My twin grandsons are two weeks old today. Right now, mommy and daddy have taken them out for a walk so I have a brief respite to record some thoughts.
I know that when I announced my daughter’s pregnancy I fielded many heartfelt congratulations and expressed excitement from friends who already had grandchildren, telling me what a completely different experience it would be from having my own child. “You get to spoil them!” “You can hand them back when they’re cranky.” “You will realize a different sort of love – one not based on responsibility for raising them but on the pure joy of experiencing them.” Yeah – not so much yet. I’ve been living with my daughter full-time as she and her partner make the transition into parenthood with preemie newborns and have been, in effect, functioning as a third parent, complete with bottle-feedings, burpings, changing diapers, cleaning bottles, endless laundry, bath time, and tandem comforting ( mom and babies.) The fact that they are premature puts an added burden of anxiety on top of everything: about once a day one of them gags and chokes after feeding, entailing the need to turn him head down over one’s arm and firmly pat his back. So one must be watching them like a hawk one hour out of every three to ensure that someone is there to intervene when this happens. This does not promote any significant amount of time for relaxation and regrouping.
I’ve had one kid – and I did it alone, without benefit of a husband or partner. I lived with my parents at the time but they were both working full-time and not available to help at 3:00am as I trod the bedroom floor trying to comfort a shrieking infant. But my daughter was full-term, 8lbs, 2oz. She had a fully-formed digestive system and a hearty trachea. And there was just one of her. Once I had her fed and changed and burped and swaddled, I could look forward most nights to a quiet stretch when I could sleep myself. This is not true with preemie twins. The entire cycle of feeding, changing, burping, comforting, and swaddling often takes up to 2-3 hours for one. And by the time he’s quiet, the other one is ready to go again. Most times they are overlapping. I have no idea how a single person could manage. (In fact, the doula who has been helping us says that she no longer accepts twins in her practice; it’s just too hard, she says.)
What has been SO gratifying about this experience is witnessing my daughter transform from a young woman who was accustomed to indulging herself and her whims (yes, a millennial!) into an absorbed mother who has lost all concern for herself and her own needs in giving 24/7 attention to her newborns. It has been both achingly stressful and immensely rewarding for me to witness her complete metamorphosis: it is so hard to watch her dragging herself from bedroom to kitchen to rewash another receptacle for her breast milk (she pumps in order to provide bottles for daddy and me to do feedings) or change another shitty diaper with bleary eyes in the half-light of dawn, but so heart-warming to hear her murmuring a lullaby or see her kiss the top of a shrieking head. Since her partner is working full-time, it is most often her and I together through the wee hours of night, trying to juggle the bottle warming and burping and diaper changing and gag monitoring; it has brought us into a closeness I’ve not experienced with her prior to now. I am sure at some point I will enjoy all the benefits of being a grandmother, but right now I am reveling once more in the experience of being a mother and watching my child master, with grace and tenacity and boundless love, one of the biggest challenges of her life so far.
I have been remiss in blogging, but a fellow blogger saves me! Julie is an inveterate traveler, a gifted photographer and an accomplished writer. I am lucky to have met her in person when she traveled to Moldova last April. Here she does a wonderful piece on Chisinau – much better than anything I have managed to compose. Thanks Julie and may you continue to traipse about the globe with fortune at your heels!
I’m sitting in a pleasant outdoor cafe, resting my feet after a day of aimless wandering. I looked and looked for a postcard to send you for your collection, but none are to be found in the shops here. I found a faded one on a shelf in the apartment that I’m renting, tucked amid the dog-eared books and the travel brochures for other countries. The photo on it is of the post office building. It’s a striking building. Isn’t it funny how it makes the people look so miniature? In most other European cities, such a building would fade into the background. But this is Chișinău.
It takes a little effort to see beyond the dingy Socialist dwellings that are packed together like hives. But there are traces of beauty to be found.
Friday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. In the United States, I can’t remember this holiday making much of a bang. (Perhaps it was noted on my desk calendar, but with the advent of Outlook, smart phones, and virtual reminders, who looks at those anymore?)
As Americans, we tend toward holidays that commemorate war, politicians (or other male figureheads,) or successful conquest. We cede women Mother’s Day (isn’t every woman a mother?) and Valentine’s – neither of which are days of rest from work, I should point out (Mother’s Day being officially confined to a Sunday in the US.) Both these holidays have a very specific focus and audience – thanks mom for bearing/raising/putting up with me and come on honey, give me give me some love…
In Moldova, conversely, International Women’s Day is a BIG deal with a wide open vista of possibilities. Everyone gets the day off – women, men, children, politicians and bankers. Women are feted, toasted, and gifted, by their husbands, their co-workers, their neighbors, and each other. Coming just a week after Marțișor – the beginning of spring – there is a general feeling of sunshine and fecundity impregnating the air. It not just women in particular but the female principle in general – the yin, if you will – Hera, Athena, Hestia, and Artemis all rolled into one. So what better way to celebrate than spending the day in the forest dancing midst the trees with wine, women, and song?
