I’m finally “enjoying every moment,” even the time when I wasn’t.

by renegademama

I became a mother eighteen years ago and it seems like every day since then, somebody has told me to “enjoy every moment.” I’ve moved from vague pity to nonchalant disinterestedness all the way to outright disdain in response to the advice.

Early on, I thought it was just kinda sad that the women looking at me with a knowing smile were just so, you know, old. Seasoned mothers whose kids had grown, looking at me, twenty-two-years old, all fresh and shit, and there they were with their Old People Regrets.

It’s funny how in your twenties, the suggestions of “old people” are distant whispers from strange humans you’ll never become. It’s strange how we don’t yield to them, recalling how, if all goes well, we’ll be them one day, and maybe they’ve learned something.

Or maybe other people do that. Maybe other people hear these words and think “I shall listen to you because you probably know shit.” I don’t.

But my special talent is somehow always believing myself the exception to the rule. Sure, you look back and wish you’d “enjoyed every moment” because “it goes so fast.” But I won’t. Fuck off.

Why? No clue. How exactly would I be different? No clue. Please don’t bring reason into this.

But something happened to me the day the baby born on November 21, 2001, left our home to finish high school in America, and I found myself surrounded with three of my four kids, feeling always just a little off. She may come here for college. She may stay in California. The letting go snuck up on me, the massive distance. It sounds ridiculous to say.

Something changed in me the morning I saw in her brow a nervousness and sorrow that looked a little like being let down. The day I saw her steel herself and keep on going to the airport—her purse, a bag that used to be mine, crossing her body over her jean jacket, beneath two braids she’d made that morning while singing along in the bathroom to Johnny Cash, and I listened from the next room, my head in my hands, crying, enjoying every moment of her voice.

It all dissolved that morning, what my family had been for so long, and at my own hand, or the passing of time, if there’s a difference.

It was all suddenly different and I saw it. Rocket, fourteen-years-old, standing taller than me. One teenager gone, one taller than me. My nine-year-old, the way she worries what the kids at school think. The way she still has little projects: notes to her friends, drawings, shortbread cookies made all by herself.

Ava used to do that.

 

And I looked at my little one, Arlo, five-years-old. The tail end. The last whisper of little guy. The imaginative play. The curling against your body almost like they’re three. The way they fit in your arms just barely.

There’s a chance I’m a little weird around him now.

I ask him to sing me his school songs and notice the lisp he’ll lose someday. I watch him play with airplanes and knights and dragons and call Mac over to watch him in his little world. Look at him.  

“I know,” Mac says, sighing. He whacks my arm. I tell him I hate him. We both look like we’re about to cry. I think this is how mature adults handle emotion.

I could listen to Arlo’s stories for hours. It’s not hard. Keep speaking. Keep going. Tell me more of your plans.

When I’m cooking and he wants to stir, even when I’m tired and fed up and just want it to be over, I tell him to grab a stool and show him how to hold the spoon and remind him that the pot is hot and I kiss his head when he looks at me and I don’t really ever say, “No, not tonight.”

When he hears me in the bath and asks to join, just when I begin to relax, I remember the way I used keep the door locked and wonder how they always found me. I still wonder that, but it makes me smile. I keep the door cracked. “Yes,” I say. “Just give me ten minutes in here alone.” I say it because I really want him to come in with me. I don’t mind at all.

I want to watch him play Batman under the water. I want to feel his little hug against me. And when he’s there, I’ll remember how I labored with him in the bathtub, how I brought him with me in the bath as a newborn, an infant, a toddler, and how he used to nurse partially submerged, and I’d lay a warm washcloth over the part of his body exposed to the air.

I cuddle with him on the couch and put my phone away. He sleeps in our bed just about every night and I stick my face an inch from his and watch his little hands do nothing under his chin. He falls asleep on my arm and I smell his head, his neck, stare at his bare feet curled behind him.

I tell Mac to look. Look at our baby.

