life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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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 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.


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Battle of the Bulge

It is nearing the end of April, and in my whirlwind existence of trying to achieve all of my goals in life as quickly as possible, I have almost missed posting to my beloved Ranger M blog. The horror!

The start of my life in Brussels has not been without some stops, starts, and unforeseen potholes along the way. However, as with all challenges in life, it has provided ample opportunity for my greatest goal in life: to practice.

For me, practice comes in many shapes and sizes, but mostly it involved working to be less attached to the idea that I am in complete control of the elements that swirl around me in this timeline of existence. Since moving to Brussels, I have been challenged by events happening at a distance (renter eviction and subsequent theft; renters leaving my house in disarray and in desperate need to care and repair; etc.). I also have experienced the challenges of life in a new climate and in a more urban setting than I am accustomed to.

The Olde World has its benefits but also its drawbacks in that many of its buildings are, a propo to the title, old. We have been living in a very sweet apartment in the commune of Watermael-Boitsfort, which my husband found and claimed prior to my arrival in Belgium. It has lots of light and is close to grocery stores, neighborhood parks, and an enormous forest that has become my daily dose of quiet nature tree therapy.

The drawback to our cozy third floor apartment is that my husband’s choice of the top floor has not provided the kind of respite from noise that we had both envisioned. We share our old house with two neighors in apartments below us. One neighbor is so quiet we are not sure there is even anyone living there. Sadly, she is on the first floor. Our second floor neighbor we have come to call Petit Hippo because her way of being is louder than seems reasonable for a being of the homo sapiens persuasion. While we are living in a time of transhuman and posthuman possibility, I think she really is human, albeit an inexplicably noisy one.

At any time of day, night, dark hours of the early morn, we hear the following:

Slam, clomp clomp clomp clomp clomp clomp (x12 stairs), thump thump thump thump, clomp clomp clomp (x12 stairs), key turning in door, door opening, slam, key turning, proceed with crash, clomp, thump, drawers slamming, loud television, loud voice, and so on and so forth.

At first, we kind of laughed at how ridiculous it was, as if a muppet was living on the floor beneath us, but the humor took a dark turn as our hippo muppet neighbor began having guests over 1-2 times each week, each guest behaving in a similar muppet fashion.

It was as though they were all sitting in our living room on the couch beside us, for hours, like a bad Friends episode, the difference being that a Friends episode lasts for only 22 minutes without commercials.

My husband and I are introverts and prefer to be home most of the time. We like to go out and explore, but when we come home we like it to be quiet. We also enjoy sleeping at night so that we can wake up refreshed and ready for the day the next morning. Doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable, does it?

Apparently, our desires have seemed beyond reason to our neighbor, who we have attempted to talk to on several occasions (amicably, to begin with). We wrote a letter after several months and then spoke to her again. She was shocked that we would even request for the house to be quiet after 10pm on weekdays. Her response was to use the word embêtant (bothersome) for her to ask her guests to leave.

How dare we wish to go to sleep at a reasonable hour? The nerve!

We have continued our efforts to attempt to enjoy a sustainable existence in our current setting, but after our neighbor told us at 11:30pm last night that she was going to call the police on us for harassment, we determined that our mission has failed.

My husband has suggested that I use this experience as more opportunity to practice non-attachment. I can meditate and focus on other thoughts or go into the sensations within my body and breath in order to create a safety blanket or shield of white noise to protect me from the hippo below (nothing against hippos, truly, I just don’t want to live above one).

I agree that this is good practice, I told my husband last night, but I make tiny baby steps in my meditation and acceptance practice. This is way out of my league. I am just not ready.

 

I work very hard most of the time to keep the temper flame that lives within me at a very low level; however, it ramped right up last night. I do not engage negative, angry energy. I don’t like it when it is directed at me, and I do not like to direct it at other people. There is enough of this kind of energy swirling around the globe. I try my best to create space for calm. That being said, I was so incensed by the seemingly complete disregard for other life forms in our home, that I stormed down the stairs, knocked loudly on the door, and informed our neighbor in no uncertain terms that we found her behavior rude, disrespectful, and unbelievable.

In the end, this situation is not life threatening. I live a relatively luxurious existence. I have warm clothes, a roof over my head, a beloved husband, two fat and happy cats, a husky at a distance, and friends and family all over the world.

I know that there are certain battles that are not worth engaging in. Typically, I try to put as much distance as possible between the proverbial hippos of the world and me. One time, I even moved all the way from Alaska to Massachusetts to escape the ultimate hippo (really, I don’t hate hippos).

