life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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Mr. Pauper and his singing ostrich

I remember when I was a child, and I could just open the fridge or a drawer and find any number of items to eat. If what I wanted to eat wasn’t there, I could simply add it to the grocery list, and at some later time it would magically appear.

 

Ah, for the good, old days!

 

Wait. Something must be amiss if I am pining for my childhood. Childhood was no cup of tea. I always longed to be an adult, to be taken seriously, and to make my own choices for my own life. From my child version of my self, it seemed that adults could do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. They could eat ice cream for dinner!

 

Well, it turns out that being an adult can be overrated in many ways. For one, I am lactose intolerant, and if I eat junk food instead of a well-rounded meal I just get a bellyache. Two, the jokes I used to make in high school and college about how I wouldn’t ever wind up making much money because I wanted to make the world a better place have caught up with me and kicked my ass.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I have lived with many privileges. I have never been hungry a day in my life unless I forgot to bring snacks with me. I have not endured poverty, and I have gone through a series of academic pursuits, earning a PhD in Sustainability Education in May 2013. By many standards of living in places around the world, including the United States, I am a wealthy individual.

 

In the area of love from friends and family, I am wealthy indeed. However, I after visiting a tax company for what my husband had thought would be a simple process this afternoon, I texted my husband that he was going to have to change his name.

 

Apparently, I have not only set out to make hardly any money in my life, but I have also made a habit of making awful puns on the side (thus far, those have been purely pro bono).

 

When my husband took a leave of absence from his job to become a doctoral student in Belgium, giving me the title of breadwinner for our family for the next four years, I had to refrain from telling my favorite joke, I married Rich!

 

You chose the worst country for taxes, I texted my husband as I walked past a row of expensive cars parked in the tax consultant parking lot. You need to change your name to something more a propo.

 

Mr. Pauper, he wrote back.

 

Yes, and I will shape shift to an ostrich.

 

Mr. Pauper and his singing ostrich.

 

When I first walked into the tax place, the woman at the front desk looked me up and down and asked, Yes? (in French) in a nonplussed tone, which required no translation. I was clearly not dressed in an appropriate manner for asking for assistance with taxes, and in her book I did not belong there.

 

My hair was frizzed out from the humidity (I had barely managed to contain it by tying it back into a ponytail). I had put on earrings, which is commensurate to getting dressed up in my book, and every article of clothing except my pants had not been worn since being washed. What I was missing in my capacity as a “woman” was high heels, panty hose, a dress or skirt, pearls, and a hairstyle that required some kind of blow dryer or straightener and a lot of product. Were I a man, I might have possibly slipped by had I slung a sweater across my shoulders and tied the sleeves in front. Perhaps, in my next life…

 

Clearly, heels are out of the question. I can barely handle a new pair of shoes. I had purchased a pair of red Birkenstock sandals at the airport in Frankfurt on our way home from Germany the week before, but I hadn’t been able to walk after wearing them for a few hours. Today is the first day that I have been able to walk in a way that does involve hobbling and extreme pain.

 

Now, back to Belgium. I thought the visa process for being granted the ability to stay in Belgium for more than 90 days was confusing. It turns out the tax process wins by a long shot (Stretch? A mile? A kilometer?). Metric references just don’t seem to have the same impact.

 

From what the tax fellow told me, it sounds like we now have to submit and claim income for both the United States and Belgium (regardless of where in the world that income derives), and then the two countries duke it out for which one actually gets to keep the money we pay. It doesn’t matter that my income comes solely from clients in the United States, whose payments go directly into my bank account in the United States. The whole thing was incredibly confusing, and then the tax guy had to give me a new envelope for mailing my Belgium tax documents because I had taken notes all over the one that was sent to me.

 

Even with the stress from the meeting—the accountant did apologize for scaring me—I cannot help but feel special having two countries vying for my income, however meager. It’s like having two suitors duel for my favor!

 

I’m going to go home and drink for both of us, I texted my husband.

 

Ok. Shall I pick something up for dinner? Shall we celebrate our poverty with takeout?

 

Thankfully, we are not poverty-stricken. The fact that I could leave the tax place and buy groceries is an incredible boon. I still can’t help but sigh, however. I really do want to make the world a better place, and I know I can do this at a very little expense, but I would also like to be able to afford to be able to attend trainings for yoga and meditation to promote my own health and wellbeing. I would like to be able to buy things that are handmade from venues where I know that the profits go back to the artisan.

 

They say that money can’t buy happiness, but a bit more money than I make would go a long way toward easing my constant preoccupation and stress over spending it. I am suspicious of them anyway. They clearly make a fine living because that line just seems like something that only a person with money would ever claim.

 

2017 has been quite the banner year for me, so much so that it has shocked into silver more than a few of my thick, brown curls. The tax fiasco didn’t even really register on my stress barometer because it has already been broken by previous events from the current year. At this point, I just chalk up anything stressful that happens to 2017.

 

I keep hoping that the future foretold to me in a fortune I received this past fall—Much needed relaxation is in your future—will come true sooner rather than later, but I suppose I should not hold my breath. Yes, it could be worse, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot hope for it to be better.

 

There is certainly never a dull moment in your life, my dad told me on a recent visit.

 

I wouldn’t mind a few more, I responded.

 

Right now, life feels like a confusing blur, and I am caught between countries. I know that they say to be careful what you wish for, but the intention I send out to the universe is hope for greater ease, be it with my own response to challenging times, as well as my desire for fewer surprises and more tranquil or “dull” moments in my life.

 

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As Bobby McFerrin has said countless times (in my house, at least, since I have been playing his song on repeat), Don’t worry. Be happy!

 

He also says that he is going to give his listeners his number to call him when they re worried—Here, let me give you my phone number. When you’re worried, call me. I’ll make you happy—but I don’t blame him for not actually providing one.

 

Ain’t got no cash, ain’t got no style, ain’t got no gal to make you smile, but don’t worry; be happy.

 

I might be lacking in the cash department and seriously lacking in style by European standards, but I married Rich, so I have much to be happy for!