 

So here I am, world, finally, doing what you told me. I’m enjoying every minute! I’m all in, assholes. SOAKING THIS SHIT UP. It’s not that I’m uniformly joyful, never annoyed, never yelling. And I don’t think that’s what they meant when they told us “it goes so fast.” I think they meant, be aware always how quickly this will end. 

That’s where I am now, and thank god it wasn’t always this way. Thank god I didn’t live all these years in this condition—every minute some butterfly just touching down, some joy about to fly away.

I wouldn’t have wanted to live all those years in the full knowledge of what they would mean to me when they were gone, because there was a freedom there, an energy—we were both young.

I don’t think you can be told when your first baby is six-months-old—when you’ll never sleep again and your life has become a pattern of monotony you quite possibly hate and you’re talking too long to the checkout guy and wondering when the baby will crawl—you can’t be told “enjoy every moment; it goes so fast,” because that understanding comes when the non-crawling baby waves at you from a passenger seat on her way into her own life. It comes from the pain of the other side.

It comes when you’re snapped into the finality of it, because there really is a day, you know, when they leave. An actual day. It is very concrete. They are around every day, and then they are not.

 

I couldn’t have lived with this kind of pull on my heart. I couldn’t have taken it all this seriously. I couldn’t have endured the work of those early years if I had to stop every fifteen minutes to enjoy my five-year-old’s nose. The way his curls fall over his eye. The blocks he left in my bed.

Who can live like that? In some state of awe at the little dude jumping off a branch, watching him ride a bike like it’s a fucking symphony. Who can hold this much devotion to something so fleeting, an ache burning always somewhere, a silent grip on what isn’t yours, an hourglass on the counter mocking your old sense of permanence.

I didn’t ask for this shit. I didn’t learn it or guilt or self-talk my way into it. It came one morning when I wasn’t ready, when my first baby sucked the air out of the room and flooded her siblings in light.

I’ve never been very good at learning things without pain. Never been good at listening to others and anticipating and being smart about it. But maybe we learn what we need to learn as life presents itself. Maybe we see more when life becomes more, or less. Maybe that’s how it should be.

I won’t tell a new mother to enjoy every moment. I’ll watch her not enjoying them and remember when I had the luxury.

I’ll let him sleep on me as long as he wants, and love it all. When I knew what it was, and when I didn’t.

 

18 Comments | Posted in Sometimes, I'm all deep and shit..... | February 19, 2020

Invisible labor and the “small space” that’s ours.

by renegademama

Alright, I’ll admit it. I am having a rough time. Here’s what’s up: When I left California, I left the support network I’d built over 18 years to help me raise four kids and work as a writer. And now I’m without that network, starting over, and the domestic load is fucking killing me.

I used to have close friends within walking distance, my mom, and Mac’s mom. I used to have an office out of my house. I used to know how everything worked in my world, so I could get it done fast or easily send somebody else to do it. Now, I’m feeling quite alone with all this.

The details of my situation here are irrelevant. I could go through my day and the particulars of our marriage and house and schedules but it doesn’t matter. It’s not a fucking competition, and the more details we share, the more we’re held up for uninformed scrutiny from the masses. As soon as you say “This is hard,” half the world looks down on your sorry self and instructs how you could manage better, how they’ve learned what you haven’t, how if you’d just try harder you wouldn’t be having such a hard time. There’s so much you want to explain, so much nobody sees.

And I’m sure from the outside a person looks at me and thinks, “You live in the Netherlands surrounded by cobblestone and affordable healthcare. Shut the hell up, ya ungrateful shitbag.”

And that is true. Occasionally even the shitbag part.

But some things don’t change no matter where you live. In fact, for me, in this particular arena, life is quite a bit harder here.

The most difficult part of talking about the unequal division of domestic labor is that there’s no way to do it without making your husband sound like an asshole. There’s no way to talk about the bulk of the invisible labor on your shoulders without implicating the person you’ve partnered with, are happy with, and love, a lot.

So, we keep silent. But this isn’t about an individual man and it isn’t about my particular marriage or the idiosyncrasies therein. It is an oversimplification to say, “Your husband should do more.” It is a minimization to say, “Some men are better than yours.” This mentality is not understanding how deep this problem lives within him and within me.

