Too Big, Too Much – A Rare Visit to Costco

I live in a very small house and have a very small refrigerator. Thus, Costco, home of oversized items, is not my kind of place. However, I went there the other day to buy a few things for Molly’s graduation party.

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I arrived first thing Friday morning so I’d beat the just-got-the-paycheck crowds. Using all my body weight, I yanked a gigantic carriage out of the cart-corral. The first clue to the fun-house world I was about to enter, was a tiny older (than me) woman completely dwarfed by her carriage, next to a man as wide as his.2013-07-12 10.42.28

Costco is a shopping ‘club’ – you must belong and a card with your photo on it is necessary even to enter. Seriously? You want to spend money – be my guest – right? Flashing R’s card at the gatekeeper at the door, she waved me through with not even a glance at R’s photo.

Once inside, I confess to a bit of excitement at being inside the airplane hangar shopping warehouse.  I began my adventure by wheeling past the movie-theater-sized televisions, down the aisles with fans, air conditioners, flooring, towels, even mattresses were stacked against the cinder block walls. I vaguely recall thinking there was something we could use in one of those street-wide aisles – a good deal – but I was easily distracted and definitely forgot everything once I got to the food.

Twenty whole wheat tortillas landed in my cart, hot dog and sandwich buns – all ridiculously cheap. The mausoleum-style meat freezers were packed with every cut of animal imaginable, fish, chicken. Fruit and vegetables were impressive too, but I was getting overwhelmed. Where would I put everything?  I picked up items that didn’t need refrigeration – tomatoes and 3 cucumbers, a bag of gorgeous rainbow color potatoes.  The cases of water, iced tea and Italian sodas made my monster-cart even less manageable.  And soon the thrill was gone. It felt wrong, all these terrible processed foods: gigantic jars of neon orange cheese balls, mega-sized boxes of cookies and candy, restaurant supply bags of sugar.

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My years overseas in smaller countries with smaller spaces and certainly smaller refrigerators, still informs my food shopping habits.  My fridge in Kyoto was the kind kids use in their college-dorm rooms. Same as in Croatia, Bosnia and Italy. In those places, like in much of the world, one picks up things at the market almost daily. And we knew the butcher, the fish guy, the green grocer in Zagreb and Metkovic and of course, in Italy where we regularly visited the open-air markets. Shopping for the night’s dinner, wicker basket on my arm, I regularly ran into neighbors and chatted – mostly about the weather because of my limited vocabulary.

No, this big stuff, BIG way of doing things in America is not for me. After all, there’s just the three of us here — soon to be two — and we don’t need so much. We once had an American size fridge but things got lost in it, and inevitably, we ended up throwing stuff  out. This still happens even with our smaller fridge.

While I confess I was briefly seduced by Costco’s carnival atmosphere and crazy offering of goods, I’d rather make my daily stops. It’s easier to grab a basket and high-tail it in and out of one of the more manageable (although plenty big) grocery stores on my daily flight path. And now that the party’s over, what the hell am I going to do with all this leftover bread?

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What a Painting Reveals

My remarkable friend Naomi in Kyoto, has generously featured a collage of mine on her website’s Chasing Writing in Art link. It’s humbling to be there with so many amazing artists.

Here’s my collage and a few words. Please check out Naomi’s site here.

Return from Journey Collage 1998 24 x 36 inches / approx. 61 x 91 cm
Return from Journey
Collage
1998
24 x 36 inches / approx. 61 x 91 cm

I painted this piece at my home in Connecticut about two years after returning from living and working in a war zone. From June 1992- June 1996, I was with the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation in Former Yugoslavia and UNICEF in Croatia and Bosnia. During that time, I met and married my husband and Molly was born.

I remember setting up my paints in front of the fireplace, imagining I’d capture a peaceful image. Instead, what I see now in this image, is torment. I recall the turmoil and demons we were living with, even as the trappings of our life seemed ideal. It was a struggle for us – especially my husband – to switch gears to a normal life away from war. The supposed tranquility  of a chair in front of a fireplace – this scene that should be cozy, looks like the center of a storm.

