Monday, April 15, 2013

Letters 11 & 12: "I want them to wear superhero costumes."

Dear Victoria,

It was another whirlwind weekend. I write that to you as Sunday closes but I wonder, is there ever a weekend that isn't a whirlwind? What would a light breeze of weekend look like on my calendar, in our hours?

This is the pace of our life, a life we set with such intention, and if at times the execution requires both strategy and endurance, still it's with gratitude that I realize at the close of each night that this frenetic concatenation of five social lives at the behest of one home and two drivers is the alchemy of such happiness. Three kids in bed, each happy to have played and ice-creamed and visited and wild rumpused through the park, their sleep now the first stillness of their day, and well earned. Max and I, we each finished a novel this weekend, each spent some time in housework, in errands, and in conversation with friends, we had the quiet satisfactions of adulthood, and the parental satisfactions, included, of making our kids' day-sized dreams come true.

So all is well with my soul, as they say, and yet I'm not ready for bed. I'm stuck in thought.

I had just Eleni with me in the last portion of this afternoon. We had a date to meet her friend Annie, along with Annie's mom. Annie and Eleni went to preschool together, but as the big seven-year-olds that they are, those days feel distant. They're in different schools but love each other and we make the effort to provide for the continuation of their friendship.

Annie's an only child and her parents have separated and maintain their own homes. Annie shuffles back and forth. It hasn't been an easy year for Annie as she's had to reconcile this arrangement that she never expected or wanted, and I'm proud to say that my Eleni has been a steady friend through Annie's turmoil. I say lightheartedly but with a solid undercurrent of truth that there are so many of my own kids traipsing through my house at any moment that I never mind a friend or two or six to come over, as well, and Annie's always found a friendly haven amid my wild throng.

Annie's mother offered to pick up Eleni and drop her off; she offered twice, almost insistent: "I know what my to-do list looks like; I can't even imagine yours." But I made the time to go with them because I wanted to be there. To-dos get done and can stay to-be-done, but a mama-daughter double date is a special opportunity, not to be forsaken for laundry and grocery runs, even though we've run out of both the kids' vitamins and the fish's food.

We were sitting at the cafe table, the girls chatting and giggling in the secret language of old friends, and Annie's mom brought it up again. I asked about the new house. After she left Annie's dad she had moved into an apartment, but this fall she bought a little row house. She spoke in apologies: "I don't know why we haven't had you over yet. I don't know why I can't get the house together. I don't know why I can't get anything done. I just have one kid and I have whole weekends without her. I don't know how you do it."

There it is, Victoria: I don't know how you do it. You, my friend, you must receive this line, yes? And it's what has me thinking near midnight instead of crawling beneath the covers. I am a superwoman, yes, but no more so than you or my neighbor or the stranger walking down the street.

I think we all rise to the number of expectations upon us. I think there are days we fail or succeed by degrees, but we do however much needs to be done. We are not special, not for this. I have days of shortcomings and don't want on those days to crumble from anyone's pedestal. I just want us to believe in ourselves, so we can eliminate that nervous need to compare.

I said to Annie's mom, "whenever you're ready, we'd love to come visit." I've known Annie's mom for seven years, now, and I can't help her believe in herself. I can't stop her from drawing comparisons. All I can do is gently reject the validity of those comparisons - for her, for Annie and my Eleni, for myself. For all of us, you and my neighbor and the stranger walking down the street, I want to say "just be you, and call us when you're ready so we can be us in your company."

I love my family and all its wild ways but I understand that from the outside it might look impossibly much. And I wonder, sweet friend with the even larger family, tell me: how do you face the inevitable comparisons? How do you say to yourself and the women you care about, "you do your best and worst and I'll do mine and let's not feel the need to compare, let's just continue to meet around this cafe table and spill our hearts out to each other?"

How do you say, "see me for me, not for some virtue you've ascribed to me that I may not even deserve?" How do you say, "your wonder at me is misplaced, and makes me uncomfortable?"

How do you say, my sweet Victoria whose heart is filled with wisdom and these same experiences, "I'm just me and I want you to see me, not through the labels that reflect more about you than me, but just me?"

I hope you're well, friend, and I know I will find the perfect perspective in your response, which is why I await it so eagerly.

