The beautiful things we never use

It took me three days to find the china. Service for twelve should not have eluded me for so long. I eventually discovered it, but only by looking behind every door and in every box. As it turned out, before we moved to Amsterdam I had packed the dishes and stored them safely away. In the china cabinet.

In truth, it wouldn’t have mattered if it took me three months to find the china. It’s been nearly fifteen years since we received it as a wedding gift, and since then, we’ve used it only a handful of times. At least four place settings are on display in the aforementioned china cabinet, ready to be pressed into service for any Tuesday night dinner – an occasion that never seems to arrive.

One of the benefits of moving across the ocean and back again is the chance to consider your possessions. When we packed up our house several years ago, I handled (and I mean that literally) most of our stuff. Box after box was filled and donated to the Salvation Army. What we kept was stored in plastic totes, labeled, and put in the attic.

The process reversed itself when we returned to Boston. This resulted in another pile of boxes for donation; my threshold for “stuff” had decreased after our four years living abroad. There was no great virtue behind our minimalist approach to life in Amsterdam: the constraints of space and practicality dictated our choices.

Now that we are back in our very American-sized home, with space to spare, I’m resisting the urge to re-populate the rooms with stuff we no longer need or that is no longer meaningful. I think I’ve mostly been successful. But I’ve noticed in myself an unexpected reaction as I continue to work through the boxes and totes that hold our things. It happens when I come across something beautiful. A hand-embroidered tea towel made by my grandmother. The Depression glass sugar and creamer set that was my mother’s. My own china dishes. Things that were packed away long before our time abroad. Things that have always been packed away.

All these beautiful things we never use.

Well, enough. Why am I saving these things? What are they for, if not to be used?

I don’t think my impulse to protect and preserve certain things is unique.  We may all have a “good [fill in the blank]” that we’re saving for a special occasion; something that, due to its cost or provenance, we feel we cannot waste on the everyday. But there’s something to be said for loving and valuing the everyday enough to give it the good stuff, no? What are we waiting for?

So dine with the good china. Dig out the special underwear (yep, gentlemen readers, most women have them). Cut some flowers from your garden and put them in that vase that’s high up on a shelf, safe and forgotten. Bring out the beautiful things. Use them up.

Advertisements

What this is about.

This was going to be a post about how, after nearly four years living abroad, my husband and I made the decision to return to the United States. That was in October.

IMG_4422

Ok, so we got a little bit of sun…

Then, in November, this was going to be about our last European adventure: our holiday to Spain and our unsuccessful search for the sun on the famed Costa del Sol.

In December, this was going to be a post about the start of our transition, of spending the Christmas holidays in Boston and getting used to the idea of our return.

By January, this was going to be about farewells, and packing, and reflecting on what we would miss. Oh, and checking things off our Amsterdam Bucket List.

Come February, I could have written about unpacking, readjusting to our house and neighborhood, reconnecting with friends, and rediscovering Boston.

IMG_4546

First time at the Massachusetts State House

March would have brought some variety and excitement. In the middle of our job searches, we took a vacation from this “vacation” and made a quick trip to London and Amsterdam.

And here it is, suddenly, unbelievably, April, and I haven’t told you about any of those things, really.

In the throes of so much change, thinking about this transition–to say nothing of writing about it–has felt like a luxury. Or maybe it’s just hard to reflect on something while you’re still in it. I’ll just say that there is much that is good about being back in Boston. But there is also much I miss about Amsterdam and the life we built there. To borrow a metaphor, I’m in the hallway. We closed one door behind us (for now), and the next door hasn’t opened yet. So I’m hanging out in the hallway, looking for the door, turning knobs, and trying not to let the search distract me from whatever fun and beauty might be lurking in this liminal space.

This is my hometown

I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but at some moment in my adult life, I stopped saying that I was from New York. Technically, I am a New Yorker. I grew up there – specifically, on Long Island – but then I moved to Boston to go to college, and stayed for a long time. When I traveled, if I was asked where I was from, I would say Boston. Through years, jobs, networks, marriage, home ownership, and friendships, Boston had become home.

