I’ve never quite been able to forget that the first person to run a marathon, the Greek hero Pheidippides on whom the modern day race was founded, DIED FROM IT. This fact has concerned me on more than one occasion, but never did it seem more relevant to my life than last Sunday afternoon as I lurched over the final bridge of the Venice Marathon and stumble-sprinted toward the finish line. I was more than exhausted, my muscles already pushed a full hour beyond their former limits. All four limbs and the top of my head were tingling as if ice shavings had replaced the blood in my veins. My heart was beating so quickly that it finally achieved liftoff and flew ahead without me, and at a mere two hundred meters from the end, one thought crystalized in my mind: I was about to pull a Pheidippides.
They say that completing a marathon is largely a mental effort, and in retrospect, I think that my finish-line-death-sprint experience had more to do with the sensory overload of the day than it did with physical strain. You can only dig your nails into your mind with excitement and awareness for so long before reality starts to blur around the edges. I’ve already admitted that calm-and-collected isn’t my jam when it comes to running, so I have no additional dignity to lose by confessing that the second our 5:55 wakeup call came on Sunday morning, I jumped into carpe diem hyperdrive. Let me tell you, no one has ever put on athletic socks as fervently as I did that day.
Every minute pre-race was duly seized and catalogued in my mind as wonder. The fog outside our hotel as we walked to the bus station primed my imagination so that even our cramped forty-minute ride to the starting line, during which I was repeatedly stepped on and elbowed in the face, felt like the beginning of some epic adventure. Once we arrived, the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose among all 8,000 runners made even standing in line for the porta-potties an engaging activity (and made the pee-gauntlet of men who didn’t bother with the porta-potties an object of understanding laughter… though later, after I’d spent an hour waiting in the start canal guzzling Gatorade, my laughter had developed urgently jealous undertones). I paid attention to the pearly cast of the sky, the mismatched shoes of the guy stretching behind me, and the exact position of my armband; everything mattered in the larger context of Marathon Day, and I wasn’t about to let any of it slip my notice.
Getting one last marital hug in before the starting gun.
We’ve had an odd schedule lately. Italy celebrated a national holiday on Thursday last week and another one two days ago, and it seems like weekends keep popping their heads into our lives and then backing out again, mumbling apologies. We’ve spent more time with friends over the last week than we have in months, and it’s felt like coming back to ourselves even as work piled up around our ears, even as the haphazard routines in our life gave up altogether and ditched us to go out for commiserative drinks.
This is an odd season of life, actually. We’re never quite sure if we’re on the verge of change or if we’re putting down roots into our version of normal. Those things that make us feel most alive—traveling, spending quality time with friends, writing (for me), playing music (for him)—have taken a back seat to the sheer madness of trying to establish ourselves as self-employed. We know the work we’re doing is valuable, but we don’t know when we should stop, what shape the big picture is taking, whether we’re in a sprint or a marathon.
One day, I’m sure I’ll look back on these in-between years and see every pattern and nuance through the clear vision of hindsight. I may even develop nostalgia for this time when our lives revolve around possibility (nostalgia-speak for “How the hell are we going to make it??”). For now, though, I’m trying to focus on one bite-sized day at a time and on the snippets of loveliness that carry me through the crazy:
* The drone of lawnmowers all across the city on Sunday afternoons. Even though I know that the tiny wild daisies that I love are being cut along with the wild allergy grass that I don’t love, lawnmowers sing the surest tribute to sunshine I can imagine.
* The quaint ruckus of Umbrian architecture, pink limestone houses and terraces and arches piled up on top of each other like a Medieval slumber party. We’ve lived here almost six years, and I still can’t get over the layers of our landscape: the base of silver-dusted olive trees posed like elderly modern dance troupes, the jumble of sun-warmed stone climbing out, and the Mediterranean sky pooled above. I still can’t stop pulling out my camera, a tourist in my own home.
* Coffee, in the social sense. I’m always amazed at the kind of long, easy conversation that can be carried by something as small as an espresso. Don’t try to tell me there’s no magic in that dark liquid.
* Re-falling-in-love songs:
* Handwritten letters addressed to me.
* Baby apricots, cherries, and figs in the backyard we share with our landlord’s family. (We live on the top floor of a “family condo,” which is a vastly more common living arrangement than standalone homes are here. I adore how this setup allows me to have fruit trees without my having to do any work whatsoever to maintain them.) Seedlings, snapdragons, and an explosion of strawberry buds in our balcony garden. Flowers on the kitchen table again. Little growing things, life all around.
* Sleeping on freshly washed sheets that have spent the afternoon cavorting outside with the breeze. I remember the luminous Mollie Greene commenting once on Instagram that washing your sheets “makes all the difference in everything,” and I’m inclined to agree.
