TO YOUR RIGHT AND THERE IT IS!!)

What are the rules? They’re simple!
I have to answer seven questions about a main character from one of my novels, then I nominate five other authors to answer the same questions. I nominated six because that’s just the kind of girl I am.

Please check out Eden’s blog (link below), where she answers some questions about Kate Hampton, her mystery-solving psychiatrist character. Kate’s a woman with a past, and Eden’s a woman with a future. And have a look at Stranger at Sunset as well (link below).

* * * *

Getting more serious now, here are my responses about Felix Andel.

1. Tell us a little about this main character. Is he fictional or a historic person?
Felix is like most fictional characters – a peppery goulash of one part truth and infinite parts imagination.

2. When and where is the story set?
Prague, Czechoslovakia, mostly, with a bit of the Vatican, too. As for when? At the end of World War II, with a good dollop of 1956 Cold War menace tossed in for good measure.

1950s prague

3. What should we know about him?
Felix is a hero who barely avoids being a tragic one. He suffers from intense spiritual visions, an incurable case of honor, a thirst for revenge, and an ache for a woman he had no choice but to leave behind.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?
Quite simply, war.

poland 1949

5. What is his personal goal?
To save the woman he loves. To save the world. To save himself.

6. What are the titles of your novels, and where can we read more about them?
The Bone Church is available exclusively on Amazon in digital and paperback form:

BoneChurch_border

Here’s the link: http://buff.ly/VgDxQz

And here’s a picture from the real, live bone church:

bone church 5

7. When can we expect your next book to be published?
I’m finishing up edits on The Hungarian as soon as I get my three adorable children back to school.

Felix Q&A 2

As for The Hungarian, it’s an adventure, a Cold War spy-thriller and a love story that examines the intersection of three lives – a drifting ex-pat, a fugitive Russian diplomat, and a Hungarian assassin with a weakness for rich food and sadistic murder. It’s got Sputnik, murder by salt-poisoning, a Russian mystic, and a great roll in the hay inside an old, abanandoned chapel. What more could you want?

Young-Frankenstein-Roll-in-ze-hay

* * * *

Now I’ll nominate five other authors. All of them are terrific writers, so please visit them and give their books a read. And please take a look at Eden Baylee’s work as well. She’s great fun.

Eden’s blog: http://buff.ly/1uKjHda
Stranger at Sunset by Eden Baylee: http://buff.ly/1orQzrC

stranger at sunset

Bloggers I’m nominating: John Dolan (http://buff.ly/1uKvJDi), TW Luedke (http://www.twluedke.com), Amalie Jahn (http://www.theclaylion.com/blog), Christoph Fischer (http://www.christophfischerbooks.com) and Karen Prince (http://www.karen-prince.com), M.C.V. Egan (http://thebridgeofdeaths.com)

These are not only terrific authors, but really good human beings (I’m pretty sure), so do check them out.

Annual Pilgrimage to See the Slavs

Czechs having funI’m actually taking my kids to visit my insane Slavic family this week, so this post will be brief. Next weeks post, however…

So, while I’m eating copious amounts of goulash, being told I need to wear shorter skirts to keep my marriage happy and watching my children get ceremonially rubbed with holy water to ward off any potential evils they might attract throughout the year (when my mother can’t be around to shield them and they have to settle for little ole me and my paltry powers of witchcraft) you might get a case of COLD withdrawal or at the very least envy my time with the people of the Slavic race.

Czech bikini babes

If that’s the case, please visit this wonderful website I’ve just discovered. It’s called, appropriately, Meet The Slavs!

Because, really, why should I have all the fun?

http://meettheslavs.com/

And if that’s still not enough – buy my book if you haven’t already. There are more than enough Slavs in those three hundred plus pages to keep you entertained or make you want to kill yourself. Or as we Slavs say – what’s the difference?

Bill Withers is the Bomb

Bill WithersA couple of weeks ago, my husband and I watched a BBC documentary on 1970s R&B singer/songwriter Bill Withers.

And it was nothing like what I expected.

Little of his incredible music was featured – which is strange considering his long list of hits, including Lean on Me, Ain’t No Sunshine, Grandma’s Hands, Just the Two of Us and an impressive list of lesser known, beautifully written songs that hit the tops of the R&B charts. Music that confounded the record industry because it didn’t focus on the usual trinity of romantic love, sex and dance to seduce an audience.

Bill Withers songs were more often about friendship, grief, or an old lady he adored. But the pop-loving, disco-dancing public embraced them anyway.

