Do you ever wake up with great intentions to be productive – for me that meant writing, cleaning, organizing – and then spend most of the day lolly-gagging? This was the kind of morning and early afternoon I had. For a start, my blogging intentions went down the drain – instead I spent my morning reading dubious internet news and gossip. Waiting for the kettle to boil for another cup of tea, I chiseled away at the weekend New York Times.
Outside, even though the sky was blue-blue like it hadn’t been all week, the wind howled. The house felt chilly so I pulled blankets over me and picked up the book I’ve been reading, Canada by Richard Ford. I wish I could say I loved it — but it was a bit of a shlog. Still, I wanted to know what happened to Dell, the narrator. I gave myself permission to skip over the draggy bits. More than once I thought I’d lost my place, that I was rereading something I’d already read but that’s just the way Ford wrote it. Anyway, done with that.
At this point, with the sun was pouring in and warming the corner of the couch where I sat, Tetley, cuddled up next to me, I thought I might snooze. But then the pooch began to paw me, asking to go out.
I bundled up against what sounded like a bitter wind, clicked Tetley’s leash on and headed out where it turned out to be gorgeous. The wind was indeed whipping, but the warmth of the sun made it feel good. I took a route through wind protected streets, enjoying the shadows and the fresh air.
Walking briskly with my beloved dog, the air filling my lungs, I looked around my neighborhood, marveled at the light, the knotted vines and felt glad for this winter day and that I got off the couch.
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.
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.
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…
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?
I 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.
Lots 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 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!) A 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…
A full moon still glowed in early morning sky as I stepped into the cold to take Tetley out for his walk. Something about the quality of the light or the air or the moment, brought me back to a scene from more than twenty years ago.
The man I loved had married another. Heartbroken, I retreated from my life in NYC for a weekend at a yoga ashram in upstate New York. After a few days of solitude and meditation, surrounded by winter fields and more sky than NYC allows, my every pore seemed to vibrate. On a frigid early morning with a moon still on the horizon, I walked out into the surrounding fields of the ashram. I felt as if I had been cracked open, I imagined my sadness might flood the frozen pastures.
Yet, I felt a healing. With every breath, I consciously sent the wrenching pain squeezing my heart off with the disappearing clouds of my exhalations. The moon seemed to speak to me as did the frozen grass crunching underfoot, each step, now a comfort. Even as I felt like I might die of a silent hemorrhage of the heart, I felt completely and beautifully alive. My pain brought me there – a pain that now, I perceive as exquisite. Certainly, it is the twenty years time that allows me to remember it so, rather than be swept away again into the desperate sadness that at the time I feared might drown me.
The thought of anguish as a road to spiritual understanding – as something exquisite – sticks with me, inspired by this random memory of a wintry morning. Pain of the heart and spirit is certainly on any map we choose to follow in life. There is no alternative route, no way around it. I still dread those turns in the road. But today I am reminded of the incredible clarity and beauty, almost a kind of spiritual trance that can lead us, if not away from our pain, to a place of peace. Like that morning so many years ago: the crystalline threads of my breath disappearing into the cold morning air, held the promise that all things must pass.
My friend Gabi tagged me in her blog to participate in the ‘Look Challenge’. Click here for more details. I chose this excerpt from my memoir:
“Walking away from the Holiday Inn onto the open street, I imagined every sniper’s gun in Sarajevo trained on me. In theory, there was a ceasefire but the Holiday Inn was right on the front line and you never knew when a bored or drunken sniper might take a shot just for entertainment. Wide as a boulevard, the street was deserted. It wasn’t far to the center of the city but I had never walked more than a few blocks in Sarajevo, and never alone. I passed the towering, skeletal remains of office buildings, imagining someone watching from the dark interiors, sure a shot would ring out any moment. I wanted to run but feared drawing more attention to myself.
