Tuesday, October 1, 2013

On Being An Ex-Expat

Since moving back to the states from Belgium about 18 months ago, I've traveled back to Europe a few times and each trip has felt different.  The first time, was so soon after moving back to Connecticut and then on to Ohio, that I felt more overwhelmed than anything else.  I rented a car and drove through all the villages I had frequented while living in Belgium, went by our flat and stopped for walks around town in Antwerpen and Brasschaat.  We tagged a long weekend onto the trip and visited Brussels before heading back to our new hometown of Cleveland.  The trip was a blur of emotions, both the feelings of missing living there, but also being glad we were back in the states.  The next trip was better, I felt more like a tourist again.  But this last trip was wonderful.  Belgium finally felt again, like my home away from home.  I didn't rent a car this time, but instead jumped on buses and trains where I was closer to my old country-mates and I began to feel a sense of kinship again, the languages coming easier to me, my Dutch words coming back and French seeming to fall from my mouth with no trouble at all.  I'm not fluent in either language, but I found myself comprehending more than I ever had in the past.  I could understand people on the train, chatting with each other, groups nearby at cafes were somehow easy for me to translate.  I could order from the regular menu, not the English menu, ask for directions or how much something cost without any trouble.  It's almost as if being away long enough had taken all my anxiety away and now I was just blending in with everyone.  And it felt great.  This trip, I didn't go see our old apartment in Antwerp.  Instead, I stayed in Brussels first and took an 'official' tour of the city, and after dozens of times visiting the city, having already seen almost every inch I toured that day, now I knew the history of the buildings I'd been passing by for years.  I went inside beautiful old structures and talked to several people who worked at the government buildings, the palace, the museums and cathedrals.  After all this time, I finally felt like a local, like Belgium is my home away from home and so I took charge, and really enjoyed my time.  For several more days, I was in Leuven, capitol of the province of Flemish Brabant, and home to the oldest Catholic University in the world.  While Mr. Lane worked, I took breaks from the novel I'm writing, and walked through the Beguines (where semi-religous women lived in the early parts of the 13th century and beyond) and visited the late-Gothic designed St. Pieterskerk (built 1425-1500) and the beautiful, Brabantian late-Gothic style town hall, Stadhuis, both at Grote Markt.  I wanted to see the  famous painting of the Last Supper, by Dirk Bouts, but the chapel where it hangs was under reconstruction and the painting was covered.  Another day.  But I did learn, Father Damien, the 'Leper' priest of Molakai who served the outcast lepers, until his death, is entombed at St. Anthony's Chapel.  When I visited the university library at Ladeuziplein, I discovered that after WWI, the Germans had burned the building to the ground, which caused outrage in the US, so funds were raised and a new building was erected as a gift from the American people, which really touched my heart.  The names of several colleges and universities in the US were set into the stone walls of the building.  So many times, I see the good deeds of the American citizens on my travels, and everywhere I go, people tell me they love Americans.  I've never been treated badly like you see so often in movies, depicting foreigners as hating people from the states.  It's just not true.  I'm sure if I was rude, they wouldn't like me, but I find if I'm polite, so are other people, and this goes for anywhere.  I think people who complain that they were treated poorly when traveling were probably being jerks themselves.  Everyone I talk to is very happy to share information with me and they always have plenty of questions as well.  Smiling and being friendly is an international language that everyone can speak.  Listen to me, defending my home away from home, trying to convince you that the world and the low countries in particular are welcoming places.  Leuven is the center-point for the on-going controversy of whether Dutch or French should be the national language of Belgium.  Students demonstrated in the 60's and eventually the college was split in two and the French speaking campus is now just outside town while the Dutch speaking students attend classes in the center of Lueven.  The argument reminds me of growing up in California and the Northern Californians and Southern Californians always saying we should split into two states, and we had two languages as well, English and Spanish.  I'm sure the discussion will continue on in Belgium much the same way it does in California and the country will stay as one.  This time traveling and staying in the cities of Belgium, I felt a closeness to the people and could see and feel their lifestyles.  It was nice to see old friends for dinner and be apart of our life as expats even if for only a week.  When I was greeted upon arrival at the airport by the customs officer, he read all the stamps for Belgium inside my passport, and asked if I was living there, and I said, "Not any longer."  He said, "So you're an Ex-Expat...welcome back."  That made me smile.  My life on the lane is still getting settled but it's nice to know that my other lives on my other lanes will always be a part of who I am.

