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The Life Enthusiast Chronicles with Victoria

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This week, yogi, writer and all around wonderful woman Britt Skrabanek had me on her blog as her April “Life Enthusiast.” I’ve reblogged the post below, but I urge you to go to her blog and follow. She’s just such a lovely, positive person who brings great heart and soul to everything she does.

Britt Skrabanek

Two months ago I asked my lovely readers to vote on a monthly series I had running for two years, The Life Enthusiast Chronicles. The series is all about what makes people from all over the world absolutely in love with life. The sole purpose of the series has always been to inspire and uplift.

Worried that maybe the series had gone on too long, I had to ask you guys this: Should the Life Enthusiast Chronicles continue?

You said yes. So, here we are.

I took some time selecting a Life Enthusiast for the comeback post, because it felt important to bring someone here that could reinvigorate the series with unabashed beauty. That person is Victoria Dougherty from Cold (and from Virginia).

I’ll proudly admit that I have had a girl crush on Victoria all the years I’ve been reading her writing, both on her blog and her fantastic novel I…

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The Communist Who Peed His Pants and Other True Stories

 

two-faced

I think any major life event involves an often far-fetched amount of conjunction, coincidence. This is especially true of war.

There is something about war that inspires double meanings, providence and twists of fate that are mythological in proportion. It is why true stories, when written under the auspices of fiction, sound too extraordinary to be real. Why I’ve chucked several scenes – even entire chapters – in my fictional endeavors because they were rooted too much in reality and therefore, somehow, didn’t ring true.

Just imagine the unfathomably harrowing story of Louis Zamperini in “Unbroken” and the skepticism a reader might feel if it was written as a work of fiction.

Italian immigrant and juvenile delinquent becomes Olympic runner alongside Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. He goes to war. His plane crashes into the ocean. He survives some  47 days on a life raft only to be rescued by the enemy and become a prisoner of war. He’s tortured, beaten, shuttled from camp to camp and followed by an effete, sadistic tormentor who is fixated on him and his Olympic career. He narrowly escapes execution when the war ends. He comes home with PTSD and starts drinking heavily. He goes broke, his wife almost leaves him, but then he happens to meet the Reverend Billy Graham, stops drinking, stays with his wife, turns his life around and ends up devoting his life to helping others. In his golden years, he carries the Olympic torch as his former tormentor looks on.

Can’t you just hear yourself saying, “Yeah, right”?

Cowboy, bored

Then, there are the stories of coincidence, like my friend Sophia’s. The ones that make us wonder if there isn’t a repeat cycle in the universe. If genetics and history, seemingly unrelated, are actually intertwined – first cousins, if you will.

Sophia, back in the mid nineteen nineties, was reporting on the civil war in Yugoslavia. As luck would have it, she managed to miss the only bus that could take her to the other side of the country in order to catch her train back to Prague a couple of days later. There she was, a young woman in her early twenties, walking alone in a war zone with little hope of finding refuge. She figured she’d have to spend the night in a ditch somewhere, and hoped the wrong people wouldn’t come across her.

But lo and behold, as she trudged down the dusty, pitted road, a car of three young men pulled up alongside her. They expressed concern for her safety and offered her a place to stay for the night, promising to drive her the next day to catch yet another bus that would get her to her train on time.

Well, Sophia hopped right into their car, and was taken to a farm about an hour away, given a comfortable room and told to come down for dinner. As she ate hearty Yugoslavian fare with her hosts, the matriarch of this family said to her, “What was your name again?”

Sophia told her, and the woman shook her head in disbelief.

“Is your father ___?” she asked.

Sophia smiled kind of sheepishly. You see, she’s from this really fancy European family – the kind that just about everybody has heard of. “Um, yes,” Sophia acknowledged.

Turns out Sophia’s father, as a soldier at the end of World War II, had found himself on the same dusty, pitted road, missing the same bus as his daughter, and was picked up by the brothers of the mother who’s sons had picked up Sophia. Got that? Sophia’s father was taken to the same family farm, where he spent the night in the same room as his daughter, and ate dinner with the family. It’s unclear whether he ate the exact same meal, but at this point, let’s just say he did.

Needless to say, Sophia called her dad that night and exclaimed, “You’re not going to believe where I am right now!”

