Saturday, September 27, 2014

New Pleasures in Old Things

 F. Scott Fitzgerald — "Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall."

The transition to autumn makes old things, like dried-up leaves and harvest-time traditions and knitted sweaters pulled out of storage, feel new. And on a longer time cycle, being in one's 30s (hair starting to change color, skin drying and flesh ripening!) is a magical time in life when our ancestors a thousand years ago began to get really old (like, toothless, hairless, infertile, infirm old) and which is today, according to the Italians at least, just the beginning of adulthood. (Everybody is ragazze until age 30.) This year, I've been enjoying the hell out of lots of old, crunchy, dusty, fermented, dried-up, patina-covered, story-drenched things in my life that have been somehow transformed through the passage of time into fresh, novel experiences that carry with them that sharp complexity that only an aging process can deliver.

In my 30s, I've reached an age when I can experience the flavors of my youth over again on different levels. Meanwhile, human civilization has reached the explosive information age, in which I have the historically unprecedented power to search through the virtually limitless annals of human anthropological, archaeological, biological, and geological history with the tap of an iPhone or a few keys on my library branch's computer. I can scrutinize every detail of every stroke of marginalia on each page of the digitized Book of Kells. I can call up forgotten works of literature from the catacombs of library storage and inhale the pages of a book no one has touched in a hundred years. On a smaller scale, I watch the lives of my own childhood's Troll dolls and Popple and Lego sets from 25 years ago reincarnated in the unique imagination of my daughter.

Remember those dangerous metal and dirt playgrounds? Still the best!!!

I've learned that with just about anything from the past, from my own life or from the far reaches of human history, reliving the story is so much more fun than living it in real time. (Think Renaissance Faire vs. the actual Spanish Inquisition.)

willow tree, photographed by three-year-old Nux Gallica

So many things improve with age--teenagers, various cheeses and spirits, beautiful trees, memories of winding paths taken--both easy and hard. I am so grateful and appreciative now, in my 30s, that I traveled to many exotic places and had many soul-trying adventures in my teens and 20s. I usually couldn't see it at the time--lying in that hospital bed in the Mexican highlands with the donkey and rooster singing a duet outside my window, or shaking in my high-heeled boots that time I got trapped on a cobblestone bridge in Rome between a pro-Saddam Hussein march and the riot police--but those crazy, mortal-terror-sweaty, confusing, even bitter moments experienced in unfamiliar places always make the best stories and somehow ferment into the most savory of recollections to enjoy later, from the comfort of settled, safe and secure, real grownup life.

My fantasy babydaddy Till Lindemann (who was just starting his rockstar career at age 30) once said, "You've got a kind of inner store. When things aren't going well, you just go inside and get a glass of travel preserves for your soul, open it and fill up on it."

Speaking of things that get more delicious with age... Awww yeah, Grandpa Till! You keep on rocking out! With Gogol Bordello! And Molotov! And those new young kids get off my lawn!

Till's travel memories involve hunting anacondas and contracting tropical diseases, and mine aren't quite as exciting, but they still give my soul a surprising kick once in a while.

That's So Last Decade: Reading Eat, Pray, Love a Dozen Years Late

For example, I finally read the book Eat, Pray, Love on a whim this summer and discovered that the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, was living in Rome at the same time I was. She was licking the same gelato, drinking the same espresso, and devouring the same pasta. Not only that, but we may have crossed paths in other locations around Italy, like Venice and Naples, where we waited in line for the same slice of legendary, transcendent pizza.

Her description of her experiences of Rome and other parts of Italy a dozen years ago was like time travel for me--it brought back so many memories of experiences we shared, unbeknownst to me at the time--and it also threw into stark relief experiences we did not share. Perhaps some of it is due to the way we have both recreated that time and place in the stories we have crafted about it--intentionally or not. But some of it surely demonstrates how the same exact setting can be a whole parallel universe away from that setting lived by another person. Mine was a little more like...

Eat, Pray, F***u!

Thanks to Elizabeth Gilbert for showing me the spelling of the abbreviated Italian expletive I heard so often, but which no one would explain to me. This blog is rated PG, so you'll have to read her book if you want to learn it too.