Indeed, it was. 

I still live in this house and love sitting by the fire. Twenty years on since the Balkan wars ended, almost ten since the death of my husband and these days, ghosts have mostly settled and my life is serene. I write more than paint. But I should attempt this interior again to see what would reveal itself.  I imagine it would be an image of warmth and peace – but who knows? The subconscious reveals itself almost in spite of us.

A Year in My (Fantasy) Life of Retirement

In another 8 months, my daughter will be off to her new life as a college student. This imminent change for both of us has cooked up a veritable soup of emotions but also, a sense of possibility about what adventures might also be awaiting me. My dreaming was inspired by this list of “best places to retire” article on this morning’s Yahoo page. I can never resist reading through their choices, imagining myself in any of those places. Forbes’ list launched me into a full-fledged fantasy about what I might do, of course, (since this is fantasy) if I could indeed retire. Once an expat, the itch never quite goes away. Here’s my plan:

Call me a scrooge, but still reeling from 15 years of holiday retail, I’d give all the Merry Christmas business a miss and disappear to Japan where December 25th is basically a day to eat クリスマスケーキ pronounced “krisumas-cayki”.  After ringing in the New Year in lovely Kyoto, traditionally a time of cleaning and contemplation and ringing a big old bell at a neighborhood temple (details here) it’s off to find the warmth of the sun.

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Definitely time I went back to Bali. (thanks Yukiko for the great photo) Creativity is everywhere in the hill villages of that tiny Hindu island in Indonesia. (please note: I was a pre-Elizabeth Gilbert visitor) I imagine a month of writing, eating, walking, while reveling in the sound of gamelans, the rice paddies, waterfalls and the brilliant smiles of the warmest people I’ve ever met. And the food is good.

Next, all the way to the bottom tip of Australia.

courtesy of trip advisor
courtesy of trip advisor

Tasmania is where Jenny, one of my most missed and dearest friends in the world lives. We are friends from Kyoto days – and I have never laughed so hard and so often with anyone in my life and that alone makes this a trip to take. Bonus that it will be summer there and Tasmania looks incredible with wild beaches and incredible bush.

After exploring around the South Pacific, (Fiji? Papua New Guinea maybe?) it will be time to make my way back towards spring in the Northern Hemisphere. First stopping for some good eats and the crazy energy of Hong Kong and a little exploration of South East Asia. (Laos?)

Spring comes early to the incredible coast of Croatia and Montenegro. I long to marvel once again at the Adriatic light, the most remarkable spectrum of sea colors. Ideally, there will be a sweet house (or this incredible place looks fine!) looking out at that rugged landscape where I will write and maybe even paint for a month or so.  I imagine the scent of eucalyptus, the light, the soft breeze through the cypress and the crystalline water lapping over the rocks. I’ll sit here and read, stare, swim, doze…

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Next, a visit to Greece. I haven’t been since becoming entranced at 18 when I landed on the island of Paros and could explore no further. There is an art school there so even in November, although the tourists were gone, I discovered a dynamic arts community. It was as if I had been drugged by the sweet lavender air – the days drifted into one another – exploring the rocky hills, the restaurants, the retsina? What was it about that place? I’d like to see if I’d feel it again. And – to eat the food! To, as I did a lifetime ago,  wake to the fisherman slapping octopus against the rocks.

Italy always calls to me. Perhaps I can make that visit with Molly – a pilgrimage to her birthplace in Puglia, to the hospital in Brindisi and if we can find them, meet up with the doctors who saved her life. Then, up north to a villa – in Tuscany or here less saturated Abruzzo.  I’d invite my Studio 70 sisters for one of our creative retreats. This would do nicely, don’t you think, gals?

19I imagine our days overlooking the hills, dinners of incredible food and endless red wine. Still, we’ll wake early and find our solitary corners to drink too many cups of coffee and feel inspired. Bliss.

