Monthly Archives: April 2014

The fray

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The fray

Today is not a good day.
I woke in the middle of the night with a deep aching in my wrist. Carpel tunnel. After an hour or so of fitful readjusting I slept like a new born, waking every 45 minutes or so in various states of discomfort. At 705am the first sister came into my room, loaded with backpack, papers.. At 708 the second sister came up, requesting a play date for today, my iPad and my attention. The rule is I can sleep until 8 on Sundays. The rule had been broken again. Having no back up, I try to sleep as the two sisters stage whisper to each other, argue, the dog barks. At 730 I give up, haul my tired body out of bed, stumble over shoes left in my room, stuffed animals and dirty socks littering my floor. Sigh. My roommates are not terribly considerate. Oh, and they don’t pay any rent and sigh and snap when asked to do their part. But then, I’m not having a good day. Everything seems grim.
I make coffee let the dogs out, discover the dog has chewed up my Van Gogh coasters, a gift for my father from Amsterdam. I cringe as I step on cupcake sprinkles, yesterday’s task to clean them up had been abandoned for funner things. Someone has forgotten to flush the toilet. Again. Cat food is still in the car. Cats are slinking around my feet. Hungry. Meowing. On Facebook it seems all my friends are doing the most fun stuff ever. I feel like a child. Returned from my trip to Europe, the fun has already run out. I’m back to being just a single mom.
I pry the sprinkles off my feet. Fish my wrist brace out of the closet. Rant and complain as I make my way around the house. Girls scramble, confused. Socks get put in the laundry, laundry gets put in the washing machine. I issue orders. They sigh, but comply. The sun shines, I sigh. Today is a stupid day. It’s 9am.

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#allbymyself

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Friday night 7pm. I’m sitting alone at a local bar playing flappy bird on my iPhone. A single woman alone in a large metropolitan area with no one to be responsible to, no one waiting for me with questions about where I’ve been, no curfew.
There’s a block of cheese thats staring back at me and a couple beside me making awkward halting conversation about golf and music. I suspect it is not their first date but the relationship is new. Still painfully polite. They make safe conversation. No ones talking about their failures tonight.
I look up from flappy bird. My high score of two mocks me. The bartender makes polite conversation. How’s the beer? Do you need more? Heck of a thing that Malaysian airline. Time passes. A single gentleman across the bar notices I’m alone. My chair clearly pushed away from the new couple. I give them 6 weeks tops.
The gentleman is going to make small talk, I can feel it. I dig deeper into my game, try to look as though I’m waiting for someone.
I despise small talk. I know it’s the only way to bridge the gap between stranger and conversation, but I’m bored by it. I have no patience for it. Small talk is not real. It’s just like most things for me. I’d rather jump to the good part. I’ve a difficult time with the inbetween. The learning phases.
The moment seems unavoidable.
How’d you like the stout?
I’m too polite to just blow him off.
There’s some chance it might lead to an actual conversation. Risky. Odds are its just going to eventually lead to a point where I’d have been happier playing flappy bird.
I like being alone. Maybe it’s a result of being an only child. Perhaps it’s a consequence of raising three daughters all alone. Whatever it is, I’m happy alone.
Humans are social animals. It probably makes no sense to avoid coupling or grouping. I’ve always had trouble being logical. Certainly at some point being alone wouldn’t work , even for me. But I haven’t ever reached that point. Granted the longest I’ve been alone is. 7 days. Maybe at 8 days I crack.
The couple next to me has made friends with the couple next to them. They seem happier. Like two globs of oil that became one, like the wonder twins. Like two sets of wonder twins they are more together-together.
It’s cool. I’m glad they like each other like making their twosome a foursome. Maybe in the next 6 weeks they will all get together and play spades.
Holy shit. They literally just invited the new couple to go to another bar to listen to a local band. The one couple just picked up the first couple. I don’t get it, but I can’t judge them for liking this sort of thing. The whole situation seems to have helped the new couple appear less awkward. Maybe it takes the pressure off. They all seem a great deal more socially acceptable than me. Crap. Maybe I’ve become anti social. Maybe I’ve got some kind of adjustment issue. Maybe I should try to get in on the conversation. Casually insert myself. Get an invite to the concert. I’m funny. I could do it.
Nah. I like being alone.