My college roommate and I arrived in Rome several weeks before Liz (as I will call her here for brevity like she's now my imaginary friend), during a deadly heat wave that had emptied out the city like fascist warfare. Those who hadn't died of heatstroke had fled to the seaside, so we were dropped off in front of a sun-scorched, ghost town slum house in the most sad and degraded area of the Monteverde neighborhood. Every window in every building was closed with a heavy, black metal shutter resembling an industrial garage door. Because there are almost no buildings in Rome with the electrical infrastructure to handle air conditioning (even a window unit) and no stores were open where we could even buy a fan, we were advised to stand in a cold shower on and off throughout the day to stay alive.

This didn't, of course, dampen our excitement for exploration, even fresh off a zero-sleep red-eye flight over the Atlantic. Nor did the fact that my six-months-worth of luggage was somehow lost forever in the clutches of the notoriously luggage-hungry Da Vinci airport, nor the fact that every sight worth seeing was at least a 45-minute walk made up almost entirely of stone and concrete stairs in the brutal heat. The thrill of youthful adventure compelled me to hit the ground running, wearing my sandals to pieces (the only footwear I then possessed)--literally to pieces, falling off of my swollen, lacerated, and blistered feet before I could find a retail establishment that could and would sell me another pair with the credit card I had brought in lieu of actual money.

The door to our apartment building didn't fit in the frame, so it was wedged permanently in a partly-ajar position. We didn't mind so much at first because there didn't seem to be any other human beings in the neighborhood, and the door to our apartment itself (up six flights of broken stairs, no elevator, not that we would have dared use a Roman elevator) was a prison-style slab of steel with various types of locks and deadbolts installed haphazardly, with industrial hardware, from top to bottom.

When the people of Rome flooded back into town in early September, about the time Liz must have arrived, the entire city went through a fantastical transformation that I was truly shocked not to find mentioned in the pages of Eat, Pray, Love. It was the fall of 2003, at the height of Bush's troop surge into Iraq, just before the largest anti-war demonstration in the history of the world was about to take place in the city of Rome. In Monteverde and over the surrounding hills, down into the valley of the Tiber and around the Forum and through the Vatican City and extending out into every single neighborhood of Rome, including the one Liz arrived in (which she joked wasn't even really a "neighborhood" unless you could call the Guccis "neighbors"--haha, good one, Liz!), was blanketed from clothesline to rooftop, highest balcony to lowest window, corner to corner of every block, with bold, bright, flapping, billowing rainbow flags beaming the word PACE in four-foot-high block letters from every visible surface.

"Yeah," slurred our alcoholic classmates at the American tourist university, "they're really into gay rights here."

The university, conveniently located just a few blocks from my apartment (accessible only through a brick arch in a medieval papal wall through which several fast and busy streets converge and cross each other at random angles, where catastrophic bus, automobile, motorino, and pedestrian collisions occur on a regular basis), seemed (admittedly, to my cynical 20-year-old mind) to be a daycare center for rich 20-something Americans who were not capable of functioning independently but whose parents desperately wanted them as far away from home as possible.

The citizens of Monteverde seemed not to appreciate the presence of these American students in their shops, cafes, buses, or streets. To this day, I am not sure if it was more the fault of the d-bag-magnet school or the Iraq war, but upon being recognized as Americans, we were refused service in shops and restaurants, shoulder-checked off the sidewalk, sexually assaulted on the bus, and playfully bumped by laughing automobile drivers who would sometimes even swerve up over the curb to give us a thrill. If we dared step outside in dumpy sweatshirts or with overweight friends, we were followed by pointing fingers and raucous laughter. We were pick-pocketed, groped, slapped, mocked, and threatened. Whenever we tried to escape the screaming, terrifying fury of Rome for a day trip, we were often greeted between airport and hostel (most memorably in Athens, Greece, while sharing a bus with a drunk American student using her outside voice to incessantly repeat a tale of a one-night stand she'd just had involving anal sex--"LUBE IS KEY, YOU GUYS!"--to an audience of humiliated fellow Americans and nonplussed Greeks) with spray-painted messages in English along the lines of "F*** AMERICA GO HOME."

Talk about culture shock.

I had never felt so defensive about my American identity nor so humiliated by it at the same time. My perspective was totally blown apart about the meanings of war, poverty, stereotype, otherness, and the importance of those little things lost in transit and translation.

Meanwhile, I spent the next five months in Rome desperately lacking appropriate clothing, personal care items, enough food to eat, shelter from the elements (our apartment windows and terrace door did not fully close, and our heating system did not work, so we slept on plastic mats laid between puddles and bundled in everything we owned, like homeless people), safety, and consistent electrical and phone services. Every single classmate of mine ended up bailing out before our planned six months abroad, so I had to put an extra plane ticket on my credit card as well and flee earlier than planned... yet not early enough to experience Christmas that year in any way one might anticipate. (First world problems, I know.)