 

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Embracing good enough

When I feel like control over what I have generally perceived of as my life has been hijacked from my own capable hands, I try to occupy myself with tasks that offer the illusion that I am once again in control. In these trying times, I often clean. A lot. Vacuuming is my favorite activity because it shows immediate, clear results. I like putting dirty clothing in the laundry, but I don’t enjoy putting the clean laundry away.

 

If you don’t put it away, you don’t get credit, my husband used to tell me. It became a running joke between us because he could not understand my methods of cleaning.

 

Why wouldn’t you want to put clean dishes away? He would ask me, horrified that I would add more wet dishes to a rack full of dry dishes.

 

It’s just water, I would respond to his horror. That can’t make it dirty again.

 

On the occasions when I actually put dishes away, I call out across the house to my husband, I put the dishes away. I get credit!

 

I really enjoy praise for my good deeds. I joke regularly that I have earned a gold star or an A+ for my efforts. One time I found a laminated gold star on the sidewalk while walking between museum sites when I worked in Lowell, Massachusetts, and it made my month. It had been an offering from the external validation gods, and it was with immense pride that I posted the star on the grey fabric wall of my cubicle office space.

 

The many therapists I have seen over the years would likely have theories about this response to external validation, but I will save this line of musing for another day.

 

Thus far, 2017 has unfolded as the year of unforeseen, stressful financial events, some of which I cannot write about openly for legal reasons. Suffice it to say, that I have been on the prowl for activities that will provide instant gratification and the illusion of control in the wake of feeling powerless and being forced to practice unending patience, which has never been my strong suit.

 

These activities that I plan are not always well thought out, feasible, or remotely good ideas. For example, Brussels has been experiencing a bit of a heat wave. The generally pleasant spring into summer temperatures have been replaced with high humidity and daytime highs of 90 degrees (Fahrenheit, mind you. I will never again forget to specify after telling someone when I first arrived that I had moved from a place in Arizona where the highs could reach well beyond 100 degrees; they nearly had a stroke before I realized my mistake and insert the words Fahrenheit, not Celsius).

 

The activities I chose yesterday were to vacuum and do laundry and dishes (I even put the dishes away!).

 

This morning, I decided that after I finished editing a dissertation chapter I would head to the Ikea in Anderlecht to search for fabric to cover our two skylights and a divider to put up to hide our luggage in the absence of a basement or other storage space in our new home.

 

Clearly, 2017 has influenced my already questionable common sense. It really isn’t ever a good idea for someone like to me to go to Ikea. For one, it is financially risky because they have designed items their textiles, rugs, furniture, lamps, and linens in all sorts of beautiful colors and patterns with someone like me in mind. There are birds and plants and trees on everything! It is both my personal abstinence nightmare and an excellent place for practicing the middle, more moderate Buddhist path that my husband has described to me many times.

 

It takes a long time to get to by public transit, so regardless of whether I ate a meal just before leaving I inevitably wind up super hungry and cranky by the end of the journey. Today’s visit was no exception. I was practically falling over from low blood sugar levels by the time I staggered through my front door. I love how accessible and vast the public transit here in Brussels, but it is not fun plugging in an address in Google Maps for directions and to seeing the initial 31 minutes by car change to 1 hour 10 minutes by public transit, which also often takes even longer if you miss a connection from bus to metro or tram.

 

Ikea is also huge, and the experience can get overwhelming fast, particularly for people like my husband and me, who do not have a high tolerance for big store shopping to begin with.

 

So, with all of this information from past experience working against me, I pursued my plan to go to Ikea in order to obtain some kind of fabric or mat to cover the two skylights at our house that let in glorious sunshine but also lots of heat during the day and also a room divider to stash our luggage and boxes behind in the absence of storage space.

 

I set out for Ikea after eating a good-sized lunch of leftover pasta with fish and veggies. Check.

 

I arrived an hour later, sweaty but resolute. 90 degrees Fahrenheit would not deter my determination!

 

I decided to avoid the large showroom with all of its winding paths that lead through an overwhelming abundance of furniture displays and opted instead to go downstairs and just walk through the marketplace.

 

I stopped at bathmats and runners, texting my husband for his opinion because I am terrible at making small decisions that have not great meaning in the grand scheme of things. According to Buddhists, Existentialists, Nihilists, and anyone who with a grasp on life and mortality, none of these decisions really matter in the end. Still, I wanted to make the right decision so I wouldn’t get home and realize I had made the wrong one and feel that I had lost hold of the small sphere of control I had carved out in my life.

 

When I saw a display in the marketplace with one of the three dividers I had added to my wish list (or in French, liste d’achats), I realized with dismay that the only way I could view the other dividers was to go upstairs to the show room. This felt like a prison sentence. I had no desire to go to the showroom nor could I find any way to even get there without having to retrace my steps through all of the winding maze and start over. Nope. Not gonna happen.

 

I texted my husband that the divider looked kind of crappy, and he said not to worry.

 

I felt defeated, especially when I entered the warehouse area where aisles full of boxed Ikea items were stacked onto floor to ceiling shelves. How would I ever even find the different dividers in this overly abundant madhouse?

 

I wandered around glumly, hoping one of the dividers might have been the chosen item put on display at the ends of the aisles but to no avail.

 

Then, a yellow computer like a beacon of hope appeared in my peripheral vision. I made a beeling for it and clicked on the magnifying glass search icon (or recherche). I took a photograph of each divider’s home in the stacks and went to first one the other of the two that seemed of higher quality.

 

I lifted the Rïso divider, or rather, I attempted to lift the Rïso divider.

 

Holy hell, this thing is heavy, I thought. Maybe the other one will be lighter since it has canvas mesh textile between the wooden posts.

 

The other divider was even heavier.

 

Shit.

 

There is no way in hell I can carry either of these, I texted my husband. Should I try to have one delivered?

 

It’s too expensive, he responded.

 

I knew he was right, but damnit! I came to idea for a divider (or paravent), and by hell or high water I was leaving with one.

 

Besides, why were these dividers not in Ikea’s usual tidy, little, fairly manageable boxes with a million parts for me to attempt to put together with their minimalist instructions upon returning home?

 

Where had everything gone so very wrong?

 

I went back to the yellow computer of hope and typed in Jassa, the name of the divider formerly-described as crappy.

 

When I found it, I attempted to pick it up and succeeded.