“You have no idea how good you are,” he was told by one producer.

But the documentary focused on the man, not the art, and I found myself utterly moved.

Now, “moved” is not a word I most often associate with musicians and other celebrities. I’m not a fame junkie and I don’t think I’ve ever in my life been interested in obtaining an autograph from anyone living or dead.

But if there is one artist I’d like to share a coffee with on my porch, it would be Bill Withers.

Not because I love his music – although I do. I can just call up his music on the iPod, though, you know? It’s not because of his rural, hard-scrabble childhood in West Virginia – even if I do have a thing for West Virginia. Or the fact that he rose above a significant stuttering problem and the racism of his era. Those are all great things, mind you, but lots of successful people have had to overcome massive obstacles. Ones that make it hard for some folks just to get out of bed in the morning, let alone rise to the top of a hugely competitive profession.

What most impressed me about Bill Withers was his quiet demeanor. Here was a nuanced, unassuming man who wasn’t pretending to be humble – he wasn’t pretending anything. He just was what he was – a human being with soul-freeing talent that doesn’t come at you, but takes you into its arms.

As we sat glued to the screen, my husband and I saw no star sitting zen-like in his overly engineered life, spewing talking points about his commitment to the environment, or the rain forest, or other worthy causes his people have briefed him on. Causes that are actually being addressed hands-on by scientists, missionaries, companies and non-profits. Bill Withers doesn’t seem to go for that BS, but he doesn’t judge it either, or sit above it.

Bill Withers just sits in his comfortable, but homey house in California – watching TV and hanging out with his friends or his pretty wife and family. The only extravagances visible are the occasional Jacob Lawrence painting, which you’d swear was just a framed print given the unassuming nature of the house that surrounds it. And there’s a music studio, too, where Withers and his lovely daughter make music together.

When he hears her sing, he cries.

Why I Love Czech Women

czech women - Eva and zsa zsaI was raised by two beautiful, captivating and gloriously insane Czech women – a mother and a grandmother who my husband affectionately calls “The Gabor Sisters.” As in Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor (who are actually Hungarian and pictured here with their mother). For those of you scratching your heads, Google them. It’s worth it.

As I was growing up, what struck me most about my mother and grandmother – apart from their uber-dramatic lives and their goonishly big-hearted gestures – was that neither of them thought “the rules” applied to them.

My grandmother had come to the USA in the early 1950s – not exactly at the pinnacle of the women’s movement – yet in my more earnest years, when I demanded to know what discrimination she’d suffered as a woman in the workforce, she looked at me quizzically.

I went on to explain what I meant -

“Barely gettin’ by
It’s all taken and no givin’
They just use your mind and they never give you credit,
It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.
-Dolly Parton, from the song 9 to 5

Czech women 9 to 5

My grandmother still didn’t get it.

Finally, she lost patience with me and said, “Look, wherever I work, within five years I was always the boss of men.”

Gulp.

And it was TRUE!

Even by today’s standards, my grandmother had an amazing career running the business-end of three five-star French restaurants simultaneously. These were places that used to host Studio 54 regulars like Mick Jagger and other people my grandmother wasn’t particularly impressed with.

It’s not that she maintained discrimination against our sex hadn’t existed in her day – she was sure it had. She just didn’t see what that had to do with her.

I really couldn’t tell you why, exactly, the glass ceiling was more of light mist for her. On paper, she was an immigrant woman who came to America at twenty-eight years of age with $10 bucks between her and my grandfather and no English skills.

I can only say that my grandmother carried herself with a dignity and authority that said “watch out.”

Some years ago she even recounted to me a story of a millionaire boss who up and confessed his love for her one day after work and begged her to run away with him. She told him in no uncertain terms that she was a married woman and that if he continued to behave in this way she would be forced to find other employment.

Of course, he apologized profusely, pleaded with her to stay and the incident was never mentioned again. Until my grandfather found out and made her quit that job.

Which she did, moving onward and upward.

Czech women - rosie

But I don’t mean to imply that her rise was always paved with rose petals. My grandmother was once fired for being Czech. She was working at a brokerage firm where she became, characteristically, the “boss of men.”

Until the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

Czech women - Hunarian uprising

A spontaneous, nation-wide revolt against Soviet policies, it was the first credible threat to the USSR since the end of the Second World War. Thousands of civilians were killed and it was a crushing defeat not only for Hungarians, but for democracy.