By then it’s time to return to Connecticut to plant my garden at my sweet house and catch up with loved friends. Of course the groundhogs will still eat most of what I plant but I won’t mind as much. As I’m retired, there will be no excuses not to host all the dinner parties I always imagine – set at our lovely table out back. The sunflowers (these past years, eaten as seeds, every one) will be bountiful.

GardenLots of kayaking out to the islands and long overdue trips into the city to museums and restaurants and visits with missed friends and family.

As summer wanes, it’s time to hit the road again — into the groovy AirStream of my dreams DSC_0152_800x531_for a leisurely trip across the States. I know it’s terribly muggy in Kentucky at this time of year but that just makes everyone move slower – savoring the sweaty nights of catching up with more missed friends from Studio 70 days. We’ll sit along the muddy banks of the meandering Ohio River as if no time has passed but rather just been an endless current of connection unbroken by time or space. And of course, like the old days, we’ll discuss time, space, art.

Then, meandering across the US – (the northern route this time) – popping in to National Parks (check out the webcam of Old Faithful!) oldfaithvcA few weeks of luxuriously visiting friends, making new ones, browsing bookstores and thrift shops, farmer’s markets.

Now it’s autumn — a good time to tootle along the Pacific Coast — hikes through the (to me) exotic landscape and perhaps landing in an idyllic spot overlooking the ocean — to contemplate, walk, write — somewhere temperate – Monterey area maybe? I remember a summer spent in San Francisco – and again, the light and sweet air smells.

And as we roll into December it will be time to head back to Kyoto again – to get ready to ring in another year of itchy-foot plans. India? Definitely Morrocco…

What would you do?

The Expatriate’s Itch

In the early hours of the morning I woke not sure of where I was. Italy? Kyoto? Croatia or some other place I once lived long enough for the exotic to become familiar? Sometimes I feel transported in time and space from sleep, and last night, inspired by what I read before nodding off. One of my favorite bloggers, Luisa Weiss, has written a memoir with recipes: My Berlin Kitchen.

Luisa grew up straddling the Atlantic – traveling between her divorced parents from Boston to Berlin. Any expat will tell you that the itch, the longing for a place we have loved, and perhaps, where we were loved (definitely enhances yearning) never quite goes away. One’s sense of home becomes an aching wistfulness about that other light, streets, sounds, smells, food. And for the author, this perpetual pining is in her DNA born to an Italian mother and American father and growing up between Europe and the States.

I’ve followed The Wednesday Chef for a few years now, savoring recipes and glimpses of Luisa’s life and travels. And love. Little glimpses of heartbreak, longing and now, blissfully, reunited with her first love and a new baby to boot. And always, fantastic food (recipes included! at B&N you’ll find this in the cookbook section).  I don’t know about you, but this is stuff I want to read about.

And now the glimpses she gave us in her blog have been fleshed out into a book – the same enchanting writing with the details filled in – of how this gal found her way. But as the traveler/expat knows, things are not always as they should be for example, as the foreigner in Paris. The beautiful streets can be lonely, every day may be grey in every sense of the word, and Luisa captures it all brilliantly.  A beautiful reminder to us always ready to pack our bags and disappear with some notion that things will be better there.

Why does one place resonate with us as opposed to another? I loved San Francisco where I spent a summer a thirty years ago – renting a studio with my friend in the Mission District – wandering the streets from sun to fog and exploring Pacific beaches. Luisa didn’t. I never loved Boston – a city I landed in for a few months. Kyoto will always feel like home, I’d move back to Italy in a flash…see? Don’t get me started.So much of it has to do with timing, and… as does anything and everything in my opinion – love.

I revel in my my garden, the fireplace, the kitchen, my bed, my dog, my home. I feel lucky to have my Connecticut home. But always, their is the faintest of siren calls — to make a move again. Not just to pass through — but to really inhabit another place, make friends, share meals. Well, there are always my dreams and awake in my kitchen I can cook up some of the yummy recipes from My Berlin Kitchen and pretend to be in Tuscany.