 

Huh, I thought. I had not been expecting success, but as the narrator of the Elizabeth Gilbert book I had been listening to on the metro informed me, Sometimes, salvation comes in the most unlikely of places.

 

Well, perhaps the Jassa was my salvation?

 

I sent several more indecisive texts to my husband, replete with tearful emoticon faces and all; then, I decided to go for it.

 

Why not? I had come this far, and I could carry it, which would help me succeed in my premeditated mission, which would then help me to maintain my grasp on my ever-so-tenuous illusion of stability.

 

As my husband reminds me on a regular basis, it was good enough.

 

I maneuvered my cart (was I the only one who seemed to always get the cart that refused move in a straight line?) and went to the self-check out register. I dutifully scanned my skylight mats and set of 4 hangers (we always get 4 more hangers on a trip to Ikea…just because). When I went to scan the divider, I couldn’t find the sticker with the bar code on the side that was standing up.

 

Figures, I thought, trying to lift the bottom and pull the scanner cord far enough to achieve my scanning goal. Still nothing. Now, the cashier assistant had taken notice. She explained to me in French that I could find the sticker on the bottom.

 

I told her it didn’t exist and showed her. Perplexed, she got on the phone.

 

Hmmm….I started thinking. Was this a sign that I was not supposed to buy the divider after all? I could leave now and never look back.

 

After two different phone calls, the cash register assistant gave me directions for plugging in the item number by hand, and I was able to finish checking out.

 

I bought my husband a box of the oat and chocolate cookies he likes, used the restroom (always a good idea for what one person called my thimble bladder), and began the long, hot haul home. I made it to the metro and then onto the bus.

 

 

 

 

When I stood the divider up at the back of the bus, a tiny tag fell down from the cardboard cover on top. Had I just turned the divider with the other side facing up at the checkout line, it would have revealed itself to me.

 

Oh well. Chauk it up to 2017.

 

I finally staggered into my house an hour and a half later, trembling from hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion. I had done it! Victory was mine!

 

I brought the mats upstairs and put them onto the skylights, imagining the rubber bottom would hold them securely in place. Back downstairs, I looked up and saw that they had already blown away. I had to crawl onto my neighbor’s roof to procure one of them.

 

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Oh well. The sun would be setting soon, a nice breeze was picking up, and I had made it home. Good enough!

 

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Remember the sloth. Be the snail.

Whenever I see an image of a sloth, I am reminded of my first honeymoon in Costa Rica. My first husband and I climbed a rickety, old watch tower and were held more rapt by the scene unfolding right in front of us than the panoramic view of the landscape behind us.

 

A sloth hung from the branches of a tree. It seemed, in fact, to be part of the tree, in body and in the tones of its body. Its hair had shades of white, brown, and green. I remember wondering if the green was actually moss growing directly on it.

 

 

 

If you have been reading my writing for some time, you may know that I have a naturally restless disposition. Staying still is no easy feat for me. My second husband calls me a squirrel on a regular basis. So, it was not small thing for me to be held rooted in one spot for at least 30 minutes, watching this creature.

 

The sloth seemed ancient as the tree it held onto both firmly and tenuously. We must have caught it during the most active period of its otherwise sedentary 24-hour period. It did a kind of sloth yoga in the tree before us, reaching out with first one and then another limb.

 

For a half an hour, I was still and calm. After it disappeared into the trees without even a trace, I vowed to remember the sloth to help me be still and calm. At times in life when I felt anything but these emotions, I wanted to be able to draw strength and perspective from the memory of the sloth.

 

Like so many experiences in life, the power and urgency experienced in the immediacy of the moment tends to fade in its wake. The memory of the sloth has remained, but it has not been as easy to remember the feeling of calm and grounding I experienced while watching it.

 

Since moving to Brussels, I have been introduced to a creature that offers a much more proximate and regular reminder to slow down, be patient, and persist even when life crushes you.

 

The snail.

 

I have seen many snails in my time in Belgium. They cling to garden walls, inch (centimeter?) along sidewalks, and move through dirt, grass, and forest. I seem to see as many crushed snails as I do living, though I have not conduced a formal study on the actual ratio and rate of survival of snails in an urban setting with vast swaths of pavement between often-tiny island oases of soil and vegetation.

 

To be honest, I am not sure how any snail survives against such odds. Each time I see a crushed shell, I bow to it, apologize, and share my express desire that it is in peace, wherever its snail spirit may be.

 

Being a homo sapiens, my shell feels even more tenuous and breakable. I have but a thin sheath of epidermis between my very sensitive heart, organs, and interior realm and the outside world, which seems to be sending wave upon unrelenting wave of shell-shattering energy my way. Countless times this calendar year alone, I have felt pummeled by the other beings with which I share this world. I have started to wonder about the ways I might create a stronger sphere of protection, my own metaphorical shell. Even a fragile one might help me to bear the force of the waves, at least enough to get across the concrete to the safety of an island of forest.

 

I am that compared to the snail, I am lucky in many ways. Even with my fragile exterior and even more delicate interior, I have an ability that the snail may lack: the ability to rebound.

 

The refrain from a song that I do not feel any particular ?? but that seems a propos for this rambling metaphor comes to mind:

 

I get knocked down, but I get up again

You’re never gonna knock me down

 

Of course, I feel like I get knocked down quite frequently, particularly these days. So, it is really only the first line that speaks most directly to my situation. The second line is more of a hope than a reality.

 

After attending a yoga workshop with master teacher, Jaye Martin, I found the words of a Lucinda Williams song running through my mind:

 

I don’t want you anymore
Cause you took my joy
I don’t want you anymore
You took my joy

 

You took my joy

I want it back

You took my joy

I want it back

 

These lines held a different kind of energy and a kind of determination different from the getting knocked down song previously mentioned. A person might yell out the lines to the first song with determination, but the singer of the second song doesn’t sing at all, they demand. I imagine the singer clawing their way out of a dark hole, coming up to the edge, dirt-encrusted fingernails reaching over the side, one hand at a time, and slowly, but with increasing confidence and determination, pulling themselves up onto level ground.

 

I can relate to the dirt crawling, the sound of a voice that practically growls from within, Get up. You want to choose happy? Choose!