But New York is, well, New York. And while I don’t always claim it as “home”, I admit to the occasional flash of pride or identification when faced with some of New York’s better-known traits: tell-it-like-it-is honesty, seen-it-all-before worldliness, or don’t-get-me-started frustration. New Yorkers are fun and surprising and resilient as hell. They are the descendants – or at least the inheritors – of the original Dutch settlers of Manhattan: the adventurous pirates and practical merchants who brought trade, religious freedom, and representative government to the “New World”.

It was with all this in mind that I returned to New York for a solo vacation. I spent a little more than a week between Long Island and New York City, catching up with family and friends, and rediscovering spots I used to know. I was explaining to a friend one evening that whenever I’m on Long Island, I have a sense of what I call my “ghost life”…a life I could have had, had I chosen to stay there.  In a favorite poem of mine, Thomas Transtromer writes, “Without really knowing, we divine; our life has a sister ship, following quite another route”. My sister ship may well be sailing somewhere in the Long Island Sound, but (happily), that is not the ship I am on.

IMG_4221

Central Park. (Not a “hidden gem”, I know.)

While I could never live on Long Island, it can be a great place to visit. Manhattan, too, offers so much to the visitor that it’s hard to know where to start. I’m always thankful for my guides: friends who have lived in NYC for years and have built up a stable of favorite places and neighborhood gems that I’d never find on my own.

There were two big “events” around which my vacation was centered. At the end of the week, I had a cousin’s wedding – the first in many years. I’m one of twenty grandchildren on my father’s side (good Irish-American Catholics), and when the whole family is together, it is something to see. Growing up, I was a shy child and my family overwhelmed me; they were loud, argumentative, overly affectionate, physically imposing (very tall), and there were just so damn many of them. As an adult, though, I’ve come to love my big, crazy family. And if nothing else, we are really, really good at weddings. It was great to see my cousins and get caught up on their lives.

Kempton family

My cousins, aunts, and uncles. Yeah, there’s a lot of us.

Mostly, though, we danced, following the example we inherited from our parents and all those family parties at the Knights of Columbus Hall, where the grown-ups did the Stroll and the Mashed Potato while we kids goofed around at the edges of the dance floor or hung out in the coat room. A DJ and a few cases of beer and a couple of 6-foot subs were all that was needed for a good time.

 

The other big event of my trip was almost like family, at least to me. Several months ago, my friend Ellen had finally gotten us tickets to see Springsteen on Broadway. Ellen is a true fan, and we’ve now seen Bruce together on several occasions and in multiple countries. I’ve written before about my love of Bruce, about which I am unapologetic. I love the man and his music, and it’s been the longest love affair of my life so far…over 30 years.

IMG_4210

A little blurry, but definitely The Boss.

What else is there to say? I can say that the intimacy of a 900-seat theater can’t compare to Bruce’s big stadium shows, even when I was up close to the stage in the Pit. And to be clear, this is not a concert. It is a performance; a beautiful blending of story and song meant to chart a life, a journey. It is funny and touching and poignant and, at moments, heartbreaking. It is, as a good friend and serious Bruce fan noted, a recognition that while we continue this journey together, there is more road behind us than there is in front.  As Bruce himself said, “I hope that along the way, I’ve provided you with some measure of joy”.  No amount of applause could convey just how much joy this man and his music have given me. And alongside the joy, in equal measure, there’s been comfort, solace, energy, retreat, nostalgia, longing, hope, and celebration. So thanks, Bruce, for a great night at the theater and for a life-long journey that continues on, as long as you’re here, and as long as we’re here.

See you further on up the road.