All this hardship forced me to find inner strengths and superpowers that I did not ever know I possessed. Upon my return, I stepped off the plane in the United States feeling stunned that I had actually survived to touch my feet on the good old New World once again, and I knew from then on that I could make it through many things I had previously thought impossible. (No Christmas at all? And yet here I am, building a replica of the Venus de Milo out of Michigan snow!)

It also heightened the pleasurable sensations of my time abroad--the rare but soul-sustaining, random kindnesses by Roman strangers and neighbors who took pity on me or finally melted under my dogged persistence in trying to make friends, the richness of gelato and espresso, the music of voices reverberating within a medieval church sanctuary or baroque piano chords bouncing through a cold marble stairwell.

Rome has style, I will give it that. People argue with style, swear with style, ride the bus with style (steel stiletto heels stabbed into the corrugated flooring, the balance of a string dancer, an untouchable aura of Marchesa di Casati-esque troubled grandeur), and create every handmade product, from lattes to shoes, with pride.

The very decay of Rome is elegant. My first evening there (giddy after two time-warped days without sleep, followed by hours of hiking up and down stairs through the city), I was unmoored by the sunset that blazed like an Old Master fresco of gilded clouds through the forests of TV antennas that crowded the sky above the apartment buildings. From that first day, I felt buoyed along by the sense that every moment could be my last, that I was being swept along in an ancient storm of tyranny spiraling off a fall from greatness that had never ended since the Caesars, whose temples now reek of the piss of stray cats and men. The tragedy of the crumbling Forum, the ruins of palaces layered atop the ruins of older palaces, the poverty scavenging sustenance from the bleached, naked arches and towers that resemble the bones of a giant carcass, the white statues of immortal beings antiqued by the black grime of diesel exhaust and the pits of acid rain--all this "beauty in the breakdown" (as the Frou Frou song played on every radio) made me feel that death, if not welcome, could be at least aesthetically pleasing.

Of course, I didn't go to Rome to die. I also didn't go there for some necessary college credit (though, like Hermione Granger, I feared the loss of my financial aid slightly more than I feared death, which is why I did not bail out and fly home sooner). I chose the destination of Rome for the same reason Elizabeth Gilbert did, to learn the most beautiful language in the world. We both yearned to taste it on our tongues and feel its vowels humming in our throats like the chords of a Stradivarius.

Early on, we both discovered a favorite word. Liz says that hers was attraversiamo ("Let's cross over"). How delightful! How adventurous! (Especially on Roman streets!) How friendly! My experience being so different from the start (lacking friends in Rome to welcome me, lacking the wealth to live in a safe neighborhood, lacking that untouchable rich lady aura that repels the dry humpers on the bus), my favorite word was lasciare. La-SHA-re. To let, to allow, to surrender, to leave. As in, "Lascia ch'io pianga," "Let Me Weep," Handel's aria written for the last castrato.

Melodramatic? Yes, oh yes. Luscious melodrama was one of my only comforts at the time, and now, it flavors my travel stories with melancholy humor.

My time in Rome was a riot of sensory bombardment. Yes, there was delicious food and exquisite music. There was beauty and fragrance. There was also horrific noise--"Roman conversations" involving two people shouting a sentence over and over while their opponent simultaneously repeated another, traffic screeching and smashing every so often, whole symphonies of car alarms going off along streets packed with triple-parked vehicles, intersections where no one paid attention to the lights and everyone leaned on their horns as they blasted through, the hornet-on-steroids whine of motorbikes, the snapping bursts of firecrackers and small bombs going off on every rooftop, terrace, and street corner during every frigging Italian holiday--of which there are many--and the bone-jarring screech of the alarm on the side of my apartment building that went off endlessly and senselessly every time the electricity went out, which was awfully frequent. There was an indescribable stench of overflowing trash heaps rotting in the sun, the remnants of the weekly fish markets, the urine of cats and people, and streams of liquid dog shit trickling down every sidewalk in my neighborhood, where everyone seemed to have a  dog and every dog had chronic diarrhea. (And there is no grass anywhere, and everyone lives in an apartment--you do the math!) Even on cold days, it was hard to walk down the street without gagging.