 

Then, once you have chosen, get up off your sorry ass, put as much space between you and the one sucking the light and life from your spirit, and reclaim your joy by whatever means it might take.

 

Since I seem to be on a roll with pop culture references, how about the line from the movie, Elizabethtown, where the bubbly flight attendant, Claire, encourages the protagonist, Drew, to get over himself when he was roiling in self-pity after a shoe design he created cost the company he worked for umpteen billions of dollars and he subsequently lost his job, identity, meaning in life, etc.

 

According to Claire, Sadness is easier because it’s giving up. I say, make time to dance alone with one hand waving free.

 

And one more for good measure:

 

You wanna me really great? Then have the courage to fall big and stick around. Make them wonder why you’re still smiling.

 

I feel like I haven’t fallen so much as been crushed like my snail friends, but I know I am strong enough (and equally stubborn) to get back up, shift my perspective, and choose happiness.

 

For a snail (at least, in as much as I can determine from my observations), once crushed there is no coming back. For a squirrely human, there is more choice and strength of will involved in the return.

 

This week while traveling in Darmstadt, Germany, a place whose name literally translates to the intestine city, I have been dealt yet another crushing blow. I have to say, despite my determination not to be crushed by it, I spent a couple days in a dark place, feeling completely smashed to bits.

 

Each morning, however, with the sun shining and the promise of a large cup of coffee and possibility, I gather my pieces together in a pile, then gently lift them up to cradle them in my arms. I may feel broken, but I have all of my pieces. I also have my heart, an inner joy that is mine alone, and the desire to put myself back together.

 

As I have walked around the city

As I have walked around the city, I have been sent reminders of the snail within in the form of a bright yellow print of a snail hanging in a shop window and a silver pendant, which is no longer hanging in another shop’s window because it clearly wanted to travel and become an even more proximate reminder that I while I may not be able to choose how other people behave and that there actions do affect me, I can choose how I respond to their sometimes crushing blows.

 

I am clearly not the Walrus, and while I like the idea of embodying the spirit of the sloth and I am inspired by it, I know that I am also not the sloth. I can remember the sloth to help me keep the energy and impact of life forces in perspective, but I just don’t see myself ever being content to hang from the tree branches, swaying gently and peacefully. It isn’t me.

 

I am more a snail 2.0. I am stalwart, and I move through my life with fortitude and character. I am determined to find balance amidst the chaos, and I will be happy, even if it means crawling on hands and knees across pavement and broken glass to get there.

 

In other words, be peaceful and/but persevere!

 

 

 


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The belly of the beast

I received some interesting and hilarious responses to my first post about our adventures in Darmstadt. One friend wrote of Darmstadt that it was “the intestine city,” a description which has now begun to weave itself into our conversation as we have moved through our second day here.

 

We had a relatively restful night’s sleep, though I could hear someone walking around in the room above us and experienced a few waves of panic, hoping this would not turn into a repeat of the nightmare neighbor we recently escaped from at our first apartment in Brussels. Thankfully, a simple turning on of the air fan and earplugs solved the noise from above. My husband was elated at the opportunity to sleep through the night without interruption from the two feline characters who share our home. He practically did a dance he was so giddy (ok, he definitely did a little dance, and it was adorable). I really love this man.

 

The day before I had called down to reception to ask about the internet, so this morning it was my husband’s turn to call to see if breakfast was included in the price for the hotel (feel free to judge, but we are on a student and part-time editor budget). Breakfast buffet was indeed gratis, so we headed down to the dining room.

 

We were greeted by the sounds of men in the lobby speaking American English.

 

Where are we? I asked my husband.

 

The little placard in our hotel room had informed us that there were more than 50 options at the buffet, and I would say the majority included some kind of meat and/or dairy product. While I have been impressed to see many vegan and vegetarian signs posted on the windows of restaurants around the town, the breakfast buffet at H+ Hotel was decidedly leaning toward the carnivorous with omnivores a close second.

 

There were little signs telling us the names of all of the meat products in German and English.

 

Huh, bacon is bacon in German and English, I noted, not that either of us are going to eat any. I did wind up with a couple of rogue pieces of bacon in my eggs, however.

 

The soundtrack for the buffet was decidedly weird. When we first walked in, we were serenaded by a male voice, telling us, you’re in the army now. Oh, oh oh, you’re in the army now.

 

Ok, I thought. Why not?

 

I wonder what the + is for? I asked my husband when we were seated at a table on the patio. A truck had pulled up, and the workers we had seen putting up a relatively small hotel sign the day before were unloading a much larger one to put up today.

 

 

Seems a little strange to be staying at a hotel that isn’t actually labeled as such, but the patio is sure nice, I continued.

 

We sat beneath a beer tent with Pilsner written in various locations. The breeze was lovely. I found myself feeling anxious and hurried and took a moment to exhale fully.

 

I’m quite happy to sit, my husband said in response to my fidgeting. There’s no hurry.

 

Ok. So what’s with the weird music? I asked. You’re in the army now? Really? I never even heard that song in the United States.

 

The things you hear in the intestine, my husband replied.

 

After breakfast, we headed on foot into town to wander around before the start of the conference we were here for my husband to attend.

 

Here are some of our observations from our wandering:

 

People in Darmstadt are kind and helpful. Apart from being skeptical of our choice to take an extended holiday in “the intestine city,” expats and locals have been quick to offer assistance to the foreigners who clearly do not speak the language and have no idea what they are doing when they try to place an order at a restaurant or bar.

 

I took a photo of a house on one street, and a man walking toward us who lived in the house wanted to tell us all about its history in a mix of German, English, and enthusiastic hand gesturing.

 

 

People have adorable dogs in Darmstadt. This man’s dog had hardly any teeth but smiled as only a dog can nonetheless and was very gracious in allowing us to place our hands by its muzzle so it could smell us. My husband and I even got to give its head a good pat before it went running toward its house.