Much love,
Agnes


Agnes,

Have I ever told you how much I adore you for your unashamed honesty? Remember the day of our first meeting at your house, how you called (or was it texted?) when I was close and informed me that your air conditioner had broken? ... In July? I sat at an intersection waiting for the light to turn and couldn't help but laugh. I'd been perspiring already even with the cold air blasting from the vents in my van, wondering what you'd think of my outfit, of how I dealt with my baby, if you'd like me in person. And here you were informing me as only you can that your air was out but the get-together was still on, if I'd have it, and I'm so glad I did. The ease in your... you-ness was hinted at in that exchange, and the meeting only confirmed it. You are fantastically unique, wildly, enviously present in the moment. I admire your intellect, your aesthetic taste, and your parenting style. But most of all? I like how your company spurs me to embrace my me-ness without restraint.

And that brings me to the subject of your letter, for I am a chronic apologizer. I am forever offering apologies for the dust on my stairs, the strange smell coming from my untidy kitchen, and that my two-year-old is running around like a tiny, naked Amazonian in the dining room. Does this mean I subconsciously believe my life should resemble a mixture of a magazine photo spread and family sitcom? It does, I suppose. A handful of years ago I went through an awful season where I jogged around the house on Sunday mornings like a mad woman, barking at my husband and the kids to don freshly-ironed outfits and for goodness sake, not mess up their hair. I wanted to be sure we arrived at church looking put together, for all those friends who questioned how I could do it, as I kept bearing children. Pressed creases mean we're put together, right?

And now I flash to a few months ago, when we were home in the States temporarily awaiting the birth of our fifth child, and my third was insistent that he be allowed to wear a superhero costume to the store. Hugely pregnant, uncomfortable, and overwhelmingly aware that we were quite a sight without superhero costumes, I argued with him about it until we had a crisp, brief moment of silence and clarity: he looked into my eyes hopefully, his own glistening with pure sweetness and innocent heroics, and I thought: What the heck. Pull that costume on and just be you, kid.

My large family elicits all sorts of verbalized expectations from people we come into contact with: most of them unrequested, many from individuals we don't know personally. I've had the bad habit of tucking those expectations into an uncomfortable, too-small pocket of my psyche where they poke and annoy me, bubbling with the lie that I am not what I should be. It's a mode of being I work hard to keep my children from operating in, a tight skin of perception glossy with strain and devoid of authenticity. I want them to wear the superhero costumes.

And I want the people with expectations to know that those things they marvel at about my mode of being... well, thank you for that. But here is what I am most proud of: that moment when my kids are asleep and slightly sweating beneath a thick comforter, when I creep in, through the maze of their toy collection, and kiss their temples and whisper into their dreams that they are spectacular and I love them; that I made myself walk back up the stairs the other day and offer a 'Sorry' to my husband because I bit his head off for something completely irrational; that I set a crazy, wild goal for myself and it's all for me and it seems impossible, but I'm going for it anyway. These are the messy, unpressed, totally normal details of my days that I hold close to my heart as I drift off to sleep. I am not a robot checking items--one expectation after another--off a list. I'm a disaster, sometimes. But I'm trying to embrace humility throughout it all, to love without restraint, to reach-reach-reach because I believe I serve best and love best when I'm chasing something that draws me closer to God.

The best friends I've made in my womanhood have been those, like you, who can lay their messes and dreams and expectations for themselves and heaped upon them by others, out on the table between us. Without judgment we sift through it all, laughing and seething and weeping. We come away resolute in our us-ness. We say: No air? The party's still on. And we dance.

Twirling (and I know you are too),
Victoria

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Letters 9 & 10: "...down some emotional roads..."

Dearest Agnes,

It’s been a while since I’ve put pen to paper and sent you a few of my thoughts. How are you? How is your family? Are you finishing the winter season well or are you already anxious for the New Life that spring has to offer? Oh, how I hope that you are able to find contentment and joy in each day!

I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching the past few weeks, Agnes. It has led me down some emotional roads and I’m pretty sure I still have more questions than answers. I thought I’d throw one of my bigger questions your way. In your opinion, how do we know what is “The Best” for our children?

As you know, I am living overseas. At times, I feel that I am enriching my daughter’s life with a unique experience that will define her early years permanently. I mean, Baby Girl will be bilingual with no effort in a matter of months and her passport had its first stamps before she was 6 weeks old. In the first two months of her life, she traveled further than I did in the first 25 years of mine!