To Sit, To Breathe

Look what I found at a tag sale yesterday:

I’ve been thinking about meditation recently so this little zabuton is the perfect inspiration to get my ass positioned for a ‘sit’.  Reasons to do so are plentiful: relieves stress, inspires creativity and general well being.

Meditation is one of those things that I’m never sure I’m doing right. (Kind of how I often feel about writing…) Rationally, I know that this is nonsense-thinking, but still I doubt myself and I think I should really learn how do to this from a teacher. And then I remember Taniguchi-san.

In Kyoto in the 1980s, I met a Buddhist monk on a bus and we became friends. I initiated a conversation with the kind looking elderly man beside me (he was not in his robes so I had no idea he was a monk) because I was intrigued by the book he was looking at of these amazing little stone sculptures.

While in Kyoto, I fancied myself a sculptor and was so excited by these expressive, wacky looking little figures all lined up in endless rows that I said, “Summimasen, doko deska?” while pointing to his book.  Turns out, these nembustu were at a temple in Arashiyama not so far away. He introduced himself  as a monk who lived at a another beautiful temple and offered to take me to this place. Of course, I gleefully accepted his generous invitation.

A week later I met Taniguchi-san at his temple, Myoshinji .

We mounted bicycles and I pedaled furiously behind this 70+ year old gem, marveling for the millionth time at the wonderfulness of Kyoto. I’d been living there for over 3 years and had recently decided to move on.  Before I left, my new friend Taniguchi-san gave me a crash-course in meditating.

I met him on a beautiful spring day at Miyoshinji temple again and this time, I followed him inside to his quarters past simple gardens, silent but for the crunch of gravel beneath our feet, bees as we passed the cherry blossoms, buzzing in what seemed a chant. In a simple tatami mat room, Taniguchi-san talked about breath and paying attention.  Mind you, my Japanese was not great and he spoke only a smattering of English.  I searched my journals this morning to see if I’d made notes and found nothing. But I do have this:

As a parting gift, Taniguchi-san gave me this lovely stone – explaining I might, with eyes just ever-so-slightly open, focus on this rock. He knew I’d been inspired to come to Japan because of the rock gardens. For over 20 years this precious piece has graced my bureau.  I blew the dust off  setting off ripples of recollection as if this old stone had been tossed into the depths of my mind.  A cushion, a rock, a lesson remembered.  A return to breath.

A Closet of Journals

Stashed in my closet is a plastic bin overflowing with journals of scribbled emotions, recordings of events, travel notes. From adolescence up until a few years ago, I compulsively filled notebooks with thoughts, thrills, anxieties and dreams. It was as if by recording it, I might save my life.

College journal.

Early journals have the curvy writing of teenage angst, annoyance with my parents, first love, terrible heartbreak. College – more adventures in love, discovering and floundering on my own. Studying was eclipsed by my desire to travel the world, so for a few months at eighteen, I traveled alone through Europe, a lined notebook (now missing) my constant  companion.  The next batch of beat-up spirals are scrawls of years in Kentucky where I enjoyed the friendship and support of the community of fellow Studio 70 artists. Kyoto is next – bicycling through the narrow streets, hours sitting in gardens – dream-like musings. Returning to New York, I filled books with my life in the city, job at the United Nations.  Pages brim with romantic thrills followed by heartbreak. Then, the war in Croatia and Bosnia – meeting and marrying N, having Molly.  The joys of being a mother, the pain and confusion of living with addiction. All of it jotted into these books.

From today I will try to write every day as a way of taking time for myself, of touching/listening to something from within, as a way of organizing my time in a way that some ‘work’ is possible. I would love to write – to have the life of a writer. For this I think I need not only discipline and stories to tell but an ability to listen and to tell, of the inner life. So from today I will take at least half an hour every morning, if not more, to keep this little journal. I can do this now as Molly sleeps…  a way of not just getting swallowed by the daily chores of my life.