Sounds incredible, doesn’t it? Maybe your saying, “Yeah, right.”

smokin after bad day

My own first job after I moved to Prague was on Political Prisoner street – newly renamed in honor of the many who were held there in a labyrinthine monstrosity of a building where I went to work every morning. A building where my own mother was held, though I couldn’t say in which room. Perhaps it was my office.

One day, as I stood at my tram stop with a friend, I watched an older gentleman pee his pants as we waited. He was angry, humiliated. He kicked the tram post, hating himself for his frailty and hating us for having witnessed it. He swore under his breath, mumbling. Shooting dirty looks. It was summer, so he had no coat with which to cover the large wet stain on his crotch or mask the smell of his urine. I wanted to help him, but I didn’t know how.

“Do you know who he is?” my friend asked me.

I didn’t. But apparently he was a former hard line communist bastard with a long list of offenses for which he was never tried. He had, I was told, made many innocent people pee in their pants. Not out of frailty, but fear.

And if my friend knew who he was, there was a good chance that someone else in the vicinity knew him, too. Maybe someone who’d been made to walk home from the political prisoner building, with a big, wet oval on his pants, reeking of piss, shaking with fright and shame.

In these real life stories, parables bubble up without the help of a historian or Bible scholar. These are stories that make us believe in karma, in comeuppance, in God. They are a map of the human spirit, showing us the way, giving us the chance to break out of the loop and change our destinies. Or perhaps feel the sting of our past, giving some measure of justice to those who we’ve harmed.

And they are the inspiration for our fiction, which tames, takes apart and interprets these larger than life occurrences. It makes them accessible, personal and helps us walk in the footsteps of another human being, nodding our heads, saying, “Yeah.”

frosted window

 

 

 

 

Bling For Your Soul

tourists - no zazzleHave you ever wanted to tour Paris with a fine arts painter? Moscow with an acclaimed journalist? Chicago with the former leader of a counter-cultural movement?

Or how about The Bone Church of Kutna Hora with an author of historical spy fiction?

Cold readers, I know I don’t shower you with diamonds and champagne cocktails. Nor do I buy you designer dresses or expensive watches. And it’s true – I don’t think I’ve ever once treated you to dinner at the fancy new restaurant in town.

But after today, you can’t say I’ve never taken you anywhere.

A couple of months ago, I was contacted by a company called Voice Map. Voice Map is an app for iPhones and Android devices that provides immersive audio tours written and performed by bestselling authors, artists, photographers, seasoned travelers, educators and journalists. You might hear about murder on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, nostalgia for the vanishing hutongs of old Beijing, or about a Gothic church in the Czech Republic that’s been adorned with the bones of some 30,000 dead Christians.

Voice Map asked me if I would be interested in writing and voicing some tours of my own and I gave them a resounding yes! Not only do I love to travel, but I love to share my adventures, tell my stories, and incite in my friends a passion for the places that have clawed their way into my heart and set up camp.

tourists - egypt

My first tour – one of many, I hope – centers around (you guessed it) The Bone Church of Kutna Hora, also known as the Ossuary at Sedlec. My thirty-six minute audio tour packs in a lot. I take you to The Church of the Assumption of Our Lady and John the Baptist – one of the great Gothic cathedrals in the region; we walk past a large Philip Morris outpost and I tell you all about the Czech Republic’s change from a communist country to a free market parliamentary republic, and then meander down the suburban streets of Sedlec, where I wax nostalgic about drinking too much Czech beer, sleeping under the stars at my father’s farm and translating a tragically comic communist propaganda play. We finish up at the Playboy Centerfold of my tour, savoring the eerie wonder of a sacred Gothic chapel decorated entirely in human bone.

cherub bone church

I hope to provide you with the sort of travel experience that I would have killed for had it been available to me when I was still a world traveler. Before love and kids and soccer games and slumber parties took me on a whole different journey.

And don’t worry – you don’t have to pick my tour! I understand that a trip to the Czech Republic may not be on your immediate horizon. Voice Map has tours all over the world and are adding new ones at an astonishing rate.

All you have to do is leave a comment here on this blog post, briefly telling me about your favorite travel story – maybe it’s strolling under a full moon by the river Seine, floating in the Dead Sea or just hiking a trail on the outskirts of your home town. At the end of your story, you must provide me with your email address. THIS IS CRUCIAL, as I can only send you the link to your free tour if you give me a place to send it.