We are products of the world that raised us.

For example, when I said “I do” at age 22, I didn’t come up with the idea that I would assume responsibility for damn near everything from start to finish. I didn’t go into marriage telling myself “You know what? THIS IS ALL MY JOB AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE.” I just knew it was. I didn’t even question it until I’d been married a decade and saw that my career, a career I cared about all the way to my bones, would be eradicated and impossible unless we, as a couple, changed.

If it involves the kids, finances, health, school, the house, overall social and familial relations, I tend to assume I own it. As in, it is mine. Sure, I can delegate it, but I will then manage the delegation. I will make sure it gets done. I will follow up, because it’s still mine, it’s just parsed out to somebody else temporarily. Ultimately, I feel it is on my shoulders to complete. And in fact, it is.

Who the fuck decided that?

In other words, the invisible labor of thinking, remembering, asking, tracking – the mental space required for all that – is still consumed in my brain. All the space in there feels taken up, largely by shit I never asked for and probably don’t care about.

It isn’t that I particularly enjoy or am uniquely interested in household organization and cleaning out drawers and getting new lightbulbs and making dentist appointments and planning playdates, it’s just that somewhere along the line, this became “women’s work” in addition to our regular work and I, for one, pretty much just do it. Or did it, unquestioningly. Some women find this stuff interesting, and that’s wonderful. I do not.

Here in this new country, I’ve started at zero again, and my whole brain is taken up.

Do you know what writing takes? WIDE OPEN FUCKING MENTAL FUCKING SPACE.

 

Motherhood is always more immediate. It’s always right here right now. And Mac’s work is outside the house. He has people who he’s building things for. Of course he needs to leave and do that work. But it feels sometimes a touch unreasonable that I, too, have work, hard work of a different kind, plus the burden of damn near all household management.

This arrangement feels a bit shitty for women and a bit awesome for men.

I was thinking recently about something I did a few years ago that felt like a radical act. I was trying to write my book and it wasn’t happening. I quickly realized “write book” was simply added to my to-do list, as if I could just carry on doing all the things I did before plus write an 80k word manuscript that didn’t suck.

After a small breakdown one Easter, I began leaving on occasional weekends to write for 18 hours. I knew something had to give. I just said FUCK IT and left my life, the mess, the kids, all of it. I booked myself into a motel room and worked. I got my whole book done that way. During the week, I’d barely write.

Now, my whole life looks like those barren weeks, and I don’t have the money to run off and write. I am erased again, it seems. How quickly we get eaten up if we aren’t paying attention.

Anyway, around that time, when I was fed up, I began asking every one of my kids’ teachers to add my husband’s email to their lists and always email both of us. This was a tiny, obvious step in making sure he had access to the same information I did. Despite my requests, many of the teachers still didn’t email him when problems arose.

So, I simply replied with a copy to Mac and a message that said: “My husband is handling this.” Sometimes I just emailed back “Please tell my husband.” Or I would forward it to Mac with the words: “Yours.”

It’s interesting that our default is to email only the mother. It’s interesting that even when I asked, people forgot to include him. It’s interesting that I didn’t fight this default setting for a full seventeen years of motherhood. It is all very fucking interesting.

 

Do you ever wonder how many things are simply assumed to be the woman’s job? Do you ever wonder how much more we could do if our brains weren’t consumed by so much monotonous drivel of daily life? By activities so opposite creativity and possibly individuality? By things that take and take and take and take and do you ever wonder why Sylvia Plath put her head in that oven?

Yes, depression. But could it also have been that she couldn’t bear a life of erasure? That her art, her writing, her purpose, was impossible in the context of her life and she couldn’t go on? A room of one’s own, indeed.

I don’t have answers. The truth is I move from resignation to gratitude to rage and back again. I look for words in stolen moments. I give up again. I ask somebody and nobody, “When the fuck did all of this become my job?”