And the Czechs hadn’t stood with their Soviet-occupied counterparts. In fact, Czech tanks – on Soviet orders – made their way into Budapest.

When my grandmother went into work after this development, her boss screamed for her to get out and never return.

Devastated, she wandered outside, where she bumped into the owner of a rival brokerage firm and told him what happened. Long story short, she was hired on the spot because that broker had heard stories of how good she was – ironically, from the man who’d fired her.

czech women - suit 2

My mother, on the other hand, has always been the Queen of the get-around.

Though a valued employee, she didn’t have quite the high-falutin’ success my grandmother enjoyed. She did, however, manage to get away with murder in other areas.

To my knowledge, my mother has never parked in a legal parking space. What is extraordinary about her experience isn’t her blatant flouting of the law, but the fact that she has never, ever, not once, paid a parking ticket. The tickets she has accrued have always been dismissed, ignored or torn up on the spot. In one case my mother waltzed out of her workplace to find a police officer actually putting his own money into her meter. Not finding anything in the least bit strange about this, she thanked him cheerfully, then drove away.

My mom can haggle her way into a designer dress at Saks Fifth Avenue that she couldn’t otherwise afford. She can get her hands on a brand new computer for a pitance. Whatever it is, she can find her way to it, around it, on top of it, through it or dig her way to the other side of it.

And though she is charming as h*ll, her way with a smile and a well-placed compliment doesn’t begin to make clear her ability to get what she wants – all the time. If it had merely been good looks and flattery, that wouldn’t explain why, at seventy and up about 40 pounds, she can still get the same results. I’m telling you, after an apocalypse, I’m sticking with her.

Czech women - apocolypse

As a kid, I thought this Twilight Zone-y mind over matter experience was specific to the women in my family – you know, like having blue eyes or being left-handed. But once I moved to Prague and met other Czech women in their natural habitat I wasn’t so sure…

But I’ll let you decide.

The following are a list of 6 basic traits that have come to my attention over years of observing and interacting with women of the Czech persuasion – including, but not exclusive to the women in my family.

1. Czech Women Are Babes: Don’t take my word for it. Just check any list of supermodels, either from today or yesteryear, and you’ll find a disproportionate number of Czech women on it. Anyone from 80s sensation Paulina Porizkova to more modern day gals like Eva Herzigova, Eva Poloniova, Karolina Kurkova and so on and so on. My own husband can barely breathe when riding the Prague metro because of the bevy of beautiful women around him. Our son is already lobbying for a year abroad at Charles University there – and he’s only twelve.

Czech girl

2. Czech Feminists Look At Things a Little Bit Differently Than Their American (or British) Counterparts: A Czech girlfriend of mine, a passionate feminist with a PhD in biochemistry and a minor degree in Hindi that she got just for fun, I guess, once said to me, “Why do American feminists despise men? Don’t they enjoy making love?”

I nearly choked on my Pilsner.

Consequently, when Czech feminists start talking about, well, feminism – the equality and possibly superiority of women on both an intellectual and sensual level, the need of women to be heard, respected, whispered to, worshiped and given equal pay and a fair representation at the highest levels of industry and government. Well, let’s just say that by the time we get there, even the most hostile-to-the-concept alpha male will lean in and say, “I’m a feminist, too.” And he will mean it.

Czech women - feminism

3. Czech Women (including intellectuals and even women on the mommy track) Are Sexy Dressers: I’ve known quite a few Czech female intellectuals (and they don’t mind calling themselves such), and not a single one of them dresses like a frumpy schoolmarm. Case in point, the above mentioned friend spoke her observation about American feminists with a full mouth of lipstick, a cigarette, a short pencil skirt and a tight shirt that showed-off a fabulous chest. It would never occur to her that such an outfit might render her “less serious” and her many professional accomplishments seem to agree. My fellow Czech mothers are never opposed to short shorts or stiletto heels – sometimes even worn together and while pushing a baby carriage (I kid you not – I’ve actually witnessed this on more than one occasion).

This was my doctor in Prague.

Czech women - sexy dressers

And my lawyer.

Czech women - sexy dressers 2

Okay, maybe more like this.

Czech women - miss CZ

4. Czech Women Win Every Argument: And they’ll use any method within their arsenal to secure victory. This, of course, can be an unfortunate trait for those who love them or even cross their paths, but it’s one to be admired nonetheless. They don’t do it by shouting, or brow-beating or God-forbid withholding affection, but through a labyrinthine sequence of manipulations that leave their opponent scratching his (or her) head and wondering what happened. Yes, they are the women literature warned you about.

