Throw-Back…Friday?

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Gina, circa 1989 studying in her UPenn dorm. Christine, circa summer 1989, relaxing one last time before sophomore classes begin.

While Gina and her family traveled around Germany and Eastern Europe during the past two weeks, our family embarked on a different kind of journey. One that kept us (mostly) sleeping in our own beds each night, but transformed all those hours between bedtime and morning seem as if we were living in a foreign land. Over the summer Ray realized that it was time for him to put away the shingle for his small, home-based event production company and head back into the world of full time work in New York City. I, having not had any luck in the finding-a-teaching-job department, took on a bit of part-time work that has me running in several directions at once.

Our sweet little house by the riverside, once buzzing with activity all day long, is now quiet during the days what with Noah at school, Ray in the city and me…at one place or another. Poor Luca is home alone a lot these days, and is making us pay for our abandonment by jumping onto our bed each night and snuggling between us (something he’s never done before/we never let him do). I suppose we’re all trying to take advantage of the scant “together time” that we have now. So far this new chapter has been a wild ride and one that I don’t see an end to for quite some time as we get used to new schedules, missed meals together and calendar snafus. It’s an adventure, to be sure, and one that will hopefully be worth it in the end.

All this is just to say that I won’t be putting up a proper blog post today. Instead, I am treating you to that gorgeous photo history of Gina and me twenty-five years ago–right around the time the Berlin Wall fell. These photos were taken when we were in college in different places. Before husbands or kids, before we knew what we now know. We weren’t yet friends but we both watched that magnificent history unfold from vastly different perspectives but what I think is a shared passion for trying to make sense of and connections with the changing worlds around us.

Lucky, too, for both of us, our shared fashion sense was already intact.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mugwort Redux

In my previous installment of Mugwort News, I lamented the sameness of Staying and waxed poetic about the riches of existence that might be discovered by using a metaphor about weeds and digging and life underground. After four more hours of trying to rid my garden of a root system that is more complicated than macramé, I’ve decided that the only thing that resides in that metaphor is weeds. I mean look at the size of these things:

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Mugwort plant and root. My gardening gloves are there for perspective.

After pulling out most of the green leaves the other day (and half-heartedly tugging at some of the roots), I started to hoe the soil yesterday–in order to prepare it for the bag of wild flower seeds I was planning to lay down there. As I worked though, the tines of my rake kept getting caught on the web of roots and tubers that remained just beneath the surface. It was like trying to get a comb through dreadlocks. I also noticed that in many of the places that I had cleared (or thought I had cleared), tiny greet shoots had already returned. If I was going to spend the summer doing something other than weeding (and writing about weeding) I had to act resolutely and the only answer was to get rid of them. All of them. After several trips back and forth to the shed to procure several more tools that I needed to do the job properly, I got to work.

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It was going to be a long afternoon, of this I was certain and, typically, when I’m faced with some kind of monotonous task I get all loopy and kooky at the prospect of being held hostage by it. I’m a goal-driven individual and generally eschew ventures that require tenacity and repetitive action and are guaranteed to take a long time (you know….things like writing). But that day a quiet peace descended (who knows from where) and I was looking forward to some quiet time outside so I could think and work through some writing issues I’m having and prepare myself for the upcoming weekend (Ray has a huge event that he’s running on Saturday and will be all but nonexistent in our lives for the next few days and Noah has several more….baseball games.)

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If you look closely you can see a bee or two flitting hither and thither.

Maybe it was working beneath the flowering cherry trees in our yard and listing to the drone of dozens of fat, hairy bees go about their business of spreading and gathering pollen, or perhaps it was the warmth of the sun on my back, a warmth from a sun that had been truant during all those long winter months, but I fell into a rhythm of pulling and digging and lost track of time and, for a while, didn’t think of anything at all.

I know people say this happens when you are feeling fulfilled or are simply content, but those are such rare states for me these days I barely recognized them.

I worked silently–my mind was still and unhurried–and ran my hands through the rich, chocolate colored soil, noticing a variety of colors ands tiny stones. I watched red beetles scurry from the light and earthworms twist and tunnel their way back into the cool soil. In short time I was able to identify a mugwort root just by the feel of it (tree roots and bulbs reside under there, too) and before I knew it the sun was going down and I had removed a wheelbarrow full of roots, making room in that space for wildflowers and lavender plants to thrive.

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Roots.

If you’re having a difficult time figuring out the point of this post well, then, you got it. Weeding, on the third day, taught me that sometimes there is no point. All of the new age talk about being in the moment and paying attention the now might just end up bing a load of hooey, if you happen to have the opportunity to steal an afternoon of it, take it. Take it and be glad.

 

The Mugwort Problem

Spending an afternoon with your arms elbow-deep in garden soil can yield a dozen comparisons to your own human condition that persists outside of it. Garden tasks are rich with metaphor: weed/plant/till/water, as are the elements one encounters there: seed/root/ blossom/weed.

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Mugwort invasion. The poor tulips are lost in it.