I read the women who’ve gone before me, like Toni Morrison:

“I have an ideal writing routine that I’ve never experienced, which is to have, say, nine uninterrupted days when I wouldn’t have to leave the house or take phone calls. And to have the space—a space where I have huge tables. I end up with this much space [she indicates a small square spot on her desk] everywhere I am, and I can’t beat my way out of it. I am reminded of that tiny desk that Emily Dickinson wrote on and I chuckle when I think, Sweet thing, there she was. But that is all any of us have: just this small space…”

Sweet thing, there she was.

There we were.

How do you look at something and see your whole beloved life and the threat of erasure at the same time?

 

****

Speaking of carving out spaces for ourselves, there are five spots left in my Memoir writing workshop in April. We need your story.

Oh, and here’s my book. If you’ve read it, would you consider reviewing it on Goodreads or Amazon? And if you haven’t, maybe consider doing so if you like my work. I’m still over here talking about it because this book’s sales help me get the opportunity to write another.

I HATE MARKETING SO MUCH BUT I SURE LOVE YOU.

 

California human experiences first Dutch Winter. Doing great.

by renegademama

Good news. I have figured out how boilers work. Is that even what they’re called? I don’t know. Those metal flat things attached to walls that run water through them, getting warm but not hot enough to burn your house down if your kid leaves a stuffed animal on it (not that I checked this five times a day for the first month we used the fucker).

You know, the heating system everywhere in Europe built in approximately 1743? Those.

Anyway, the way they work is this: When you are cold, so cold, like ice melting across your wordless soul, you turn the thermostat up one degree Celsius.

Seventeen minutes later you are so sauna-hot you go outside, into Dutch Siberia (which is the whole country), on purpose, to cool off. Then, about two hours later, you start the process over again.

It’s a wet cold here in Holland. Humans I wanted to punch in the face used to tell me that the 110 degrees in California I experienced wasn’t really that hot because it’s a “dry heat,” and yes, I get it, humidity is a special hell, but can we all just fucking agree that 110 is like living in Satan’s ball sack no matter what the conditions? You can’t breathe in hot humid you can’t breathe in not humid hot.

Oh, hot sounds nice.

My toes will never be warm again. Jeans do not cut the wind. My socks are 12% effective. People say I should wear two pair made of merino wool. They are clearly not taking into account my laziness here. Two socks.

Fun fact, it’s not even full winter yet.

This has all been perhaps a grave mistake.

I burn 3-7 candles at all times in my house. George says I “have a problem.” I say, “I AM TRYING TO CREATE SOME COZY SO I DON’T DROWN MYSELF IN A MOTHERFUCKING CANAL.” I say this with my brain not my mouth because saying that word to your kid even as apt modifier is frowned upon.

The Dutch word here is “gezellig.” It means “cozy” but more than cozy. It’s like comfortable, lived in, warm, general togetherness, friendly. For example, when a Dutch neighbor came over and I did the standard apology for kid shit all over the floor, she said, “No, I like it. It’s gezellig. It means children live here and are comfortable to play here.”

And then I cried and cradled her in my arms for a good ten minutes. I didn’t. The Dutch would hate that. Niet gezellig to force affection on acquaintances.

I got a heated blanket because I’m elderly and also I take a lot of baths in our giant tub. God gave us a long, deep, massive (that’s what she said) tub because he knows I used to think closed-toed shoes meant “winter.” And this is definitely how god works, an act of divine providence as opposed to just, like, luck, since this is the only house that would rent to us.

I’m really into the really good tea from the tea shop in the center of town. I also like the way I bundle up to go outside then SWEAT CONSTANTLY once I get inside where I’m going because gezellig and boilers.

Did I mention it’s going to get colder and rain like this and be gray and get dark at noon even though the sun rises at 10am for the next four months?

No need to look at the weather app. IT’S ALL GRAY ALL DAY ASSHOLES.

It hails occasionally. That’s fun. But no snow. Snow is too pleasant. Too bright. Whoever said white is the absence of color has clearly never lived through a Dutch winter. Sea of Gray, a love song. If it snowed, maybe the moon that peaks out the clouds for 3 minutes every tenth night would reflect off it, almost giving the impression of light. And we don’t do “light” in Dutch winter.

