Sunday Morning~ Christmas journey

It’s very early and the call to prayer is my alarm clock. Hauntingly melodic, I wish I understood it’s lyric.

I find myself alone in a hotel room in Istanbul with a hot cup of tea before dawn. It feels exotic and exciting. I have a plane to catch in a few hours and will travel a long way west, but want to take in as much as I can.

The Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia are steps away. Last night I watched the full moon rise over them. It’s utterly enchanting here.

I wonder what it would be to wander the world with no agenda. How long would it take for travel fatigue to set in?

I learned nothing about history in school. I sat through history course after history course and memorized dates of treaties I didn’t have the faintest understanding of. I had no idea who was fighting who in all those wars that all seemed the same to me. I was bored out of my mind. My most poignant memory of history class is the black and white depiction of Clara Barton caring for wounded soldiers. It occupied the upper right hand corner of the page of our fifth grade social studies book, and I think she got a paragraph along with it. I stared at that photograph the rest of the lesson. I memorized every detail: her dress, the water basin, the bandages, the dirty sheets, ragged shoes, hanging lanterns. I wanted to be a nurse even then and wanted to jump in that photo to help. I learned nothing of the war that wounded those soldiers.

On each trip I take I learn more and more of how much war has been part of our civilization. Conquest after conquest described with artifacts buried in the sand. Archeological digs uncover a story of enslavement and excess, of suffering and mundane daily life. And I think hard about what kind of species we are.

On Christmas Eve, Jordan and I walked the empty streets of Turin toward the cathedral for midnight mass. The narrow cobblestone streets, which, hours before had been jammed with traffic, now silently held worshipers walking toward the church in the moonlight. The familiar ritual, shared in this foreign city, was welcoming and loving. The sign of peace was prolonged and sincere. People are good and kind.

I said goodbye to Jordan yesterday and flew back to Istanbul. My hotel was not the same as when I came through before. This one is in the old city on a tiny narrow street. I couldn’t find it for the life of me. I had the map, I had landmarks, I had walking instructions and still couldn’t find it. I was obviously a traveler with a backpack on, map in my hand, and confused look on my face. A persona I usually try to hide, especially in the dark in a strange city. There was no hiding it this time. At least twenty men stopped to help. Kind, non-threatening men stopped to ask if they could help. One came out of his store because he had seen me walk by before and could tell I was lost. I felt safe. I felt reassured that this crazy beautiful world is filled with good, truly good people.

I want to give them more than one paragraph and a small black and white.

Sunday morning~raising travelers

In May, Jordan called me and asked if I wanted to spend Christmas in Turin with him. When I recovered from the shock, I hedged, because I’d just have been in Europe on the Haute Route, and having left my job, was a little worried about cash flow. I explained this, and in mince-no-words Jordan style, he said, “I’ll pay.” I almost fell off my chair. At first I wondered if he had some  incurable disease, or shocking news he needed to tell me in person. But no, just inviting his mother on a Christmas trip. Well, this is a new stage of parenthood!

I accepted graciously.

The cheapest flight was through Istanbul and added an extra week, but with my new open schedule, I could accommodate that and always wanted to see that city. So sure! What the heck! And even adding the extra week and paying for hotels it was cheaper than getting here a week later. Crazy travel deals.

My father’s family is from Turin. They immigrated to the United States just before he was born. The youngest of four children, he was the only one born in America. English was his second language but he never taught his children Italian. In fact, after his mother died, I never heard him speak it again. I’m so sorry about that. I so wish I had grown up bilingual. But he had endured scarring discrimination for his Italian heritage and did not want his children to to suffer that. We were to be strictly American. My father’s English was perfect. He had a vocabulary similar to Webster. He had no accent. But with his family, they all spoke Italian together. Funny that my cousins, siblings, and I thought nothing of this.

I learned French in school, our only option aside from Latin. I pick up a few words of Italian when I’m in Italy, and I’ve been here many times. I love it here. This is my first time in the north and to the city of my ancestors. I feel terrible that I can’t communicate better. People are wonderful, and many speak French, so I’ve gotten by while waiting for Jordan to arrive, but I fantasize about really being able to converse. No one here speaks English. It seems tourism in Torino is for the Turks and Italians.

