life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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Words for Rome

We are arrived at our hotel last night after waiting for a long while for the shuttle.

 

It will be here in 25-30 minutes, the woman at the shuttle desk told us. This estimation was closer to 50-60. When we did meet the shuttle driver, he checked everyone in, and we followed him in procession to the shuttle bus.

 

The drive was hilarious. I have begun to craft a theory that Boston is the way it is—crazy driving, loud, pushy people always in a hurry—because of all the Italian who immigrated there so long ago. And who wouldn’t be in a hurry to get to Rome, a city where one feels instantly a part of a beating heart. With each beat of this vibrant city, I feel a pulsation of life energy move through my entire being. There is divinity here, of this I am sure.

 

The shade is blocking my view, I said to my husband. A few minutes later when the driver raised the shade up, I realized that I might have been better off with it down. I cringed as tiny cars made insane moves between lanes, narrowly escaping utter destruction by milliseconds.

 

 

Holy hell, I inhaled after one particularly close call.

 

Focus on the pretty flowers growing along the side of the highway, my husband suggested.

 

Flowers bloomed in whites, pinks, and reds from wild green plants all along the highway and in the median. It was strange to see highway signs with Firenze and Napoli written on them; however, the song on the radio—Everybody wants to rule the world by Tears for Fears—was very appropriate, and we sang along as we approach the heart of an empire that once did just this.

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Once in the city, I was surprised to see that the design and motion were reminiscent of cities I have driven through in Mexico and Costa Rica. The lines and direction markers, if they existed at all, were definitively faded from the pavement. My husband noted that everyone on a motorcycle was wearing a helmet, however.

 

I wonder if there is a law about wearing helmets? He mused as he pointed to a motorcycle waiting at the light at the cross street we passed. There were three people on the bike, one of who was a toddler with a pacifier, who was tucked between dad and the handlebars, his hands holding on confidently and focus straight ahead. This kid was right there in the present, being a Roman with all of this little might.

 

As with all European cities, and pretty much most cities I have visited around the world, motorcycles wound in and out of traffic. There were no actual lanes that I could derive, and cars and buses followed similar protocol to the motorcycles (hence, my earlier comparison to Boston, where similar chaos ensues at all times on all roads in and around the city).

 

Elizabeth Gilbert’s word for Rome may be sex. So far, ours has been humanity—loud, teeming, writhing humanity (the plane ride was just an introduction). The color? Red. When we were at the airport in Brussels, checking in for our flight, I saw a woman with a red sleeveless shirt with a serious ruffle coming down the center. She had on satin sandals with heels that tapered to a point and a red blazer.

 

She has got to be going to Rome, I thought to myself, and I was not at all surprised when she wound up sitting next to me on the plane.

 

Another word for Rome: fancy. When we walked out to the arrivals area of the airport, we were met with a crowd of people, waiting to meet whoever they were waiting to meet. The women were dressed to the nines, bedecked in slinky dresses, heels, and jewels.

 

We were thankful to be the first shuttle stop and checked into our hotel. There was an additional tax per day, along with an additional fee to add me to the room. Ah, the hidden cost of travel. Still, it was a relatively small price to pay given that we only had to fly a short two hours from Brussels to get here and not a transcontinental flight, followed by transatlantic flight, from Arizona. I will pay to avoid jet lag any day!

 

We dropped our bags in the room and exhaled with relief before heading out into the night in search of dinner.

 

Here is another word for Rome. Pizza. It was pizza we went in search of for dinner.

 

Let’s look for a place with people. If it is packed with locals, we will know it is a good sign that it is a good place to eat.

 

The first place we found that was packed with locals was unfortunately also hosting a crowd of about 50 more people waiting outside. No one seemed to be in a hurry to eat. People stood chatting and laughing, holding cups of beer and wine.