All week long the mayor’s office had been abuzz with preparations for the pending party. My partner kept assuring me that I was in for a genuine cultural experience, Moldovan style. And the weather itself toed the line, dawning clear and brilliant, topaz sun ablaze in sapphire skies.
Arriving at work at a leisurely 10am, I found out I had missed the morning champagne toast (?!!) and the presentation of flowers to all the women. But never fear! Within minutes, I was ushered into the mayor’s office and presented with a flowering plant, decorative salad dishes, and a genuine crystal vase made in the Czech Republic. These were accompanied by ornate speeches from two of my male co-workers, who then repeatedly kissed me on alternating cheeks so Doamna Valentina could properly capture the moment on camera for the historic record. (Apparently, as both an American and a mature female, I am accorded an inordinate degree of respect. American males – take note!)
By 1:00 all the women from the office were piling into a hired rutiera for the ride up into the forest just outside the city limits. Up, up, up (past the city dump, deserving of its own blog post at some point in the future) to a 10-12 acre plot of trees on a secluded hill. And there were all the men, fires burning under huge metal discs sprouting spindly legs, skewers of meat and buckets of potatoes, onions and carrots readied for the flames. Jugs of wine squat and mellow lined up on wooden tables. Vagabond dogs, still sporting the bristling, dense coats of winter, lingering at the periphery, anticipating the feast to come. Air clear and mild, the sun a thin blanket of warmth over the crisp chill of glittering frost. It was almost medieval in its raw, unadorned simplicity.
The first order of business began with the photographs –meticulously posed group and individual shots that are de rigueur for Moldovans whenever they gather for celebrations. No matter how old, wrinkled, tired, messy, fat, windblown, or unattractive one might be feeling, there is no reason a Moldovan could fathom for not wanting your portrait captured in any given circumstance where someone is wielding a camera. I am generally considered a slightly daft anomaly in these situations – not only for my unwillingness to continually stand and smile for up to 35 pictures in a row, but even more so for my propensity to wander about snapping unlikely shots of buildings, trees, food and fire with no apparent concern for lining up people in my cross hairs. What in the world could that be about? I have quit trying to offer any explanation beyond an inexplicable infatuation with the captivating Moldovan countryside. That seems to mollify them a bit.
After that, the games. All those not actively involved in the preparation of the food enthusiastically joined rousing games of badminton or volleyball. And I mean everybody. A few women, arms linked, drifted off to pick violets and craft cunning little bouquets of tender new greenery, but there was none of that cracking open a beer and parking your butt in a lawn chair that Americans have perfected to an art form. Apparently, enough sitting on one’s behind is accomplished at the office; picnics are about shaking things loose and getting one’s blood pumping again.
And when it came time to dine, there was no thought of sequestering off into little cliques of age-, gender- or interest-mates: the women were set at one long table, jugs of wine, buckets of meat and platters of fire-roasted root veggies set before us, while the men stood in a ring behind eating on their feet, ready to replenish the fixings should any particular dish get low.
Of course, after one eats until the stomach is ready to burst, it is them time to dance the hora to combat the stultifying effects of all that food. And dance the hora we did – old, young, male, female, mayor, driver, attorney, secretary, janitor, and volunteer. There was no acceptable reason beyond keeling over and dying right there in the fallen leaves to not dance the hora.
It is quite refreshing to see that there is no inhibition on anyone’s part to get up and dance. Some of the males in this video are barely 20 years old….an age cohort that would most likely not know the first step of a waltz in the USA, much less being caught on the dance floor partaking. And they all dance well – it must be the natural result of being included in every dance on every occasion since you could walk.
And this is one particular cultural quirk of Moldovans to which it has been most challenging for me to acquiesce – the impermissibility of playing wallflower. One cannot float on the periphery and merely observe; there is no motive they can comprehend for not participating – fully, joyfully, and energetically – with all forms of active celebration. If you are there, you participate; “no” is not heard, accepted, or tolerated. They will wear you down. You will dance. And dance. And dance. And dance. (And actually end up enjoying it in spite of yourself.)
And if you get tired of dancing, if your feet are about to trip over themselves in a stupor and your knees are weak and cracking with the effort of propelling your leaden legs into the air, then you are permitted a wee break to embrace a tree and re-energize. What? Yeah, that’s what I said.
As the evening sun began to slip into the naked branches proffered arms, bathing them in a golden glow, I caught glimpses of shadowy forms engaged in locked embrace with some of the more substantial members of our little forest. Arms and legs wrapped around trunks, leaning in with head lying flat against bark, it seemed as if they were listening carefully for the thrum of a heartbeat, or perhaps the pulsing of sap coursing up through the roots to bring sunlight and energy to the higher branches, and the human partner so lovingly appended.