During those five months in Rome, I was assaulted, stolen from, shouted at, insulted, degraded, starved, shunned, and bribed with paltry amounts of food and money to keep silent about the shortcomings of my educational program. And even while it was happening, I pulled in all those sensations, the cold of marble, the medieval city stench, the mortal terror, the shrieking sirens, the blaring horns and car alarms and repeated cycles of rapid-fire exclamations rolling over and over each other like squirrels locked in mortal combat... the wonder and the terror, the sweetness and the bitters, the heat and the cold, the horror and the divine beauty... I knew that someday, after the PTSD symptoms had faded and I no longer found myself tucking and rolling into the bushes when a car backfired, I knew the dread would dry up into a potpourri of strength, hilarity, and wisdom that would be invigorating to uncork in years to come.

It is amazing to me, even considering our difference in means and social connection, how very different my story of that time in Rome is from Elizabeth Gilbert's. She mentions, briefly, the historic war protest, the capriciousness of the mail system, and the frequency of mass strikes that would halt public transportation and emergency services over and over again. But that bit about people telling her that all the Italian men had suddenly stopped groping women on the bus? What? And no mention of the crush of homelessness, pickpocketing, stray cats, general desperation? And what's this thing about Rome not caring to compete with the rest of Europe--where on earth was she on the White Night?

There is no bubble in Rome for the privileged. Roman wealth is a medieval type of grandeur, which rises above a backdrop of picturesque depravity and decay. I've been through Liz's neighborhood. It's where all the best high-end shopping happens, near the Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. The area is so heavily laden with beggars that there is a permanent sign beside the Spanish Steps asking people to please not defecate on them. The stink of garbage, urine, and dog diarrhea may have been greater on my side of town, but that isn't saying much.

And really, really, where was she on La Notte Bianca? The White Night is a new European tradition, initiated by France, during which there are festivities in the streets, free public transportation, and free samples given out by local businesses, from dusk until dawn. All the lights of the city stay on until morning, and everyone parties all night.

In the fall of 2003, Rome decided to get in on the action. Unfortunately, Italy chose (apparently it is not on the same date in all nations) a weekend during the Jewish High Holy Days. Maybe this is why Liz missed out; many of the high-end shops in her neighborhood were actually closed down and darkened, bags of trash plopped in the middle of the narrow sidewalks, because they were owned by observant Jews who had gone home to celebrate their own holiday.

All my classmates went out to celebrate Rome's first White Night. Considering that public transportation, commerce, and electricity are sporadic at best in Rome, I felt that the night would surely end in disaster. But I kept my mouth shut, refusing to play Cassandra, and marched silently down the hillsides and mazes of concrete steps with my cohorts that evening. The idea was so popular that the streets in the Trastevere area quickly filled to bursting, so that children were trampled, the elderly were carried off in the crush of bodies, and buses were stranded in the middle of the streets, overrun with passengers crawling over each other inside and on top of them, demanding their promised free ride.

And all this was before night fell.

When the buildings around me started to redden with the ominous gloaming of a Roman sunset, I told my classmates, "I'm out of here." No one wanted to come with me--after all, there was free admittance into the Coliseum!--so I turned tail and literally ran for the hills, alone. I had been pounding up concrete stairs for about forty minutes when I heard the screams. I looked behind me, down toward the valley of the Tevere, and watched the whole, glorious skyline of the Vatican and downtown Rome turn black. The screams of a million people lost in the dark were peppered with shots--gunfire? more fireworks?--accompanied by the wailing of many impotent sirens and finally drowned out by my own hysterical laughter.

The rolling blackout swept up the hillsides and overtook me, and I staggered toward home, feeling my way along mossy brick walls and tripping over broken stone, laughing all the way.

Back inside the apartment, I fastened all the locks from top to bottom, threw myself onto my plastic mat, and buried myself in all my clothes to muffle the window-rattling percussion of firecrackers and M-80s thrown from the surrounding rooftops.

In the morning, I discovered that my classmates had finally returned home in the wee hours of morning, bearing a great story about being trapped in pitch blackness within a mob of people inside the Coliseum, and that the world outside looked as though it had been through a siege. Trash cans were blown to pieces, garbage and ashes fluttered on the wind, buildings were charred and sometimes totally destroyed, and the air smelled of burning tires.

To this day, I am not sure whether Rome considered its first White Night a success.

I'm Not Old, I'm Vintage: Nirvana Can Be Oldies Now

One more thing that really pissed me off about Rome was the local MTV broadcast. They kept showing 1990s videos, such as "Smells Like Teen Spirit," with the label "Vintage" emblazoned across the screen. I was still being called a ragazza (girl, kid) by everyone, and yet an album I had purchased with my own babysitting money was being called "vintage?"