PS. Turns out the couple is getting married. They are engaged. Clearly, I’m a horrible judge of character.

Going home

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Going home

And yes by the end of the trip everything seemed so much more familiar. I began to think of the buildings around my hotel as my neighborhood when I saw them from the tram window. The flow of traffic and people seemed much less crazy, although-still crazy. Breakfast of smoked fish and salad appeared normal, although I didn’t venture to try it. I knew where to walk for dinner, or cold medicine, or chocolate, or to see a movie.
I’ve spent endless hours inside my own brain for the last 7 days. I’ve thought of Chris and how much he would have loved the city, how long it would have taken him to get through the museums and how nice it would have been to sit at a cafe table and share a cappuccino with him.
I consider how exhausting the last five years (maybe the last ten) have been. I consider what a victory it was to get through 2012, to have held my family together. I did the hardest things I have ever done that year. I buried my husband. I told my daughters their father had killed himself. I celebrated holidays and searched to define the new normal. I woke up, made coffee, bought donuts, showered even when I simply wanted to sleep. I felt the enviable love and support of my community. I learned to manage my family’s finances, unclog drains and toilets. I sold our family’s home. I moved into a new home. I started to rediscover a version of me that I buried many years ago. I dreamed of the future. I healed.
As the anniversary of year two approached I received an unexpected check and decided quickly to travel. Something about putting so many literal miles between myself and the past felt right. It felt like the next logical step in healing, moving forward, seeing who I am. All that time alone would certainly force me to take a look at myself, to feel my feelings, listen to my inner voice.
So I listened.
I thought about myself as a mother.
I thought about myself as a single woman in her 40s.
I thought about myself as a survivor.
And I felt joy. Real joy and satisfaction over and over again. These years, however many, have all been opportunities. I don’t mean this to be as cliche as it may sound. It’s true. I have the gift of three beautiful, complicated, brilliant and resilient daughters. They know what it means to walk through fire and come out on the other side. And all of these circumstances, especially the most painful events, have been the catalyst for transformation. To be who I am, where I am.
And it finally feels really good.
Maybe I didn’t need to go all the way to Amsterdam to allow the weighty wet blanket of grief to be pulled away. Maybe, like Dorothy, what I was looking for was always in my own back yard. My best guess is that it was time. Time to feel a little less bad, less guilty and broken and resentful. Time to realize I’d healed some. Time to realize my girls and I, we are doing ok. In fact we are doing damn good.
Sometimes you have to take a few steps back and look out over the horizon to be able to see what is right in front of your face.

Onward to Germany!

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Onward to Germany!