 

The man stayed and told us how the front façade of the houses on the street were from 1600-1700 while the houses built behind them were of newer construction. Previously, there had been farms and chickens. The man was not enthusiastic about the graffiti that had been sprayed onto the front façade of many of the houses, so I waited until he had moved on to take photos. I am fascinated by the culture of graffiti, street art, stencils, and stickers that I find in places I travel, and I take a ridiculous number of photos everywhere I go (my husband can attest to this because we will be walking and I will stop to take a picture without saying anything so he either walks several paces ahead before realizing I am not there or walks directly into me when I stop abruptly to take a photo).

 

 

Shoes seem to be reasonably priced, but my feet are too small to fit into even the smallest sizes. Score one point for my bank account.

 

Food also seems to be very reasonably priced. Our entrees at the Mexican restaurant Hacienda were each under 10 euros. The water we ordered was the priciest part of the meal. I really need to figure out how to ask for tap water in German.

 

When I asked for an insalata at a Kebap place, I received a salad large enough for several meals. My husband ordered a pizza funghi (mushroom pizza), which became lunch for him and leftovers for dinner for me. The total cost was also under 10 euros. Apart from swimming in the yogurt style dressing they seem to serve at restaurants (from my experience at two), the salad held up pretty well for lunch and then an early dinner.

 

There are a lot of advertisements for cigarettes, as well as little cigarette vending machines placed all over town, but we have seen very few people actually smoking. I am refraining from sharing any photos of these advertisements so as to not promote the agenda of any cigarette companies.

 

Blue and white striped shirts, bicycles, and hippie pants are in. At one point while we were walking, we passed a group of people and three out of the five were all wearing blue and white striped shirts. The two women who bicycled past us at this same scene were wearing identical blue and white striped shirts.

 

You fit right in, my husband told me.

 

Yeah, but my shirt is purple and blue stripes. I think there may be some kind of striped shirt conspiracy going on here.

 

There were a couple rogue pink and white stripe shirts and red and white, but otherwise blue and white were the colors of the day.

 

I am not habituated to walking around a city where the number of people riding bicycles seems to outnumber those on foot and easily rival the number of cars driving around. I have been the cause of several near collisions. Every time my husband has to repeat my name before I realize I need to step out of the way. Walking around on my home after dropping my husband off at the conference center, I have gone through several more slow motion close calls. It’s particularly interesting when the person on the bicycle isn’t looking where they are going because I do a kind of tenuous step the left and then the right, trying to guess which way they will move past me. I’ll get there.

 

We walked to a park with our carry out lunch and sat in the shade of a large oak tree to eat. With our shoes off, a cool breeze whispering by, we were completely blissed out. Well, mostly.

 

 

I can’t ever feel fully relaxed with my house in Alaska stress, I sighed. It’s always there.

 

It will sell, my husband assured me. There is no question about that, so maybe you could put yourself into that future where it’s all done and spend some time there. You could think about time as not being so linear. It’s what I did when I was in Alaska. It was so hellish that I would visit places in my memory. It’s more than a visit, though. It’s really experiencing it. It’s a more intentional embodiment of the experience. You really try to viscerally feel and relive it. It’s like the memory of being at my grandpa’s pool as a kid and lying in the sun. I could feel the heat of the sun when I embodied that memory. So, there’s no reason why you can’t go into the future, especially something like this when you absolutely know that it’s going to happen. You can think of it as reliving it before it happens. In a sense, it’s a kind of time travel.

 

As he spoke, I typed away on my iPhone, and my husband joked, did Richard really say it if Marieke didn’t write it down?

 

Earlier in the day, I had spent the better part of our walk to the town center typing his words while he spoke.

 

I had laughed and said, Dear diary, my husband says the most amazing things. (Insert the line: He’s ever so dreamy, and I could be a 1950s gal. well, it might take a bit more than a one-liner to get my frizzed out hair and big personality into that box.)

 

Well, I responded, I think it’s important to share, and it seems to speak to people. We’re not the only ones who struggle with this stuff.

 

True.

 

After our picnic, we headed toward the conference center where my husband would be spending the bulk of his remaining time in Darmstadt. It was an incredible building that was constructed around ancient looking stonewalls.

 

I used the restroom (because I never know if or when there might be another opportunity, and I have a thimble bladder), and then we parted ways for the next several hours.

 

 

I wandered around the city center for a little while and then headed back to the hotel for a cold shower, a few sips of whisky, and some quality time editing a dissertation.

 

I thought about my husband’s earlier musings about the city of Darmstadt.

 

I like that it’s that not pretentious, he had said. It knows it isn’t Berlin, and it’s ok with that.

 

I thought about this later on my walk back to the hotel. Darmstadt reminds me of Lowell and Boston. Boston is easy to love. It’s all right there on the surface. Lowell takes some dedication and persistence. It isn’t typically love at first sight, and it isn’t always a smooth relationship. However, if you take the time to get to know Lowell – I mean, really get to know it – you will find the full spectrum of emotions that accompany love.

 

Given time, I think I could come to love Darmstadt as well.


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It is Darmstadt

I joined my husband this week for an academic foray into Germany, where he will be presenting at a conference for the Society of Philosophy and Technology on Friday. I am hoping that I will be able to sneak in to film his presentation, but in the interim I get to wander around the city of Darmstadt.

 

Darmstadt is a new place for me, and it took a while for the name to imprint itself into my memory. I have been studying with an Anusara teacher who lives and teachers in Amesfoort in the Netherlands, and my brain decided to combine these two foreign places.

 

Where are we going again? Darmsfoort? I asked my husband every couple of days.

 

No. Darmstadt, he would patiently reply.

 

Ohhhhhhh, yeahhhhhh.

 

It took me a while to figure out where the foort was coming from. Even when I figure it, it still took me a few minutes to make the switch in my mind before speaking the words out loud.

 

Sometimes, I wonder how they gave me a PhD, but that is a story for another time.

 

We left our two cats this morning to a quiet house, their food and water bowls filled to the brim in anticipation of our absence. We decided to splurge and pay a few extra euros each to take the train instead of the tram, then metro, and then bus to get to the airport. When possible, it is starting to feel reasonable to pay a little more for ease.

 

We made it to the 94 tram with a few seconds to spare after running up the hill when the transit app said we had only two minutes.

 

What’s a trip without having to run? I said.

 

True.