Trust me, this is better than a pair of earrings, or a new electronic gizmo.

This is bling for your soul!

tourist - germany

 

 

 

True Friendship in the Era of Small Talk and Rants

pool boyMy son recently approached me about attending a leadership camp this coming summer – one that would take up most of the free, bumming around time he’ll have left after we check the boxes on visiting family, hitting the beach and sending him to a week of Scout camp.

“Why won’t you just hang out at the pool?” I asked him. I lived for those days during my own summer vacations. Sharks and minnows, Marco Polo, gorging on fudge pops and french fries at the snack bar. Isn’t that living the dream?

But apparently, it’s not.

He told me how he just didn’t like going to the pool anymore because his usual cohort of summer friends spend all of their time staring at their phones. “It’s boring,” he said. He remarked on how hard it is to find someone to really talk to.

That hit home, because for the past few years I’ve been having my own problems connecting with peers.

Like him, I’ve always been a best friend sort of person who goes a mile deep and an inch wide. This trait is evidenced in my marriage, my faith, my relationships with my children, my choice in career, even in my daily work-outs for God’s sake – I’m a yoga person.

If you like to go for long walks that are as as meandering as our conversation – call me up. If you’re the type who almost exclusively likes to surround herself with people you can drop trow and pee in front of – I’m your girl.

girls at urinal

I feel oddly out of place at my kids’ sporting events, where small talk rules and a personal question or observation is often treated like an STD. There are times I simply go hide in my car, listen to music, make notes about a book or essay I’m writing. Anything not to have to sit out on the field, waiting for the game to start, and having the same conversation about the coaches, the schedule, the damned weather.

It occurred to me that if my own kid is longing for deeper attachments in his life – my kid, your average thirteen year-old boy who loves video games, boobs, fart jokes and all manner of teen superficiality – then maybe we’re not alone in feeling this void.

And it’s not as if we’re not talking at all. In fact, what’s curious to me is while millions of chats have sprung up in social media, ranting, over-communicating in excruciating detail, our face to face interactions have become, as my son observed, “boring.”

asylum

 

But I’m not picking on social media here. Even if I was, it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future, so we need to figure out how to manage its presence in our lives, make it work for us.

Because in a lot of ways, it does.

Social media has brought friends long gone back into my life. I’ve met a couple of people on Facebook who I would love to get to know better, and feel could be real friends of mine if only we could sit down and have a long talk somehow. Social media has given me a virtual water cooler to hang around with colleagues – a not insignificant thing for a writer, as we spend so much of our time alone in our home offices.

What social media has done very effectively is brought many, many acquaintances into my life. People with whom I exchange fun comments and family pictures. I get to see a shot of their romantic Valentine’s date at a local crab and lobster joint, admire their children’s accomplishments, learn about a cause that is dear to their hearts. Not knocking it.

It’s just that what social media has not brought into my life, has been the sort of intimate connection that forges a true bond – one that facilitates exposure and genuine comfort. A Facebook friend will not hold you after you mother has died – either physically or metaphorically. You might receive a swell of well meaning “so sorry for your loss” posts, but a heartfelt comment, a long missive, a response that takes thought is rare in that format.

That in and of itself would be fine if I didn’t fear those closer ties were becoming increasingly more rare in our lives. True friendship takes time, trouble. That is the magic elixir that deepens a relationship and turns an acquaintance into something more.

With so many distractions and cotton candy friendships to keep us propped up, give us that hit – like a line of emotional cocaine – I wonder if we all aren’t becoming more fragile than we realize. Unhinged in a way we won’t discover until something big goes down. And when it does, we might find ourselves surrounded not by a community of caring hands, casseroles and telephone calls, but “likes.”

fading

On my most pessimistic days, I fear true friendship is gasping for breath beneath the fluff of disposable comments and “shares,” much the way courtship and love seem to have experienced a downgrade in the era of Tinder. Convenience is the stuff that networks are made of, not closely-knit communities.

Then a few months ago, my friend Jessica called me after nearly a year of both of us being too busy to really make the time to talk. She’d left her cushy job at Google and started her own tech company, developing an app she named Rolltape. She told me how she wanted to create a means to really nurture and facilitate friendship among people again. Like me, she’d lost touch with too many friends when she moved to the other side of the country, and making new friends – real friends – had been a spotty venture for her.