There is a reason different species do not interbreed. They are different. I like a quiet, peaceful home. I enjoy sleeping at night. Not all humans are of the same make and model. For this reason, I recognize that my requests may seem as incredible to her as her behavior to us. We are embêtant and intolerant.

So be it. We will focus our energy on finding a more sustainable place to rest our heads, a place that does not require sleeping pills, earplugs, and whiskey nightcaps (well, the whiskey might stay).

Any stories of our your hippo neighbors? I would love to hear them in the comments below. Go ahead, vent some steam. As always, thanks for reading, friends from near and far.

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Nothin’s gonna stop the ‘fro

I have had more than a few days where I walk out the front door and, regardless of how I felt when I got dressed, I wind up feeling like the biggest frump in Brussels. Every person I pass seems so put together and stylish, like they intrinsically understand how to pair articles of clothing, footwear, jewelry, and accessories.

Given the choice, I have pretty much always chosen function and affordability to haute couture. For this reason, I am often loath to walk into a fancy boutique. I do sometimes wonder what would happen if I walked into a clothing store and ask for the person to pick out clothing for me. They may tell me that they are not personal shoppers, but perhaps they will take pity on the poor American who has zero understanding of fashion sense.

I am pretty sure that if I invited them into my home, they would take one look at my closet and set a torch to it. No more comfortable sneakers, no more threadbare shirts, no more hooded sweatshirts.

What then? Panty hose that cannot possibly keep me warm in the wind, rain, and hail of balmy winter in Brussels? (Forget the fact that pantyhose would be lucky to last five minutes before my propensity for clumsiness led to their demise.)

I’m sorry, but freezing for pantyhose will never be my slogan.

So, when I don my quick drying stretchy yoga pants, t-shirt, sweatshirt, winter coat, and sneakers for a walk through the forest, I walk past many pairs of heels and pointy leather boots on my way. Even in the sanctuary of the forest by our apartment, I pass people dressed I would refer to as one’s Sunday best. Every day must be Sunday in Brussels.

My reticence is not limited to clothing stores. I have a universal ominous foreboding before entering any kind of hair salon, be it in the United States or Europe. If I don’t get dressed up to go for a walk in forest, rain or shine, why would I spiffy up to get my haircut? I am just going to come home and take a shower to wash away all those irritating tiny hairs that tickle my neck.

Apparently, not all days are equal for getting your hair cut in Brussels. Friday and Saturday are fancier (aka, more expensive). At least, this was the case when I walked down to Boitsfort proper to search out a place to get my hair trimmed this afternoon in my usual black stretchy yoga pants, 15-year-old pink Mazama goat t-shirt just barely holding on to existence, and my five ten sneakers.

I asked the woman at the register if I needed to make an appointment. She had blonde, sort of curly, sort of straight hair, and I couldn’t tell if it was wet or dry but thought the wet appearance may be from the bottle of gel she must have used to create the façade of curls. If my hair was straight, I would just dance for sheer joy rather than wasting my money on gel, but they say the grass is always greener.

Ever since I was young, older and very old women have been telling me to thank my lucky stars for my frizz, but I must not be old enough yet to agree.

Of course, I still have such a baby face that most people think I am still a teenager (I am super jazzed when someone guesses 22 instead of 14, especially when it is an old man hitting on me. Seriously, if you think I look 14, what are you doing flirting with me, creeper?). Suffice it to say that women with straight hair and/or new perms like to gush over my hair.

I will trade you, I respond to the little old lady getting her hair permed, and she shrieks with laughter, winks, and waves her hair at me in an Oh, you joker gesture.

What? I was totally serious!

I also have come to realize that looking young means it takes something extra for people to take me seriously, be it sarcasm, attitude, or talking about my PhD research. Would Europeans get a Doogie Howser reference?

Well, there were two older ladies at the hair salon this afternoon, but they didn’t pay any attention to me.

Blondie at the register told me a hair cut cost 42 euros. I asked if I could skip the shampoo, and she looked at me like I was insane and explained that it was included.

I sat down on a chair by the shampooing sink and waited while the woman next to me had her hair conditioned and temples massaged. Maybe getting a shampoo wasn’t so bad after all. If the extra cost went toward a scalp massage, I could dig it.

My turn came for a shampoo, but it was anything but relaxing. The woman gave me a brief scalp scratching and asked if I wanted conditioner, which I refused because it was un supplement (aka, an additional fee). Seriously? This isn’t Paris. How does a 42-euro haircut include shampoo but not conditioner? Had she not seen the state of my hair when I took out my ponytail holder? You don’t voluntarily get my hair wet without conditioner somewhere nearby. Oh well, I figured she would put some leave-in conditioner after she cut it.