I worried Jordan wouldn’t find the hotel. I emailed him the complicated way to get into the city from the airport. I didn’t hear back from him. I know he’s traveled in far more remote places than this and knew he’d be fine, I was just being mom. I tried explaining to the proprietor of the hotel that my son was coming. Confused expression for three days. I tried in French. Ah! Si! Bambino!

I waited for him in the reception area checking my clock every two minutes. The hotel is not in the nicest part of town and I had a hard time finding it. He arrived, and señora explains to him that his mother is sitting just over there. She points. He responds to her IN ITALIAN! I’m stunned! “When did you learn Italian?”, I asked.

“This year”, he replied. “I want to speak Italian well enough to read The Divine Comedy, Russian well enough to read The Master and Margarita, and Spanish well enough to speak better than Antonio’s girlfriend.”

I asked if he had trouble finding the hotel. Well, no. Of course not. He downloaded some app and found it no problem, whereas I had been walking miles in sketchy neighborhoods asking immigrants  in a combination of broken Italian, French, and English where the main road was. As a good mom, I was trying to spare him that. But no, he strolls in, all multilingual like he lives here. I love it.

We walked miles through the city I’ve gotten to know and love over the past few days. We caught up on things, we ate and drank. We shared travel stories. He taught me a new app that makes learning a new language like a game. As we walked, we stopped into lit churches, window shopped, and watched how people here deal with the homeless. A young mother pushing a stroller reaches over and takes a small pizza out of her child’s bag. She hands it to a man sitting in the cold with his dog. He thanks her politely, and eats the pizza.


Sunday Morning~Getting Through December

Yesterday I put a quart of oil in my car. It was actually an easy task, one that I have been avoiding since…forever, I think. The oil had been sitting in my car since mid-October when I had my snow tires put on. Having gotten caught last year in a late October snowstorm without them, I thought I’d be well-prepared.  Probably why we haven’t gotten any snow yet. Anyway, the guy at the shop told me he put a quart of oil in and I would need another soon if I was going to do a lot of driving, which I was.  He gave me the oil, and assumed I knew how to put it in. Since this assumption was evident, I did not ask him how to do it. I then drove many hundreds of miles, and have been thinking for some time now, that the oil should have been deposited in it’s appropriate container, somewhere in the engine that I depend on to get me where I’m going. I like this engine very much. It starts every time I push the key (so weird not to say “turn” the key) and moves me along comfortably where I want to go. I love my car. I hope it lasts forever. So why this block against opening the hood?  What is it with that?

When I went to buy my first car on my own after the divorce I set about the dreaded task with a mock confidence to conceal my ignorance. I had no idea what I was doing. I wanted a car that was good in the snow, could fit five people comfortably, and started when I turned the key. I still had PTSD from sitting with five little kids in our old car with the engine going radda-da-da. Radda-da-da.  Until the battery died (shudder). I didn’t care that a new car lost value the minute I’d drive it off the lot.  I wanted a new car.  I’d never had one. I wanted new car smell. I wanted a car that no one else had driven.  I trusted nobody. I wanted it to be all mine.