She also thought I might make a good beta tester for her product. Rolltape, you see, is a sort of audio version of Instagram that incorporates voice messages, pictures and music. It’s “for your inner circle,” as her company’s tagline contends.

rolltape icon

“That’s awesome,” I said. I told her how inspired I was by her guts and I meant it. Jess has three kids and is the bigger breadwinner in her household. She gave up a lot of creature comforts to stick her neck out and start a business. And I know in pornographic detail how hard it is to start and run a company, having done it myself.

What I didn’t tell her was that I had absolutely no interest in participating in another social media outlet. What I also didn’t tell her was that I didn’t think a social media app – by its very nature – was capable of cultivating intimacy on a broad scale. Social media, as far as I could see, was about expediency, entertainment and self promotion.

But in the cycle of sound bite and photo that’s part of the DNA in most social media applications, I’d forgotten about a crucial missing element.

Voice.

Voice is a powerful thing. It is as nuanced an instrument as the eyes. With a voice, I feel as if I’m hearing a secret that is just for me. The voice of a friend makes me feel not merely connected, but interconnected. A voice message, I’ve found, is the antithesis of the selfie.

My friend Ella’s voice has the ability to set the tone for my whole day.

Her voice – thoughtful, caring, filled with good humor – has illuminated me in a most authentic way about the death of her father when she was eighteen, being raped shortly after, her soul-crushing first marriage, her daughter’s struggles with bipolar disorder, finding true love with the man who has been her husband for the past eighteen years. In turn, I’ve revealed to her the continuing fall-out from my own daughter’s bout with cancer, the love story between me and my husband, how difficult it’s been to be a good daughter since my mother moved in with us, the types of books I want to write, and the way I grapple with friendship in my adult life. How my approach to all of these things feels at odds with the rest of the world.

Ella and I live on opposite sides of the country, and talk, on average, about once a week. I feel a thrill when she reaches out, knowing that our conversation will help sooth some of my more raw emotions, and provide me with a place where I feel I belong.

And I have never met Ella. She’s a Rolltape friend.

In my few short months as a beta tester, I’ve heard the father of a friend explain his increasing anxiety about death, had intense, but respectful political discussions (who knew such a thing still existed?) with people from all sides of the political spectrum, and pondered the use of Botox with professional women – all amidst a backdrop of samba music and ridiculous crinkled forehead selfies. Above all, I’ve been reminded that I not only have dear friends, but am still able to make them.

that face

We have become a devoted tribe – anxious for each other’s messages, unafraid to ramble on. No winky-faces necessary – we can hear each other’s tone. We go out of our way every day, truly listening, contributing, and in the process have recaptured a sense of camaraderie that had seemed to slip away from us.

Come join the conversation: http://apple.co/1lvA8eA

 

 

 

 

Love Stories

bride of frankensteinSome years ago, about a week before my wedding, I was at work listening to a radio show on a topic that was understandably on the forefront of my mind: marriage. On this show was a man being touted as the preeminent expert on Holy Matrimony – a guy whose name I can’t remember – but a fellow who’d been studying the institution for decades and could tell with startling accuracy and within minutes of meeting a couple whether they would still be married in five years’ time.

I sat listening with my ears pricked up as this guy was the real deal. Enough to make him the focus of an entire segment of NPR’s Talk of the Nation for a solid two hours.

Obviously, Mr. Marriage (as I’ll call him for the sake of this essay) had a lot to say on the topic. He talked about respect being the cornerstone of a lasting relationship, the importance of morality within the confines of a union, the way couples should fight, and how a pair of lovers must always take up the challenge to evolve together. All very sensible and true on an intuitive level.

But what caught my attention most was his assertion that story is an essential element to a lifelong love affair. In other words, what seems to matter in an intrinsic way is not that a couple has gotten together but how a couple has gotten together. The story of us – of how our love takes flight – appears not only to be the spark that ignites the fire we need in order to sustain passion, but the one that foments friendship and trust, and gets us through some of the dark, dark times that visit us during the course of our lives. Things like illness, child-rearing debacles, job loss, snoring, opposing tastes in television shows, and a mother-in-law moving in.

over the threshold

In my interpretation, Mr. Marriage was explaining how courtship – the process of wooing an amour by gestures large and small (i.e. the candy and flowers routine) – plays a vital role in spinning that magic web we call true love. Courtship, like a good story, tantalizes. It promises so much, but threatens to take it away at any time. At its heart, courtship makes a couple earn each other’s affection and intimacy. It is the inverse of a hook-up.