Today I overloaded my nervous system by renting a car, driving out of Amsterdam and into Germany. At first I worried about driving in Amsterdam, getting lost in Germany and then about finding a place to park once I returned. Oh and I worried about hitting a cyclist, a moped, a pedestrian, a dog, another car, a tram or a baby on a bicycle- without a helmet.
Then all my fears were doubled when I am told that my car is manual. F-ing manual. I haven’t driven a manual in years, and never in a city this size, in a foreign country. I can’t read the traffic signs and Amsterdam’s driving rules/streets seem more than a little objective. But I’m going to do this. No is not an answer.
So I hop in, plug in the GPS and after several tries, I cannot start the car. Sigh. A trip back in and the gentleman helps me unlock the steering wheel. And now I am off, zipping (perhaps more chugging) through the streets, obeying the signs, following the rules. Ok. Once I found myself in the tram lane, but no tram hit me. So that’s good, a victory even.
I lurch out of town, wrestling with the language on the GPS while at stop lights, trying to remember the feel of the clutch-break- gas-change gears dance. I make it onto the freeway and as the miles pass gently by the skyline is doted with unfamiliar trees, golden and bright green from the first touches of spring. Periodically it drizzles, pours rain and stops. Time passes and I feel a bit more relaxed. I am now 15 minutes into my trip.
I am delighted to find a radio station that plays American music, a lovely mix of the Beatles and Gloria Gaynor, ABBA and Ben Folds Five. The crossover from the Netherlands into Germany could not have been any less exciting. Granted I was expecting Nazis wearing stahlhems accompanied by German shepherds to ransack my car. Imagine my surprise when I passed without incident under the sign welcoming me to Deutschland. But, I don’t get out much. The countryside is indeed lovely and not so unlike home with smelly cow and goat pastures, stumpy fat pigs and a small group of the largest brown hares I’ve ever seen. All this grabbed as I whiz along the autobahn at 80 miles an hour. 80 miles per hour- A speed that seemed fast until a black BMW would zoom by as though I was moving backwards.
It becomes necessary to make a pit stop shortly after I’ve crossed into Germany. I try to make the exit, only to discover one of those signs I couldn’t read apparently said THIS exit is closed. So as I begin to approach what I believe to be my exit, I see barricades blocking my way. Dear god now I’m stranded, on what is about as wide as our emergency stopping area, on the autobahn, with a stick shift. I’d like to cry, I’d like to be back at the hotel, I’d like to be in a coffee shop. These are not available options. No is not an option. So, I back up about 300 yards, wait for anything that looks like a break between the cars and I race back on, horns blare, but I’m in the lane- victory.
On and on I drive, I eventually successfully exit the highway and find my way to what I believe to be a truck stop. Here I discover my first indication that I am no longer in a place where, everyone speaks English. I gesture, I say toilet with what I believe to be a German accent. I point. The lady says something in German. I say hopefully “English?” The lady smiled warmly and handed me a key attached to a six foot metal shelf, which I drag dutifully to the ladies room. I think the warm smile was probably more of a laugh. I get everything taken care of here and continue. Victory
After many miles I finally get the command to turn off the motorway and onto a smaller, quieter road that winds through all the tiny villages between Bremen and Hassel. The street is flanked by yellow fragrant flowers. Periodically I catch a glimpse of a wind mill, or a church steeple that appears to be many hundreds of years old.
At long last I see the yellow sign that says “Hassel”. I’ve found it. This tiny spot on a map, and I’ve found it (not without the help of GPS, but still…) victory. I am overcome with emotion, to be in this town where my relatives were centuries ago, at having survived the drive, at saying yes.
The “town” is hardly more than a bus stop though. I search for a church thinking perhaps I’ll find an old grave marker. But I do not. This town could not be more adorable, or a more welcomed sight. What is in the town is hardly even relevant. Just the fact that I made it here is a victory. I drove the car through Amsterdam, into Germany, off the motorway to this tiny village where my great grandmother’s family once lived. I’m feeling as adventurous as Columbus (though decidedly less inclined to commit genocide). I know Gramma Olga would have been proud. I am proud.
I suppose along the way I’ve discovered that I have much more ability to conquer those things that frighten me. I am quite convinced that the choice we all have in life is not about choosing not to be afraid, the choice is about not letting the things that you’re afraid of control you. Choose to do the things that frighten you.

Turn signal optional

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ImageThe following entry is from Wednesday April 9, the first week I was in Amsterdam. It serves mostly as an introduction to tomorrow’s entry.

Today by some undeniable stroke of good luck, I have rented a car and by faith am driving to the tiny German town of hassel. This is the tiny spot on the map where my great great grandmother and great great grandfather and great great aunt were from. I’m beside myself- though at the moment I’m focused on the terrifying idea of navigating a car out of the city of Amsterdam.
I’ve never seen a city that drives this way. Of course the signs are all in Dutch and even the street signs that are only symbols appear no less confusing than hieroglyphs. At night and on the weekends, they turn off the stop lights all together. It sounds insane to have no street lights, until you see the way the street lights are regarded during the day.
Let’s talk a moment about lanes. First there are many lanes, lanes for trams, lanes for bikes, sidewalks for bikes, or pedestrians and periodically cars. There are lanes that turn, lanes that go straight, lanes that go south and lanes that go north. All the lanes have white lines. Sometimes the lanes have arrows. In the time that I stayed in Amsterdam I did not discover how it is decided when the bicycles and motorized scooters go, but they seem to maintain the right of way in all situations. Even a tram will stop for a bike. I did not see any accidents while here, but anytime I saw someone with a cast I assumed it was from a biking accident. Oh, and the bikers never wear helmets. They do however talk on the phone, transport groceries and other goods and more people. I saw a regular two wheel street bike with four people on it, four. It was not unusual to see two people on a bike, the second on the flat cargo holder on the back, sitting side saddle. And there were plenty of children on bikes, never with a helmet. I am eager to research the incidence of head injuries in Amsterdam.