Other times (most of the time, I should say), I think that I am depriving her of a joyful life surrounded by the love of her grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Are we wrong for exposing her to a more difficult life than she would have had if we had stayed in the US? Is giving her a ‘safe’ and ‘easy’ life in America the best for her? Or is teaching her from the very first weeks of her life that helping others is worth it, even at the expense of your own comfort? I grew up believing that everyone deserves ‘The Best’, but how can we possibly know what ‘The Best’ is? Perhaps I’m just distracted by the extremes of these two options and completely ignoring some healthy balance in the middle, but so few aspects of my life are ‘in the middle’ these days that I find it an easy option to ignore!

Now, I hope you don’t misunderstand me in this. I know that life in America isn’t always easy nor is it safe. I am fully aware of the way I can romanticize life in the US, but the life she would have had in our little hometown in Michigan is absolutely safer and easier than the life we have here. It just is.

So what do we do with our children, Agnes? How do we know what is The Best? Is it wrong to want to give my daughter a life that the children she is going to befriend these next few years here will never and could never have? Is it possible to give our children lives of advantage, health, safety, comfort without making those things idols in their lives? How do we know what’s The Best for them?

I don’t suspect you will have answers, Agnes, but oh how I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject! Momma to Momma, what is your perspective on this?

Affectionately,
Sybil


Sybil,

I've been thinking about your question for a day because my response to you formed so immediately that I had to ponder it to be sure that it felt right. Here it is, for you, friend: there is no The Best. I believe this in my heart. There are, though, many different Bests.

The first Best is that your daughter is excessively loved by her parents, loved so much that love drips from her like morning nectar. You do that. It is not a factor of geography, but of your heart. She feels safe and nurtured and happy.

An additional Best is the confidence of your decisions. Baby Girl will follow your lead. Are you making your home where you are with conviction? She will be happy there if you're happy there. It's not easy, and it's not the same as not feeling homesick. You can feel homesick. You can wonder about what life would be like surrounded by family. But family needn't only be defined by blood relations. Foster yourself a new family, another Best. Love is love is love, whether it comes from new friends in far lands or forever-family across a Skype screen.

I think everyone I know (and tell me if you can repeat this from your own observations) who had a common childhood sometimes wished for more adventure, and everyone who had loads of adventure sometimes wished for a steadier foundation. Is this only about Baby Girl, sweet Sybil, or is this as much about you? You're in such a tender spot. New Motherhood is a rubbed raw feeling some days without leaving your own neighborhood, let alone crossing borders and languages and time zones. You're facing adjustments of more than the cultural or geographical sort.

I'm thinking of you in the ocean tides, Sybil. My family spends a week on the edge of the Atlantic every summer (and if this cold day is what spring is supposed to be, let's just think about summer instead, shall we?). My favorite thing to do is to take each of my kids, one by one, to the edge of the ocean. I stand my child in front of me and we walk forward, inching. I have them face the ocean, the back of their heads each in turn bumping softly against my belly as I walk immediately behind them. We face the same rising sun. I hold their hands in mine and I walk, walk, walk, to the depth for each of them where the highest tide will tickle their chins. I hold each one there and I say, "shhh. Feel yourself against sand and wind and water. Feel how solid you are. Feel how light you are. Feel all the world go by."

At that depth, a wave could carry them away if I wasn't anchoring them to the sand. They feel their strength and their fragility, too, their weight and their weightlessness, the forces that push against them and the way they can bear down to stay still, the way they can let everything go by.

Feel yourself and your strength, Sybil. It's you, too. You have all the currents of "is this" and "should we" and "what if" and "but only" pushing against you and to some degree they've always been there, pushing ceaselessly on the wind and waves, but before this season you were just you, and you were carefree, and you didn't mind a little of life's grit on your face. Now you're not just you, you're Mama-you, and nothing, not even a speck of sand, is going to bother Baby Girl if you can stop it. You've always been a rod of strength but now you're a bolster of someone else's, too. It happens to all of us, the realization of the size of all our decisions and their attenuating effects on our responsibilities. It causes each of us to question everything. You're not alone. Ask every mama you know.

There's one more Best I want to offer you, and it's the realization that nothing needs be permanent. If you had a five-year-plan or an eight-year-plan, why don't you think of it as a plan-to-be-carefully-reconsidered-every-six-months kind of plan? You don't have to figure out everything at once. Tell yourself that this is today's status quo and set a date on the calendar to examine if the status quo needs revision. Decisions, like most Best growth, can be accomplished in stages. So very little of this world is really black and white.