I was reminded of the symbiotic relationship between love and story very recently when a friend – a new friend who I’m just getting to know and with whom I’ve found a lot in common – asked me to share with her the story of how my husband and I got together. She and I are both writers and we also happen to write about love in various ways. Neither one of us are romance writers, per se, but love in its many forms is definitely a shared theme of ours.

She and I are also both happily married, and have confided in one another about how love took us completely by surprise. It’s not like our previous relationships were all that great, and neither of us came from what popular culture would call “happy families.” We had to piece together on our own what we thought a blissful union might look like.

But somehow, as if by osmosis or destiny, it happened for us.

love on swings

Before I began telling her my love story, I took a deep, meditative breath. It had been a long time since I’d recounted the tale of how my husband, Jack, and I had fallen in love, and in all honesty, I’d put that narrative on the back burner while he and I focused on some pretty big things like having babies and making sure we could feed them.

But damn, we do have one helluva story, and it wasn’t until I told my friend about how we met and went nuts about each other that I realized what a critical subtext our love story has been in getting us through some very challenging episodes. Things I’ve written about on this blog – obvious things like dealing with one of our children being born with a catastrophic illness and surviving the financial roller-coaster that hit a lot of folks from around 2008 to 2011. But also the smaller things like moving from city to city, starting a business and deciding how much autonomy to give our children.

So, yes, I will tell our story. But if you’ll forgive me, I’ll give you the condensed version. The fleshed-out, nitty-gritty version makes me blush and withdraw. It’s also too long for a mere blog post.

It involves a chance visit to a foreign city,
A meeting in a four-hundred year old, candlelit pub,
Some dirty poetry,
A Christening,
Several dozen anonymous postcards,
New Year’s Eve,
A jazz club,
Fried chicken and champagne on a cliff side,
The kind of mushy language most people pretend to despise,
And a belief in destiny.

kiss like no one else is there

Of course, after the swashbuckling part, the early wonders of discovery, the heavy breathing, we pretty much replaced our candy and flowers routine with the meat and potatoes of our relationship. Less poetic perhaps, but warm, comforting, sweet. Our nearly twenty year love story has been a very different adventure than our courtship.

It has involved believing against all odds,
Not blaming each other for things that have gone awry,
Doing our part,
Mustering every bit of energy in order to conjure romance amidst ruin,
Ignoring bad moods,
Having sex even when we don’t feel like it,
Bragging about each other’s accomplishments,
Dancing close in our kitchen when it all gets to be too much.

We could’ve never gotten through the latter list without the former. And I guess that’s what Mr. Marriage was talking about. Over and over, his research pointed to how the foundation of a relationship most often requires a sense of transcendence, a belief in the overall good of the love that has bloomed. There is a reason why we call the one we’ve been looking for Mr. or Ms. Right. Right implies virtue, honor, truth. And according to Mr. Marriage’s research, an attraction built on betrayal, for instance, has a hard slog ahead. Such a union has no anchor, and over the long run often devours itself from the inside. After all, what do you say when someone asks you how you met? “Well, my first wife was at Little Gym with our two year-old, and I, uh…well…you know. I guess I just couldn’t help myself.”

Story, it turns out, can sink you as well as save you when it comes to love.

Felix and M at bone church

In fact, story is so crucial to the long-term viability of a relationship that it can actually be the determining factor as to whether a troubled marriage can or cannot be salvaged. When asked how he knew when a marriage was definitively over, Mr. Marriage said this, according to my memory: “In my experience, a marriage is beyond repair when you ask the couple how they met, and they cannot conjure any joy, even a smile from recounting that tale. If they can still tell that story with even the tiniest glimmer of fondness, there’s hope.”