Too. Soon.

Now that we have a comfortable two decades between the present and Nevermind, I am ready to open a bottle of vintage '90s nostalgia.

I'm also ready to look back on my own youth, laugh at it, and feel grateful for hard-won maturity. I am ready to BE vintage.

I told some of my Rome stories over aged cheese and charcuterie to a friend (who sells beautifully refurbished vintage jewelry) the other day, and we also swapped shared memories of Berkeley, California in the early "aughts" and its awesomely ironic culture of academia. Oh, the extremes! The beauty and the tragedy! The thrilling desolation of longing and not belonging! Those memories of youth and naivety and newness, the sweet and the sour mingled, add such complexity to the flavor of life now, in our 30s.

Even crappy memories of being an awkward teenager, by this age, break down into humor and whimsy. The other day, at the risk of dating myself, I pulled out a tiny-daisy-print, spaghetti strap maxidress from 579 (remember that store at the mall, '90s children???) and wore it to work on top of a white baby tee. What's that piece of advice? Ladies, when you get to the age when stuff in your closet that you bought new becomes vintage... F*** it, take it out again and rock it!

It's hard to feel old when you have a child, anyway. I get to experience the newness of life through her every day, at Cider Mills and old playgrounds made of recycled trash and the zoo and in antique children's books and the change of seasons that make every old thing new again. "Look, Mommy!" she says on our morning walk. "The trees are posing for us against the blue sky!"

There is nothing better than a cider mill in early fall, no better time than the sweet spot when the leaves are changing, when everything has ripened and aged to peak flavor, when the heat has mellowed but not gone, when new children play in new-fallen leaves and squirrels fatten up for a lazy winter, when the world, in celebration of its oldness, is by its very age renewed. At this point in my life, the idea of aging and "wise-ening" feels peculiarly exciting and novel--something to anticipate pleasurably--instead of something to be dreaded.

a squirrel hoard in my backyard

Ekkehard: A Nineteenth Century Tale of the Tenth Century

In the great scheme of things, of course, I am not the slightest bit old. In tenth century Europe, a woman of my age may have gone through menopause by now, lost half her teeth, and gone totally gray without the dignity of multi-tonal highlights. A woman my age would have already lived past average life expectancy and probably buried multiple children and other relatives along the way.

Today, though, I just barely qualify as a donna (adult woman) to the Italians, who have a deeply personal sense of the meaning of age.

But already, I know what I like, and I know how to follow my joy. That means enjoying my young family, working for a better world, and digging up musty old history to use as raw material for spanking new narratives.

Joseph Viktor von Scheffel

I am currently reading Ekkehard: A Tale of the Tenth Century written by an old, nineteenth-century German guy who I suspect may have sported a French braid (from his portrait in the frontispiece of the copy in my hands). It is a richly detailed, historical fiction about real people, Duchess Hadwig of Suabia and Ekkehard II, a monk and Latin scholar.

Once I get my hands on a copy of Volume II of this delightful story, I plan to review it for German Literature Month. Join me if moldy-old German romance is your thing too! 

Dear readers, what old things are giving you new pleasures this season?

Monday, September 1, 2014

This Is the Bed I've Made

...and I'm gonna snuggle under my security budget! Wait--what?

where I snuggle with Nux Gallica to dream
Yes, that's right. I've set my mind free from sleepless worry over money, beneath the cover of a scanty, rough, but serviceable biweekly budget.

For added comfort, I'm layering in my new smooth, silky, weekly and daily schedule sheets. Ahhhh, bliss!

The brain of a mother is a minefield of worries, and the brain of a creative person is a lightning storm of chaos. So despite what you might see on Pinterest, it's very easy for a creative mom's dreams to get paralyzed by a crushing sense of anxious insecurity.

I think this is why I'm such a plotter on the outside. I can remember that first day of middle school, when the teacher passed out daily planner notebooks and explained how we would have to track all our schoolwork and extracurricular activities. I remember curling my lip and staring at the thing with dread--not because I didn't like writing--oh how I loved writing!--but because I couldn't imagine binding my creative genius to the mundane drudgery of outlines and schedules.

But, like a diligent student, I gritted my teeth and tried it out. And once I got the hang if it, what a life-changer it was! I stopped finding myself panicked the evening before a project was due, begging my mom to do it for me because I had forgotten about it. I set myself free of the incessant whisper in my head that I was forgetting something--because scatterbrained me was always forgetting something--by using that notebook as a quiet place to stash all those things that were boring but important to remember.