Jordan and I went out to test drive cars on a frigid Saturday afternoon. Frigid. Below zero. I wanted to see if that sucker would start when I turned the key. We checked out Subarus because everyone told me to.  It seems everyone in Maine has a Subaru. Ok, they were ok. They started. I’m sure they were good cars.  But I felt lost in them. Wasn’t the right feel.  So we went over to the JEEP place and checked those out. I really loved the look of the Liberty. Knowing full well that is not a reason to buy a car, we went in to test drive one–––the pretty burgundy one sitting pleasantly on the lot. Turned the key. It started. It was warm in moments.  I mean in MOMENTS the car was warm. I looked in the back seat at Jordan and nodded.  The car is already warm! I’m sure this is not a reason to buy a car, but it seemed perfectly rational that day. We took it for a spin.  Beautiful.  I loved it.  The car turned nicely when I turned the steering wheel.  It stopped when I put on the brakes. The radio sounded great. Windshield wipers worked, both back and front. Defroster? Gorgeous. Not a smudge of steam on the windows in the frigid air with me chatting a mile a minute. The dealer was with us trying to sell the car, but I wasn’t listening. I just let him go on. It was his job.  The car was already mine.  We pulled back into the dealership and stepped out. He asked if I wanted to look at the engine? I stared at him blankly. “Why would I want to look at the engine? I’m assuming if a car cost $18,000 the engine works, right?” What do I know about car engines?  Jordan looked at me pathetically and shook his head.  Apparently, you’re supposed to look at the engine if you buy a new car. Ok, ok, I’ll do the dance. Bloody freezing out and we are looking at a new engine that just got us around a few blocks quite nicely. It looked good to me. He started describing how it could go through feet of water up to here (he points) with no problem. Jordan beams with off-roading fantasies floating in his little teenage-boy brain. I knew I would never open that hood again. And I didn’t.  There are people, very nice people, who are well trained and actually LIKE opening engine hoods and poking around in there.  I don’t. If a light goes on, I’ll take it to one of those people, and he’ll fix it. And I’ll pay him.  It’s a wonderful symbiotic relationship.

That JEEP lasted a long time and when I wanted something more economical to drive, I donated it to Car Talk.  I bought a Mini. I love it. And I love my mechanic, but I just couldn’t bring myself to tell him I didn’t know how to put the oil in. And I didn’t want to learn. I thought he might think less of me. (I was actually worried about what my mechanic thinks of me.) I’m supposed to know how to take car of everything!  I thought, over Thanksgiving there will be lots of men here who can do this! I’ll ask one of them (in particular) to do it. He was eager to help out. Why didn’t I write that down? In my confusion with all there was to do, I forgot about the oil! Damn! And yesterday, faced with accumulating anxiety of losing some independence, I saw the oil and it dared me. It just dared me. Fine! I’m doing it! I’d already drained the greenhouse pipes, and ran the lawnmower out of gas to store for the winter, so how hard can it be to put in a quart of oil? I’d watched my father do it.  I’d seen that dipstick.  You wait until the car cools, then pull it out and wipe it, then put it back in and it tells you if you need oil. Somehow.

After about fifteen minutes of trying to open the hood, I finally got out the manual and on page 159 there is a very nice diagram of how to open the hood. Nice manual! Really nice. And easy to read! Got in there and got distracted with how many pine needles were there. Wow. That took a bit to clean out. Having done that, I looked for something that looked like an oil symbol, because who knows these days what the hell that would look like. There are three prominent places one could put a liquid in this car. I got the windshield wiper fluid one straight off. Not you. There is another one that might be a coolant or something, not sure about that.  But then I saw the unmistakable little oil can!  Yes a little old-fashioned oil can! I opened it. It looked empty. And there was no little dipstick on it.  Hmm, a quick scan showed that the dipstick is separate from the opening where you deposit the oil. Found it. Took it out and had no idea what it meant.  There was oil on it. I wiped it with an old kleenex I found on the floor of the car. Put it back in and pulled it out again. Still oil on it, but there was no little line or anything indicating how much. How was I supposed to know if it needed oil? What the hell? Just a little pointy piece of plastic with oil on it. It was getting dark. I opened the quart of oil and poured it in, hoping it was needed. I wondered if it was possible to over-fill it like I did once with the lawnmower. I couldn’t just tip the car over to get it out like I did with the lawnmower. That was a passing fear as the car drank all the oil and still looked like there was room for more. I replaced the cap, tossed the empty bottle in the trash, closed the hood, and called it good.

There. I did not help the Syrian refugees in any way. I did not make any big decision about where I belong in this world, what to do to support myself, how to care for women, or being the perfect partner. I put oil in my car and was happy. That’s how we get through December.