And speaking of gray: it is gloomy and disgusting here today but I am wearing neon purple shoes because it will be spring on my feet even if Mother Nature is still enjoying a little last hibernation. I hope I see many sunny days soon, and I hope you do, too. I hope you feel the warmth both on your face and in your heart, because you deserve to feel radiant.

Much love,
Agnes

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Letters 7 & 8: "... coming back... never felt like starting over."

Dear Elle,

After a long visit back home in the States, it's been fascinating readjusting to life overseas.  I was worried that I'd dissolve into annoyance; I certainly hadn't held back from spoiling myself with all the things unavailable here-- Starbucks, Target, and Panera, oh my!  So far, though, I've been safe from such a slump. I wake in the morning and feel gratified to hear the older children already running about in the hallways, chattering animatedly to one another and to Albert as he prepares for work.  I roll over in the pale light of our bedroom and snuggle the baby, kissing his cheeks until he giggles and swapping his diaper out for a new one before we head downstairs.  I make sure Armand has his things ready for school, reminding him to brush his teeth and balancing the baby on my hip while I run a wet comb over his cowlicks.  Moments later I watch the bus disappear down the alley with him aboard, and I can just imagine him strapped into his seat, kicking his feet in the air the way he does when he's excited.

This is how I've felt since we've been back: kicking the air with anticipation for all that awaits us.

I know that sounds simple and contrived a little, maybe naive... but we've had years where it seemed everything was just a hike--an uphill hike--and this does not feel like it will be one of those, at least not just yet. 

Or perhaps it's just my mindset that's different.  Last year was our first one here, and it was all lessons.  I had to learn how to drive in a country without road etiquette, how to connect with a culture vastly different from my own, how to raise a family in a place that feels like a gray fairytale sometimes with its constant surprises.  Certainly after only a year (some of which was spent, as I said, back home) we are not beyond the reach of acclimation.  But the settling is coming easier this time around, and I feel affection for those around me without having to work at it, and these two truths are a great comfort to me.

Last week I was idling at a red light, eying my sideview mirrors for over-eager drivers squeezing between lanes to gain a few car-lengths of position.  The sky was overcast and the pedestrians moving past on the sidewalks held their collars against their necks, heads down into the wind.  My inner music box began playing the song I've adopted since I crossed oceans and borders to come here with my family: the melody of stories, countless stories swirling around me.  I want to know them all, as impossible as that is.  I'll search them out and hear some, and I think that will be enough to change me... continue changing me, in the best way. 

What about you?  You've all been back in the States for awhile now: Do you long to return overseas?  How is it being back "home" after the years being "out"? 

Here's to a good year, Elle.

-Victoria


Dear Victoria,

I’m sitting at the window, trying to collect my thoughts. Outside, the clouds are low and thick. The wind is pushing empty swings. Daffodils grow in bunches in my garden. The ground is soft; the grass is tinged with a fresh, new green. It seems right that you should write to me of new beginnings when here we are, edging closer and closer to spring.

I lived in Japan two years ago when the earthquake happened, when the tsunami happened, and if I let myself I can still get lost in that slow, unfolding, nuclear disaster. We were so frightened. When my husband was called in to help, I had to evacuate myself and our two, small children. For months, our family was divided. Afterward, I didn’t know what to expect. I waited until the risk seemed small and then I brought my children home to Japan, to a place that both was and wasn’t home for me, and still without my husband. I remember it all so well: the nervousness, the anticipation, the eagerness to plunge back into adventure and the fear of starting over. What I didn’t expect, though, was that coming back to Japan never felt like starting over. I picked up a life I’d already begun, with friends I’d already made, in a culture I already knew and respected. I felt at ease there, and eager, and so unexpectedly peaceful.

Making a home is never easy. Whether you’re in a country you know or a country that’s entirely unfamiliar, there’s always loneliness at first. There’s always adjustment. I’ve felt it everywhere we’ve ever lived, and I feel it now. But those moments you described, those baby snuggles in the morning light, that wet comb over a stubborn cowlick, are homemaking at work. I’m so glad you see it. Keep feeling hopeful. Kick your feet in the air, let the stories swirl around you, relish in how far you’ve come, and enjoy the sweetness!

Elle
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