As an adult, I'm a solid plotter, finding a deep sense of security in lists, maps, and plans. Creative people tend to be the least organized, mentally. I'm scatterbrained, forgetful, easily lost in space, prone to floating into daydreams and falling off the edges of tangents. Written guidelines have become my lifelines.

Since the birth of my daughter, I've struggled on and off with persistent, insomnia-inducing anxieties about MONEY and TIME. Am I spending too much? Am I making enough? Am I paying debts fast enough? Am I saving enough? ...and... Have I accomplished enough from my to-do list today?

Worries about the flow of personal money and time can be soul-crushing. They take up mental and emotional bandwidth, decreasing productivity, inner peace, and the enjoyment of life. The pressures to do it all and do it right can sabotage creative processes and decision-making.

So I've learned, with much effort, to accept that my life cannot be perfection, but I can still enjoy what I have. I'm settling in to the bed I have made, right now, so I have energy to dream and eventually create even brighter possibilities for my future and my family.

Now I'll share with you my own personal plans for the flow of money and time, because although each person's plan will look different, it helps to see real-life examples.

My Security Budget

First of all, there is no mathematical definition of financial security. Though money is important for meeting our basic needs and achieving goals, its importance tends to be exaggerated in our minds. "Security" is a feeling, not a number. There is plenty of sound financial advice out there about maximizing your assets, but we need to keep in mind that financial advice is just financial advice. It's not lifestyle advice. It's not a religion. It's specific to financial goal-setting, and financial goals should always support--never supersede--life dreams and moral values.

Permanent financial security is a myth; anybody can lose everything, and any amount of money can theoretically be replaced. What can't be replaced is the time in our lives we have not spent living our dreams. I don't know about you, but I don't want to be one of those people who waits until retirement to live whole-heartedly.

Along the way, of course, it's wise to do the best we can with our limited resources to minimize the distraction of financial woes. A healthy, peaceful balance between obsessing over the numbers and ignoring the numbers is what I seek.

My husband and I keep separate bank accounts (which we can access from each other when needed) to make it easier for each one of us to track bill paying and spending. DaddyMan pays all the utility bills and preschool tuition; I handle most of our debt payments, including the mortgage, and I manage most of our humble savings and investments (which are automated as paycheck deductions into retirement accounts, educational savings for our daughter, etc.).

The amounts of our savings deductions fall comfortably between what is recommended by financial gurus on TV and what most people actually do (which is nothing). Our daughter's education fund gets $50 a month, our emergency savings account gets $100 a month, and our retirement accounts get roughly $200 a month.

During the hard years of early parenthood, before public elementary school becomes available to us, we have committed to a life of temporary but hardcore asceticism. It has turned out to be a great lifestyle for a creative person who wants to strip life down to the essentials so she doesn't have to let go of any of her top three life purposes--mothering, justice-seeking, and writing.

Each of my paychecks disappears completely each month into regular payments and deductions. Yep, that's right, poof--gone. Our household pays about $700 per month on debts (excluding mortgage) thanks to our fancy college experiences and our shared lack of ambition to do work that is not meaningful to us to make more money. (Knowing us, it couldn't have happened any other way.) The remainder of my paycheck goes into savings. There are exactly zero dollars left over.

Every two weeks, I take $200 from my husband's account to live on--that's $100 per week for food, gas, personal items, fun times, educational experiences with Nux Gallica, toys from the clearance bin, medical copays--everything. My husband does a lot of the grocery shopping and car maintenance himself, so I can get away with this skimpy allowance--and it's kind of thrilling to know that I can. It also forces me to seek out healthy ways to pass the time with my daughter, like going on long walks to the park and cooking meals at home instead of driving to Chuck. E. Cheese. It sure helps that I don't drink or smoke! I can't afford any vices. I also can't afford distracting hobbies, leisure activities, and frivolities that are too tempting for me to pass up when I can afford them. (Manicures! Bar nights! Movies!) This is both sad and helpful, as I don't have the time for those things either.

Generosity is important to me, no matter how much I have, so it stresses me when I can't afford to give funds, gifts, and volunteer time to causes and people I care about. I would like to give more to my favorite nonprofit (which is also my employer), and it made me feel badly when I had to cancel my annual giving to stay afloat. Then I discovered that I am underpaid (according to the organization's own fair payment guidelines) in the exact amount that I had wanted to contribute (and I certainly don't think my work is worth less than the average worker's), so I've made note of that funny fact and decided to call it, to myself, my contribution to the cause.