Sunday Morning~Alone Again

The ironing board is set up in the kitchen with half-ironed linens draped over it. My paper-making supplies are strewn about, half-made Christmas cards are covering the counters and the floor in the greenhouse has a coat of milky film under the table. The kitchen floor is splattered with dripped paper pulp, now with footprints on it. I’ve got Jerusalem artichokes, dug from the garden, soaking in one of the sinks. The other sink is full of dirty dishes from the past few days.  Last night I didn’t feel like putting my hands in any more water. So I left it all.

I look around this morning and think, “Yup. I’m alone again.”

Three weeks of guests are gone and it’s quiet and unstructured. I miss them all, but I like my solitude. It’s an acquired taste. I can work on my projects, leave them all out and get back to them whenever I want. I can go for a run while the paper dries. I can spend all day in my sewing room, a refuge that calms me and where everything makes sense.

It’s December and I wonder how I did these things while working full time and raising five kids. I know I somehow fed everyone in December, but can’t quite remember how. When I get involved in a project I can go days without eating, and love not having to stop what I’m doing to make a meal. But back then, well, kids needed to eat occasionally. We managed to get to every school concert, sporting event, and church function, and still made cards and presents and baked goods. Oh, wait, that’s right, we were miserable the whole time while pretending to enjoy it. Ok, maybe not always miserable, but stressed. It started the day after Thanksgiving. Or more like the evening of, when he’d play Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” to signal the start of the argument season. He knew I hated that and would smirk as he pushed PLAY. Asshole.

I wanted to make the cards and nothing else. After the Santa years, I was done with presents. To me, it was all just was a roomful of shit that no one needed, bought with money we couldn’t spare. And we had to sit around and pretend we liked it, and some of us are better pretenders than others.

But the cards. The cards made me happy. We came together on the cards.

I was given full creative license with the cards. It was the one part of Christmas that didn’t get manipulated into something I didn’t want.  It became a bit of an obsession. They weren’t elaborate in the early days together, but every year I felt I had to make them at least as good as the last. I’d stencil, paint, collage, and calligraphy until I got to the point when I made the paper and, well, you know, it’s hard to go backward. The card always held a wallet sized photo of the children, that to me, was everyone’s gift. Taking the photo was a huge project in itself, but an enjoyable one. We had lots of laughs.  When the kids were tiny, getting them to sit still and look at the camera was monumental. We had to use film in those days and have it developed! We never even knew if we got a good shot until two weeks later when all thirty-six would arrive in the mail! That was always a fun night, as I recall, sitting and looking at all the rejects and laughing our butts off. (Hey! A happy Christmas memory! There we go!)  As they got to be teenagers, the chore was getting them to stop scowling and PRETEND WE ARE A HAPPY FAMILY FOR GOD’S SAKE!

We wrote long letters in those cards, by hand, one by one. We did that together, in front of the fire, sipping cheap champagne. It made our year seem brighter and happier.  We’d review the standardized letters we were receiving describing exotic travels, academic awards, perfect grades, athletic scholarships, and fucking lottery winnings, and we’d discuss whether we should include our son’s arrest in only a select few? What about the deer our dog killed?  The three-day school suspension? Hmm, let’s see, what else happened this year? It was nice to personalize them and share selectively. We’d laugh. We’d listen to the Boston Pops Christmas concert. We’d stay up too late and then I’d be a tired bitch the next day.  Oh well. Fun times. Then there was the year I had to write that he left. It wasn’t fun that year, but you know, writing that over and over was strangely therapeutic. By the thirtieth one I’d stopped crying when I wrote it. Hey, thanks Christmas cards! I think I might be onto something here.

The letters no longer need to be very long as I keep up with most distant friends via Facebook or email. What a different world. It used to be the one time we shared each other’s news.  I still feel like it is my gift, though. I want the cards to be beautiful and special. I want the message to convey what I really feel. I want there to be peace on earth. Of course I do. I lose myself in this process as if writing it over and over it might make it true. Amid all the tragedy and weekly bloodbaths in this country, all the loss and grief, I still want to believe there is goodness and light. If I write those words over and over, away from the news feeds and horrific photos, in front of my fire with music playing, each tiny offering of a peaceful wish, a sincere, honest, peaceful wish, at least for awhile it feels like it could be real.

It’s still my favorite part of this season.