That is a powerful truth to behold, and one we might want to consider in the broader context of our lives. As we endeavor to create new stories this coming year – whether it be with spouses, friends, colleagues or acquaintances, we may do well to remember that the promise of love, of what is right, strikes at the core of our very humanity. And the narratives we are spinning today through our actions, words and impulses will have a tremendous influence on our future well-being.

standing gypsy

Down There By the Train

train 2

Winston O. Link

The first time I saw the house we now call home, I thought I might kill my husband. We’d moved across country from San Francisco to Virginia in order to live a quieter life. A life our children could look back on as being filled with memories of small town wonder: playing in streams, catching crawdads, taking hayrides, huddling by a wood-burning stove after a snow storm. After years of hipster restaurants and glittering to-dos, we looked forward to doing the uncool things like Christmas caroling and knowing our neighbors well enough that we could drop by any old time just to say hello. Or ask to borrow a cup of good gin.

I’d had a baby only a couple of months prior to our move, so I hadn’t been part of the whole house hunting process. I’d left it solely in the hands of my husband, confident that he and I shared the same sensibility – a love of the very old or the ultra modern with little room for in between, an appreciation of nooks and crannies and imperfections. Or of vision. We longed for a home with story and a sense of style all its own. Or a place where we could invent the story ourselves. Such is the pathology of writers – at least these two writers. We’re people of romance, not utility. And we don’t like to keep up with the Joneses so much. To quote my husband, Jack. “I just can’t live in a place where I could see myself standing by a pool and giving a recent graduate advice to go into ‘plastics.'”

train graduate

The Graduate, “plastics” scene.

We’d always done well with our choices before – being exactly on the same page when we bought a loft condo converted from an old automotive factory, rented a shabby chic Victorian flat, and almost purchased a plot of land ready for a prefab house that would ultimately have been made of wood and concrete.

So, as we plotted our radical change of address from California to Virginia, Jack would send me pictures of this house he’d found, which I have to admit looked good. In his emails, he swore up and down how much I was going to love our new place, and I was so on board. The painted brick of our proposed home, the large, Shaker-inspired windows, all showed tremendous promise. I loved that the structure paid homage to its geography with four white columns and a big front porch begging for a couple of rockers, but upon closer look had the austerity of a post office.

The place screamed Southern Gothic.

“And it’s historic,” my husband said. Which is true. “It’ll accommodate us as our kids grow and we have more children.” Also true. “It’s got magic, sweetheart, trust me.” That was the part I had a hard time with a few weeks later as I stood staring at a gloomy and ancient brick house that looked more suitable for the Addams family. To add a sour cherry on top of this gloppy, half-melted sundae, our new house sat about a softball’s throw from an active (although not prolifically so) single railroad track. I can’t say that it looked nothing like it’s photographs, but it definitely had the quality of an aging actor seen up close. All of a sudden you’d pick up what the camera didn’t, what good lighting obscured. Like the hair dye, the pancake make-up, dentures, too many attempts at plastic surgery.

“I love it,” I said, swallowing hard. He was so excited and there was no way I was going to burst his bubble. Especially since we’d already secured financing. That night, the first time a train came by around midnight – and felt like it was thundering right through my forehead – I actually went into the bathroom and cried.

train suicide

“We knew we’d like y’all,” our neighbors told us. “Only special people would buy your house.”

Hmm. Special. At least when I was growing up, special was a word used to describe kids who were different, but not in a good way. Kids who were weird were “special.” Kids who had disabilities were “special.” They rode on a separate bus and ate at a table off to the side during lunch.

And now we were special. We lived in a special house. One that, like the trains, was going to take some getting used to. The tall, tall ceilings and oddly shaped rooms – some oblong, others square and huge. Still others tiny, like prayer rooms. The heat would grind, the floors would creak for no good reason – even when no one was stepping on them. A family of snakes made their home in our basement.

We were told this was a good thing. Keeps the rodent population down.

train 6

Winston O. Link

But after about a week, the lone coal train that would come through in the middle of the night stopped waking me up. And lo and behold, rather than waking our kids up, that train actually put them to sleep. Whenever they started crying, the way children under two are apt to do, Jack and I would check the clock to see if the train was coming any time soon, and if it was – cha-ching! We knew that by the time its hard-stepping lullaby was finished, they would be fast asleep.

I figured this was a sign. A sign that I should maybe give our new house a chance before I began slowly planting the seeds that we ought to be looking for a different place. A converted barn, perhaps. We’d always wanted one of those.

