Last October, I went to Italy on a guided tour. This was one of my mom’s dreams, to go to Italy together with her daughters, and she got it all organized for us. I’ve never traveled like this before—the itinerary, transportation, and accommodations all planned by someone else, and everyone in the larger group a complete stranger. I think I’d do it again, but there are a few things I wish I would’ve known from the very first day of the trip. Here are my tips for traveling with a group on a guided tour (along with some of my favorite photos from Italy):
1. Get a travel guidebook of your own. That sort of sounds counterintuitive…why would you need to read and learn about a place where you’ll have someone guiding and teaching you? We had some really excellent tour guides on my trip. (I can’t think about Rome without hearing our Rome guide’s beautiful voice saying “Roma” and “andiamo!”) But when you already know some of the history,
geography, politics, art, and architecture of the places you’re going, your response to the area will be so much more complex and complete. In the places I hadn’t read about (namely, Orvietto and San Gimgiano) I felt like I didn’t know what to focus on because I didn’t know what I could do there. My experience was much richer in, say, Florence and Siena, where I’d read about the basilicas, towers, history, and famous people. Sometimes the tour guide will repeat something you’ve learned, but then you can just nod your head in your shared wisdom. Plus, a guidebook will give you some ideas for where to eat, which is handy when you don’t have an international data plan on your smart phone.
2. Take advantage of having a guide. Stick close to him/her and listen. Ask questions too. These are people who thoroughly and intimately know the cities you’re only visiting. The knowledge and details they share with you are, quite frankly, part of what you paid for. Wandering through an unknown city is much more fun when you learn about what you’re looking at, rather than only looking at it. Plus you’ll have more little tidbits to share when you get home. (And, speaking of paying for the guides…remember that you’ll need to tip them when they’re finished. I didn’t know this and I would’ve got more cash if I had.)
3. Make friends! This is the best thing about traveling with people you don’t know: you get to meet other people. I loved talking to and getting to know other people in our group. We were all pretty different in lifestyles, careers, families, and time of life. It didn’t matter because we found different things in common. If you are traveling with people you know (like I was with my mom and two sisters), it’s easy to be sort of clique-y and stick just to that group. But your experience will be much more fun if you try to make friends with everyone. Go to all of the group activities, especially the meals. Sit by someone new every time you eat as a
group, or in the bus. Ask people what they are reading or listening to. Ask to look at their pictures or what they thought about a place. I enjoyed this so much that I found myself striking up conversations with other strangers as well, like the father and daughter from Ireland who we chatted with at a restaurant in Rome. (This isn’t normally a strength of my introverted personality.) Talking to them (and listening to their accent) was one of my favorite moments.
4. Be patient with people. Everyone has different travel styles and expectations. This is not a bad thing, but sometimes it can be a challenge. Maybe you’re expecting lots of time to linger in gift stores because that’s your thing. But someone else’s thing is more time in the actual museum (or whatever). You can work around this by talking to people, letting them know what you are hoping to do, and perhaps most importantly, remembering you’re not the only one on the trip. Also remember that you can only move as quickly as the slowest person in your group. If you are a fast walker, use your extra time for lingering in the doorways of shops, admiring perspectives you’d otherwise miss, or taking pictures. If you are a slow walker, don’t feel guilty or worried about it. You’re just giving the faster people chances to get more intimate with the place you’re in.
5. Expect that you'll start to rub on each other. If you were traveling with twenty or 25 people you knew and loved, this would still be true, so when it’s people you don’t know very well? It happens. There will be someone who bugs you. That's OK, because you're likely bugging someone else. Decide not to be a victim of annoyance by doing your best to overlook the actions of someone else who is rubbing you the wrong way; assume the best about everyone. By the third day, I was acutely and painfully aware of which person I was bugging. By the fifth day I decided I didn’t care if I was bugging him because I had paid for my trip, too, and I wasn’t going to let his annoyance ruin it. The best way to deal with someone who’s bothering you? Take advantage of any and all free time. Which brings us to tip number 6.
6. Take advantage of any and all free time. This is another reason for the first tip. If you have some basic knowledge of the city, a map (already in the guidebook!), and an idea of what you want to see, you’ll be much more productive with your free time. I, for example, did not read up on Bologna before we got there, so with the free time we had, we saw the main basilica and not much else. But when we were in Rome and had an entire afternoon to ourselves, my sister Becky and I saw the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Spanish Steps, and several other landmarks. We walked next to the Tiber river; we revisited the places we’d felt rushed in before, like the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain; we found
the metro and figured out how to ride it back to our hotel. (That was one of my favorite afternoons.) We knew we wanted to do all of those things because we’d both read a guidebook or two. Don’t be afraid to let yourself get a little bit lost. You’ll discover things you love that you couldn’t find any other way, and people are friendly in Italy. Even if you’re really lost, someone will help you find your way back. (Just keep watching your watch if you have to be back at a certain time!)
