Tender

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I left my dog at his new home today. The lovely people who asked to take him have been waiting anxiously, their arms looking to pet and lead. I’ve kept hold, not wanting to let go.

I finally had to let go.

He needed to be in the home that will be his forever now. 

My dog now lives on a beautiful vineyard here on our island, overlooking the sea, his backyard rows of purple grapes and blueberry bushes. 

The goodbyes have begun. The letting go has started. 

This ex-pat life. This moving life.

So much letting go. 

I tell myself this time it will be different. This island is still ours, we will still come home to it. I can see my dog, no longer my dog, whenever I come home to my island. I have be welcomed there. 

But this time, this beautiful crazy time alone on this island with my children is winding down, and will never look the same. 

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This island is full of artists who open their studios for tours.

I love to take the children to a pottery spot at the edge of an apple orchard where you can watch a woman’s hands shape clay. 

I love to take them to the weavers and watch their eyes get wide as the threads move in and out. 

Last week we took our first tour of a lavender distillery and learned the process that gives us the drops we scatter upon our pillows each night. 

Recently we happened upon a new gallery opening up, walls filled with explosive color on canvas. The kindest man walked us through each painting and when hearing my daughter is an artist he insisted we meet the artist of the work. He explained she was recovering from a stroke and tending to plants in her greenhouse below. Following him down a rocky path, past an ivy-hugged home, we came upon the glass house and met the lovely woman behind the work we were just admiring. 

What happened next was so beautiful, touched me so deeply.  This man’s tenderness to his partner was so sensory I felt I could reach out and touch it.

He explained to her, in the softest voice, that we had come to see her work.

He gently took her hand and walked her up and out of the green house, introducing us while smiling at her the entire time.

Life long loves and he was lit up completely looking at her as if they’d just met, and just that moment fallen in love.

He said he thought it would be lovely if she could come to the studio and do some art with my daughter, and would that be okay with me, as it would make this artist so happy to make art with my daughter.

Of course, I said, we’d love to.

And then he took his love’s hand and as he walked her through their garden he stopped to show her a new flower that had bloomed.

I watched them watching a single red rose blossomed in a sea of white roses, completely lost in their tenderness for each other and I thought, this, this right here is the most beautiful thing I have seen on this island. This is what I want to take away. To walk in that kind of tenderness. 

With my family. 

With my friends. 

With myself. 

I am holding onto the tenderness as I think of my dog, being gentle with my deep sadness. 

This letting go of this amazing two years.

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Parts Unknown in my very favorite show. It’s been a companion to me this last 2 years as much as my sweet dog has been, filling my nights with companionship. Night after night after night I have gone around the world with Bourdain. Night after night after night he brought me so much joy with his adventures.

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Let’s look to our neighbors.

Let’s all be tender.

Help someone.

Give them a smile.

Be patient in a store.

Be kind.

We are all trying.

We are all just trying to get through sometimes. 

The Unraveling

Uganda was familiar yet so much had changed. It still remains running in my blood, when I look at my daughter I am there, she wraps the county around me so I can still smell it and feel it, even long for it. I see in her the people I knew for 4 years, the people on the street, in the shops, walking along the road. I see them all when I look at her. And miss them.

How lucky I am to have lived in the country my daughter is from for 4 years. To know that part of her.

The city is choking. Day after day I found myself unable to breathe. When the rains came it was perfection and I loved it and then the dry would come and with each minute, day, week, month, as the moisture left the air turned brown, then grey, then dark.

My daughter started to get asthma.

My son seemed pale.

The dry season slammed us.

I started to pull in, worry. Shut myself up. Wait for the rain.

And in that waiting…

…there was the horrible food poisoning that laid my son and I down for weeks.

…the middle of the night emergency room run where no doctor was available.

…the yellow fever outbreak running through the villages coming closer to the city.

And then the election.

The president of Uganda, Museveni, was running again, his  86th term (or there about) and word was his main competitor was not going to let the election be “stolen” again.

I was hanging on when I heard phones might be shut off. I was hanging on when I was assured the UN would evacuate us if need be. I was hanging on.

And then my dear English friend who raised her children all over Africa, my dear friend who thought nothing of being in a car in the worst neighborhood without a cell phone, my dear friend who seemed to have no fear said, “Oh no, but darling you must evacuate. It’s not going to be pretty.” And then she left.