Four three hours stretches on two days this past week I weeded out the mugwort from the small butterfly garden that runs along our driveway. Weeding is thankless, boring and often futile work which, come to think of it, is a good description for many of the other regular activities we spend hours of our days executing, too. It can be disheartening to think about the amount of time we spend on tasks that will need to be repeated again tomorrow or in two hours from now or immediately. Laundry. Dishes. Making the bed. The sameness of it all–like the nearly identical looking weeds in the garden–is enough to drive me mad.

See what I mean about easy analogies?

Mugwort is a plant in the daisy family that is native to the north temperate regions of Europe and was introduced to the United States probably sometime in the late 1800s. Innocuous enough in April, by July mugwort stalks can reach heights of three feet and, though the plant has been used for centuries in Chinese, Japanese and Korean traditional medicines, its pollen is one of the main sources of hay fever and allergic asthma during the late summer and fall. One person’s trash is, indeed, another’s treasure as in this case: I’m getting rid of the flowering weeds (that make Noah’s nose stuffy from May to October) while other ladies in town harvest it so they can steep the leaves and brew a tea that reportedly boosts energy and improves digestion.

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Mugwort with roots.

Mugwort is propagated mainly by rhizomes–a complicated and vigorous underground root system that sends out perpendicular shoots from bulbous, thick nodes which, in turn, make new plants. If a rhizome is separated or cut into pieces, each piece can give rise to a brand new plant, an attribute that makes eradicating the stuff next to impossible. If you pull off just the leaves and stem and don’t get the root, a new shoot will appear in that spot within a day or two. If you chop up the roots, each piece will sprout a new plant–so tilling the soil is, essentially, seeding a whole new crop of the stuff. The plant is resistant to almost every chemical treatment, too (not that I’d spray Round Up on my lawn anyway), so the most effective (and work intensive) way to keep mugwort under control is to pull up the small seedlings slowly, one by one, taking care to remove as much of the intact root as you can.

For six hours I got to spend time with the 4,722 mugwort seedlings invading my garden and also with the 4,722 worries that occupy most of the grey matter space of my brain. Though at first I thought I might go crazy from the mere racket of all the concern that resides there, after awhile I settled into a rhythm of ignoring it. Weeding was like meditation (only action and goal-oriented), and I eventually became wholly focused NOT on my navel-gazing issues, but on pulling out all of those damn roots. After I was done and two wheel-barrows full of roots and leaves and stems and shoots were dumped on the compost pile (where they will surely root and eventually overrun), I felt clear and light. When I got inside I sat down and finished a poem I have been toiling with for weeks.

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Partly weeded.

As you’ve read on Gina’s side of the blog she’s been traveling again and, sometimes, when I read about her adventures and her life over There I can get to feeling a bit bummed out with this whole leaving-staying-Here-There dynamic. Sure I miss them (desperately at times), but it can also seem like I drew the short straw. I mean, really. Over there are pictures of museums and ancient cities and the blue, blue sea and I’m posting photos of weeds.

But this is the deal for me over Here. For now anyway. This Staying thing is my thing. So I need to keep hoeing deep and digging for significance in the ordinary and sowing the seeds of new friendships and tilling new Friday night adventures and weeding out…well, the weeds.

It’s good to remind myself from time to time that the small, seemingly unexceptional weeds that exist, obviously, above the soil, belie a more complicated, connected mass of life and learning that lies beneath it. You’ve just got to be willing to dig deep enough to get there and, sometimes, for a very long time. For me, this Staying I’m reporting to you about entails just that (the digging and the attention and the intent to find Stuff That Matters).

Incidentally, sometimes having Gina over There writing about the leaving and the adventures and the other places and the foreignness and all those other ways of being can help root me, ever more firmly, right where I am.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Job Seeker Looks at 40

Actually 43, but I’m not going to split hairs. The point is that I’m creeping towards middle age and (still) looking for work (again). (Or, more accurately, looking for work anew.)

Many factors led me to this circumstance, most of them my own doing; almost all in some way connected to an inherent sense of restlessness and my tendency towards temporization (and, apparently, alliteration).

I’m a bit of a rolling stone, you see. During the past twenty years I’ve lived in eleven cities and approximately two dozen homes. I’ve been a yoga teacher, a temp, an inn keeper, a house cleaner, a school administrator, a freelance writer, a reunion coordinator, a dog walker, a kindergarten teacher and a house sitter, not to mention a mother and wife. Part of what’s going on with me being out of work right now is my failure to launch. I get high on possibilities but bottom out by go-time. All of my energy expended during the roll out, none of it left for the voyage at hand.

I also secretly want to be a pirate. And not for the raids and plunder, but for the creativity, innovation, and implementation the lifestyle allows. (Also, tangentially, the hats and the jewels.) Every job I’ve ever left (and I’ve left every one of them at some point) has been riddled with mediocrity, both in function and in form. And what I mean by that is this: there are 1,647 different things that I could spend my days doing and what I’ve learned I want to spend my days doing (are only) the things that I both love and that I am good at.