Grand Plaats in Brussels
It Never Gets Old

St. Peter's in Leuven

University Library in Leuven

Here and Below, Some of the Schools who Donated to the Rebuilding of the Library

University Life Belgian Style

University Library in Leuven

St. Peter's Leuven

St. Peter's in Leuven

Floor at St. Peter's in Leuven

Window in Leuven

Lunch in Leuven

Lace Shop Brussels

Needlework in Brussels







Above a Hallway to a Storage Closet

Brussels Door 

Above the Grand Plaats in Brussels

This is why Europeans are in good shape

Stained Glass at the Museum in Brussels

15th Century Door in Brussels

Grote Markt Leuven

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Peaceful Feeling of Time

Time for Sunsets
How is it already almost July?  The years really do start to fly by as you get older.  And I should know.  I am, indeed -- getting older.  This week, I'm celebrating my birthday and somehow, even though I'm in my early 50's, time is flying by faster, because I'm actually feeling younger with each passing year.  When I was a young mother, my own mom told me, once the kids were grown, I'd likely get my energy back.   She told me this one day, when I called her in tears  because I was so tired all the time and thought I might have some terrible disease, so I was a little insulted when she told me it was simply because I was raising a family.  Hey, I said...I'm a good parent, I'm not one of those moms who complain about motherhood.  I'm not tired because of my kids, I must have some sleep disorder or low thyroid or something.  I told myself later, my darlings couldn't possibly be causing me exhaustion...they were the lights of my life, I loved everything about being a mom to them and was 'energized' by them...to me, they were the only reason I could stay awake.  No, it wasn't them.  Mom was wrong.  After all, I thought, she was from another time, when they didn't even have microwave ovens, so maybe she was tired as a mom, but that wasn't my problem -- I was a modern mom with all the most helpful tools and technology for raising my kids -- I had a seven passenger van, for crying out loud.  What did she know?  I went, instead, straight to the doctor.  He'd understand that it was surely something medical.  I sat on the end of the white-papered exam table as he took dictation of complaints:  low energy, aches and pains, headaches, waking up every hour all night.  He took it all down, listened with his stethoscope, asked a few questions, and then suggested taking vitamins, eating right, exercising, maybe losing a few pounds (really? like I hadn't considered that before) and one more thing, try to reduce stress.  What?  Wait!  Stress?  "Having children is stressful, believe me, my wife is having the same problems."  No, I said.  Test my thyroid.  It runs in my family (he then reminded me, he'd already run that test the last time I was there).  He wasn't listening to me and all the articles said to make sure your doctor listens to you.  Be clear.  Be persistent.  Be your own advocate.  So I pushed.  I told him, surely being tired for this long means something, maybe before, my thyroid was just on the verge, and now it was in full-blown meltdown.  He gave me his best doctor face, a look I couldn't quite decipher and I thought to myself, there's no way I'm stressed from my lovely, little darlings.  He's wrong.  I'm just sick.  They're great kids.  Really.  And as if he could read my mind, or just wanted to get to his next appointment, Dr. Stress-Theorist smiled and obliged me with a script for a blood panel workup, which of course, all came back normal.  So maybe my mother was right.  Maybe I did have mommy stress.  But, I didn't listen to that voice and continued thinking it must be some hidden illness they'd missed that was making me so tired.  I read everything with headlines like, Lyme Disease -- The Energy Zapper (thinking I was probably bitten by a tick at the little league fields) and was convinced more than once that I either had low Vitamin D (couldn't be low iron since I was already on iron supplements) or worse yet, diabetes or heart disease.  Yes, I talked my doctor into those tests too, because my Mom couldn't be right.  I couldn't be that tired from just raising kids.  Could I?  And then this weird thing happened right around the time I turned 50.  My last kid went off to college and I started sleeping better, sometimes straight through the night.  No more carpools or last minute science projects.  No more groups of teenagers sleeping in the basement.  No more weekends filled with championship games and school events.  No more weekdays filled with PTA meetings and fundraisers.  It was quiet and even kind of boring around our house now.  Mr. Lane was falling asleep in his leather chair after work, instead of tossing the ball or practicing lay-ups out on the driveway.  The kids were gone.  There was so much more time, life felt luxuriously calm.  