She rinsed my hair, filling both ears with a cascade of water, and I cringed until it was over. I was directed to a chair, and my hair was brushed minus any kind of conditioner with a large-toothed comb. To give her some credit, the woman did apologize, though I could have explained to her that nothing she could do could hurt my skull, which had been thickened by over three decades of life with tangles (Johnson’s No More Tangles has got nothing on this head of hair). I think my nerve endings have lost their will to live from so much yanking and pulling. I figured out several years ago that my mom didn’t keep my hair an inch long when I was little just because it looked cute (which it did) but for her and my sanity. Every few months when my hair was long, she would have to corner me, and I would scream and cry while she tried to untangle the bird’s nest my afro had become. Seriously, if there is a god in this world, they have a sadistic sense of humor, and I am not sure what I did in my past lives to deserve a life of frizz.

At one point while she was clawing through my wet hair, she made a face, picked something out, and flicked it aside. It kind of reminded me of a wildlife documentary with monkeys picking insects out of each other’s hair. I tried to imagine the David Attenborough narrative.

Here in the chair sits a specimen that is the result of genetic experimentation with the texture and shape of body hair. Beside her stands a superior genetic conglomeration. They are engaged together here in a kind of interchange. Notice the look of disgust on the face of the other homo sapiens as she performs a kind of cleansing ritual.

When I looked at her questioningly, she responded, pélicule. I raised my eyebrows?

Qu’est-ce que c’est pélicule? She called out to wet-dry straight-curly hair blondie, who was blow drying the hair of woman a few chairs down (at least she got to sit down for this humiliation).

Je ne said pas, came the response.

Ça veut dire que c’est sec? I asked and pointed to my scalp.

Oui.

J’utilise shampoo pour ça.

She smiled.

Lovely, now I was not only frumpy and unfashionable with unkempt hair, but I also had my dandruff on display.

But I digress.

Salon woman asked me to stand up and walk behind the chair.

What, I can’t even be comfortable for this torture? I thought.

Apparently not, but for the 42 euros must be charged by the second because it was literally the shortest haircut I had ever experienced. I think it took less than five minutes for her to cut my hair. No putting it up in a clip and taking some down to cut one section at a time.

It was like a hit and run with scissors.

She had me sit down, and I figured this would be where she would put something in it so it would dry nicely. Instead, she blow-dried the front and left the back half dry so I left looking like a weird frizzy cactus. I know cactus paraphernalia seems to be a thing in Brussels (I have seen stuffed cactus at Ikea, clubs called Le Cactus, and there is even a sugary beverage that is likely some kind of prickly pear mixed with lemonade), but I didn’t realize it was trendy to dress like one.

When she had finished my cactus do, a man sitting in a chair on the other side of the salon called out in a heavy French accent, dandruff?

Eh? Oh.

The hairdresser walked over to look at the man’s phone.

Oui. C’est ça.

She came back.

Et là, tout le monde le sait/And now, everyone knows I have dandruff.

She thought this was the funniest thing ever and repeated it back to me. Tout le monde le sait. Chuckle chuckle. As always, I am happy to entertain. I am Jewish, after all.

Another time in my life, I might have been horrified and humiliated beyond reason. This time, I just thought the whole thing was ridiculous. Clearly dandruff is not so unusual or they wouldn’t sell so many hair products for those who suffer from it. I’m only human, and my skin gets dry. So sue me!

As we neared the end of our time together, I braced myself for her to recommend one or more expensive products, but she didn’t even try to sell me anything. Perhaps, in her eye was a hopeless cause.

I stood up, and she removed the black smock I had been wearing. I looked in the mirror for a moment and then turned to follow her to the front of the salon. She took my sweatshirt out of the coat closet and handed it to me (at least, she didn’t hold it like she had picked it up out of a gutter somewhere).

When I paid, she explained that Friday and Saturday cost 42 euros while every other day cost 33. Great, so I got to pay extra for my humiliation. Good deal. At least if I were planning on pay for public humiliation, I could have gone on bargain day. (Note: Jews also really like to get things on sale.)

The best deal was that it really didn’t matter to me. Just like most haircuts I have had in the US, she cut more than I had asked for and overcharged me for the experience, but I didn’t feel bothered. I guess I really am growing up. That, or I am a hopeless fashion cause. Either way, I am what I am, and it is a person I have grown rather fond of over the years.