 

We took the tram a few stops to the train and headed for the airport. The entire trip to the airport in Brussels and then on the bus from Frankfurt to Darmstadt (got it this time!) took far longer than the mere 40-minute flight. It’s still remarkable to me that you can fly to another country in so little time.

 

We walked from the bus to the hotel. On the way, we saw many people riding bicycles, including one young woman on a monocycle.

 

That does not look easeful, I said to my husband.

 

When we arrived, my husband asked the gentleman at the front desk if he spoke English.

 

No!

 

Awkward silence.

 

Ha ha, just kidding.

 

Exhale.

 

You have a reservation?

 

Yes. Lewis.

 

Ah, Mr. Lewis. You are here for five nights.

 

Yes.

 

But what are you going to do in Darmstadt for five nights?

 

I am here for a conference, so the question is what is my wife going to do for five nights?

 

Great.

 

It wasn’t until the end of our conversation that he said, Wilkommen. Welcome.

 

This does not bode well for Darmstadt, I said after we had stepped into the elevator and headed up to the third floor.

 

No, it doesn’t.

 

It took a few attempts to figure out how to get the door open, and once inside I went straight for the air conditioner.

 

I can’t figure it out, I said. The heat and fatigue from travel (any amount of travel seems to exhaust me these days) was making me cranky.

 

It was my husband who figured out that you have to put the card key into a little slot by the door in order to turn on the lights or air.

 

That is brilliant, I said later after I had rested and had a snack (I have the metabolism of a squirrel, so I need to eat snacks on a regular basis to keep from being called Cranky Britches by my husband).

 

You can save so much energy by not running the air when you aren’t in your room.

 

Yeah, and this way no one can forget to turn the lights off either.

 

Score points for Darmstadt and Germany!

 

We went for a walk around the town.

 

We pondered over German words, stickers, and graffiti.

 

What does bembel with care mean? My husband asked.

 

I don’t know. I was just wondering the same thing.

 

We found the answer at the grocery store.

 

 

It was fun being in a new place. We took photos to share with family and friends. My favorite was the sign that read, Schmuck for sale inside, which I promptly shared with my Jewish mother. I marveled at how many places had vegetarian and vegan options.

 

 

We stopped for a drink at a place a friend from the town where I grew up had recommended. Over drinks, my husband looked up places where we might go for dinner.

 

There’s an American-esque burger joint with good reviews, my husband said.

 

But you are a vegetarian?

 

He showed me the review, and I laughed out loud.

 

Best in town….but, well….it is Darmstadt.

 

We finally settled on a little Mexican place right near the hotel. We hadn’t eaten Mexican food since leaving Arizona last summer, and the thought of cilantro-laden salsa and tortilla chips was beyond enticing.

 

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Our bellies sated, we headed back to the hotel for some whisky, stapel-chips, and dinkel doppel keks. All in all, it was a nice start to our little adventure across the border.

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Be. Here. Now.

A few days ago, my husband and I moved from our first apartment in Boitsfort to a house on the other side of the same town. In my many years of traveling and moving from one place to another, I have begun to see a pattern to the process.

  1. The first place I live in will likely not be the last. In other words, it generally takes me about two tries to find a place that will provide the kind of sanctuary I desire in a living space. I have experienced this in many places I have lived, and Brussels has once again proven to be the rule rather than the exception.
  2. Don’t expect to feel instantly in love with your new environs. For some, it may be love at first sight. For me, it can take a while to adjust to being in a new place. As a friend once told me, it can take a while for the spirit to catch up with the physical body when you travel a great distance.
  3. It can take a while to create community. Good friends and a feeling of being a part of a meaningful community doesn’t happen overnight. I recommend diving into the pastimes that bring you joy, especially the ones that get you out of the house (if you are an introvert like me, you might need an extra nudge). This will bring you to other people with similar values and passions. This is how I have been able to find kindred spirits in my own travels.
  4. Moving sucks. It was a pain in the butt to get our selves, our two cats, and our stuff to Brussels. It was less painful but still not fun to move 1.3 kilometers from our first apartment to a new house. Even with the limited belongings we brought with us to Belgium, I somehow manage to accumulate so much stuff everywhere I go. Case in point, as we were walking to the new house to meet the realtor and proprietor to sign the lease, I noticed a beautiful lamp in a pile with sign that read À Donner (To Give Away).

I want that lamp, I said to my husband, making my sweetest possible, pleading eyes at him.

We are already asking our proprietor to remove most of the lamps at the house, he replied. I don’t think we should walk in with another one.

Maybe, I could take it and hide it in the bushes? I suggested.

How about you can take it if it is still there after we sign the lease?

Ok, I responded forlornly.

We began walking away, but I kept turning back.

Finally, my husband said, Ok, go back and get it. I scampered back toward the lamp, trying to get there before the woman walking toward the free pile from the other direction. It was my lamp, not hers!

You are ridiculous, he laughed and rolled his eyes at me when I returned, triumphantly carrying the lamp like a precious baby.

Later in the afternoon, I walked by the spot where I met my lamp on my way to meet my husband our new landlord at the bank, where they had driven in her sporty two-seater Mercedes, I saw that every single item that had been piled up on the sidewalk completely gone, as if nothing had ever graced its presence. Had we walked a different way, I would have been none the wiser. My material load might have also been lighter, but such is life.

We moved into our house the next day. We woke up early, drank coffee and ate a hasty bowl of oatmeal. Then, we proceeded to make countless trips down and back up the stairs, bringing our not-so-small collection of belongings to the ground floor so my husband could pile them into a tiny European Zipcar Peugeot 208.

The night before as we lay in bed, we had taken bets on how many trips it would take to get all of our stuff from our apartment to the new house 1.3 kilometers away.

Ten, I suggested. No, 12!

Eight, my husband wagered.

Good thing we had no riches to lose. I used to joke that I had married Rich, but the joke ceased it utility when said husband Rich took a leave of absence from his job to become a starving PhD student, wife in tow.

Ready to take the first load, my husband said. He got into the Zipcar and drove off while I waved. I walked back up the stairs. A few minutes later, my iPhone buzzed. The key isn’t working, my husband had texted. Can you walk over? Quickly?