Okay fine. I’m exaggerating. The sun comes out for at least ten minutes over the course of a week.

Meanwhile, Dutch families ride their bikes in this shit, all day, shaming with their toughness and stoic “what’s your problem” attitudes. Some of them even smile. They aren’t like positive about it, they just don’t seem to care. I feel personally attacked. They cart 2-3 kids on those bikes, in the fucking rain, with or without ponchos or gloves.

They’ve obviously given up on life.

Or embraced it. Your call.

Yes, I am aware that It is nowhere near as cold here as Chicago or Minnesota or Canada or wherever else people put kids in snowsuits and have tears freeze to their cheeks. My friend Antonia said that happened to her here, so that’s a nice thought.

But, where I lived in California we had two seasons: Hot as Fuck and Orgasm-Level Perfect.

Mixed in there between December and January would be a week or two of “Guess I shouldn’t wear Birkenstocks today” AKA “Where’s my coat?” AKA “Do I own a coat?” AKA “WHY CAN NONE OF US DRIVE IN THE FUCKING RAIN?”.

One thing I have learned about “actual winter,” though, is that one always complains about actual winter. Every year. Just like I complained about the one-hundredth 90+ degree day in a row, people with winters complain about winters. Unless you’re Dutch, in which case you get all gezellig and shit, throw some flowers in your bike basket and say things like “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”

I FUCKING DISAGREE DUDE BUT SURE LET’S DO IT YOUR WAY (sorry for yelling please don’t kick me out).

In conclusion, apparently Mac wears scarves now.

COZY.

****

Hey friends I’m running three writing workshops in the beginning of 2020.

Check them out.

FROM MEMORY TO MEMOIR, for the writer ready to write her story (January)

RENEGADE WRITERS’ GROUP, for the writer ready to get lots of actual words written (January)

WRITE ANYWAY, where we gain a new relationship to our fears of writing (March)

A FOCUS ON CRAFT, um, where we work on becoming better writers (only more fun than that I swear) (April)

I found this a year after I named my workshop “write anyway,” which basically means I am Junot Diaz.

 

31 Comments | Posted in I guess we're moving to the Netherlands | November 14, 2019

Shit we put into a shipping container and moved across an ocean

by renegademama

So, our shipping container finally arrived – three months after we did. That’s been fun.

Beyond the obvious excitement of opening the front door of an empty rental with six carry-on bags, four suitcases the size of a small nation, four kids, and absolutely nothing in the actual house beyond a strange smell emanating from the kitchen sink, we enjoyed nine trips to Ikea in three days to purchase furniture in boxes. Have you ever tried putting together Ikea furniture while jet-lagged?

Mac has. He didn’t seem to love it.

Since Uber Eats exists, my first thought was “beds.” So we bought twelve – or maybe it was four – of the cheapest Ikea mattresses available: 2-inches of stacked cardboard they refer to as “foam.”

Of course, the idea was that the shipping container would arrive when we did, or within a month or so, but it got hung up in Australia or some shit. Or maybe we didn’t do the paperwork in time. Hard to tell.

It’s funny, I think people may look at us from the outside and think “Wow, that Mac and Janelle, they must really have some shit figured out, moving to Europe and all.” Not that we’ve ever given any indication of such a thing, but rather because it SEEMS like it would be a requirement for relocating to another country. Like you can’t just throw that shit together all haphazardly, because it’s so complicated. Surely you’d have to figure out how to do it for it to work at all.

But what isn’t immediately obvious, perhaps, is that there are two ways to “figure out how to do it.” You can do extensive research, ask people who’ve done it, consult professionals, make notes, and formulate a plan that addresses the particulars of your situation in attempt to avoid unexpected problems.

Or, you can google shit and hope for the best.

You can intend to do all those adult planning things but end up reading twenty-seven posts by standard humans on Facebook discussing the “expat experience” in this particular arena, ending up more confused than before since nobody can agree on anything except Dutch doctors only prescribe aspirin.

So, you call your friend Alexis in Amsterdam and just do what she says because she seems to have her shit together. Or, you just pick an option at random because you’re out of time. Of course we had a lawyer who helped us with the actual immigration paperwork because FUCKING OBVIOUSLY. Know thyself.

