Friends

The world is small. This past weekend, while out for a walk with my amazing family, I watched my past crossing the street, coming right towards me. Where I could have been startled, I felt oddly peaceful, as if this were exactly how life was supposed to go: the people we know randomly appearing throughout it. Here was a dear friend, from my early days in New York, one that I had not spent time with in over a decade, suddenly standing before me on the streets of Rome.  Here to celebrate a momentous birthday, she told me another old friend, an even dearer one that had played a starring role in my life for many years was coming as well.

Joan Didion, in her amazing memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” wrote of marriage:

“Marriage is memory, marriage is time…Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time. For forty years I saw myself through John’s eyes. I did not age.”

In marriage yes, but also I think in friendship. I felt this exactly as I looked into my two old friend’s faces last night, which while being beautifully lined with age, still retained all of the memory of what had once been. As we stood in front of the majestic Santa Maria church after a wonderful dinner and celebration, we reminisced about our crazy youth and all the things we used to do, all the trouble we got in and all the trouble we somehow avoided, and I was suddenly eighteen again and everything was still to come. Time stopped, then turned backwards and suddenly my life felt miraculously long and yet so succinct as if to be held in something as small as a bottle cap. And even as I walked back home at the end of an evening that I wanted to go on just a little longer and the shadow of my years started to reach up like weights to pull me back down to now, I could do nothing but smile at all we have done, at all we have been and will continue to be and how that young girl that I was, that seemed so far away from me, is right there under the surface, just waiting for an old friend to bring her out to play, to show me that she is still there, that I am still here.

Empire State of Mind

I feel the pull. I think it started with a picture. Or maybe it was just a word. But the roots I felt were slipping, slowly untangling and shredding have found a concrete barrier and tug me back towards them.

I don’t need much. Just a fix. Just to know it’s still there while we jump from place to place, circling the sphere like balloons.

I wonder where our daughter will find hers. Somewhere we happen, when suddenly she starts to grow downward, into the land itself.

I was born in Virginia, and then moved to Arizona, then back to Virginia till settling in Florida around age 6. For the next 10 years, swamps and moss and gators were my backdrop. But somewhere in the middle, on a trip to New York, I found the place I would first call home, and those last few years in Florida were nothing but waiting.

For my husband, it’s raw nature. As remote as can be, that is what he calls home. The place he can rest and sometimes dreams to be.

I know for some home is where they started, where they remain, and even if left for a little while, always return. Home for me was found much later than that, and perhaps I will never go back for good, but today it pulls and tugs at me. I am right back on the streets, with the smells and sounds that seemed to have no boundary with my body, as if the whole city were just an extension of my being and without it I feel a little less of myself.

Right before we left, before the boxes were packed and stored, before I would become a mother and before the world would become my backyard, there was a crazy afternoon when the sky of New York seemed to turn in on itself. I stood on my terrace and took it all in, memorizing it, inhaling it, so on days like today I could bring it out and stand back under it.

[photo taken by a friend from her apartment downtown]

[from my terrace, original light]

Through your eyes

We’ve had a good deal of visitors here in Rome. At first, I enjoyed being a tour guide, but after my eighth trip to the Colosseum I started to feel like I’d rather pull my hair out than climb those steps again. But then something interesting happened. I learned that if you see something through someone else’s eyes, you will see it for the first time, every time.

When I took my husband’s parents to the Pantheon recently (my favorite ruin), they both showed me something I had never really noticed. His father, while everyone was drooling over the columns, stood marveling at the woodworking high up in the rafters. A builder himself, we cranked our necks backwards as he taught me about rivets and beams and the intricacy of craftsmanship and now I never pass it without looking up at them.

His mother showed me how the tiles must have been from one piece, split into two as a mirror effect, because each piece of marble is like a human fingerprint, completely distinct.

I started to see this in other areas of my life as well. Last week, when we went to the country, I couldn’t take my eyes off the beautiful flowers. Then my husband said, “Baby, look at this. There are five different kinds of cereals in one square foot!” I would have stepped on each one of them without ever seeing that.

This is the same man who watched the royal wedding highlights on the news with me and could only comment on the well-trained horses. I honestly don’t think he ever once looked at the bride and groom. He was completely enthralled with how well those horses did in that kind of crowd, which he assures me is no small feat.

I recently spoke to one of my oldest friends who lives on a mountaintop in Vermont. She went on and on about the soil she was currently planting in. Where some may see dirt, she sees a whole world, a masterpiece of life and art and now when I look at my window box plants, I try and see them how she would.

I’ve missed so much detail along this journey. I think of Uganda all the time and wonder how much I really let in. Was I so busy “surviving” my new life that I only saw the big strokes? I hope not. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this blog, to remember all that I can and to now try and see more. So I will use my eyes, and all the eyes around me.

Problems of the privileged

Kampala, Uganda

I remember once when my husband (then boyfriend), who had just come back from Kenya, sat listening to me patiently in NY as I went on and on about my problems. Oh, I don’t even remember what I was upset about. I am sure I didn’t get a job I really wanted, or a neighbor was being too noisy, or a friend and I had a horrible falling out, or perhaps I’d been sick and run down. He smiled at me and I asked him if he thought my problems were meaningless. This how he replied:

“No sweetheart, they are not meaningless to you. You must live in your world, stand squarely in your life, but your problems are problems of the privileged, remember that.”

Problems of the privileged.

Those words echo throughout me, pound against the inside of me daily.