We are on the clock with the Zipcar, so I put on my sneakers, grabbed the keys, headed downstairs and out the front door, and began to jog the 1.3 kilometers. I figured I would run until I had to walk, but stubbornness runs strong with me, and seven minutes later I had pulled up panting at the house.

Goose! My husband laughed. I didn’t mean that quickly.

Well, I said, I wanted to see if I could do it. I didn’t add that it was pure stubbornness that wouldn’t allow me to stop running, even had I been in pain.

In the United States, there is a saying, No pain, No gain. I remember a former coworker musing, What if there was just no pain? No pain, No pain.

Huh. No needless suffering? What a concept. Clearly, this idea is far too enlightened for American culture.

Back in Brussels, I drank some water, and then my reward was a ride back to the apartment in the Zipcar. Huzzah! Riding in a car was a rare treat since selling our Prius and leaving vehicular travel behind.

No pain, No pain was clearly not in my immediate present or future. By the end of the day, I could barely walk up and down the stairs. Each time bend of my right leg sent shooting needle-like pains through my knee. The next day, I hobbled around for a few minutes every time I sat up and tried to walk.

Now I remember why I stopped running, I told my husband. It sucks!

At this point, we were both downing ibuprofen and hobbling around.

BUT we were out of our petit enfer (little hell) and hoping against all hopes that we had begun life anew in a petit paradis (little heaven).

A couple of nights later (when we could both walk in reasonable comfort), we decided to go a walk in our favorite forest, which was now just a few paces from our front door.

We walked along the sidewalk toward the forest, passing a row of attached houses on the way.

Is that an anchor? I ask my husband, pointing at a rusty object with three individual hooks all attached at the straight edge.

It looks like a grappling hook, he said.

How do you know these things? I try not to tell him too often, but he really seems to know everything.

Grappling hooks, I mused. I feel like I have heard that in a song somewhere.

AS we neared the forest, we felt a cool breeze beckoning us to enter, which we did without hesitate.

Ah, we sighed as we stepped beneath the canopy and into the crisp, cool shade.

Let’s follow this trail, I suggested. There was a tiny path leading up into a part of the forest we had not yet explored on our previous wandering.

Ok.

As we walked, I furrowed my brow, deep in though trying to figure out where I had heard those two words: Grappling hooks.

Dar Williams’ As cool as I am! I shouted and started mumbling the lines, trying to find the phrase with grappling hooks in it.

I think it’s loneliness, suspended to our own like grappling hooks, I trilled.

Suddenly, I felt firm hands on my shoulders, shaking me out of my reverie.

Marieke. Slow down. Be here. Now. In the forest.

I stopped and looked around. It was breathtaking, tiny leaves appeared as if suspended in the air, light trickling through the canopy from small openings where sunlight filtered in tenuous streams.

I exhaled.

We stood for a moment, breathing, and then began walking, more slowly this time.

Is that a fox?

I lifted my gaze and looked ahead.

A creature with a bushy tail had turned to look back at us before disappearing into the shrubbery on the left of the trail.

We walked to the spot and decided to turn left onto yet another enchanting path.

There he is, my husband whispered.

We stood still, watching the fox watch us for a moment before once again disappearing, this time not to return. How could he be there so completely and then just be gone without a trace, I wondered.

Let’s look for a fairy ring, my husband suggested.

Careful, I warned.

True.

As we walked, I could feel the forest healing us, drawing out our anxious energy and replacing it with energy as calm and green as the leaves that floated around us.

Stinging nettle leaves swayed as if dancing in the breeze.

You should take a video with your phone.

I didn’t bring it. I figured I could use yours if I wanted to take a picture.

Ha. I didn’t bring mine either.

We laughed. We were free.

I love you, I whispered. Raising my voice felt somehow incongruous in such a sacred, ancient space.

I love you, too.


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Stuck in the middle with you

This past month, I have been busy. I have been so busy doing all of those things society has told me are important that I have not done any of the things that my inner self has taught me matter more.

It’s like I have been embodying a different set of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Pay mortgage. Try to sell house. Struggle against loud neighbor. Work. Take panic pills to relieve the anxiety caused by sleepless nights from living above a loud neighbor.

Once I accomplish these goals, then I will be happy.

Struggle. Work. Suffer. Struggle. Work. Suffer.

I know that some Buddhists say that life is suffering. I think the existentialists might agree, and the nihilists would say that there is no point to anything ever, period, but this is just ridiculous.

So, after finishing a second round of edits on a student dissertation this afternoon, I decided to revisit one of the pastimes that I have learned from practice will bring calm and, dare I say it, joy.

To be completely honest, the walk was not my idea. While sitting on the couch editing for hours upon end this morning and early afternoon, I had also been engaging in another unhealthy habit, namely, texting my husband regular updates regarding the every movement and sound from our downstairs neighbor.

My texting was a symptom of a stress that has been building since I joined my husband at the apartment he had found and rented this past fall. Within days (or was it hours?), it had become clear that we were living above a party girl. Not only did she enjoy all of those extroverted activities that my husband and I simply could not understand from our introvert perch on the top floor, but she enjoyed them at a sonic level that reverberated into our top floor apartment, keeping us up until the early morning hours at least one but usually two times each week when she would invite other extroverts to join her for the evening.

My husband and I did what we had learned from life and having been raised to be respectful and cognizant of others. We kindly asked if she might end her parties by 10:30pm. We used nonviolent communication techniques and left nice notes accompanied by homemade desserts and chocolate. We switched the timer hall light on after 10pm to gently remind her that we wished to go to sleep.

As the months passed by, our interactions began to escalate. Terrified to the point of extreme panic over confrontation and conflict, I begged my husband to go down and ask her if she and her boisterous companions might be more quiet. Bless his heart, my husband did just this while I cowered (literally) under the covers and tried not to vomit from fear.

Things really came to a head after our neighbor returned from two weeks of vacation, during which time we had experienced blissful, unending quiet. Unfortunately, we had also become sensitized once more to her thrashing and crashing around. In fact, over the months we had come to refer to her as “hippo.” Yes, she’s a voluptuous woman, and I recognize that our choice of nicknames could be misconstrued for it’s possible double entendre; however, the name held because it fit her movements so very well.