I wrote this when Molly was 4 months old. The rumbling of desire to write a book –  I imagined a love story about  meeting and marrying N in Sarajevo during the war, giving birth to Molly prematurely in Italy. I thought I had the elements for a good story — little did I know of  the drama yet to unfold.

I no longer keep a journal. No time? No inclination? Because I blog instead? Perhaps a little of each. I think the answer is in the closet — that bin of books. I will probably just burn them one day. Braver now and less inclined to keep secrets, I am ready to move beyond the closet – and write with the hope of being read.

Reason to Get Up in the Morning

Today I pushed the always-set alarm to ‘off’ and went back to sleep — something I never do. I might hit ‘snooze’ for a few extra minutes, but not ‘off’. I didn’t sleep for too much longer – it’s now just 8 AM. But most Sunday mornings, I’ve already dropped Molly at her job, gone grocery shopping and walked Tetley. Left to my druthers, I like to rise early — but there has been something vacation-like about this week with Molly away. And with her off to college in less than 2 years, it’s a taste of what awaits me. And yet…

The longing to take care of someone besides myself, hit me in my late twenties. I had been living in Japan only a month or so.

A cold morning in Kyoto, curled up in the warmth of a futon on the sweet smelling tatami-matted front room in Sarah‘s little house on Marutamachi Street. Sarah was away. There was no place I needed to go. No reason for me to crawl out of bed and get up in this unheated, empty house. For breakfast I would need to dash down the frigid, creaking hall to the tiny kitchen, light the kerosene heater and hover over a cup of tea and wait for my breath to disappear as the room warmed, but why bother? No one was expecting me to show up. Very few people in this country even knew I existed. So I stayed under the covers listening to the sounds of the narrow, busy street. High pitched greetings of women neighbors, grinding gears of trucks, dings of bicycle bells, customers announcing their presence in the tofu shop across the street. Noises of other people’s busy lives. No one waited for me anywhere, nor expected anything of me. I burrowed deeper into my futon with a new ache: a longing to be needed.

As Molly becomes more independent, I moan less about having to drive her places and welcome those moments together. Soon she’ll have her license and she’ll just borrow the car. With another year of high school, she’ll still need some prodding and sometimes, bullying awake in the morning. But not for that much longer. My daily tasks as a mother are changing, disappearing — and I recall the emptiness of a cold Kyoto morning.

Japan

I cannot stop looking at the apocalyptic earthquake-tsunami images out of Japan. Cars on houses, buildings being swept away, boats hammering against bridges. Muddy survivors clutching buckets of belongings or worse, nothing at all – losses palpable. The luckier ones, hold tight to children, friends, neighbors. Heartbreaking. I cannot turn away. And now, the horrible specter of nuclear disaster. Terrifying.

I know these people – while I have never been to this corner of Japan – I recognize faces and those houses smashed under salty debris are familiar to me. None of my friends are there – and while relieved to be spared the pain of personal loss, I mourn for this place, once my home.

Dahlias

I’m a sucker for email seed and plant offers.  Dahlias — that’s what I bought this morning. What a deal! Apparently critters don’t like them. The problem I foresee is that you are supposed to dig them up at the end of the season and store them.  That’s a stretch for me — especially because by the time autumn comes around, my gardening energy is on the wane and I’m more likely to catch the last days of kayaking than to remember to dig up bulbs. But maybe this year will be different — and in any case, they were on sale.

Dahlia’s are a big deal in Japan. I remember pedaling my bicycle through the narrowest of old streets in Kyoto – and squeaking my brakes (all bicycle brakes seem to squeak in Japan — better than a bell?) stopping to marvel at blossoms the size of plates growing in pots lined up outside a rickety house. Oftentimes, the usually-ancient gardener would be out tending their prize worthy plants.  This year, I will try these myself – filling my own boxes to tend on one of the decks Rob attached to the house over recent years.

It’s almost March — enough snow has melted so I can see the snowdrops popping up down the street and warm enough this morning that I could smell the earth and I’m thinking garden again.