 

 

The meaning of a day

Well friends, here we are again. Like it or not, ready or not, this day rolls around. Another August, another anniversary. Today it is four years since my mom died, and, as in years past, I don’t really know what to do or how to mark the day. My family and some of my mom’s friends in New York have already gathered at church for a memorial mass and breakfast, an annual tradition they have created. My dad and my brother will go to the cemetery, a place I have only been once since my mother’s death.

imageAs the years pass, I find it harder to know what I should do, or even what I want to do. On the first anniversary, I took the day off and spent it on my own, wandering around the city, reading in the Vondelpark, sitting in the sun, and finally sharing the thoughts that had been rattling around my head for the previous year. In the years since, I’ve been wondering more and more about the meaning of this day. Should the day that my mom died be given any more importance than any of the days she lived? She’s more present to me on her birthday, on my own birthday, and on any number of ordinary days that I miss her, than she is today, the anniversary of the start of her absence.

One thought I’ve had consistently over the past several years is how much she’s had to miss. There are so many things that I know she would have enjoyed. Our lives go on – as they must – and a lot has happened in four years. I think about my sister’s children and how much Mom would like seeing her first granddaughter rowing with her high school team. She’d appreciate that her first grandson has become a voracious reader, and that her second granddaughter has blossomed into an academic powerhouse. She’d love helping them through their awkward but thoughtful teen years, and watching them grow into young adults.

My brother’s kids are younger, but they’re at or near the same age as the students that my mom taught for decades. Their energy and goofiness – and the youngest’s startling resemblance to my brother – would have tickled her. Even the little things, like a (widely-panned) movie adaptation of one of her favorite books; she’s had to miss that, too.

There have been less-than-wonderful moments, also a part of life. Disappointments, challenges, the deaths of neighbors and friends. These are moments when my mother’s friendship, compassion, and fierce loyalty would have been a welcome balm. She understood the importance of showing up and being present for others in need.

All day today, a line from Lori McKenna’s beautiful song “Never Die Young” has been running through my head. The song is a deeply personal, one-sided conversation with her mother, who died when McKenna was only seven years old. As an adult and a mother herself, McKenna looks around at the joy-filled activity of her home and young family and notes, “I was the one who I felt so, so sorry for, but you are the one who is gone.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As the day winds down on my side of the ocean, I can’t help but think that the best way to honor the death of someone you love is to just keep living as fully as possible. To be present and alert to the people around you. To give of yourself, your time, your energy. To make the most of wherever you are, and whatever you have. We’re still here, even though that often seems unfair or impossible, and our debt to those we love but no longer see is to witness and participate and enjoy this life as much as we can, for as long as we’re given.

I love you, Mom, and I miss you still. Everyday.

Driving around (and around, and around…) Portugal

Portugal may be best known for its fado music, or its deliciously salty bacalhau, or perhaps for the above-average futbol players that it turns out on a regular basis. On a recent long weekend visit to this lovely country, I discovered another defining trait: roundabouts.

We don’t normally drive much on our travels around Europe; we prefer to stay in the city center and use public transportation. This time around, we wanted to see several inland villages and castles, so a car was the best way to go. Since I am the proud holder of an international driver’s license, I was the designated driver. (An aside: has anyone ever been asked to produce this document for anything? A rental car agency, a law enforcement officer, anything? Is an international driver’s license – valid for only six months – even necessary?) Once we were off the highway, we would encounter a roundabout every 800 meters or so. Some had only two or three exits and could have made do with an intersection. In Lisbon, I had to navigate two concentric roundabouts – an inner and an outer rotary, both with multiple exits. I’ll admit that was not my best bit of driving, but I managed. At least twice, I took the roundabout literally, and just kept driving in circles while my co-pilot did some on-the-fly navigation.

There was another unusual feature of this trip: my dear husband planned almost everything. In conversation with other couples, I have found that the responsibilities for planning a trip fall to one person or the other. In our relationship, I’m almost always the planner. In my husband’s mind, if we have a flight and a hotel, a trip is planned. In my mind, we need a rough idea of the transit system, knowledge of some of the major sites, and a dinner reservation for Saturday night. This time, however, he had places he wanted to visit and had mapped out our route for our four days. I got behind the wheel and went where he and the GPS told me.