Czech women - boxer

5. Czech Women Are Natural Athletes: Again – just look look up any old list of Wimbledon Champions, gold-medalist skiers, etc. For such a small country, the amount of World Class female (and male) athletes the Czech Republic produces is pretty amazing. Is anyone reading this old enough to remember how Ivana Trump skied backwards while berating her then-husband, Donald, over his tawdry affairs? You don’t want to mess with that.

Czech women - Ivana skiing

6. Despite a Penchant For Six-inch Heels, Czech Women Are Outdoorsy, Even Back-to-Nature Types: A Czech woman will strip naked and dive into any old trout stream, climb a tree or chop one down if she has to. My own aunt can field dress a bear – often while wearing a push-up bra and rhinestone earrings. It may not be blind luck that Czech Supermodel Petra Nemcova survived the Tsunami of 2004 by hanging on for her dear life as a death current of debris rushed by her. Petra’s boyfriend, sadly, did not make it.

Czech women – no matter how pretty – are tough.

Czech women - tarzan and jane

Now, I’m not saying that all Czech women have all of these qualities. In my own family – as far as I know – we have no supermodels. And my mom actually hates the outdoors. My grandmother, while she lived, wouldn’t be caught dead in pair of stilettos. But I have noticed a preponderance of these traits in women born in the Czech lands. And you have to admit, if you came across a woman with even some of these attributes, you might just put your arms in the air and back up – your heart pounding – and say, “Easy, lady. I don’t want any trouble. But I wouldn’t mind just a little…kiss.”

Please Stay for the Fireworks! (Some Thoughts on Being an American)

4th post 3My grandparents had close friends – Sonja and Jiri – who high-jacked a plane to escape communist Czechoslovakia. Sonja said her hand was shaking so badly that she couldn’t have hit a target had she tried. Not that she would have tried – she’d never held a gun before let alone shot one. Until that very day she’d been the pampered wife of a diplomat.

To her relief, the other passengers just sat there, bewildered, and not necessarily upset by the turn of events. After all, they were getting a free ride to a free country and that probably weighed more heavily on their minds than the pretty woman with the trembling fingers and fancy handbag. Sonja and Jiri’s defection had forced every person on that flight to make a decision right then and there as to whether they would stay in a new country, leaving their families, their language and their culture behind, or go back to what they knew – even if they didn’t like it.

People often underestimate the kind of determination it takes to give up a homeland. To leave behind a sense of belonging that only comes from being born and raised in a specific place. To know that in many cases returning will never be possible – either for political or financial reasons. Think about that. Never.

4th post 4

It is no wonder that immigrants so often make more valued employees and better citizens than their native-born counterparts. My grandfather had been a famous athlete in Czechoslovakia, but there was no factory job too good for him in the U.S. No floor he wouldn’t stoop to wash.

And to my knowledge he didn’t complain about it either.

In my family a day of work was never missed and a vote was always cast on election day. Like Sonja and Jiri, my kin had risked their lives to come here and felt a tremendous sense of debt to their adopted homeland. President John F. Kennedy had asked them what they could do for their country and they responded by giving generously to veteran organizations even when they had little extra, sending countless telegrams of support or criticism to various sitting politicians, and by forcing (yes, forcing) my brother to join the ROTC in college. Being a girl, I was not encouraged to join the military – my parents were old fashioned that way. But I was routinely harassed about my civic participation. I don’t think I’ve ever missed an election cycle, no matter how hungover I felt. I even cast absentee ballots when I lived abroad in a semi-permanent hungover state. And I’m an easy target for any legitimate charity that supports policemen, firefighters and soldiers. I still reflexively cry when I hear The Star-Spangled Banner.

I think about these things every Fourth of July. How my parent’s immigrant status has effected my life and whether I’m sufficiently passing on the values I was taught to my own children.

As you can imagine, the Fourth of July was a very big holiday at my house when I was growing up. Not bigger than Christmas, but definitely paid more attention than our birthdays.

It was the only time my parents would even attempt to barbecue – they hated barbecue. We ate off of red, white and blue paper plates and sat in traffic for hours to watch some distant fireworks display.

4th post 7

Even whatever bicycle I rode when I was growing up was always required to have some sort of patriotic flair. I remember a bicentennial themed spectacle complete with a banana seat and long, plastic red, white and blue streamers that looked like they’d been shot out of my handlebars. Even in the late seventies, that was extremely uncool.