 

Not being Roman and also fast-approaching a meltdown from lack of food, I turned and marched in the direction of another pizzeria we had passed that also had people standing outside. We arrived and figured out that we needed to talk to a large, older man. He stood behind a cash register and held reign over the clipboard with the waiting list and generally seemed to be in charge of everything that went on at the restaurant. Every time a waiter left the kitchen with an armload of plates with beautiful food, they stopped by the old man so he could note all of the various dishes. It didn’t seem to be a particularly efficient method, but I imagine it was effective.

 

The pizza making, on the other hand, the staff had perfected down to a fine art. It was simple and beautiful to witness. Every few minutes, a shorter, rotund guy with black, horn-rimmed glasses would lay out several thin rounds of dough. He would then spread cheese, vegetables, and whatever other ingredients the clientele had requested. The pizzas were then put into a fiery oven interior, cooked, and returned to the counter. The waiters then took upwards of five pizzas each to the eager customers.

 

We watched this scene as we waited to be seated. At one point, a grandmother holding her chubby grandson stood beside us. Every time one of the younger waiters walked by, he could pinch the boy and say something in Italian, which would set the grandmother to laughing. It was like watching an authentic play unfold before us, incredibly endearing and altogether and beautifully Italian.

 

We waited a total of about 20 minutes and were then led to a table. Like the blogs about cheap but delicious places to eat in Rome, this restaurant was nothing fancy. There were sports jerseys on the walls and photographs of futbol players, but it was otherwise pretty simple. The food? Amazing!

Granted, we were pretty ravenous, but the bubbly white wine served cool with the pizza funghi porcini that literally melted onto my tongue when I took my first bite were beyond delicious.

 

This is SO good! I told my husband.

 

I’m SO happy!

 

I’m so glad, he said.

 

Really, it doesn’t take that much to make me happy. Good food goes a long way toward keeping me content.

 

Once we had begun to eat, I took a lot at my phone to check the time.

 

It’s 10 o’clock! I exclaimed. As a rule, I am generally in bed at least by 8:30pm so I can read, meditate, and unwind before going to sleep.

 

At 10:30pm, a young couple walked by our table. The woman was holding a baby that had to have been born days before it was so tiny and brand new.

 

The kid was totally crashed out, and this restaurant was not a quiet place.

 

I guess if you want your baby to be able to sleep through anything, it makes sense to bring it to a restaurant late at night.

 

Yeah, they say that anything you want your dog to be able to do as an adult you need to introduce to it as a puppy. I imagine babies aren’t that much different.

 

So, now that I have shared this sage advice with you, if you have an infant or are planning on starting a family, keep it in mind that you might want to live in Rome (or somewhere with noisy restaurants) for at least the first year of baby’s life. Trust me, I am a terrible sleeper. I wake up to any sound and can never fall asleep when there is someone like the person above us our first night in Rome, who was either training for a marathon or had just adopted a baby elephant, which was being trained for a marathon.

 

Our bellies full, we walked back to the hotel and settled in. It took my husband going down to the front desk to complain, texting me to see if the marathon training was still happening to prove to the staff that the noise did indeed exist, before the staff person called the person above us to request a reprieve from their late night training regimen.

 

It was a fitful night, and we were woken up by a woman talking quite loudly on a phone next door at 7:07am. I could even hear the person on the other end of the call.

 

I think that cultures get louder the closer you get to the equator, my husband said later that morning.

 

I wonder why that is. Maybe, it has to do with the heat. Everyone gets all fired up.

 

Could be.

 

Having grown up as part of an extended jewish family, I understand noise very well. In my family, if someone wants to say something, they just start talking over the person who currently holds the conversation spotlight. They gradually increase the decibel of their speech until they finally overpower the person speaking and get the stage all to themselves…for a little while, at least.

 

Maybe that is why they forced the Jews to leave the Mediterranean and move to Eastern Europe? They were just too loud.

 

Ha! My husband laughed.

 

Suffice it to say that Rome, while not a quiet place, is certainly not lacking in spirit and zest for life. I am doing my best to enjoy this ancient, festive city for the few days that I am here.


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All roads lead to now

You should write a blog post called All Roads lead to Rome, my husband suggested. We had been cleaning and packing all morning in preparation to head to Rome, where my husband would be presenting at a conference.