If a bra falls in a locker room…

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Let me tell you a little something about that trip to the sauna…

So, I had booked a massage at a sauna about a mile or so from my hotel on my first full day in Amsterdam. My back never really feels great, my dad always says, “Man is not entirely ready to walk upright”. Add to that the fact that I had attempted to sleep during the 8 hour flight, while sitting upright and balancing my head so as to not awkwardly lean against the elderly gentleman sitting next to me or droop into the aisle where I would undoubtedly be crushed by a beverage cart. So a back massage sounded lovely.
All my life I’ve aimed to be early. And this day was no different. I was two hours early. I had walked down to the area where the sauna was located at about 10 o’clock in the morning. I took a canal tour, enjoyed a cup of coffee, and saw a ton of really old buildings. The walk back to the hotel seemed impractical at this point, so I headed to the sauna just in case they could squeeze me in early.
Upon entering the area that served as a lobby I could see into the main space of the sauna. There was a portion of the lobby that was sectioned off with a glass wall and a small pool occupied the space behind it. A bronze structure adorned the ceiling and a grand staircase ascended to the second floor lobby. The air was warm and wet.
A very thin woman in her 50s dressed entirely in black was perched at a tiny desk at the entryway to the main space. I politely introduced myself and explained that I had an appointment in a couple of hours, but was already in the area. She looked at me as though I must have some more information to share that would make these statements relevant to her currently. I didn’t. She finally said that I was welcomed to sit in the main space, but clothes were not permitted. Oh. Ok.
Wait-what, clothes are not permitted!?
Now, I’m probably not the MOST modest person, but I haven’t even worn a two piece bathing suit to a beach in well over a decade, let alone EVER skinny dipped, or been in public without clothes. The only occasion that I’ve been close is at the OB office and even then they give you a jacked up tissue paper vest. So, I politely ask if it’s ok to sit in the tiny wicker chair at the other end of the hall that is obviously not really a place where anyone EVER sits, but really just decoration meant to fill that space. And I sit. I contemplate leaving. I consider what being naked in this lovely room might feel like. I conclude it will feel like a nightmare, a nightmare that takes place in an OB office. I watch the room to see what a room of naked Dutch people looks like and to my delight and relief I see that while clothes are not permitted, towels are.
So I eagerly pay my extra two euros for a very large towel that provides plenty of coverage. That’s when I discover that the changing room, is a giant open room with lockers around the perimeter and it is co-ed. But I’ve convinced myself I’m on board now and I rationalize that I don’t know anyone for thousands of miles anyway. So I nonchalantly wedge myself as far as possible behind the tiny locker door while I make every effort to take off my clothes without ever actually being naked. In the midst of trying to keep at least one layer of covering on at all times I periodically lose my balance and bang loudly into the metal lockers. All this so that a man who is clearly in his 80s, and doesn’t seem to care even in the slightest that I am there, can’t see me.
Once I am wrapped in my towel I go and excruciatingly awkwardly perch myself on a long leather sofa (leather, seriously in a place where people are meant to be naked and wet!?)and just sit there-really awkwardly. People wander in and out of the shower areas, or the swimming pool or this other weird section where it appears that people are washing their feet, or something. Sometimes they have their towels, and sometimes they do not. It seems that time has stopped and I’ve found myself in a lost stanza of the Divine Comedy.
Mostly these are not people you’d get all hot and bothered over seeing naked. They are regular people, middle aged and older. And they do not appear to feel awkward at all, not even when they walk by the decidedly uncomfortable American woman sitting on the sofa. I finally got a magazine, a Time magazine, published in Dutch. I looked at the pictures and tried to appear less weird. I’m not sure I did, but I’m fairly sure no one cared.
Eventually, I had a glorious massage and felt nominally less strange when I got dressed again in the locker room. If someone had been giving out awards for tiny victories I would have gotten mine for living outside of my comfort zone that afternoon. Ultimately this was my fun-sized moment to define, to shape, to experience. Suddenly I recognized that I’d been cast in a whole new play. Hell. I was the director of a whole new play.