* Tolkien with the girls before bed. After enduring series like The Faraway Tree, which the girls enjoyed but which made me want to stick forks into my own eyeballs, I’m thrilled to be reading good literature as a family. Also, I’d forgotten how funny The Hobbit is. (And what a bad-ass that Gandalf is!)
* Chocolate-covered grins.
Tell me about the snippets of loveliness carrying you right now. Ready, set, go!
The morning sun scattering particles of color off of apples, handbags, and Vespas, the sky-drunk windows above, the passersby pausing to browse.
Sudden art around every corner, hanging on the pause between footsteps; beauty so extravagant it leaves its imprint like sun-stars on your mind.
We lean against the kitchen counter with our espresso cups, the delicate painted porcelain ones he brought back from Sweden with an apologetic smile. He knew only too well that I would have rather had the trip than its souvenir. Travel was one of the first topics to draw us into each other’s orbits a decade ago, and now the scrapbook of our shared memory is fat with airport sprints and linguistic rodeos, not to mention the foreign hospital trips that are as good as guaranteed when globetrotting with young children. Still, my heart makes a habit of packing light, always reconnoitering our next big adventure.
I know his does too. Right now, he is dreaming aloud about next summer, and I thrill at the way his ideas leap like salmon up the rush of our present reality. My husband’s mind is never intimidated by the pushback of probability, and I’ve learned not to underestimate the survival skills of these rainbow-finned dreams (just as he’s learned not to bring them up without first offering caffeine).
Scotland, Slovenia, China, Brazil… the words dissolve like pillow mints on my imagination, leaving behind traces of pastel sugar and reckless hope. I wonder if one of these flights of fancy will solidify next summer or if we will just continue to catch glints of them in the moments before they re-submerge. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Dreaming and scheming and scribbling carefree lines across the map is as much part of what makes us us as packing the car to the gills and turning the key is, and I know that our leaning against the kitchen counter right now, coffee cups and possibilities in hand, is all part of the adventure.
What do you daydream about with your significant other?
It’s been one of our rougher weeks here at the Casa di Bassett, and as I’m sure most bloggers can attest to, writing anything can feel impossible when you’re not at liberty to share the circumstances weighing on you. Thus the silence around here, heavy with words unwritten and whisperings of failure. As always, though, beauty heals. I’ve spent a lot of time this week watching clouds shift and meld over church spires, strawberry blossoms bob in the wind, and my daughters’ eyes sparkle with imagination. Noticing the duet of art and grace in the world around me has a unique way of lifting the weight from my lungs, and this, beyond anything else, is the reason we returned to the Amalfi Coast this Easter.
You should know up-front that I did not anticipate liking Naples. From all the stories I’d heard, I was imagining a giant trash heap teeming with mob bosses, and while I know better than to take stereotypes at their word, I was really only looking forward to the second half of our trip on the Amalfi Coast. Turquoise sea and lemon groves, they fill my soul… but now I’m getting ahead of myself. You see, Naples absolutely refused to let me leave uncharmed.
Sophie’s holding up a plucked dandelion for a drink. Yes, we went in the drizzle. Yes, she is every kind of precious.
Easter 2012 Part 2 (Part 1 here)
Norman Rockwell – “Home from Vacation”
I woke up this morning feeling like a hippopotamus had plopped down on my head at some point during the night and promptly died. I wouldn’t have woken up at all had my husband not groaned for me to look at the time. The clock said 8:38—precisely 23 minutes after the final bell for Natalie’s school. I said a bad word. The hippopotamus said nothing. I never feel precisely energetic in the mornings, but this was a whole new category of tiredness. Post-vacation tiredness, I suppose. Post-THIS-vacation tiredness. In fact, I would bet that this morning’s mammalian fatigue started last Tuesday when I brilliantly decided to take the kids to the zoo. In Naples. By myself.
We were supposed to have Wi-Fi. It was one of the two features I insisted on for last week’s vacation rental. Number one was a parking spot—every car deserves at least a fighting chance of surviving Naples intact—and number two was connection with the outside world. I know it’s healthy to unplug every once in a while, but I’ve learned a few things about myself and isolation over the years, and… well, let me just turn you over to the post I wrote last Monday. In light of the following seven Wi-Fi-less days, I’m titling it Irony.
Monday, April 02, 2012
Late-afternoon sunbeams sprawl through the open doorway and across my toes, painted a sugared lavender in honor of these first barefoot days. I’m starting to think, however, that I should have gone with orange. It’s everywhere in this Neapolitan villa—tangerine curtains, sunburst floors, goldfish prints swimming across mango walls—and I wish I were unabashed enough to do the same in our own home. This color, it’s the only invitation I need to waltz wholemindedly into Easter break.