I have yet to stumble upon that balance/bonanza.

My biggest fear, of course, is that perhaps I’m not really very good at anything at all (and middle age is certainly the time when that reality must be finally, honestly confronted) but no matter the verdict of that particular ballot, my own partiality is non-negotiable. I know what I like. I’ve been miserable for long enough to know its rival. Plus, I’ve learned to recognize the moments when my hair stands on end and I’m lost to time and space wanting nothing more than to keep doing what I’m doing f-o-r-e-v-e-r.

It’s the pirate’s life, you see? Pleasure, yes. But also fearlessness. And strength. And an integrity of purpose. To me there’s no higher aspiration.

Or, a more impossible one.

I’ve worked as a teacher four (separate) times in my life and after every single, without exception-multiple-year tenure I’ve agreed to, I’ve ended up totally and completely hating my days (not the kids, mind you) but the hours of my days and…eventually, thankfully quit. And then over and over again (due to shoddy finances or (shoddy) fear or plain old guilt) crawled back to the very same work like a repentant sailor, hoping that my earnestness might be enough to make me stay; to make me love it (this time) somehow.

What of this coercion? Of this march I’m doing towards a(nother) duplicitous fate? In the past two months I’ve watched myself brush off my resume and polish my credentials and sit with the principal of the local elementary school, look her directly in the eyes and say, “I can’t wait to be back in the classroom again.” Seduced by a (decent) salary and an ostensibly short work day; by health insurance coverage and summer vacations (which free up lots of time to visit Gina, to be sure) I’m seemingly willing to once again to sacrifice my happiness–my life?–for a shorter, sexier gain. For a semblance of respect. For money and an indication of (some kind of) victory.

It’s a good thing you learn a few things by the time you’re looking for work after 40: you’ve become familiar with your own tricks. You’ve learned to observe your own slights-of-hand that try to convince you that stability is more important that passion; that solvency is more urgent than art. Sure, I’m still sending out resumes for jobs I already know I’d hate, but I’m doing it now with an awareness of something I didn’t want to admit when I was sending out (the same) resume when I was 22: It’s okay to wait for what you love.

At 4(3) I’m learning to recognize that which I love: Poetry. Words. Quiet. Conversation. The hard lock of Friendship. My thesaurus. Waking up at 5am. Identifying a bird’s song and naming the tree they’re singing from. Embarking on the open sea at dawn.

I have no idea what kind of job might bring all of these things together, but I’m confident that, with time I will find the treasure. Until then, there’s always hope. And pillaging.

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Work-At-Home Mamá

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I’ve been working from home for the last 5 years, and I blame the ceaseless buzzing of disparate thoughts that parade through my head, day and night, in part, to the decision to leave the safety of an office. (That’s my last one in the pictures above and below – The Apartment Creative Agency space in Soho, NY.) There is no compartmentalizing in this work-at-home world. Family life, household management and chores, business-running, work projects, passion projects – it’s all one, one seething and foaming bowl of stuff called my life. As all of you who do it know, it can be incredibly challenging to get things done when you can’t run off to a civilized workplace full of other grown ups, who also would like to get something done that day.

Instead, you try to hone the skills needed to piece together good work in between providing taxi service to/from school and activities, laundry, food shopping, dinner making, questions and accusations directed at Mom (Mom, can you play with me? Mom, when is it my turn to be on the computer? Mom! Zoel looked at me with that face again! Mom, Leeloo bit my arm and I think you should speak to her about it. Now. Mom, I’m hungry. Mom, my toe hurts. Mom…), online distractions, pinging electronic devices, etc, etc.

Sometimes, I’ve had to call in backup. Most often, it’s been my husband, my mom, or babysitters who have come to the rescue. Since we moved to Italy, and far from our support system, Stefan and I have been sharing the house and child care responsibilities more equally, and that has been incredibly helpful in opening up windows of time that wouldn’t exist otherwise. His help makes it possible for me to not only get project work and operational stuff (Hello Tax Season!) done for our businesses, but also to explore what kind of creative work I want to do next. I’m incredibly lucky that he’s willing to pick up half the load and that his very flexible work schedule allows it.

And that brings me to the other side of the coin, and why I love working at home, despite all its challenges and isolation from the “real” world. I feel incredibly fortunate to be as present in my family’s daily life as I am.  (That may not always be reciprocated, but that’s another post.) Just today, two friends wrote about having a sick child at home, and having to find last minute childcare before leaving them, woozy and feverish, because there is no other option but to get to work on time. I remember those kinds of moments in our life, and my stomach instantly ties up in knots. The freedom of being untied from a physical place has also made it possible for us to live wherever we want to, even when that’s across the Ocean from the work we’re doing. This lifestyle definitely isn’t for everyone and it’s in no way perfect, but I’m so grateful that it’s an option. And I like to think that when it’s not my first choice any more, there will be other options, no matter how long I’ve stayed away from the traditional 9-to-5. Cue the Dolly Parton music…

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