In addition to willingly allowing a chunk of my income to stay with my community-improving employer, I consume conscientiously. Whenever possible, I use my teensy spending budget on more ethical and clean products (I value quality over quantity) such as green cosmetics, organic (or close-to-organic) food, fair trade chocolate and coffee, and "upcycled" clothing and textiles. 

Now that my debt payments, savings, spending, and giving are all automated at the best possible equilibrium and I know that I am not spending more than I earn, my mind is free to stop worrying about money. I still hope to have more in the future, but that hope is a motivator rather than a toxic stressor. My "need" for more cash flow has become a non-urgent "want."

My Schedule Sheets 

My "Mama Days" with Nux Gallica, while filled with moments of joy, used to be fraught with anxiety and frustration as well. As she grows and develops, changing her nap habits and needs and interests faster than I can keep up, I've fallen into the habit of watching for her signals (of hunger, boredom, excitement, sleepiness, etc.) to decide what to do from one hour to the next.

This is a generally wise thing to do with a small child, who is not fully in control of her physical needs and emotional states, but I realized that she and I both need more structure and routine in our day. Then perhaps she would feel more in control, and I would be less inclined to spend every moment thinking about what we would do next and how I would fit in all the tasks on my to-do list.

So I, being creative but not especially fancy-pants crafty, pulled out some washable markers and sheets of blank paper, and drew up a weekly calendar and a "Mama Days" schedule that Nux can understand in her pre-literate stage.

Sunday is family day! This is the one day of the week when we can do things all together, at any time of the day.

Monday, Friday, and Saturday are Mama Days. Daddy works, and we have mother-daughter time.

Tuesday is Daddy Day! This is when all the major fun happens, I suspect.

Wednesday is Preschool Day, a chance to get away from both parents for a little while and play with lots of other children.

Thursday is Oma Day, time to visit Grandma.

Nux Gallica absolutely adores this calendar and the Mama Days schedule below. She loves to point to each rectangle and recite what we did before, what we're doing now, and what we will do next. I'm astounded at the drastic change these stick figure sketches have made in our days and our moods. Nux has gone straight from anxious and resistant to transitions... to getting excited about them ahead of time.

At 6:30, Mama drinks coffee and checks her email and to-do list. This is a great time to sleep in or play independently! Mama will be so much happier in approximately one hour!

At 7:30, Daddy gets home from his morning job at the airport, and we eat breakfast together as a family. 

At 9:00, we go outside to water plants, pull weeds, and play. If it's raining, we do some gross motor play indoors and sometimes run errands by car.

At 11:00, we come inside to make lunch together. We sit at the table and have a leisurely meal.

At 1:00, it's time to lie down and rest quietly. We snuggle together, and then sometimes Mama sneaks away to make phone calls or do other boring grownup tasks.

At 2:00 (or whenever nap ends, if napping happens) we do chores together. Mama chooses the chores, and Nux chooses whether to help with each task or play independently.

At 5:00, we cook dinner together before Daddy comes home to join us.

At 7:00, we take a bath. Sometimes we both get in and color with bath crayons.

By 8:00, we are in bed to read a chapter of Charlotte's Web or Harry Potter before falling asleep.

Mama's Measure of Success: Life in Dream Time

Sometimes when I get frustrated about how little time I have to accomplish the goals I had before becoming a mother, I just need to remind myself that this extreme lifestyle is temporary--and sweet--and that, as we hear over and over, the journey is no less important than the destinations. Instead of asking myself, "What have I done this week?" I can ask, "How much time have I spent on my most precious dreams?"

What have I desired most since my tenderest age? What did I dream about most in my childhood bed? What did I pray for? What did I wish upon a star?

There are three things my soul has always craved, ever since I can remember. Those three deepest, most persistent desires have been family, justice, and storytelling.

And when I ask myself now, how much of my time to I spend with my beloved family?

How much time do I spend working for justice in the world?

How much time do I spend weaving my thoughts into stories?

When I ask myself those questions, I realize that nearly my entire life right now--nearly all my time, my resources, and my energies--are flowing in the service of those three primal, personal desires.

And then I feel truly self-actualized, and I stop losing sleep wondering if I'm doing it right and start dreaming bigger dreams...

How about you? What are your top three priorities in life? How much of your time, resources, and energies are spent in the service of those priorities? How much of yourself flows into the waking pursuit and nighttime creation of your dreams? 