In the absence of orange Neapolitan villas, I’m notoriously bad at vacation. This will come as no surprise to any of you, but it’s easier for me to leave my toothpaste than my productivity complex back at home. Even my usual blogging hiatus turns into a form of obligation, a must carpe every damn diem teethgrit no matter how far behind my self-awareness starts to lag. So this, lounging in tandem with the sunlight and letting my fingers stretch long on the keys, is my highest form of rebellion for the week.
Our vacation rental is nestled in a maze of farm roads on the slopes of Vesuvius, and from the living room sofa, I can see past the tips of lightly fuzzing peach trees and across the rooftops of Naples to where ships weave silver tracks in the bay. We’re high above clamor and hurry, time trilled away by birds flitting through a bower of wisteria blossoms just off the terrace. I never thought I could feel so completely relaxed in a city whose streets jolt the afterlife in and out of focus, but here I am. Purring.
Oh yes, there is more to come. See you tomorrow, same time, same place?
P.S. – It’s crazy good to be back.
This might sound crazy, but I prayed for Disney World.
By the tail end of our month in the States, our Christmas trip was beginning to resemble a parade of unavoidable expenses—tolls, Urgent Care x 2, gasoline x a million, and ever-mounting bureaucratic fees for the paperwork we had traveled to get—and despite the gorgeous generosity of friends and family who welcomed us in, we just couldn’t swing a day with Mickey Mouse.
That realization hurt like a choke chain yanking us straight back to our credit card bill. There we were in Orlando for the last time in our foreseeable future with a few days to spare and two little girls who spent a solid 45 minutes in the Disney Store pretending to be princesses. The girls weren’t expecting anything more, and maybe that was part of why I ached so much to take them… especially Natalie who softly read every Disney World billboard we passed on the way to get her broken arm set. So I prayed.
You should know I’m no good at praying. The church traditions of my past have left a script in my mind from which I rarely find words to deviate. I don’t know how to be honest with my head bowed and eyes closed. Instead, I’ve learned how to feel, careful not to muddy my heart’s surface with thoughts, and I imagine that I’m directing that feeling toward someone who cares. This time, logic scolded me for asking God for something so frivolous when people all over the world struggle with very real needs. My brain followed this up with a cynical laugh because really, I expected someone to just up and offer $400 worth of tickets to a strange little family from Italy? My heart wouldn’t stop hoping though, so I blocked out cynicism and logic and felt as earnestly as I could, following up with “please.”
And wouldn’t you know, someone just up and offered $400 worth of tickets to our strange little family two days before we returned to Italy.
Words can’t express.
We’re back in Italy now, adjusting to the time difference and unpacking far more than we remember packing, and if jet lag weren’t already doing the job, my gratefulness at being home would keep me in a waking stupor. A string of miracles is the only thing that got us there and back again, which anyone who’s ever approached Italian government offices with a deadline can confirm. We’re starting 2012 with little certainty but with enough hope and possibility to make up for it fifty times over, and each time the choke chain has started to tighten this week, I’ve relaxed back into the glow of this—answered prayer, extra pixie dust included.
Vacations are always tricky terrain for me. My overly analytical brain drives itself dizzy reminding me that I need to make every moment count but that I shouldn’t lose myself in the process but that I shouldn’t take precious time away from family to recharge but that I shouldn’t neglect my writing but that I should be out living so that I’ll actually have new writing material but that I need to take care of my introverted soul so that I can enjoy these moments I’m living but that it’s selfish to claim time for myself when we have such limited opportunities to spend with the people and places we came to see but, but, but, but, but. Basically, there’s no winning this one. (Anyone else get way on trips? Please say yes.)
Last week was especially intense, and as we’re gearing up for another stretch of absolute insanity—which will hope-beyond-hope land us all back in Italy together—I’m trying to figure out how to process all of it in triple time. My working strategy involves a little bit of running and a whole lot of peanut butter M&Ms. Other suggestions welcome, though I can’t promise restraint when it comes to M&Ms.
The jury is still out on whether or not my mental processing methods work, but one aspect of this trip stands out in my mind in stunning detail. All of the upheaval and impossibility and hair-pulling bureaucratic situations we’ve faced over the last few weeks have made the perfect backdrop for divine intervention. We’ve been racking up miracles like frequent flyer miles over here, and it’s the best possible way to start this year—assured in my own heart, for whatever it’s worth, that we’re not alone.
It’s a good thing I feel this way because we still have some pretty big hurdles to clear before I can get on a European-bound plane. If I weren’t able to trust that everything will work out, I might end up resorting to self-medication. Scarfing down peanut butter M&Ms, for instance. Can you imagine?
(Don’t feel like you have to answer that last one.)