So, about ten days into living in our new home, I picked up my camera and went from room to room taking photographs of each space and all of the details I liked – the antique tin ceilings, the original pine floors spotted with coal burns and oil drum rings, the handmade, flat-headed nails that held the place together, the way the light moved through the house as the day progressed.

I began to revel in the natural beauty that surrounds us. Long walks on a country railroad provide some of the most sublime back views in our county. At night, during the spring and summer, bats flutter around the moon like it’s a bug light, while local foxes scream blood-curdling mating calls.

train track shoes

The place did have potential. Even if I couldn’t wrap my head around when or how, with a bunch of little babies crawling around, we were ever going to fulfill that potential. It’s not like either of us had the time or skills to fix her up on our own.

It’s funny, though, about dreams. About taking on more than you think you can handle. It’s a tender process that you must surrender to bit by bit. You learn to fix the things that need fixing – or find someone who can do it for you. You learn to work with the place instead of fighting against it.

“Know what you do when you’ve got a problem in an old house?” Said our neighbor, whose home is even older than ours. “Ignore it. Usually goes away on its own.”

I started to imagine colors on the country trim that frame our doors and windows – moss greens, chocolates, rich creams, faded reds.

“If we knock that wall down, we’ll double the size of the living room.”

“Do you think we can make that chimney work?”

“How about if we blow out the ceiling in our bedroom to expose the original wooden beams?”

Just so, we began to execute to the structure’s potential, instead of complaining about its shortcomings. We started to celebrate the glorious layers of past, present and future that made up our home.

And in the process, our house became as much a part of our dreams as our work, our family, our love. We wanted to do right by her. Respect the relationship our house had and continues to have with the community at large. Seems everybody around here has a story about her. If not them, then their dad, or grandmother, or Uncle Louie.

We wanted our time here to leave behind a story or two as well. So, we did our part.

While we’ve never been much into Christmas bedazzling outside of putting up a Christmas tree, we made sure to screw green and red light bulbs into our porch lights outside. We’ve done this mostly for the train conductors who always blare their horns in salute as my kids jump and wave at them. When our son was really little, the conductors would even let him sit in the caboose when it was time for a shift change. In recent years, that same boy – not so little anymore – has mooned them at least a half dozen times. And they’ve been awfully good sports about that.

And as we’ve become the stewards of the long road of memories made here, we’ve come to understand how a place, too, can be a living thing. There is a magnetic quality to this house that not only lured us to it, but has kept us here. It is as tangible as the unmistakable something that draws us to a friend or a lover or a calling.

Sometimes we have cursed how this old broad seems to hold us captive. Other times we have thanked the powers that be for letting us stay. Mostly, it’s been the latter. But whatever the case, I’ve been forced to reconsider my initial reaction to this place, and embrace my husband’s instincts.

In that rare moment in a marriage, I’m compelled to say, “I was wrong. Yes, I was unequivocally wrong, and you were right, honey. This place does indeed have magic.”

christmas card 1

Yes, this is us (photo by John Michael Triana)

 

 

The Longest Shortest Twenty Years of Your Life

bad dad“It feels like it’s starting to get away from us,” Jack, my husband, said as we lay in bed this past weekend, our children’s howls and thumps reverberating from the den. By “it” he means the time we have with our babes. And yes, of course, there’s plenty of time left – our kids are 13, 11 and 8, as of recently, and still love to hang, as they say.

But the fact is, our days of being parents of small children are pretty much behind us, having passed in a dog-tired blur. While I don’t miss those early days exactly, I am conscious of the passage of time – that it expands like the Big Bang, hurtling away faster with each year.

“It’s the longest, shortest twenty years of your life,” a friend once told us, back when our kids were merely toddlers. We were up most nights then, and always had a nose to wipe, a bath to give, a diaper to change. Time seemed to crawl by, evidenced only by the stubborn dark circles that had parked themselves under our eyes and would not move.

It’s only now that we’re beginning to feel the hard truth of our friend’s observation. No longer are we in the business of being our children’s everything. I think, if pressed, our two older kids could actually survive without us. Perhaps not well, or happily, or comfortably – but could they eek by? I say with a mixture of pride and dejection that the answer is probably yes. I see it in their closed doors and hear it in their self-possessed laughs to jokes we’re not in on. Our children are needing us less; the cuddles come at their convenience; they have secrets.