It’s why, I think, so many people from my past don’t recognize me anymore. All their lips form the same words, “I’ve never seen you so happy. You seem so different.” And interestingly, I’ve never had more on my plate. I have a daughter to raise, a husband who travels, and no family or close friends around to help. I am changing careers and about to start school again full time. I am always tired and never seen to be able to do everything that needs to be done. What’s different is my perspective. It’s arguably the most important lesson I’ve learned by being an ex-pat and living all over the world. A lesson that started that day in NY, when my husband opened my eyes. Here’s what I see:

I met a Senegalese man the other day who asked me for directions. I didn’t recognize the name of the place he was looking for, so I asked to him to tell me what it was, as I know the neighborhood pretty well. He looked down sheepishly and said, “It’s a place that will feed you if you need to be fed.” I pointed him in the direction I thought I had seen such a place and asked him how he liked Rome, if he missed home. Yes, he missed home, was all he said.

Another person I’ve met is a woman who works at a café. Thirty-five and lovely, she’s not what you expect in an Italian with her sporting blond hair and blue-eyes. She hails from a small village up north and came to Rome seeking opportunity as well. She works six days a week, from 10 in the morning until just after midnight. She had a job in television, but couldn’t stomach the industry, so finds herself busing tables for a friend. She wants to have a child, but her salary is just too low and her husband isn’t working enough either and between the two of them they have no time to raise one anyway. For her the problems seem insurmountable.

Are her problems any less valid than his? Less real? Of course not. She’s looking at life through her own eyes and experiences and the culture that grew her. It’s all she knows. And he is living through his experience, walking the path laid out for him and hoping to divert it with strong will and a little luck.

I imagine it’s similar to those with a chronic illness who look upon those of us with health and feel impatience that we don’t wake every day and thank, whatever is we thank, for our good fortune.

Because we all have problems. It’s part of life. But I do remember always, as I was encouraged to do, and have learned by looking up instead of within, where mine fall on the scales.

Easter

Strange Easter. We had decided to spend it up north in an old monastery outside of Orvieto. Being an ex-pat, the holidays are more challenging. There isn’t a well-worn back yard for games and hunts, nor a comfy old den with closets full of decorations that only need a dusting and reason. No family to stop by with cakes and laughter or friends to visit with beer in hand. It’s just us three, trying to carve out our own traditions so that our child has some known footprints to follow throughout the world. Our first such tradition is when a holiday rolls around, we roll around. Taking the car this time, we drove north through the back roads, enjoying all the beauty and small towns hidden from plain site. About halfway up we stopped for lunch on Lake Bracciano. We couldn’t believe our luck when the restaurant we found, right on the lake, had one table left for the special holiday feast. With an already planned menu, we were bombarded with food the minute we sat down. As we were eating a woman passed by a few times. I couldn’t help notice her. She was probably my age, maybe a little older, dressed to the nines and full of life. She passed again and I watched her go to her table where she was sitting with her family. I looked back down at my food and continued eating until I heard someone screaming, “papa, papa,” over and over. I looked up and it was her, standing with an old man’s head in her hands, screaming and crying, “papa, papa, no.” People started running and surrounded the old man and he’s lying there and the whole thing is so horrible and Ross told me to look away, but I couldn’t. I grabbed our girl and turned her so she couldn’t see as they finally grabbed him and picked him up to carry him away, brushing against our table as they passed. That is how close he was. The daughter screaming the whole time, “papa, papa.” We don’t know what happened. We think a stroke. His eyes were still open when he passed, but I just don’t know. I know he wasn’t there like he was there only minutes before. We tried to finish the meal, but just couldn’t do it. I took our little one out to walk along the lake as Ross paid the bill. Back in the car, heading north again, not 5 minutes later, I see a young woman standing outside of a car screaming and crying and I thought oh no, it’s happening again, and it did.  As we pass them, an old man (it might have been a woman) was being pulled out of the back seat, completely limp and placed on the ground and the young woman is just standing there, screaming. We rode the rest of the way in silence. I thought about Uganda and the things I had seen there. The aftermath of dangerous roads, images that never leave you. I thought when we left, we’d left that behind and here it brushed the table we were sitting at, was waiting at the turn we took. The two fallen here were old, full lives to be celebrated. The ones I saw in Uganda, lives only partly lived. But the tears of sadness are always the same and as I will never forget the scenes in Africa, I will never forget these women’s cries. We did make it to the monastery, and it was very beautiful, and we made sure to be grateful for every moment.

bluebird of happiness

At the end of work on the first film I did, my sweet young co-star gave me a small glass bird, the bluebird of happiness. It became a symbol for me for the next 20 years. No matter where I moved, what hardships occurred, that bluebird was a reminder that someone and something had given me happiness. In our first month of living in Uganda the girl who was working for us broke my bluebird, shattering it into pieces. Here I was, away from all I knew, the identity I had created for myself, my friends, my comfort, and the smashing of that bluebird became incredibly symbolic. As each day moved forward in East Africa, I felt myself peeling like a snake, until deep in, I was naked and raw. I started to dream that I died. Most people, from my understanding (and as I had always done in the past), wake up just before dying in a dream. But in these dreams that came and stayed for months, I actually died. I would wake up in tears, shaking, because I was still alive. That is how real they were. I look back now and realize I was dying in a way. I was letting go of everything I didn’t need anymore, but I didn’t know who I was anymore either. The dreams stopped for a while, but I had one again the other night. I died twice in that one. But it’s been a long road now and I am starting to look through different eyes. I am starting to lean forward, less tilting back. Instead of waking up scared this time, I woke up in awe; thinking, I am still changing, I am still letting go, I am still in flakes, and I can’t wait to see what will grow and take hold in its place. Because no-one and nothing can give you happiness. We must create it within ourselves. And guess what I caught a glimpse of the other day on the streets of Rome? A new bluebird of happiness. One with wings.