That’s when I heard the opposition was planning to burn the city down.

By the day of the election, with most of my friends gone, I was no longer hanging on.

Me, to my husband, “But how will we get out if we need to?”

Husband, “Don’t worry, we will.”

Me, “But if the city is on fire how will we get to the airport?”

Husband, “The UN will get us to the airport.”

Me, “BUT THE ROAD WILL BE ON FIRE AND THERE IS NO OTHER ROAD!”

Now I know my husband would have never let us be in a dangerous situation, but I no longer heard him. I had let go and 8 years of wandering came flooding out of me….

And then we heard the gun shots.  The walkie talkie comes on to tell of riots. The government shuts off all social media. We hear the opposition has been arrested, the streets are filled with soldiers, more riots, an occasional yell pierces through the deep silence and I felt adrift and lost and terrified! I ran to my bedroom and crawled under the bed and called my neighbor who was thankfully still there. Through sobs I told her I needed to know there was a way out. She told me she had the Irish ambassadors helicopter as her escape plan and no matter what the children and I would be on it if need be. She promised not to leave me behind. I will never forget her kindness. Those words soothed me, saved me and buffered me as we stayed by the walkie talkie and listened to it all unfold, my heart pounding in my chest while I clung to my children.

There were no fires.

The riots were very small.

I can safely assume no one else crawled under their beds with fear.

But it was clear that I needed a break. It was clear there was something more going on. It was all too much, too wonderful, too scary, too full of adventure, too much chaos to find a new center after I’d left all I’d known so very long ago.

I needed a break. I needed to go home. I needed clean air, and good food, and to just catch my breath, to feel connected. I needed to rest.

I could have never imagined when we made that choice  for me to come back that I would end up not at home, but in another country, alone on a mountainside, on a tiny island with my 2 children and nothing else and it would be nothing like rest, there would be snowstorms and power outages, my husband a million continents away. I would be more cut off than I’d ever been, more isolated and more vulnerable than I thought possible, and that it would prove to be the best and most wonderful 2 years of my life.

Paused

My get-up-and-go got-up-and-went.

Bags packed, shoes on, heart empty on where I’ve been and filled up on where we were going and there’s a pause on the play. California will remain my temporary home for another two months.

Today, I had to challenge myself. I’ve been here. I’ve done it. Seen it. Isn’t that what we think? As I paced the floor, wearing in my misery so deep that I seem to walk in a slope now, I thought perhaps I needed to get out. Taking my camera, I climbed the same hill I’ve climbed a hundred times in the last 5 months, only this time I decided to do it with my eyes open.

How is it we can walk past something, something as familiar as our front door, but never really take it in? One of my friends lives in a neighboring canyon filled with steps hidden in bougainvillea draped tunnels that she daily climbs for exercise. I’ve lamented the emptiness of my canyon, seen it as a paltry hill compared with her lush mountaintop oasis. Imagine my surprise today, while climbing my beaten beast of dirt with my camera, to find not one, but 5 hidden stair channels weaving through the hillside like veins in a petal.

I’ve been here, but I haven’t really been here. I haven’t seen everything I can, even within feet of my door. So, I am looking at this time now as a gift. To memorize, blueprint, capture this one tiny hill in the world.

Go

When I was 15 I lived in Australia for a year as an exchange student. Already pounding against the boundaries of what I knew, I picked the furthest place I could, where I could still be understood. Plopped down in the outback, or very near to it, I went horse riding on a cattle ranch with my host family one weekend. I had grown up on horses. My first memories are the smell of dust and feel of wet, hot hair pressing against my legs. For leisure I would ride through old cow graveyards, using bones as a maze to lead the horse through. For competition I jumped and showed and took home many ribbons and trophies. But the outback is a far cry from Florida and the horses were mighty big. Used to being ridden by large men, stooping under heavy weight, I was not so much a feather on the horse chosen for me and he quickly pushed against his own boundaries of all he knew, or had been forced to learn. Taking the bit in his mouth, he tore off like lightening through the field and into the abyss. All alone, and yes terrified, I held on for dear life. I cannot begin to explain how fast this horse ran. I was practically thrown into the air, with only the wind and my death grip on the saddle holding me down. I knew enough to lean into him. To not fight it. To just go. After what seemed like forever I heard shouting behind me and suddenly men appeared on horses running for their own lives to catch mine. Just like you see in the movies, after several tries, they managed to grab my horse’s reins and slowly bring him to a halt. I collapsed off the horse, to the ground, as faces filled with fear and relief gathered around me.