But I knew complaining about it was useless and I kind of look back fondly on that monstrosity of a bike now. It was so damned earnest and earnest patriotism has gone out of fashion.

But I’m trying to bring it back in my own way.

4th post 5

At our house we don’t barbecue – my husband hates barbecue far more than my parents ever did – but we make fancy-shmancy cheeseburgers on our gas stove complete with homemade french fries. We lift our kids onto the roof of our minivan to watch the local fireworks display, but living in the country, we’re spared of the bumper to bumper. And now that they’re old enough, we’ve started having conversations with them about what good citizenship means and how important it is to think through the political beliefs they are forming and never be a slave to them.

We don’t tell them how we vote and it drives them crazy.

But we think it’s important that they form their own opinions and not reflexively embrace or rebel against ours. We’ve earned ours through trial and error and experience and they’ll have to do the same.

What we do tell them is how important it is to be able to speak freely and make one’s own decisions – even if freedom is a burden. Being born in such a highly functioning democracy is like being born on third base, but it is yours to blow. And you don’t get a home run just for showing up. Our political system allows class mobility and is amenable to change, and our constitution is both an aspirational and spiritual document – designed to help build and sustain a nation and, uniquely, help its citizens evolve into better human beings – a society of equals free to pursue happiness.

But none of these things comes with a guarantee.

As a good citizen, you have to hold up your end of the bargain and behave with courage, dignity and respect for others.

You must actively contribute, or as our friend, General David Bellon, USMC, would point out, “You either leave a legacy or a residue.”

I’m determined to leave the former and do my damnedest to make sure that my children do, too.

pledge of allegiance

The Meaning of Happiness

storm and merry go roundMy youngest daughter, Josephine, had a birthday this past Friday the 13th.

At seven, she is dreamy, funny, contemplative and just delighted with herself. Typical of her age cohort, she tore apart her wrapping paper with a fiendish glee, strutted around in her brand new mermaid tail (though she has her doubts that mermaids actually exist, she still holds out hope that she can become one, say, as a career or lifestyle choice), and spent half the day talking to herself in the mirror as she is apt to do.

It was during one of these mirror episodes that she turned to me suddenly and said, “Mom, was the day I was born just the happiest day of your life?”

Huh.

It was not.

The day of her birth and the subsequent few years were by most standards pretty horrible, in fact. Not post-apocalyptic horrible, but bad enough so that I could strike envy off the list of reasons why people didn’t like me.

Naturally, I wasn’t going to say that. I was also prepared for her question and able to turn to her without missing a beat and say with complete honesty, “You are the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

I’ve written about Josephine’s health problems fairly extensively on this blog (see For My Mother, May 6 2014, if you wish), so I won’t belabor that point. This post isn’t about her fight to survive, but something else entirely.

Her question just got me thinking again about how we define our lives, the decisions we make and how they effect our long-term well-being. About the struggle between happiness and meaning – something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years. Even in those happy-go-lucky years pre-Josephine. The years when our biggest problems revolved around getting a good night’s sleep, whether to buy a fixer-upper or a reasonably renovated home, how to lose that last five pounds that pregnancy had visited upon me. Those were very happy years – when my husband and I mostly chased pleasures.

I don’t regret a single, frivolous moment.

happiness and meaning 2

But even when my husband and I were at the apex or our pursuit of happiness period, there was something about our make up that wouldn’t allow us to try and sustain that sense of bliss on a permanent basis. Plenty of people we knew were willing to do so at any cost – avoiding inconveniences and entanglements like the plague, revolving all of their big decisions, like how many children to have or whether to have any at all, whether to marry or continue living together – around lifestyle.

But then, we were living in California at the time. Sort of comes with the territory.

disney

I actually remember the day I realized we’d somehow lost a deeper sense of service to something other than ourselves. One that was encoded in our DNA by years of Catholic school and family stories of hardship (won’t belabor that point either, but it’s a theme here on Cold). The fact is, we were starting to hit the wall on our California experiment.

Don’t get me wrong. I know I’m sounding like a California hater and that’s just not true. Some of the best times in my life were spent in the Golden State. My husband and I made dear friends and started our family there. Those are very meaningful things.

But happiness and self-fulfillment are as much a part of the culture there as guilt and shame are a part of Catholicism. And there is a pervasive tendency to find beauty only in beauty.

This was driven home to me one day at the spa.