 

Should I call it that? I mused. Or should I try a play on the phrase?

 

Well, I guess we aren’t there yet.

 

True.

 

What about one of these? All roads lead to here. All roads lead somewhere. All roads lead to [fill in the blank].

 

How about, All roads lead to now?

 

Perfect!

 

So many of the places I have lived have something unique about them, a quality that seems to draw people to them. Alaska, and especially the small town of Gustavus where I spent two summers, two falls, one spring, and a particularly dark winter, seems to draw people looking for an escape [from the lower 48, from a previous identity, partner, job, reality] and a chance to start over. Lowell, Massachusetts draws people from around the world—some of whom have experienced the trauma of genocide and been granted asylum by the United States government—and others who are misfits and artists, wishing to join other such misfits in the creation of a community of love and support for each other’s quirky ways and individual artistic expression.

 

Brussels, Belgium? Well, I would say Brussels draws people who wish to live within a culture where dialogue and debate are not only encouraged but also embraced. It is an international city with a culture that feels wide open, a place where anything is possible.

 

I am not an anthropologist, of course, and these insights were derived from looking at the world through my own unique lens during my many years of living in different corners of the globe.

 

It is easy to spend time in the past and even easier to anticipate the future, especially when the present poses challenges that make it difficult to practice being present. For much for 2017, I have meditated and imagined myself in a future time when the challenges creating such high levels of stress will be resolved.

 

When I go for walks around our quaint neighborhood in Boitsfort, I try to be present and take note of little sights and sounds that resonate with my heart. When I am at home, I watch my cats and meditate on their easeful zen way of being, imagining that someday I may attain such calm. In the sometimes chaotic swirl of the universe around me, I can sit quietly, an eye in stormy, dynamic world.

With Rome hovering ever closer on the approaching horizon, I am looking forward to being very present for the next several days in Italy.

 

A yogi I admire described a gift that was given to him by a dear friend. It was a wristwatch without numbers. The only design on the watch face was the word “Now.”

 

What time is it? He would ask me and the other students over the course of the workshop he was leading. Now, we would all respond, laughing.

 

Now, I sit at the airport, a place where people live in a strange space that exists somewhere between. An airport is an especially challenging place to practice being present, so this is just what I will do while I linger in limbo before our flight to Rome.

 

Of course, in concert with the universal swirl of motion, I had only just settled in to being present and mindful by writing about being present and mindful when my husband informed me that it was time to board.

 

All ready? It seems so early.

 

We headed to our gate and were herded into two separate areas: priority cows and other cows. As I type, we are all waiting in what seems like the longest boarding experience of my life. The woman behind me has nearly run me over several times already and had her hand with ticket and passport resting on the counter as I handed my own ticket to the flight attendant. So, I not only have a chance to practice being present. I can also practice acceptance and patience with other people and keep breathing when other cows invade my personal space.

 

Where do all roads lead?

 

All roads lead to now.


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An Auspicious Age

Yesterday was my birthday. I turned 36, which I decided was an auspicious age.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s (2006) narration of her book, Eat, Pray, Love. When I read this book for the first time about a decade ago, I enjoyed it but did not feel a particularly strong connection with the author or her story. After having been married once, experienced divorce, several bouts of very dark depression, and marrying for the second time, Gilbert’s story and experiences reach me on a much more profound, personal level. The book also speaks to me in a deeply meaningful way now that I had a regular yoga and meditation practice.

At the start of my 36th year, Eat, Pray, Love also speaks to my age. Gilbert organized the book according to the design of a Japa mala, a strand of beads used to help one focus while meditating. There are three parts to the book, and each is divided into 36 individual stories. Together, they add up to the 108 beads that comprise a mala.