Whatever bed you have made in your life, may you find rest in it this Labor Day!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Gimme Some SAP (Sexy Ancient Poetry)

marginalia from the Book of Kells
About ten years ago, I touched the pages of an illuminated manuscript in a library in Rome. It was a moving experience. Usually, the precious artifacts preserved in museums for hundreds or thousands of years are locked away, untouchable, except by experts wearing sterile gloves. But this time, for whatever reason--maybe just because it was Rome, where such artifacts are common and life is sensual--I was allowed to touch, with my naked fingers, the soft grain of a sheet of parchment, the scraped thin hide of a living creature, complete with hair follicles visible near the edges, lovingly crafted and written over in artful script, with ink handmade from vegetable tannins, applied with quills of feather and brushes of hair, illuminated in gold leaf and the powder of precious gems.

I don't remember what the content of the book was, but I remember becoming so aware of how different the experience of creating a book or manuscript (not just reading or looking at it) must have been a thousand years ago--an art composed of skin and plants and the minerals of the earth, created by skilled artisans by the natural light of the sun or the warm glow of a smoky flame.

Back when life was short and the creation of a book took a very long time, so much more of a writer's heart and soul must have been imbued in every curling, spiny character of text.

We've all felt the difference between writing words on paper, with an ink pen or a pencil held in our callused fingers, and pounding out words fast as an electric train in the charged, blue glare of a computer screen.

The way we live, and the way we write, has such an influence on what stories we tell and the language we use. This is one reason I love to reflect on the writings of past centuries and millennia--they're so full of hot blood and fire and flowing sap.

I'll list some of my favorite findings, and I hope you will suggest some of your own to share with me. I am your virtual neighbor, so gimme some SAP! (Sexy Ancient Poetry, that is.)

My first introduction to ancient sensual text was, of course, the Song of Solomon in the Bible. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine.

Oh yes.

And the Song of Solomon's closest relation, ancient Egyptian love poetry, is so steamy that I won't even reproduce it here, in the cold light of my LCD screen. But I do recommend taking a peep if you dare.

Another fountain of painfully beautiful love poetry arose in Heian period Japan, about a thousand years ago. My husband and I used to tuck these verses in our emails to each other early in our relationship. Some of our most beloved are...

We are, you and me,
Like two pine needles
Which will dry and fall
But never separate.

You do not come
On this moonless night.
I wake wanting you.
My breasts heave and blaze.
My heart burns up.
Although I come to you constantly
over the roads of dreams,
those nights of love
are not worth one waking touch of you.
 (Ono No Komachi)

This life of ours would not cause you sorrow
if you thought of it as like
the mountain cherry blossoms
which bloom and fade in a day.
 (Murasaki Shikibu) 

You and me
we live inside an egg
me, I am the white
and wrap you round with my body  
(Anonymous geisha)

Another of my most treasured texts from before the dawn of electronics is not quite so ancient--it was created around the time Shakespeare was penning his sonnets--but it comes from an early opera about ancient Rome.

"Pur ti miro" is a love duet written by librettist Busenello, set to tenderly rapturous music possibly by Monteverdi, in early 17th century Italy. The English translation is:

At you I gaze
In you I delight
You I hold
You I clasp
No more do I suffer
No more do I die
Oh my life
Oh my treasure
I am yours
You are mine
My hope
Say it now
My idol
Yes, my beloved
Yes, my heart
My life, yes

Below is a modern performance rendition of the piece. This is not my favorite performance ever, but it's kinda neat. If the countertenor sounds weird to you, that's because this piece was written for two castrati (castrated men) to sing, one in drag. Now that we don't castrate boys to sing prettier in the church choir or onstage anymore, this piece is sometimes performed by a countertenor (a man who can sing in falsetto) and a woman, or by two women. The hottest performance I've ever heard of this duet was by two young women a capella--complete with two sets of heaving bosoms, breathy gasps, adoring gazes, smoothly quickening and slowing tempo guided by each other's angelic voices--but I regret that I cannot find a video of that one. In any case, the stories behind this piece (tyrannical and murderous power couple, genital mutilation of the singers, etc.) contrasts so shockingly with the bare sweetness of the words and music that it's weirdly kink. Enjoy!

So what gets your juices flowing--from ancient, early medieval, or Renaissance sources? What distant-past text transcends the decay of antiquity and calls to your soul right now? Gimme some SAP!