Our first stop was the Batalha Monastery, which was breathtaking. The construction began in the late 1300s (!) and the architecture reflects the

IMG-3960

The unfinished chapel at the Batalha Monastery

changing styles used over the 150-year construction period. A portion of the church remains unfinished, with the walls opening up to welcome the sky and the weather and the local birds. The Monastery is also the home of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War; the tomb is watched over by guards and by the battered remains of Christ of the Trenches, a statue of Jesus that Portuguese soldiers carried into battle in Flanders. It was a somber and impressive memorial to the losses that Portugal suffered during the Great War.

We drove on to Coimbra, home of the oldest university in Portugal. We enjoyed a great meal at a local restaurant, and discovered that the owner spent more than 15 years living the Netherlands. We also enjoyed the Portuguese price point: a bottle of wine, two entrees, a shared starter and dessert only cost 42 Euro…a big difference from an average night out in Amsterdam. At the recommendation of our hotel concierge (who was also our bartender, although he preferred “mixologist”) we made time in the morning to visit the university. The student prison is no longer in use, but many of the buildings, including the former palace, are still used for formal university ceremonies.

From there, we went to Fatima, a Catholic pilgrimage site where the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in 1917. (For the non-Catholics or the public school kids, you can get up to speed here.)  In spite of my many years of Catholic education, I know Fatima best from the annual Easter airing of the 1952 film The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. Every Easter Sunday of my childhood, we’d visit family friends before we went to my grandparent’s house. Every year, we’d arrive at their home near the end of the movie, just in time for the scene when Mary appears in a great ball of light, causing the residents of Fatima to panic and assume that the sun was falling.

IMG-3982

The Basilica at Fatima

Fatima today includes a basilica, an enormous plaza, and a series of chapels where masses are held almost non-stop. There were also some odd elements, including beeswax candles in the shape of different organs or body parts. These were sold as offerings; you could purchase the candle that matched whatever illness you had, and then cast the candle (prayerfully) into a large fire. We also witnessed a number of women making the journey from the far end of the plaza to the Visitation Chapel, following a white marble path that they traversed on their knees. A penance of some kind, I assume, but it’s not my particular brand of Christianity. I don’t think that God is terribly interested in intentional suffering.

We moved on to the walled city of Obidos, not knowing that our interactions with the Virgin Mary were not quite behind us. As we sat in a plaza enjoying an afternoon drink,

IMG-3989

Obidos prepares for the procession of Mary

we noticed that the locals were busy with flowers and greenery and votive candles, decorating the town. We learned that in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the end of Mary’s visitations in Fatima, a statue of Mary had been traveling around Portugal since 2017. That night it was Obidos’ turn to host Our Lady. Again, processions and statues of saints in glass boxes are not really my thing, but the preparations were lovely. The small town was quiet. Every home and shop put out candles or statues of Mary, and flowers lined the road. A sense of reverence and anticipation settled over everyone as the sun set. Eventually, the procession moved silently through the streets and we went on our way.

In the morning we drove to Lisbon and had a relaxed day that mostly involved sitting in the Praça do Comércio, or wandering the very hilly streets. We dove into Portugal’s lesser-known culinary heritage and had dinner at a Goan restaurant, where we were told (in our case, reminded) that vindaloo is originally a Portuguese dish.

The other unusual feature of this trip was that my husband occasionally busted out his beginner Portuguese, which I found impressive and delightful. He ordered our lunch in Fatima with no hesitation, and while I know it can be stressful for him to speak Portuguese, the waiter didn’t notice a thing, and we got exactly what we ordered. Mission accomplished!

This was our third visit to Portugal. Years ago we spent time in Lisbon and the Azores, and more recently we went to Porto with some friends from the U.S. This time, we saw more of the inland villages and the landscape. On every visit, I’m amazed by the diverse beauty of the country and the relaxed and easy attitude of the people. Many travelers overlook Portugal, and that’s their loss. Each time we go, I discover more reasons to return.