A journey begins

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Back in November I got some unexpected money and decided to use the money to take the girls to London. After some horrible visions of grouchy girls wading through soggy London streets, I reconsidered. I would take the girls to Disney in January and I would go to Europe on my own. My world traveler friend R and I sat down with a map and he helped me decide on the Netherlands as my destination. The next couple of entries are about my adventures on that trip.

DayImage two. After waking in the middle of the night for several hours I reawaken at 830 and head down to breakfast, my first in the Netherlands. I am surprised to find savory meats and cheeses alongside (to my delight) fresh bread and yogurt. A chef prepares egg dishes at a skillet. There is juice and strong coffee (coffee regular, I’ve learned). And the more brown-cream like liquid, is not cream. I’m not sure what it is, but I don’t like the taste of it. 

With the help of the beautiful blonde at the front desk, I’ve booked an appointment for later in the day for a massage at a sauna. Until my appointment time arrives I’ve decided to walk to the dam.
The street my hotel is on follows the path of a canal, who’s name I struggle both to remember or pronounce. Bricks pave the sidewalks and I am frequently surprised by the sound of a tiny bell as a bike whooshes past me. Some of the cars are comically small to me and some are plugged in. The air is cool and crisp, it smells like my grandmother’s living room- a mixture of flowers and musty linens. A muscular young woman lifts a heavy bag of rocks onto a rope which is then hoisted by a pulley to an unseen man on the third floor. Most of the buildings are made of stone or brick and rise only four or five floors. The windows are huge and must allow a beautiful view of the charming city. There is a noticeable absence of trash and it is remarkably quiet. I, literally, get lost on the streets as I work to find landmarks to identify my location. Over the course of the morning I start to slowly figure things out. At one point, believing I have finally located The Dam, I discover I am two blocks in the opposite direction so I elect to take a canal cruise and see the city from the water.
Feeling a bit wobbly from jet lag and a little lost within the exotic sounds of the indigenous language, I retreat to a cafe. This is an important difference in Amsterdam, a cafe, not a coffee shop. My coffee arrives with a tiny cookie and real cream. I breathe in the distance of all things familiar. I am alone, but it feels ok. I have broken the bounds of earth, quieted all the voices that say no. I have left behind all the excuses and I’m here.

Amsterdam-an introduction

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While I edit my travel log, I want to drop a quick list of observations from my visit to the Netherlands.

1. There are a lot of bikes. A LOT.
2. Seriously, there are no driving rules, more like driving suggestions.
3. Travel alone. All alone. Eat alone, watch movies alone, walk alone, tour alone. Not always, but sometimes. It gives you an opportunity to really know yourself. What makes you uncomfortable, what do you like, what will you do if no one is demanding a compromise.
3b. It’s practically impossible to ignore your inner voice when it’s the only voice you hear for over a week.
4. I believe when you are away you hallucinate familiarity. I saw people from home and constantly created English phrases from overheard Dutch phrases. ( including, my favorite: “you are wearing a freak shirt”).
5. I have eaten really fabulous cheese and bread and I drank delicious coffee.
6. Amsterdam, while famous for sex and drugs, has much more to offer.
7. I never want to drive on the autobahn again, but if I have to travel via the autobahn, I’d rather drive than ride as a passenger.
8. There is no diet coke in Amsterdam, only coca cola light. It’s not the same.
9. When you ask what beer they have on tap in Amsterdam they say, dark and not dark and Heineken (which even the Dutch will concede is gross).
10. Seriously, there’s no place like home. Image