Anyway, Mac and I slept on a double Ikea “mattress” on the floor for three full months. My hip would hit the ground if I slept on my side. Getting up to pee in the middle of the night was EXTRA SUPER COOL since I had spinal surgery in March and my left leg is still partially numb. In other words, it’s no trouble at all to get up off the floor with a stiff back and weak, unbalanced leg.

Thank you for giving me a moment to whine about my life in Europe.

Here’s a picture of the Dutch movers hoisting our mattress through a window of our house since it’s impossible to move up the steep, winding, Dutch death stairs. Those fucking movers were so badass. They carried our boxes and furniture UP THOSE STAIRS over and over again for an hour. One of the dudes was wearing Tevas. With socks. How the fuck are you 65 years old moving dressers up death stairs in Tevas with socks?

The Dutch are tough as hell.

Oh, but can I tell you what it felt like to get in bed that first night? Clean sheets. Off the ground. Blankets. My pillow. Off the ground. It even still smelled like home. Well, my old home.

I don’t want to say “the joy pretty much ended there,” but the joy pretty much ended there.

You see, there’s a point in every move job when nobody gives a flying fuck anymore what’s being placed in each box. Half-empty Kleenex box? Yes, pack that. Random metal stick? Could be important. Book nobody’s read in twenty years or ever? Don’t care. Stop asking me.

random metal stick

Empty trash cans. The trash itself. Half-used sponges. Marbles. Four pennies. Lego man heads. One single Christmas tree bulb. Stained dish towels. Just fucking pack it.

life is meaningless

My MA diploma, 12k papers, kid art, random cords, Ibuprofen, tiny turtle!

 

You open boxes like this and you just want to jump off a bridge. Why can’t I do anything that MAKES SENSE? 

When packing, it’s not that we think we need this crap, or even that we want it. It’s that the line between trash and “worth moving” eventually gets real thin because the goal is no longer “pack in an organized, helpful way,” but simply “get me the fuck out of this house before I boil to death in the cauldron of my own consumerism.”

Or maybe we’re just tired.

Nobody starts out like this. We start out methodically getting rid of things, lots of things, grouping items we definitely need in well-labeled boxes reflecting a particular area of the house. It all seems hopeful. We’ve really turned a corner this time. Adult packing!

We ask ourselves, “Does this bring me joy?” and no, no we do not yell I HAVE KIDS YOU DICKHEAD NOTHING IN THIS HOUSE BRINGS ME JOY, but rather, we make deep, mindful decisions about whether or not we need the vase we bought from a dread-locked hippie at a 1998 Lake Tahoe art fair.

Two weeks later we’re writing “Kitchen tools & Clothes” on a box.

we all hit the KITCHEN TOOLS & CLOTHES phase at some point

As one traverses the closets and corners of the house for days on end, the will dissolves. Nay, it is beaten out of us by the external representation of our vapid capitalist souls, until we give up fighting and simply repeat the sins of our past. “Just pack it” you scream into the cold, dead night. Yes, pack the remote paired with nothing and that gallon Ziploc bag of unknown cords and the boots with a broken zipper I bought in 2000 that I will surely fix any day now.

An entire junk drawer dumped in a box. A 900-gallon plastic crate of Legos. Fuck it, you think, fondly reflecting on the days when you cared. Fuck it all.

A stuffed animal, tea, two single shoes, my book, 12k receipts AND A FUCKING PIG MASK? Look, I don’t make the rules.

Yes, yes, these are the things we placed onto a shipping container to move from California to the Netherlands, via Australia, apparently.

But none of this really demonstrates the level of fuck-it-all Mac and I reached, for I recently opened a box called “Mac’s bedside table,” and found this: A book he was reading with my underwear stuck in them as a bookmark.

At some point, my husband lifted a book with underwear stuck in it and said to himself “Yep, that’s going in. Just like this.”

So yeah, times are bleak, that’s for sure, but somewhere, there’s a person packing bell hooks and panties into a shipping container.