I am 1/3 of a mala, I told my husband over coffee and a delicious birthday breakfast of scrambled eggs with feta and fried potatoes. He had already brought me coffee in bed in honor of the Greg Brown song, Good Morning Coffee, which he had shared with me many years ago on the first mix he sent to me when I was living in Alaska. My husband and I spent the first four years of our relationship at a distance, and we used to send each other mixes of songs that communicated our love and desire to be together to help ease the discomfort and heartache caused by being so far apart.

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There is an art form to creating a really satisfying mix of songs, and I still miss the absence of tape decks in cars. With a cd, you have a certain number of songs that will fit within the limited space of a disc. A tape cassette also has a finite space, but it takes time and practice to get the last song on each side to fit perfectly before the tape runs out. But I digress and also show my age in this nostalgic trajectory.

I would like to write a letter to the universe and take it to the ocean, light it on fire, and put it into ocean, I continued.

A few days earlier, I had read aloud to my husband the section in Eat, Pray, Love where the author writes a letter to God, requesting that her husband sign their divorce papers, and I had been musing over writing a letter to send my own desires out into the ethos. She was driving across Kansas with a dear friend while on a book tour and expressed her need to avoid more time in court to end her marriage.

Her friend responded with these words:

You are part of this universe, Liz. You’re a constituent—you have every entitlement to participate in the actions of the universe, and to let your feelings be known. So put your opinion out there. Make your case. Believe me—it will at least be taken into consideration. (p. 41)

My husband believes very strongly in the idea of setting your intention and expressing it out loud, and this idea has rubbed off onto me. From him, I have learned to quickly repudiate anything I say that is negative or counter to my true desires by repeating the phrase, That is not my intention; that is not my intention, that is not my intention and waving the negative thoughts away with my hands in a gesticulation reminiscent of a Reiki energy practice.

Given this inclination, my husband was likely not surprised when I expressed my desire to take my expression of intention to the next level with the additional act of an oratory reading, accompanied by fire and water.

Ok, he responded.

Of course, being a pagan, I decided to address my letter to the universe rather than to any particular god.

Will you bring paper and something to write with? We were getting ready to travel to the coast to dip our feet in the water, and I did not want to forget these two important items.

Already packed.

We headed out and after a bus, tram, and metro ride, we finally boarded the train for Oostende. On the train, I set about writing my intention to the universe. At one stop, a group of young, noisy boys got on with two adult men at the helm.

We endured the noise for several minutes, and then I suggested we see if there were seats in a quieter car.

Why suffer needlessly, especially on my birthday?

Once seated in a much more tranquil setting, I recommenced with my writing.

We made it to Oostende and spent the afternoon wandering along the waterfront, searching for lunch, and then trying to find a relatively quiet place to walk with our feet in the ocean.

We found a restaurant that was packed with people, which we took as a good sign, though our meal wound up a bit more on the strange side than we would have liked.

How’s your beer? I asked my husband while we waited for our food to be arrive.

It’s ok, he said.

Yeah, I guess you never really know what you are going to get when travel to a foreign place.

Just as I was finishing my sentence, our food arrived, supporting this theory. The nachos were more like a plate of Doritos covered with a kind of processed, liquid cheese than what we had envisioned from the image on the menu. The veggie patty was also on the strange side, though at least the bread was fresh and tasty and there was a small side salad to counter the effects of the cheese on my delicate digestive tract.

Despite the somewhat strange fare and the screaming children, we had a nice time at the restaurant.

Take a note never to travel on the weekend in the summer, I said. At least, next year my birthday will be on a Monday.

After lunch, we headed back to the water. We wound our way through throngs of people with shopping bags and took pictures of the cityscape, street art, shop window displays, and funny signs.

My favorite was one that was meant to read “enjoy the moment,” but the “n” was missing from “enjoy.” Coming from a Jewish background, I read it as “oy the moment,” while my husband (perhaps from spending so much time with a woman of Jewish descent) read it as “n’oy the moment.”

Oostende was not at all what I had anticipated. Having spent time on the coast of the French region of Bretagne and Normandy, I had imagined quaint old buildings and quiet, wild coastline. With its many tall, modern apartment buildings and hotels lining the beach and trash and beachgoers covering the sand, Oostende was definitely not quaint and anything but quiet.