There was nothing “weird” about this – neither drugs nor excessive alcohol was to blame. Tree hugging, apparently, is not so much an environmental catch phrase here as it is a reverent commentary on the relationship that Moldovans still actively hold with nature and the land, especially after hours of dancing leaves one spent and limp and in need of jolt of energy. I was charmed, and humbled. And I refrained from taking pictures, as it was a too solemn, personal and seemingly sacred activity to demean by turning it into a voyeuristic photo opportunity. (If Moldovans aren’t taken pictures, you know it must be anathema…)
My first celebration with my new partners was definitely a mind-expanding journey, though. I was welcomed and integrated into the proceedings with no hesitancy or awkwardness. After so many weeks of solitary confinement in a small bedroom, it felt good to be dancing.
(Last Night’s Dream – in Technicolor, Dolby sensaround sound….)
I am sitting in a large and airy coffee establishment – Starbucks, Peet’s – something modern and well-designed. I have been drinking coffee from a large yellow cup, the soup bowl type with a handle. I am with two friends and we are finished with our coffee but lingering over conversation. Three young men walk by, young, urban-hip; one of them notices my coffee cup and stops to pick it up and admire it. He asks if he can borrow it to drink his coffee from as he doesn’t want to use a paper cup. Flattered that he likes my cup and seems to be a kindred soul, I say yes. He has tousled blond hair and sharp blue eyes and my friends perk up a bit, taking note. He takes the cup and sits at a table over my shoulder, where I cannot see him but my friends, facing me, can.
Thirty minutes or so passes and my friends and I are ready to go. One of them reminds me about my coffee cup, nudging me to go retrieve it. However, I know somehow that this friend, being younger and single, is a more appropriate fetch so I ask her to go get it. She darts up from her chair and scoots over so quickly I know that she was waiting for this opportunity. Within a few seconds I hear the young men laughing and my friend returns with a cup, but it is much smaller and of a different color than the one I gave him. That’s not my cup, I say to her. She looks abashed. I didn’t think so, she tells me, but they kept assuring me it was and I felt like a fool. Suddenly, my two friends are anxiously pointing – They’re leaving, they’re leaving with your cup, go get it!
Inside I am half aware that this is not a good course of action but not wanting to seem like a patsy I get up and go after them. They have left the building by this time and soon I am running to keep up with them. It’s almost like they’re baiting me to chase them.
They board a sort of trolley car that looks as if it is a boat on tracks with a couple of decks and really nice, art deco décor. I am wandering through the rooms and up and down the stairs before I finally find them and ask for the cup from the tousled blond that took it. He smiles mischievously. I don’t have your cup, he says, I gave it to your friend. I hold up the cup – this is not my cup. Mine was large, yellow, and bowl-shaped. Oh, he says, eyes twinkling, my mistake. Let me go get your cup. He disappears for a minute or so and then returns with another cup, small, delicate, with a pointed cap – more like a little urn than a cup.
That’s not it either, I said. Come on –give me my cup. By this time I notice that the trolley has been traveling, rather quickly, up and down streets I don’t recognize. I think that we must be in Long Beach as this is the only city I know that has trolley cars, but I don’t see anything that looks familiar and I realize I didn’t bring my purse or phone. A slight panic arises in me.
Just give me my cup, okay? Therein ensues what seems to be 30 or 40 minutes of cat-and-mouse game playing on this young man’s part while his friends lounge nearby whispering to each other and laughing. He shows me my cup through a locked glass door, taunting me to retrieve it, but when I break the door open to access it the cup has disappeared. He tells me my cup is in his bag and hands it to me to plumb. I keep pulling out cups but none of them is mine. He then leaves the room, promising to retrieve it and I am chasing him again through the rooms and hallways of this fabulous trolley car. I somehow become aware through this process that he is a rich, spoiled brat, that he owns the trolley car, and this little game is a passing amusement for him and his friends.
When I finally find him again I begin to plead with him, hoping he will see my anguish and relent. By this time I realize that I am miles from my friends, I have no idea where I am or how to return to the coffee shop, I have no money and no phone and no coat and it appears to be snowing lightly outside. I tell him I am completely vulnerable, describing my situation, appealing to his sense of humanity, asking for him to please empathize and quit playing stupid games with me. I ask this repeatedly, five, six, or seven times. It seems at this point to have become about much more than obtaining the cup, but I can’t quite grasp what I am trying to convey to him other than to reach out to him as fellow human being.