I didn't have to read books or do my edits on the fly while waiting for kids to finish with practices, orthodontist appointments -- guitar lessons.  I could read on a Saturday afternoon...all afternoon.  I didn't have to stay up late writing, the only time it was quiet...now I could write in the middle of the day.  Before I knew it, my energy started to come back.  Just like my mom said it would.  So much so, that I began adding back in activities I'd forgotten I enjoy -- golf, long walks, a gym membership, museums, the symphony, professional sporting events, book clubs, quilting, writing conferences, weekend getaways, parties, dinner with friends -- we even went to Paris three times in one year.   Time was flying by, and I was busier than ever.  But I was not tired all the time anymore.  In fact, Mr. Lane and I were out walking some trails recently and he told me he was having a hard time keeping up with me...could I please slow down?  What?  Awesome.  Mr. Lane is a strong, athletic man and he was having a hard time keeping up with me.  I was cured.  The stress of raising a family, even though it was the joy of my life to be a mom -- had indeed, been stressful.  I did worry about them all the time back then.  I wanted so badly for them to always be happy, for everything to go their way, even though I knew that wasn't really possible, that's what I strove for day in and day out.  I wanted them to feel safe and loved.  When someone hands you a beautiful, tiny, human being, wrapped up in a receiving blanket, it's hard not to try to take perfect care of that person.  And that can cause Mommy-Stress-Syndrome (MSS -- my own diagnosis -- and also an abbreviation for a finished manuscript, which can also cause stress, but that's another topic entirely).  You don't even know when you have MSS -- you don't have time to know and your ego will deny it anyway.  One thing I do know now, is that you really need to check your ego at the door when entering the parenting realm.  You'll be much better off in the long run.  Raising kids is hard.  It's time consuming.  It's tiring.  It's filled with worry and sometimes even a little despair.  Croup brings on despair.  When they swallow a dime from the collection plate at church, there's sometimes despair.  When they call you to pick them up early from the dance and cry themselves to sleep later because the boy or girl they like was dancing with someone else, there's definitely despair.  And when the principal calls, good news or bad, there is a moment of deep despair.  You take their hard days so hard, it's difficult not to feel the same way along with them.  Motherhood is all-consuming, and you have a constant urge to pull them close, shelter them like they are still in the womb, so they won't get hurt, or sick, or heartbroken.  But, it's that very feeling that causes the stress, of feeling like you should be able to fix everything that goes wrong, to help solve every problem they encounter, to heal every hurt.  But you can't, and you know that, so you comfort them and let them figure it our for themselves, because you have to, so they can grow into autonomous adults.  And that's where the stress comes in...the silent stress that keeps you tossing and turning, pushing you to make sure those uniforms are clean and ready, that every paper is signed, appointments are met, homework is done, vitamins are taken, rubber-bands are hooked to braces, rooms are tidy, the refrigerator is full.  When my kids went off to college, I didn't have to remember so many details, or witness every disappointment.  They were now out of sight and out of mind.  Most of the time, anyway.  I didn't have to fear that if I failed to remember something, their day might be ruined, they might miss the bus, they might get a low grade, they might not make the team.  No, they were on their own now and I knew I'd trained them well.  They could take care of themselves, even if they couldn't seem to do their laundry or keep their dorm room clean.  They were getting it done.  Doing well in classes.  Calling with exciting news.  Yes, after those initial two or three panic-stricken phone calls from college, about a weird roommate or a crazy professor -- they seem to take off, to be autonomous -- after all.  So the stress lifted.  I had done my job.  I could relax.  They were okay.  So now that things are peaceful, the years seem to be flying by even faster than before.  Because even though I'm getting older -- so are they -- my little darlings, and they are doing just fine.   Here's to another year ahead, cheers to getting older, getting wiser, doing even more...and admitting to my mother that she was right -- the kids are all grown, and I've got my energy back.  My Life on the Lane is full of busy days, sleep-filled nights, birthday candles, thousand page reads, writing new novels, classes, workshops, trips, book signings, book clubs, golf, long foresty walks, wine tastings and time, such a precious and perfect birthday gift -- time -- for me.             