Ian had offered to drive me and now I felt stupid for walking alone, insisting I needed some moments of solitude before getting married. Making my way across these sidewalks, I felt like a lost tourist who’d taken a wrong turn. In a sense, I was. I picked up my pace and tried to focus on breathing, gaze fixed on the mortar pocked pavement — these permanent marks in the concrete had been christened ‘Sarajevo roses’. How many of these scars marked someone’s death? Ian had earlier pointed out the block ahead where I’d be out of the range of the snipers. I stepped up my pace.
I turned the corner, out of breath and steamy with sweat, heart pounding. A sign battered with shrapnel dents hung over a dark storefront. ‘Frizerka’: hairdresser. Two middle-aged women in smocks sat on the doorway stoop. Relieved, I greeted them, lifting my limp hair up hopelessly: “Dobor dan! Ja sam treba hitna pomoc!” ‘Hello! I need emergency assistance’. I mimed putting on a ring, and with a scramble of Bosnian words from my limited vocabulary, explained why I needed to look beautiful. Laughing and kissing my cheeks in congratulation, they ushered me through their dark shop to a basin in the corner. They washed my hair, scooping buckets of precious water either collected from rainwater or perhaps hauled in heavy buckets past drunken snipers. There was no running water in the city.
My racing pulse slowed. I was the only customer so both women, lit by the wan light breaking through the taped up windows, pitched in massaging my scalp, rinsing. We carried on chatting in snippets of languages.
By the time they finished I felt beautiful with my brown hair softly framing my face, blown dry with the help of a car battery. The women kissed me again and wished me well, waving from the shop doorway. A little less nervously, I made my way down the deserted street and up sniper alley to get ready for my wedding.”
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.
I love where I live except that I need a car. Public transportation stinks. There are buses but everything is spread out and they run too infrequently to be practical. While this is technically a ‘city’, like most places outside of a major metropolis in the United States, the culture is suburban-car-centric. Public transportation is given short shrift.
I confess, I have never boarded a bus here in Norwalk. I don’t know the routes or the cost. Neither does my 17 year old daughter – which is really crazy to me because growing up in NYC, I was taking 2 city buses to school by the time I was 8 years old. Molly expects rides and dismisses walking as a way to get someplace.
When I walk now,I do so with intent. I take my dog out or go with my friend for exercise. I don’t walk like I did when I lived in what I still call ‘the city’ – New York – to get where I’m going. When I lived on the upper West Side I avoided buses and subways – eschewing crowds and the expense, but mostly because walking is a pleasure and the city is so walk-able.
I walk when I travel. Behind the wheel of a car, or even as a passenger, it is impossible to really see the world. Everything is fleeting, without smells, without a sense of the air, the up-close color of leaves, the bark on a tree, the color of a house, the flowers, the smell of cooking … the poetry and essence of a place.
This morning, I dropped my car off to be serviced and then walked the 2 miles or so home. I walked where I always drive and saw only 2 other pedestrians in my jaunt. Actually, they were not walking — they were waiting for a bus. There are no shelters on this stretch of the Post Road. Bus riders must stand by the road in the now-grassy but soon-to-be icy patch, breathing passing fumes and at the ready to wave down a bus hurtling by at breakneck speeds.
On my walk I passed little jewelry shops, variety stores, delis, Indian restaurants, I never noticed before. They are sustained by the spirit that keeps Norwalk special: long-time loyalties of old neighborhoods, friendships and families. And judging by the shabbiness of some of these little strip malls, I imagine, reasonable rent.
Jogging across the street to get out of the way of the cars not used to or particularly respectful of pedestrians, I stepped across a grate in the tarmac, so clogged with dirt that grass grows between the metal slats. I’ll remember that next time the road floods. I passed the cows and chickens fenced in outside of Stew Leonard’s crazy ‘Dairy Store’ where I popped inside for a good cup of coffee to drink while I walked. Then I criss-crossed the parking lot to a side street that leads home. No sidewalk, so I hugged the shoulder while admiring houses and gardens up-close. I turned my face up to the sun and later, flinched away from the bloody sight of squirrel-road-kill. A dog I’d never met leaped off his patch of lawn to bark at me. I noticed two houses that looked empty -desolate windows and peeling paint. Making my way home in the morning sun, I paid attention and really saw my neighborhood.