The books she never read

It is an odd phenomenon of our modern world that our online lives continue after our earthly lives have ended. Our digital footprints cross more virtual space than our real feet could wish to cover.

I’ve been thinking of this only because I ran into an online ghost recently on Goodreads.com. (An aside: if you’re a reader and you don’t know or use Goodreads, check it out. It lets you track the books you’ve read and find recommendations. You can connect to friends of the real or virtual kind, follow authors, and share reviews and suggestions. I’m not into online socializing; for me, Goodreads is a tool to remember what books I’ve read and what I want to read. More than once, it has saved me from the paralysis I sometimes feel in a bookstore or library, and instead sent me confidently towards the right shelf.)

After adding something to my want-to-read list, I started browsing the long list of titles I’ve already read. I clicked on a Jane Austen book, of which I had only the vaguest memory, and I saw, below my four-star rating of the work, that someone I followed on Goodreads had also read the book. My mom. Who died in August, 2014.

I clicked into her profile. She had joined Goodreads in late 2012 and literally all of her activity on the site had happened on one single day, December 1. On that day she input and rated over 80 books. I suspect she never went back to the site; no additional books had been added, though I’m certain she kept reading up until her death. My friend request to her remains, forever, unanswered.


Few things in my adult life made me happier than when my mother – an exceptionally smart and well-educated woman who was a teacher for decades – finally started reading real books.

Image result for harlequin romance

“Can-hider”??

For reasons I never understood as a child, and only vaguely understand now, my mother read trash for years. Years. Hers was a steady diet of Harlequin Romance. If you’re not familiar with Harlequin, their website describes their books as “uplifting escapes featuring real, relatable women and strong, deeply desirable men.” Most of the books feature these same “relatable” and “desirable” people on the cover in various states of undress. And by chapter seven (it was always chapter seven), all the clothes came off and the prose turned purple, or sometimes blue.

I might not have been too bothered by my mother’s enjoyment of these books, except she was always asking me to get some for her when I went to the library. She never cared if she had already read them; she knew they were essentially all the same. “Just pick out some with good covers”, she would tell me. My pre-teen or teen self would blush with shame as I put those worn paperbacks on the top of my pile of young-adult novels or research books.

Needless to say, I was thrilled when my mom joined a book club a few years before she retired. Suddenly she was asking what I was reading and sharing recommendations of books she enjoyed. Like most book clubs, I think hers was light on the actual book discussion and heavy on the chatting and wine tasting, but I loved that her involvement in it gave us something else to talk about together, and another way to connect.

When I found her Goodreads profile a few weeks ago, I was struck by the overlap between the books she had read and those on my list. I remembered which she had suggested to me. I can see where our tastes come together (Austin again, Ann Patchett) and where they diverge (Chris Cleve, Chris Bohjalian). She was generous with her five-star ratings, where I reserve those only for mind-blowing books I cannot live without.

Then I saw that my mom had marked several books as want-to-read. And my immediate thought was that she will never get to read them. My next thought was: I will.

There were eight in total, but two had ratings indicating that they may have been read, so that left me with just six. (It occurs to me now that it’s possible my mom actually read all of them and just never went back to Goodreads to change the labels. Which perhaps makes my little project even more pointless. But isn’t much of what we do for those we have lost pointless, really? So, ever onward.)

There’s nothing extraordinary about any of the books. The list is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, old and new. There’s nothing there I’ve been desperate to read, but neither will any be a struggle. The titles don’t give me some new insight into my mother. I don’t think there is any message from the great beyond waiting for me at the end of these six books. I doubt there’s a lesson to be learned or a revelation coming. I’ll mark the books as read and then cross them off both of our to-do lists. But while I’m reading, the conversation between me and my mom continues.


This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the United States, a day that can be complicated regardless of the status of your particular mother-child relationship. So I’m going to offer a suggestion, borrowed from the great Mr. Fred Rogers, that we all spend 10 seconds on Mother’s Day thinking “of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.” I’ll watch the time.