Every day, we knew the second she returned to the vicinity by the slamming of the door at the ground floor entrance to the house. I would hold my breath as I listened to the pounding of her footsteps on the stairs and felt the familiar wave of enmity surge up inside.

I detested this woman. As a child, I was often told by my father that “hate” was a strong word to be used sparingly in one’s life. Well, I hated this woman. I hated her loud moving around and slamming of doors, drawers, and any and everything else she touched.

At some point, I attempted to refrain from referring to her as hippo. For one, I quite like hippos, and it was causing me to cringe whenever I saw a photo or video of this creature.  Hippos simply did not deserve this. Additionally, I thought that perhaps if I referred to her as our neighbor or even (gasp) by her name, I might feel ever so slightly more endeared to her.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. The night she returned from vacation, she had people over. Two nights later, she has people over again. We knew from previous conversations with her that she found our request to be able to go to sleep at a reasonable hour embêtant (annoying). The nerve of our asking her to have her guests be quiet or even (deeper gasp) leave at 10pm on a weeknight?! It was beyond comprehension for our neighbor, who seemed to live in a world that was not inhabited by people outside of her small circle of extroverted friends and family.

“She’s doing this on purpose,” I would snap at my husband as we lay awake at night, listening to the booming voice of our neighbor’s brother as it floated up through the floor so that it seemed like he was sitting beside us at the foot of the bed.

A few days earlier, I had gone down to ask if she and her guests might keep it down. Yes, it was only 9:30pm when I made my first of two failed forays in a mission for quiet. She yelled this at me and explained that she was visiting with her family and they were just eating dinner. Just. Her brother boomed at me and said they would call the police for harassment.

Let me pause here for a moment to explain why I find flaw in his argument. Since you, my devoted readers, have predominantly gotten to know me through the written word, you may not realize the absurdity of this claim. For one, I barely reach above 5′ in stature. While I do possess wild and voluminous curly hair with a mind of its own, i think my face, which is quite youthful in appearance, lends a non-threatening air to my overall being. Yes, on occasion I have inspired tears from very small children during my time as a uniformed park ranger, but generally I do not seem to command all that much authority, at least in my own subjective opinion.

I did have a boyfriend in high school tell me that other adolescent girls were intimidated my me (to which I rolled my eyes in response), but that has been the extent of my intimidation factor. I certainly work hard to avoid conflict because it’s so uncomfortable to live with the emotional and physical repercussions that inhabit my being when I engage with the perceived enemy. At one point in my life, I accepted a job in Massachusetts to get as far as possible from a stressful work situation in Alaska. Enough said.

On this evening, however, I was as puffed up as a pissed off rooster, and so booming brother, despite the fact that he towered over me in the doorway of the apartment, did what any brother would do to protect his sibling. He told me where to go.

The question remained: Could it be possible that she was creating all of this racket just to take evil pleasure in pissing us off?

Two nights after my rooster interaction with hippo, booming brother, and co., she had come home at 12:30am with said boomer. They had carried on in loud voices until 2am.

It was at this point that my ever-grounded husband suggested that we give our notice and get the hell out of dodge. Sure, the cost of rent was much easier on our wallets than a house would be, but I already I had to take daily allergy medication to combat the mold that insisted on growing along the interior and exterior of several of our windows. Why not try for a quieter place that might also be easier on my sinuses?

My husband suggested that perhaps we consider the battle lost and move on to quieter pastures. He was right, of course, as he SO often is about these kinds of life situations. I has been preparing to go into battle, but I recognized the wisdom in this intention shift.

“I think she’s just oblivious,” my husband had responded to the dark room.

“Yeah. I’m sure you’re right,” I said back.

This afternoon, I texted my husband, “I wonder what it’s like to be the only person in the world?”

And then, moments later, “She’s bringing lawn chairs down from the attic and putting them out on her rooftop terrace. Run away!”

Ever the rational, wise, old owl to my squirrel, my husband responded with the suggestion, “Why don’t you go for a walk?”

A walk? You mean, leave the house and stop my needless suffering? What a novel idea. I waited for the loud one to come back down from the attic and slam her door and then quietly opened and closed my own door, turned the key in the lock, and hastened down the stairs, out the front door, and into a world outside of the confines of my own mind.

I walked to our favorite pond and looked for the coot babies we had been watching. I found the small family, engaging in about the same behavior as the last several times we had seen them. There were now two left of the original cohort of seven.

They were moving seamlessly through the water, dipping and bobbing their heads to find food, independent of mom and dad.

Typically, when I go for a walk, I find it very important to keep moving (see earlier comment about being part-squirrel). It’s imperative that I walk for at least an hour to ensure that I get sufficient exercise so that I do not gain weight (another unhealthy life lesson that has taken root over many decades of cultural and social brainwashing).

This afternoon, however, I just didn’t have it in me to walk beyond the pond. I desperately wanted to just sit and watch the coots live their seemingly simple lives. I know full well that the life of any wild creature is far from carefree. Certainly, a bird that has seven children in the hopes that one or two might grow to adulthood has no illusions that life is about anything other than primal survival.

I found a quiet spot beneath a tree at the edge of the pond, and I watched them. Sitting there on the outside looking in, I took several deep breathes in.

Sit. Breath. Listen. Breathe. Close my eyes. Open my eyes. Feel the deliciously soothing coolness of the wind.

I sat for a long time, so long that the bugs and spiders started thinking of me as just another object to climb over.

I know that there is much ease that I take for granted in my life. However, I wish I did not participate so readily in the world of worry that my kind have created over the centuries.

Two hours later, I stood up slowly and looked toward the coot family. Five tiny babies had appeared at the edge of the rushes, following the same mom and dad as the teenagers I had been watching for the better part of the afternoon.

Five more! My heart lifted and ached for these creatures, continuing to live with so many odds against them. Such tenuous, tiny beaks, opening to parents that had survived and brought them into a world of uncertainty, biology, and beauty.

I stood and watched the growing family for several minutes. The teenagers made strident, peeping calls. I didn’t blame them. They had already lost five brothers and sisters in their short life. Their younger siblings made gentle peeps from their hiding spot at the edge of the ridges.

I said a silent prayer for ease and continued life to the coots. Then, I began a slow walk out of one world and back into another.