You could see teaming masses of people in all directions, and being an introvert who actively avoids crowds and crowded places, I had no desire to try to meander my way around everyone in order to walk in the water.

Just picture them all as puppies, I said, repeating the words of a Prescott College alum who had shared this idea as a way of opening our hearts to embrace all people with love, which he said was far easier to do when confronted by a puppy than another human being.

Despite the protests from my inner introvert, we walked onto the sandy beach and into the writhing mass of humanity.

Shall we take our sandals off? I asked. The sand was littered with cigarette butts.

Sure.

As we headed toward the water, I expressed my uncertainty over my initial plan for my letter.

I’m not sure I want to read my letter of intention out loud here. It just doesn’t feel right. My husband agreed.

At least, we can walk in the water while we try to find a quiet spot, he suggested.

So we walked toward the water.

We stood at the water’s edge, waiting for the waves to find our feet. The feeling of the water washing over my toes was like a homecoming, a gentle caress from a dear friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. My whole being sighed with relief.

We walked by people and dogs of all age and size.

People in Belgium are a lot larger than I imagined they would be. We could be in the United States, I noted.

We crossed over a rocky jetty and onto the beach on the other side.

This is better, my husband said.

There were fewer people and the overall atmosphere was more tranquil, though there was booming techno music coming from a tent city not too far away. In Europe—in Belgium, at least—it seems like one is never far from the sounds of techno music.

This is definitely better, I agreed, but it still doesn’t feel like the right place to read my intention.

That’s ok. We can just walk in the water and enjoy the ocean.

Yes!

And this was just what we did. We walked along, stopping to look at rocks and shells, until we came to a quiet place at the far side of the beach where we could sit.

With threads of techno booming behind us, we said side by side, enjoying the ocean, the gulls watching us for signs that we might share food with them, terns flying overhead, and each other’s company.

We found wild looking rocks—one that looked like it had either a fish or alien face on it—and rocks in the shape of hearts, which I am always on the lookout for.

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When our feet had dried, we walked over to a pier and walked to the end, where we stood side by side, watching the boats travel in and out. Then, we headed to the train and back to the quiet solitary existence we so cherish.

It’s good to be away from humanity, we husband exhaled once we returned home, showered, and settled in.

Indeed! I agreed with a happy sigh.

The woman across from us on the train ride back had talked on her cell phone nonstop. Each time she would hang up the phone, we would exhale with relief, only to cringe when she would dial yet another number. She did not set her phone down even once for the entire trip.

I think some people just cannot be alone with themselves, ever, I said to my husband. It’s kind of sad, but it also isn’t easy to be alone with your thoughts.

True.

It will be good to be away from all of these fat, loud, and annoying people. A woman seated on the other side of the train had been downing waffles and a sugary drink for the entire ride, and it was making my stomach turn. It was the ingestion of such unhealthy food that bothered me, and I found myself worrying for her health with each bite of waffle.

Yes. We have cats at home for that.

We ordered sushi takeout for dinner, which more than made up for our bizarre lunch experience. The total for our order came to 36,36. As we cleaned up, we talked about the number 36.

I’m 36, I said in a tone of shock mixed with awe. I’m closer to 40 now.

But you’re even. When I turned 30, I had expressed my distaste for this decade because every year would always have an odd number in it. knowing my affinity for even numbers, my husband had eased my discomfort by explaining that the odd years had their own kind of evenness because the numerals that comprised the whole number added up to an even number. Have I mentioned that I adore this man?

Still a little odd, though.

Well, you’re always going to be a little odd.

Ha! I snorted in response.

We held my letter of intention ceremony on our back terrace. My husband set down a skillet, and we sat while I read my letter aloud.

You might fold it to help it burn better.

 Ok. I folded it into a tight, origami-esque shape.

 You might want it a little less tight.

 Ok. I created a kind of birdlike boat shape.

Perfect.