I’d recently given birth to our first child – a healthy son – and that alone does get the heart juices going. My husband, Jack, being the great husband that he is bought me an entire spa day at a very swanky San Francisco spa on my very first Mother’s Day.

I was beside myself. Really. I couldn’t wait to go. I’d given birth, been breast-feeding on what seemed like a round-the-clock basis and had been up all night for weeks. I needed this desperately.

And for the first hour or so, it was so, so nice. Especially since the day began with a full body massage – which is like chemotherapy for a new mother. Without the un-lovely side effects.

back massage

But right in the middle of hour two, during a multi-sensation inducing “ultra” facial, my spa day started to turn on me.

Between the fake sounds of a bubbling brook complete with cawing birds and cricket symphonies, the intermittent New Age muzak, wafts of aromatherapy and what was fast becoming a tyranny of pleasures and pleasantries perpetrated by hush-voiced, toned young men with names like Darius, I thought that if I had to stay for the entire gauntlet of treatments – the ensuing mud bath and hot towel mummification – I might go insane.

But I did stay.

I felt too guilty to cut and run after my husband had given me such a wonderful gift. He’d paid a small fortune just to indulge me. He’d also played Mr. Mom all day with our infant son without a complaint, passive aggressive comment or hint about the standing ovation he should receive for his efforts. He is an enormously competent and fully grown-up man, which is one of the many things I love about him.

I also love that he fully understood when I told him about my day.

And that understanding began a discussion that would wrench us from our glamorous city lives in San Francisco and deliver us to a town that wasn’t exactly Mayberry, but was certainly slow, pastoral and grounded in tradition. A place that was more equipped to help us through the hardships we’d be facing in the coming years – when our happy lives would come to a crashing halt. At least for a while.

Because when I elaborated about my dreadful too-much-of-a-good-thing spa experience, my husband got very pensive. He nodded and looked out of our rear window – where the opera singer practiced her arias, gourmet Margaritas were consumed on a nightly basis, and the grass on our tiny patch of backyard was astroturf-perfect and surrounded by bougainvillea. He said, “You know, I think we’re going to have to re-evaluate our lives.”

Rockwell Sat. Ev. Post

That spa day was an incredible event of foreshadowing. In the years to come we would be needing much more than happiness if we were going to be happy. Endlessly chasing the dragon of happiness can lead to a great time had, but it can also leave a person ill-prepared to continue to feel well during more profound periods of heartache. If there’s nothing of real meaning under-girding a lifestyle, it becomes all to easy to fall prey to a toxic cocktail of self-pity and depression when the big stuff happens.

We knew on an instinctive level – almost as if we had some inkling that Josephine was headed our way – that it was imperative for us to deepen our faith and find greater purpose – joy even – in something other than a fun, uncomplicated existence.

In our post-fabulous years, we’ve settled in a small college town in central Virginia. We help groom the grounds at the monastery where we go to church, we volunteer at the local hospital – giving speeches about parent perspectives to young nurses and residents, we stay in most nights. We should probably go out more. But we do mix great cocktails that we drink nightly on our porch, we have friends over as often as we can, and we hit the beach every year.

happiness and meaning

We hardly think about what things were like “before” anymore, although recently I got a little taste.

Last week, I visited San Francisco for a wonderful week of friendship, food and wine in honor of one of my very best friend’s significant birthdays. It was a week of both happiness and meaning as a group of 7 women laughed and talked and shared about both painful and frivolous events.

I walked around San Francisco, which appears to have become decidedly more family-friendly since our time and observed young couples who were just as we had been – a mom pushing a stroller with a sun drunk toddler in it, a dad sporting an infant carrier complete with a hazy-eyed newborn, the color of his irises yet indeterminable.

I admit I felt nostalgic for those times. We were different people then, ones whose peace of mind had yet to be broken not just into shards, but ground to dust. Our younger selves didn’t fully know how good we had it or how bad things could really get.

But at the same time, I felt a profound sense of relief that those footloose days were behind us. Our decrease in happiness has come with an unwavering confidence in ourselves both as individuals and as a couple.

We know what we’re made of now.

And we have some wisdom to impart to our children. Something to give to friends who are struggling. And a list of priorities that doesn’t begin with achievements or desires.

We love more deeply and when we dance, we mean it. Most counter-intuitively, we’ve recaptured a teenage ideal of true love and loyalty while having acquired an adult’s sense of forgiveness and good judgement.

It’s a great life. And it’s a life filled with meaning, if not always happiness. And it’s a fine place to be.

mom's margarita glasses

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