The human will prevails.

 

All fucked up and nowhere to go (except this excellent country)

by renegademama

Hi. I haven’t written in a while because I’m all fucked up in my head.

I’m not unhappy. At least I don’t think I am. Depends on when you ask. 4am is sketchy as hell. That’s when I enjoy a little this was the biggest mistake of my life but it doesn’t matter anyway because life is a death march through pain.

Of course, I’ve been enjoying those mental exercises at 4am for the past 25 years, so, maybe irrelevant.

I AM SO FUCKED UP YOU GUYS.

I have no idea which way is up or down and the other day I stood in front of a door that I thought was the entrance to a shop and when it wouldn’t open, I just walked away. I couldn’t handle looking for the actual entrance. I almost called Mac to help me. TO HELP ME.

WITH FUCKING WHAT?

I miss Ava so much I could puke. Some dude ran into me in my car and he was in a Vespa. It’s a long story but I’m pretty sure it was my fault. All of us were okay. A vaguely drunk Dutch woman from across the street saw it happen and came out and stroked my arm a lot. Now I’m afraid to drive.

Did you know the word in English for sparkling water is different in every goddamn country? Water with gas, sparkling water, club soda. Why do I know this? Because I’m an alcoholic and order a lot of club sparkling bubbly water with gas.

The fun part is that every time you go somewhere new and say it wrong, they look at you like you’re a fucking native English speaker how do you not know what this is called?

WHATEVER, SCOTTISH CANADIAN DUTCH GERMAN SPANISH PEOPLE.

Do I sound like I’ve lost it? I have. I have. Okay? I have. 

I miss forests. I like the idea of going to Germany for those. I miss the Pacific ocean. I love being not in a country where Donald Trump is President. I miss knowing where all the good shit is.  IT SURE IS COOL MY KIDS AREN’T GONNA GET SHOT IN SCHOOL.

I miss my best friend. There’s no flip side to that.

I just miss her. And my parents. And Ava. Did I mention that?

 

“Are you happy there?” That’s what everyone asks me. 

At 3pm, when I walk down our road of brick houses, each one with a little striped awning, to pick up my kids from the bus stop, and as soon as they get off they ask if we can get an ice cream or go to the outdoor market across the street (if it’s a Thursday) to get Turkish bread and cashew hummus, and cookies from the Lithuanian grandma, I’m “happy.”

When my family rides along on our bikes and I see Arlo sitting on Rocket’s bike and I hear his little voice chattering away at his big brother – one sentence jamming into the next, hands flailing in animation – and Rocket responding occasionally, sometimes pretending he’s about to fall to make Arlo roar in laughter, until we pull into the big square under the big old church in the cobblestone center of town, I’m definitely “happy.”

When I get off the train in Amsterdam, when I shake my head in wonder at where I live, when I type “Bruges, Belgium” into Airbnb for a weekend trip, when I hear my daughter say “There are no lockdowns here,” when my kids tell me they stood on desks to build block towers to the ceiling at school, when I watch them play every afternoon because there’s no homework until you’re 12, when I realize I’ve lived here three months and have not yet seen a homeless person – well, fuck.

When I see Mac come home on a Wednesday at 1pm so he can take Arlo to play football in the park.

When I see him making lunches in the morning.

When I see him not commuting four hours a day.

When I see three Dutch kids somehow attached to a bike ridden by a Dad at 2pm on a Tuesday (because dads take time off to be with their kids here (“Papadag!”).

Well fuck. I love it here.

“Happiness?”

It isn’t a matter of happiness, though, is it? Happiness is bullshit. We chase it like hungry animals, some fleeting thing always just around the bend. We all know this. It’s a cliché at this point.

What do we get, really, when shit is good? Contentment? Serenity? Freedom? Peace?

Do I have that?

Yes, which is partly why I’m fucked up. Because I have so much more of it here, it’s disturbing.

How can you simply rejoice in the realization that your kids are safer in this country than your own?

How can you just delight in the fact that your husband has been returned to a freedom over his life because the Dutch understand work-life balance and health insurance is affordable?