It was veritable party of flashing cameras last night at the beach, all of us hoping to capture some spectacular image of the well-publicized ‘Blue Moon’. This is the best I could do…
“It’s when there are 2 full moons in one month…” said one wizened fellow to another as they sat sentinel-like on the stone wall overlooking marsh grass and feeding gulls. I overheard them as I passed below, picking my away across the low-tide stretch, leaping over piles of dubious looking Long Island Sound flotsam and jetsam.
And I came across this weird tide pattern – like a quiet echo of the planet now rising on the horizon. The evening, with this rare second-showing of luna and this strange, perfect circle in the marsh flats, felt like a sweet nod to the recent death of the first man to step and prance across that very distant rock-scape.
The angle of light is changing. The scent and temperature of the morning breeze is cooler, even as mid-day is still summer-sweltering. The shift of seasons has begun.
Nature’s markers will always remain my signposts to autumn. But this is my last year of back-to-school rituals. Molly is a senior in high school. Of course next year we will launch into new ‘back-to’ routine for her college years, but this year is the last of 18 years of participation. And now, it every task feels poignant.
Molly plays sports, is in the play, in the orchestra, in the choral group. She’s busy and that means, I am too. What food, what supplies, what rides does she need? What game, show, concert is scheduled? What money must she raise? (meaning: what check do I need to write) I confess, I have never felt like I was very good at this stuff. It’s hard to be when working a full-time job and single-parenting. In years past, I sometimes have been grumpy about what was required of me. Often I have felt like a failure compared to other parents who are (bless them) gung-ho volunteers.
Molly is a different kid than I was. She’s at the liveliest table at the cafeteria, Honor Society — all that. I am proud of her and am grateful she’s not the kid sneaking out to smoke behind the bleachers. I was a good-enough student. I worked on the literary magazine and back-stage on a play or two. But I was more inclined to sit by myself with a book at lunch, maybe hang around the art room and wouldn’t be caught dead wearing the school colors. I never, ever went to a school football game. And funny enough, I still feel a little bit this way as a parent — sometimes like an alien amongst the gossiping moms on the field-hockey sideline.
Yet I will miss it all. This way of measuring time, the schedule of a school year will no longer be mine to participate in. Not as much. I will miss being part of it, there to cheer her as she runs her heart out at a game, will miss hosting the mob of teammates for the requisite pasta party at our too-small house. I will even miss the desperate, last-minute rushing to buy the right shirt she needs for a concert or shoes for some dance or other. I will miss packing her brown bag lunch. The day-to-day stuff.
The morning I dropped Molly off at her first day of kindergarten she practically waved me out of the classroom so she could get on with comforting the less-happy classmates howling for their parents. Driving away from her elementary school that day, I was the one who wept. It felt then, that she was somehow less mine. In fact, she was. That first day of school, she blissfully launched into becoming herself. And her bliss and joy at school, continues. I vow that in this last year, I will be better at my part in it all. It’s time to really savor the moments I get to share.
Here’s what I love about my day-off early mornings: The light. The light.
The light. The gentle slants of sun stretching across the grass, easing in through the wavy-glass of our old-house windows, magically illuminating floating dust.
And I love my cup of tea.
And another and maybe, another again.
Through the open window, there is an almost-silence. (crickets and cicadas gently buzz) Birds swoop by to assess the feeders and quickly spin off annoyed, I imagine, by the empty grates.
I try not to think about the rest of the day – not yet. I avoid making the mental lists of to-do: filling the empty feeder or following that fairy-dust as it creates yet another layer to be cleaned on the many neglected surfaces in my house. I push away thoughts of laundry piles or what groceries to buy, menus for the week. Not yet.
This morning, almost-autumn cool, I sit a little longer to marvel at the Monarchs hovering around the butterfly bush. I notice how the green of the hedge seems brightened by yesterday’s rain. There has been a seasonal shift and now, it’s cool enough for a sweatshirt. A sense of a fleeting inspires me to savor these moments — just as the solitude of these early mornings is sweeter for the thought of my still-sleeping loved ones.