Just last summer, I watched through my rear view mirror as my middle daughter, Charlotte, played dreamily with a naked, brown-haired American Girl doll. Seat belt pulled tightly over her hot pink t-shirt, she sat up tall, flat-chested, with the doll perched on her lap. I was breathless at her beauty. Charlotte whispered to her doll, “Do you want some chocolate milk?” She smoothed her hair and kissed her forehead just as I have done countless times to her and her sister.

I never wanted the moment to end.

girl with doll 2

Yet, only a few weeks ago Charlotte went to her first Middle School formal dance, and with a date no less. He’s a nice boy – funny, upbeat and a good dancer to boot. And whatever “romance” they share consists mostly of “liking” each other’s goofy posts on Instagram and meeting up at their lockers for a daily download of “what’s up.”

Although she’s not in the full swing of teendom yet, with the eye rolls, the make up, the obsessive texting, her doll days appear to be over. Charlotte didn’t even move her dolls – including her once beloved nudist, surrogate daughter – into her new room when she checked out of the space she used to share with her younger sister.

“Jo likes to play with them,” she said. “And I want to put pictures of Paris up in my room.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited for the way she wants to take a bite out of life and hope she continues to share her stories and passions with me – the ones she’s willing to share, that is.

But every day I feel more like “The Giving Tree.”

Giving Tree

If it weren’t for the wonders of this journey, I might be inconsolable at the way I’ve been downgraded. Unable to hear the awe in my husband’s voice when he comments on our children’s growing independence.

But I do hear it, and his excitement is infectious.

He will point out how gratifying it is to witness the emergence in them of an interior life. They can now draw comfort from solitude that doesn’t consist only of imaginary play and fantasy, giving us a reprieve from their once constant demands for amusement or attention. And it is riveting to listen in as our children transcend the hysterically idiotic conversations that we’ve overheard from the back of the minivan over the years, diving headlong into exchanges about politics, the fallacy of “reality” TV, the effects of divorce on friends who are going through that particular family crisis.

At this very moment, I’m eavesdropping on my daughter’s on-Skype debate with a friend about the virtues of Rembrandt versus a female artist like Georgia O’Keefe. The discourse then moves to Magritte – “None of his stuff is even disturbing!” before morphing, inexplicably, into fashion – “You never wear jeans. Only yoga pants and tennis shoes. What’s up with that?”

It is humbling to learn that my eleven year-old knows more about art than I do.

girl and balloons

They are beginning to contemplate not only how their lives are shaped by their environment – food, shelter, an education, a democratically elected government, an intact family – but how they, in turn, can shape the environment around them through acts of kindness and understanding, an ability to own up to their mistakes, and to grow from having to eat the occasional sh*t sandwich. Clumsily, they are learning to grasp how standing up for themselves boldly and aggressively if need be, can change the power structure in almost any relationship.

Even the one they have with us.

Expressions of love, while less joyful and flagrant, are true and come when we least expect them. “I don’t think you’ve ever lied to me, mom,” my son told me over the holidays. “Except, of course, about Santa and the Easter Bunny.”

“Have you lied to me?” I asked.

“Uh…can I plead the 5th?”

I’m impressed he even knows what the Fifth Amendment is. So, yes, there is much to find in the transformation we are witnessing, and ultimately, responsible for.

But my husband and I cannot deny what we will be leaving behind either. While we have always bragged about what great empty-nesters we will make, even Jack now acknowledges that he no longer looks quite so forward to our kids fleeing the nest, paying their own bills, and leaving us in peace to rediscover our pre-children relationship. Lately, in addition to dreaming up travels we’d like to embark on together – road trips to quirky landmarks, remote towns, and vistas of God-like splendor – we are starting to scheme brazenly about orchestrating fantastical trips that will be too tempting for our children to pass up when they get older. Especially if we’re paying. Christmas in Prague, a villa on the Italian Riviera, a beach vacation in Thailand and other fabulous getaways that we’ll doubtfully be able to afford.

“If we do our job right,” my husband says. “They will most certainly leave. They might even run out of here like they’re on fire, but they’ll be back. And if not… there’s always grandchildren.”

bad grandma

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