How do you purely celebrate that when just beneath it is the reality that a return to America is probably an end to it again. How do you feel the loosening of some knot in your guts because this new country allows children to be children and expects you to do the same, and you realize how much impossibility you held in yourself, how much impossibility was yours to somehow achieve as mother. The craziest thing is I didn’t even realize it was there until it was gone.

the homework the reading “norms” the “safety of children” the forms the healthy food the endless march to get to the top of a dying middle class the eye toward retirement for freedom

I almost cried when George came home and told me they made apple pie in school and got candy for a kid’s birthday. It was just the type of thing that would appall and “deeply concern” so many mothers in my old town. Sugar! At school! Standing on desks! Candy!

It’s just, like, not that big of a deal here. Nobody cares. No wonder Dutch kids are the happiest in the world. And it isn’t that there are no rules. That doesn’t make kids happy.

My kids’ school is incredibly strict about sugar in lunches. As in, it’s not allowed at all. So, you know, they’re like reasonable.

Moderation. Weird.

 

There’s no need to complicate this. I’m disrupted. That’s all this is. I’m finding my way in a new reality.

I have to admit though I absolutely didn’t know what it would feel like to have my world contract to a tiny square.

I lived in northern California my whole life. My parents lived there. My grandparents too. My great-grandparents arrived there after making their way out of the Philippines and the East Coast and Southern United States. So, while my body resided in a single town outside of Sacramento, familiar land stretched beneath my feet all the way to the middle of California, to the Nevada border, to Humboldt County on the way to Oregon. To the sun dropping into the Pacific Ocean.

It isn’t about knowing all the mountains and trees and lakes and roads. California’s too big for that. It’s about knowing a place from as far back as you can remember. It’s about imagining the boundaries of your home, the dirt you love, places you know in your bones from memory and history. Living your whole life in the same place feels like circles expanding so far beyond yourself, one after another, boundaries of familiarity wherever you go.

And in your mind, you can see it, how far your friends and family and feet stretch around you. It seems to hold you there in the center with old, massive hands.

It feels like safety.

Apparently it’s no small thing to let it all go.

I knew I wouldn’t get out of this without some sort of reckoning. Nothing comes for free. Nothing is that simple.

There’s so much left behind.

 

My brother left for ten years for college and medical school. But I, I don’t leave. And if I leave, I certainly don’t get somewhere new and find a mirror to the insanity of my former life. I certainly don’t feel the relief of a saner, more humane and pragmatic society next to the reality that it isn’t mine.

How much new can the heart and brain hold? Where the fuck am I?

One foot at home, aching. Aching. FUCKING ACHING.

One foot here.

I didn’t come here seeking happiness. I came here seeking a life more aligned with freedom of profession and time, with family, with choice, with something beyond endless work for survival then hopefully a retirement and something more than a big house to celebrate on my deathbed. I came here for a fuller life right now, a slowing down, a different kind of safety circling us.

The fact that I found it is somehow excruciating.

Haarlem Central

Haarlem from the other side of the central church AKA We Live on a Movie Set

stepping out of the train station in Amsterdam I see this and it’s never not startling. not sure why. BECAUSE IT’S THE TRAIN STATION IN AMSTERDAM AND I LIVE HERE SOMEHOW

Dam Square in Amsterdam, of course

the ice cream shop in question

the Haarlem central square where we hang out a lot

“futbal” is a thing we do now and by “we” i mean everyone else but me

****
Hi. I have three writing workshops starting next year.

JOIN US

We’ve got WRITE ANYWAY, for the writer sick of her own mental shit (fear, mostly). And the RENEGADE WRITERS’ GROUP, for the writer ready to get a first draft done. And finally, FROM MEMORY TO MEMOIR, which will bring you from memories of your life to actual story, or help you shape and enhance a memoir draft you’re wondering what to do with. Email me questions or to set up installment plans (which I offer for all of these).

Oh and my book didn’t write itself. And you can totally still buy it!

(Please do. I owe people money.)

44 Comments | Posted in I guess we're moving to the Netherlands | September 30, 2019