His eyes continue to twinkle and he smiles as he reaches into a cupboard and pulls out yet another permutation of the cup-that-isn’t-my-cup and proffers it. Here you go, he says. At this point my frustration and perceived vulnerability are now combining into a frothing rage. I am appalled that somebody would treat a person this way, that they could remain impervious to my plight. His friends, meanwhile, continue observe our interactions and chuckle.
Suddenly, I have jumped on the young man, overpowered him and I am beating his head against the floor – not with all the force I could muster, but lightly as if to put on a show of what my anger and frustration could lead to if he didn’t listen to me. He does not respond or try to escape – just allows me to do it while remaining unresponsive through the pathetic beating I administer.
Meanwhile, the trolley trundles on and the snow is falling faster and I know that I am traveling further and further from my friends and will need to rely on help from strangers or passersby to find my way back again. I don’t know whether I am in America or a foreign country, whether I will know the language once I disembark, or how I will contact my friends with no money and no idea, I now realize, what the name or location of the coffee shop actually is.
I decide I need to get off the trolley at this point but I am so angry and frustrated that I grab the young man by his coat sleeve and begin dragging him along with me, vaguely thinking of finding a policeman or some sympathetic stranger who will convince him to relinquish my cup. He bumps along beside me, face down, up stairs and down halls and is otherwise unmoving. A vague sense of unease begins to creep up in me, as if I might have inadvertently hurt him; yet I am still so angry and scared and single-minded in my need to get help that I continue on.
We finally board an escalator and reach the top, me dragging him still by the sleeve only he catches at the top and goes under the rim of the escalator while I am still holding his arm and part of me thinks I should pull him out but instead I let go and he is sucked in and down as the escalator stairs fold (yes, I know this is physically impossible, but it’s a dream remember.) One of his friends is now walking beside me and he winces, grins, and says: that hurt. And I picture the tousled-hair man falling into the hidden mysterious mechanisms of the escalator and getting flattened by the gears and I don’t feel a bit of remorse.
Only then it dawns on me that I may have committed MURDER, I may have actually killed this person, this stranger who began the afternoon walking by my table and admiring my cup and that his two friends witnessed the whole thing and that I had no excuse other than he stole it from me as a twisted prank and kept taunting me despite my pleas to stop. And I had this horrible, mind-numbing sinking knowledge of how a person must feel when they get so caught up in an emotion that their reason and humanity disappear and they act blindly, stupidly, and end up killing another person without ever meaning to. I knew that I done something in an instant that would change my life forever and I had no recollection of how I had arrived at that action or what compelled me to act that way. And I also knew that there was nothing I could do to take it back or make it not have happened.
And then I woke up. (And I was SO damn glad I could’ve cried because my situation had seemed so bleak mere moments before.)
Every nuance of this dream stayed crystal clear throughout the hours of the morning until I finally had to write it down.
The yellow coffee cup is exactly the one from which I drink my coffee every morning.
I have no idea who the young man, his friends, or my friends were or where I was.
I feel very disoriented still with a lingering sense of unease and am left pondering the message of this dream.
It is a fact of Peace Corps service that your mood will swing widely, especially during the first year. It seems that if one can make it through those first 12-13 months, then the end flickers into being and each moment becomes more precious and fleeting. Plus you have the ability to converse with more alacrity and understanding; you have completed some significant work; have experienced a range of celebrations and seasons; and probably have traveled a bit. You’re settled in and beginning to think about what comes next.
For me, six months in with winter approaching and no meaningful work even embarked upon, some days can be a bit challenging. I feel like I am retracing the year of stasis I endured after I had lost my job and was sitting at home waiting for something to happen. Only now the something that I made happen is happening …
And yet. Yesterday, after posting my latest blog, I received a series of a beautiful haikus from my husband and one from a talented poet that I once knew in my youth who found me again through my blog. Her words of wisdom:
The worst has happened
a thousand times before, yet
here we are, in love
It brought me right back to “the light inside [that] is the steady keel” as she put it in her comment. I am in love with my life and my experience, each and every day, no matter how dreary or depressing or difficult some of them might be. In the timeless words of Victor Frankl “What is to give light must endure burning.” This is a time of burning and scrubbing clean the waste of expectation and desire, it is a time to be open and vulnerable to what the world brings to me, to listen without preconceptions or notions of how things should be. The worst has happened a thousand times before and yet still it never has; there is always a blessing to be found in the embers, somewhere.
And then my husband, who is making his own, separate journey, living alone after 16 years of marriage:
Love, stay faraway.
Life still ordinary here.
Strive for magical.
We sold our home, gave away most of our belongings and said goodbye to an existence that was replete with all the things one is supposed to strive for in life, at least according to our current cultural paradigm. But the magical is not often found in the predictable, the safe, the comfortable and ordinary. It comes alongside the burning, or in the embers, or in the light inside that still flickers strongly, despite the darkness outside.
I am blessed, in love, and still striving for magical….