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Fabric of Life

Quilt Fabric

Step One:  Find Fabric 
Guest Room Where Quilt Will Reside  

I'm off to a good start in 2013 with my goal of making a quilt as a metaphor for life.  Incorporating more patience and seeing life as a step-by-step process has already made me feel more calm and centered.  Ommmmm.

I found a darling quilting shop in the quaint village of Chardon, on the edge of the Amish Country here in Ohio.  Tons of beautiful, colorful prints on thin bolts, lining the walls of the shop, ready to be rolled out by the yard, measured to cut.  Glancing through the hundreds of choices, I was transported back to my childhood when my mother would let me choose a Simplicity pattern out of the huge catalogs and then go to the filing cabinet drawers to find my size.  We'd choose a pretty fabric in my favorite shade and Mom would sew me a cute new summer dress, or a cotton wrap-around skirt, in mini, midi or maxi length or maybe even a Halloween costume (she sewed a pirate costume for me in the fifth grade).  With a simple hemline change, I later re-purposed the knickers for culottes which were all the rage in the early 70's, as were hot pants (even shorter culottes) which I wore with my white go-go boots (my father didn't approve, but Mom somehow explained they were in-style and okay).

I found a basket of discontinued fabrics and end-of-the-bolt fragments--right on top were four designs that were perfect for what I had in mind, for a foot-of-the-bed styled quilt in one of our guest rooms.  Now I just need to come up with a design, so I can begin the cutting and piecing process for the celadon green and salmon pink cotton textiles.  I'm excited to add a pop of color to an otherwise quiet palette in this peaceful room over the garage.

Just visiting the fabric shop took me back to a simpler time.  A time when bridesmaids dresses were always hand-sewn by a favorite aunt and a visit to Grandma's house meant cuddling up on the sofa with a handmade quilt.  I took a sewing class in 7th grade, an easy 'A' since I'd been sewing since I was little, thanks to my mom and grandmother teaching me this timeless skill.  I often made myself clothes when I was in junior high and high school, even bikinis for the beach growing up in California.  When I was expecting my daughter, I spent most of the pregnancy piecing together and sewing a quilt and bumper pad, with a matching valance for the window.  Several friends and relatives made small blankets and quilts to add to the nursery.  It was a nice way to prepare and stay calm for my first baby.  I still love looking at photos of my sweet little girl playing on a quilt spread out on the living room floor or outside at a grassy park or under an umbrella on the beach in Newport.  Sewing was once a wonderful part of my life, a way to customize a room or create a favorite-color creation for a friend or loved one.  

I hope I remember how to make that first stitch...I just need to find my thimble.

My Life on the Lane is all about pinking shears, thread and measuring tapes for new projects made the old-fashioned way...with love and patience.