I carefully lit each corner alight, and we blew into the delicate flames, watching the paper crinkle and fold into itself as it turned to ash.

Later, we sat for our evening meditation. Every time I click “done” at the end of our meditation, the app shares the number of other people who meditated with us. This evening’s number was 3,634.

Wow, if only two more people had been meditating with us, it would have been 3,636, I said to my husband. Of course, I imagine there were at least two other people meditating, they just might not have been using this app.

The horror, my husband replied.

I read aloud from our favorite series about witches while my husband lay with eyes closed beside me. It had been a perfect day, and my heart was filled with love and gratitude for this cherished being by my side. I fell asleep snuggled up into his back.

Sometime in the dark hours of morning, I was awakened by a loud sound. I first thought it was a man yelling, but then I realized it was the sound of cat sex, a regular occurrence both day and night in our corner of Brussels. People here do not seem to spay or neuter their dogs or cats, and the cats get some serious action.

I lay awake in the dark. As thoughts came, I decided whether or not I needed to engage them. Those I didn’t, I sent on their way. Then, I experienced a moment of intense clarity.

This was going to be an auspicious year. I was 36, an auspicious number. It was not only part of the 108 beads on a mala. It was twice the number 18, which is the chai number for life in Judaism. Also, the individual integers of 36, when multiplied, equaled 18.

I felt both clarity and a kind of hopeful relief. Everything would be ok. Everything was ok. This year, I would be given the gift of peace. I listened to the steady rhythm of my husband breathing beside me and fell asleep.


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Follow your own unique path

I write from my own experience. I write this way in part because it is cathartic and helps me to unravel my often tangled, knotty existence. I also write this way because I believe in the concept of Autoethnography, a form of qualitative inquiry that requires the researcher to put their own experience under the microscope in connection with whatever topic they are studying. In other words, since I am interested in the idea of creating self-sustainability (a sustainable existence at the individual level), I believe that it is imperative that I explore and determine how to understand this concept through the lens of my own, individual life. Whatever patterns I discover from my study, I try elucidate those patterns in a way that makes them clear and accessible. I then share these patterns in my writing in the hopes that they may speak to other people who are also at a place in their life where they wish to create more balance, authenticity, and well being.

 

I believe with all my heart that it is possible to create a sustainable world—one that can handle the interactions of so many complicated beings and systems—with a bottom up approach. In other words, if we begin by requiring each individual person to think about and embrace a life path that will bring them balance, health and well being, and joy in a way that does not compromise the right for other people, beings, and systems to exist in their own balanced way, we just might save the world.

 

It is always with this idea in mind that I approach my writing and my life. This perspective shapes my interactions with other people and inspires my reading list. Of late, I have been most inspired by the writings of Claire Dederer and Elizabeth Gilbert, two writers and authors who write from their own experience and incorporate research and teachings from people who have been their own source of inspiration.

 

Am I drawn to female authors in their 30s and 40s because I happen to also be female and in my 30s? Perhaps. I find that I can learn a great deal from the insights they have shared about their life experiences in a way that I have not been inspired by read authors of other genders.

 

I imagine that I am not alone in feeling this way and that it works both ways. I vividly recall the information that was communication a conversation that transpired on New Year’s Eve 2010, to which I was part witness and part participant.

 

I was living in Gustavus, Alaska at the time. Gustavus was and is a very small community of mostly transplants from the lower 48, who seemed to have moved to this tiny town in part to escape the culture and speed of life in other areas of the United States, to be close to wild nature, and to be a part of the kind of close-knit community that is rarely found in the rest of the world in the wake of technological innovations.

 

I was talking with a Gustavus resident who was well-known in Gustavus and all over Alaska for books he had published, most of which had been written in a first person narrative. I had read a book he wrote about the Gustavus, Southeast Alaska, and a famous photographer who had been killed by a bear several years before, and I had found the piece particularly moving. It is a book that most people read when they move to Gustavus. Those people who stay and create a more permanent life in this wilderness community tend to have a well-loved copy on display on a shelf in their home.

