life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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It’s about the adventure

In my life after being a park ranger, I have become a kind of Renaissance woman, cobbling together a humble living as an editor, yoga instructor, and songwriter (the latter has been mostly pro bono since moving to Belgium). Editing tends to be slower in the summer, as the bulk of my work comes from students during the fall and spring semesters of the academic year.

 

To keep myself busy, I pore over animal adoption sites in search of a dog I might be able to convince my husband to let me bring home. I study texts about philosophy and the path to enlightenment, I practice handstands at the wall, and I go for walks. I also do a lot of writing.

 

Since we are on a limited budget with my work being part-time and even less than that during the summer months, I have also begun researching different foods that I would like to be able to eat but cannot really order at restaurants, essentially because we don’t ever go to restaurants in order to save money. My most recent epiphany was that I should try to make dim sum. This revelation came when our favorite couscous stand was absent from the Sunday market in Boitsfort, so we opted for Thai and Balinese. Both were super overpriced, which completely bummed me out. The Thai food was disappointing all around, especially toward the end when I found a hair in mine (this is never fun). My husband suggested that I pretend I didn’t see it, but I was not very successful in this endeavor. The dumplings from the Balinese stand cost 8 euros for four tiny morsels. The shrimp dumplings were amazing, but the friend sesame ones filled with red bean paste were pretty sad.

 

All told, we spent 7 euros for the sad Thai noodles, 8 euro for the dumplings, and 5 euros for two glasses of white wine. The wine won on all fronts.

 

Maybe, I could just figure out how to make the foods I love to eat? I suggested to my husband.

 

Go for it, he acquiesced.

 

Ok, so 20 euros on the Sunday market lunch was nothing when compared with the small fortune I spent at three different Asian markets and two western grocery stores this morning and afternoon. My morning trip was shared with all of the adorable, old ladies of Watermael-Boitsfort, who left their carts sitting in the middle of the aisles so it took me a while to wind my way from one end of the store to the other.

 

My day of adventuring began with a visit to an Optician for an eye exam. Learning about inner workings of the health care system in Belgium is also a challenge, particularly when French is not my native tongue. I had a lovely time visiting with the Optician and asking all kinds of questions about the machines and method he used, all the while trying to decipher the code and meaning of his explanations, which were, of course, all in French. It turned out that I had gone about the eye care process in reverse, as most people began with a visit to an Ophthalmologist to test for tension in the eyes, glaucoma, and an overall medical exam, which an Optician could not provide. (At least, the eye exam was free!)

 

Learning the ins and outs of a foreign culture is an exhausting adventure, which requires figuring out public transit systems, following maps to find venues that Google claims exist but in actuality have long since closed, and beyond. My stamina is not what it was ten more more years ago when I last lived in a foreign land; however, I somehow made it through an eye exam and a visit to five different grocery stores (the sixth had come up as an Asian market but did not look like through the windows, so I didn’t go in because at that point I was beyond exhausted). The final stop of my day was also the highlight. I found the Alimentation Asiatique and quickly befriended the owner.

 

His name was Wang, and he was delighted when I asked if he could help me find some items.

 

Do you like Chinese food? He asked me.

 

I do! And I love trying new things.

 

Then you must try the radish. I just opened some. You can try first before you decide to buy it.

 

He went into the back and brought out a pair of chopsticks and bowl of radish coated in something red, which looked spicy and dangerous for my sensibilities.

 

Can you use chopsticks?

 

I can, but I am not sure I hold them correctly.

 

I modeled my chopstick holding stance.

 

Good enough, he said. He was now speaking in English, explaining that he spent three years studying in New York. Apparently, most of the English speakers who came into the shop had British accents and had a hard time understanding his English.

 

I have a hard time understanding a British accent.

 

Me, too, but it’s so wonderful.

 

It is! I love British English accents, I agreed.

 

I gingerly picked up a piece of the radish, brought it to my mouth, and smiled.

 

It’s so good! Definitely spicy.

 

And it’s very cheap. Everything here is much less expensive than other places because we sell to restaurants.

 

He continued: Where are you from?

 

The United States.

 

Where?

 

Arizona, but I have lived all over. I started listed states on my fingers.

 

You are very nice. You smile all the time. I can tell it is because you travel a lot.

 

Well, not everyone who travels is nice.

 

True, but we can ignore the people who aren’t nice.

 

Yes, we can.

 

I went through my ingredients list, asking about different items. When I asked him if he had red bean paste, he lit up, handed me a can, and told me how his mom would put red bean paste into things she cooked as a treat for him when was a child.

 

We then spoke about our moms and how their cooking is wonderful and full of love.

 

My mom lives far away, so now I have to try cooking things myself, I said.

 

Wang was all about helping simplify my cooking experience. He suggested that I buy frozen dumpling wrappers and already made ravioli.

 

I explained that I really wanted to try making the recipes myself but that I would buy some ready made to put in the oven if I failed so I could pretend that I had made perfect ones.

 

When I asked about bamboo steamers, he said not to waste my money and drew me a picture for how I could put water in a pot and place another bowl inside, covering the pot so the boiling water would create vapors to steam the dumplings.

 

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Later in the evening, when I had spent hours attempting to make the ravioli with the flour I used because I couldn’t find wheat starch, I told my husband that I probably should have listened to Wang.

 

He laughed.

 

We had a good time trying everything. While the proverbial fruits of my labor were a far cry from the photos in the recipes online I had been following, I felt pretty good about my first effort.

 

It’s all about the adventure, my husband said. You should be getting out there, exploring and meeting people.

 

It’s true, I said. Thank you for braving my most recent adventure!

 

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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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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.