 

Still here…

You may have thought that the blog had gone dark, as it’s been months since my last update. But no, we’re still here. And today, an early Sunday morning in mid-December, while I sit on the couch and watch the sunrise over Amsterdam, I have finally found a moment to come back and say hello.

Shortly after moving here in 2015, I wrote about the contrast between our Everyday Self and our Vacation Self. I was trying, in those early days, to figure out how the adventurous and daring Vacation Self – who helped get me to Amsterdam – could stay present while the hum-drum activities of daily life got sorted out. Since then, I’ve gotten better at balancing these elements of myself, and I try to maintain my traveler’s energy and curiosity, even if it’s just on my daily bike commute. Still, as we wrap up our third year abroad, it is clear that the Everyday Self is running the show.

As much as I’d like to say that my absence from the blog is due to a whirlwind series of vacations and parties and invitations, that’s not entirely true (although there have been some of each of those things). It’s closer to the truth to say that I’ve been busy, and also lazy, and the blog has fallen victim to both of those states. But no more excuses! Instead, here’s a little run-down of what we’ve been up to:

  • The day we returned from Croatia I started an online certificate program in copy editing. The first class focused on grammar and made me even more of a grammar snob than I was before, because now I can explain in detail exactly why your use of the semi-colon is incorrect.
  • At the same time, I’m working more consistently on the Masters program I started several years ago. I was taking a (very relevant) class in intercultural communication. My final paper was submitted yesterday, and I’ll be starting a new class in early January.
  • Language-learning continues! I’m always trying to improve my French, so I’m doing Skype lessons with a French tutor. I’d rather you just didn’t ask about my Dutch, but if you do, I can now say Ik doe echt mijn best.
  • St EmilionOur annual “Thanksgiving” getaway found us in Bordeaux, where we enjoyed some sunshine, lots of great wine, and perhaps the most delicious thing we’ve ever eaten, thanks to our food tour guide, Virginie.
  • Culture! There is something happening all the time in Amsterdam. Thanks to the John Adams Institute, I attended readings by Mohsin Hamid and Colson Whitehead, both of whom wrote books that I loved (and both of whom were surprisingly funny). I finally went to the Paradiso, one of the more famous music venues in the city, and introduced a new friend to the (music of the) brilliant Josh Ritter. We also spent a freezing hour in the Portuguese Synagogue at a candle-lit concert. The Synagogue, completed in 1675, has no electricity (thus, no heat), but is one of my favorite places in Amsterdam.
  • Friends! We had some unexpected visitors some months ago – old friends from Boston who were on vacation in St. Maarten when Hurricane Irma struck. The only flight they could get off the island was to Amsterdam. It was not the vacation they expected, but we did our best to make it memorable. We were also invited to a 40th surprise party recently, and back in October we had a fun but very rainy and dark adventure in the woods with our friends and their 2-month old baby. (The same friends with whom we went wadlopen…I’m starting to see a pattern here.)
  • Food! I’ve discovered and mastered a couple of new recipes, one that involves buying sausage from a butcher at a local market, which is also my weekly experiment in speaking Dutch. And, thanks to my dear husband, who found a small-batch cookie recipe (four cookies!), I now make near-perfect chocolate chip cookies.
  • Fitness! One can’t eat cookies every night without finding that one’s pants suddenly don’t fit the way they used to. Earlier this year, a Boston friend told me about November Project, and though it took me a few months, I finally found my way to the Amsterdam tribe. I’ve been a pretty regular attendee ever since (even this past Wednesday, when it was cold and icy). If you’re a morning person and you live in a city with an NP tribe, check it out. It helps if you’re ok with hugging strangers, too.
  • Bordeaux church

    Christmas! We have a Christmas tree seller literally outside our front door, so I gave in this year and bought a small, table-top tree. Along with a few strands of lights and some fresh greens, it actually feels more like the holiday season.

So that brings us back to this sunny, lazy, Sunday morning. No papers to write or chapters to read or workouts to do. Just some packing, as we’re heading back to Boston on Wednesday for Christmas. And maybe some cookies to bake? It is the season…