 

I started writing creatively and in a first person narrative shortly after moving to Gustavus in the previous summer. Because I looked up to this author so much, I was curious what he thought of my own writing and if he might offer any helpful advice as I moved forward. I had therefore recently shared some of my own writing with him.

 

On this particular evening, I happened to be near this author and a friend as they were discussing a book that had recently been published by a young woman living in another part of Alaska (Homer, maybe?). It was quite clear that these two authors (both men) were not impressed by this woman’s book. I cannot recall if they had actually read the book or were averse to reading it simply because it was written by a woman who was several years their junior.

 

What can I possibly learn from a woman in her 30s? What can she teach me about life? My once hero writer said to his friend.

 

I stood there, stunned, questions already flying through my mind.

 

Did he really just say that?

 

Was he so certain that he had nothing to learn from anyone who was not a white male in his 50s (60s?)?

 

What must he think of my own novice writing from my perspective as a 30-year-old woman?

 

I was horrified, but I still walked up to them to say hello and ask if he had read the pieces I sent to him.

 

He had, and his advice to me, which I remember quite well, was the following: I think you would make a great travel writer.

 

Travel writer? I blanched on the inside but did my best to remain calm and friendly on the outside (at least, I think/hope I did; I am not always very good at maintaining a poker face).

 

Yes, being a travel writer could be great and is a respectable career choice, and his delivery was friendly and spirited enough. However, I knew this suggestion for the actual insult that it was. His words were like an apple that had been genetically engineered to look perfect but have zero taste. It looked red and perfect and delicious on the outside, but one bite revealed the mealy and flavorless fruit within.

 

Travel writer my ass, I thought to myself.

 

I never asked for his advice on my writing again.

 

Don’t misunderstand me. When it comes to critique, I welcome it even though it isn’t always easy to stomach. I don’t seek feedback from only those individuals who will tell me exactly what I want to hear about my writing.

 

I have just been learning over the years that sometimes feedback people provide comes from a place of fear or resistance that has arisen in their own minds from their own personal experiences. The feedback they offer, therefore, might very well have less to do with my own skills and capacity to succeed than it does with their own limitations and biases.

 

What I find very interesting is that the feedback that tries to confine and limit me tends to come from men. Over the years, many men have informed me that I have to choose one passion and path in life because I will ultimately fail if I choose more than one (i.e., if I want to be a successful songwriter and musician, I have to give up writing and studying to become a yoga teacher).

 

Also interesting is that it is the people in my life who have called bullshit on this advice and have encouraged me to continue to pursue any and all passions I feel called to embrace have tended to be women.

 

My favorite response came from my husband’s daughter when she was 18. It involved an expletive (or two or three), along with deeply heartfelt words of inspiration that I could be and do anything I set my heart to. I dearly love this woman and am thankful for her continued support and encouragement, which seems to come at the moments I need it most.

 

Despite warnings of unavoidable failure, I have continued writing, composing music, and studying and teaching yoga. I have not made a lot of money in my pursuits nor have I achieved celebrity status, but I do feel a sense of pride for my dedication and perseverance. I also know that I have made a difference in the lives of people who have read my writing, people with whom I have compose songs from stories, and people I have met both in my capacity as a student and teacher of yoga.

 

I have also learned and been inspired by the women authors who have followed their passions and written about their experiences. I am indebted to them and to those women (and men because there are many) who have encouraged me and reminded me that I have much to offer the world.

 

As my husband reminds me on a regular basis, Life is long. There is no rush.

 

When I compare myself to other people and the work they are doing, which seems much for successful in the way that is embraced by western culture, he responds, They are doing something completely different than you are. You aren’t the same. You have unique gifts, and you are sharing them with the world. Plus, you are pursuing different skills, like meditation and spiritual well being that they are not working to develop. Have patience. Everything happens in its own timeline.

 

He is right.

 

I have begun to recognize that my own definition for success runs counter to what most of the world requires. I also have come to believe that this is ok. I can be successful in my own way, at my own pace, and in my own time.


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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!