My time in California is coming to an end. It’s been a wonderful 4 months; it was nice to rest, to be in the familiar, but now I have to return to my nomadic life, having married into movement, and keep going. I think of that horse, how scared I was, how dangerous it was, but how I leaned into it,  let it take me, and wow, it was one hell of a ride.

One–the place of silence

I can’t seem to catch my breath; I collapse at night. While never exactly remembering sleeping before, the experience has always been tangible, as if I could reach backwards into the night just past and almost touch the place I had been. Now I fall into darkness and morning rushes towards me with no understanding of the in-between, of where I’ve just come from, so my days feel like an old torn screen on an cabin’s backdoor, eyes open at points with black holes I disappear into when they close.

Coffee. Breakfast. Pack lunch. School clothes. Bookbag. Car. Metro. Walk. Look for apartments. Study. Back to school. Walk. Bus. Walk. Cook dinner. Plan breakfast. Plan lunch. Laundry. Out.

But it’s more than that.

One of the things I have written about is how lonely the life of a traveling ex-pat can be. One of things I did not realize is how comforting loneliness can be. Having moved our daughter to an English International school, I am forced to converse, spinning in every direction with hello’s and hi’s and how are you this morning. I am opened up and dissected and expected to do the same in return. At first it felt wonderful to share in the language I rest in, but that rest quickly turned to exhaustion, and I now wonder if my true language, the one I feel most at home with, is silence, the place I grew up in.

There is a wonderful book, a collection of stories, called Only Child. Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing up Solo.  Alissa Quart, in her story ‘The Hotline’ writes,

“As an only child, I learned early…that basic transformation was impossible–I would always be the single child, watching the shadows the bookshelves made on the ceiling from reflected streetlights, a gloomy lattice of Culture–and that special solitude could not be changed.”

This life fits me. Moving and surrendering into a three, where one is easily found. Outside the door though is becoming another story.

From concrete to vines to mountains to sea

Summer is here. Storms hang in corners; windows are now perpetually open, as mosquitoes rest on my pillow waiting for me to sleep so that they can have their feast. I thought we’d left bed nets behind in Uganda, but this past week we found ourselves hanging them above and around our bed in Rome, so that once again night holds us in webs.

Construction is also in flower, and every corner and every window barrages the world around it with hammering and drilling, which pound and pierce into my every pore. My husband used to tease me that I didn’t know the world existed beyond the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was as if I had a string that could only go so far, a tension cord, which would swing me back if it became too taught, too far away. But then we moved to Uganda, and as I’ve written it wasn’t easy, but slowly, without me even noticing it, I surrendered to silence filled with birds, and insects, and freedom. I remember going back to NY last summer and for the first time in my life found myself cowering and reeling back from the intense noise being hurled at me. That same feeling has sadly been felt by our daughter here. For seven months now she’s walked with her hands over her ears and asks me why it has to be this way. Yesterday she actually said, “Mommy, Rome is too loud. I think we need to leave soon and find a quieter home.” And then today, while walking her to school we took a different route, longer, but through a nicer street. For one moment the traffic calmed and my 4 year-old daughter stopped me and said, “Mommy, listen. It’s quiet. That’s so nice.” And then, of course, the light turned green and we braced ourselves again.

I write all this as I start to pack to leave the city for the summer. Yes, there will be concrete and steel and noise along the way, but mostly it will be vines and mountains and sea. I look forward to watching my daughter drop her hands back down to her sides, while my husband spreads his soul and being as far as the horizon can take him.

I won’t be writing as much. A good deal of the journey is as far away from technology as we can get. But I will try and post some stories and pictures along the way. I wish everyone a very happy summer.

Here are some shots of the Ugandan sky, which opened me up and spread me out so that apartments in cities can no longer contain, or sustain me.

 

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.