7. Thoroughly understand what is happening each day. Don't assume anything! Ever since I first saw the itinerary for our trip, I was anticipating the moment we would walk through the duomo in Siena. One of my friends had told me how much she loved it, especially the interior, and I couldn’t wait to see and feel what she told me about. While we were in Siena, however, we toured the Basilica of San Domenico instead. This was a beautiful, simple church, with the head (literally) of St. Catherine enshrined in one of its naves. I enjoyed learning about it. But then we just walked right past the Siena duomo! We saw the outside but it wasn’t in the plan to go inside of it.
If I had understood the plan for the rest of the day, I would have known that I did have enough time to see the cathedral on my own if I skipped out on part of the tour. (There is no rule that says you have to stay with the group the entire time.) Sticking with the tour most of the time is probably the best idea, but if there is something you must absolutely see, and it’s not on the itinerary but there is time for you to see it on your own, I say be brave and go for it. But this can only happen if you understand what is happening each day. Ask questions!
8. Be on time. Nothing annoys group members as much as having to wait for someone. I know this for two reasons—I waited for late people, and I was late myself. Twice, in fact. The first time happened when we were walking back to the bus, but as I was with more members of the group than just myself, I wasn’t worried. (People still thought I was late.) The second time I was late really was unforgiveable. It happened when we were leaving in the morning, on one of the days we were changing hotels, and it took Becky and I longer to pack than we thought. I’m still embarrassed that it happened. Especially pay attention to the meeting time when you have free time or if you are breaking away from the group. It helps everything run more smoothly and it’s probably nice not to embarrass yourself.
9. Be open to unexpected and spontaneous experiences. One of my favorite moments happened in Rome. Becky and I were in the lobby one night, sort of late, and we noticed there was a bunch of people from our tour group hanging out in the bar. So we joined them. Again: introvert here. My heart was pounding at first, and I didn’t do an excellent job at mingling. But I managed it. And actually had fun! Another spontaneous moment happened in our hotel near Venice. A few minutes before we were supposed to meet at the bus in the morning, some of the group members ended up in the lobby together. There was a piano, and one of the members (a skilled, professional pianist) played a song for us. It was amazing and beautiful and wonderful. I have a theory that if your heart and mind are open—not too devoted to schedules or personal fears or anything else—then life will bring you these unexpected moments. Watch out for them, and then grab them when you have the chance!
10. Get the email addresses of the people in your tour group. Especially the ones you'd like to swap pictures with. I still would like to do this! If you are taking pictures, you’re far less likely to be in your pictures. But you’re probably in other people’s pictures (just like you’ll have some great photos of the other tour group members). Figure out a way to share them. The group I traveled with did not do this, but I still would like to see some of their pictures.
And, I know I wrote that this is a top ten list, but here’s a very important bonus tip:
Go to the bathroom every chance you get. Seriously. Italians must have the world's largest bladders, I don't know. But there are very few bathrooms. So prepare yourself. Keep a Euro or two in your pocket (yes, you have to pay for many of them) and whenever anyone finds a bathroom, use it. If you find a bathroom, tell everyone else about it. This doesn't seem like a tip that fits with traveling with a group, but I promise: you'll annoy people if all you talk about is how badly you have to pee. And it's hard to be social and outgoing when you’re uncomfortable like that.
Have you ever traveled with a group? What suggestions do you have?
(Read more about my moments in Italy:
One of my goals for the rest of the year:
OK, that sounds like a fairly crazy goal, right? It’s my favorite hobby. I have a whole room dedicated to scrapbooking. I’ve taught classes and written articles and blog posts about it. It’s been my place for the past almost-twenty years.
But I’m also realizing that it’s my comfort zone. When I’m making a layout, I’m happy. I cheerfully cut paper and flip through my pretty supplies. I feel all pat-myself-on-the-shoulder-y, because it’s a good thing, yes? Keeping the details of your family history.
And even though I have a growing disconnect between myself and the Scrapbooking Industry, I don’t know that it will ever not be my thing. It makes me happy in many ways.
But it doesn’t challenge me.
I've been re-reading The War of Art, a book that focuses on resistance and how it keeps us from doing what we want to be doing, and I keep thinking about this idea:
Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole.
And also this one:
Resistance obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher.
And this one:
Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North—meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. ... The more important a call or action is to our soul's evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.
Right now, scrapbooking is the form my Resistance takes. It seduces me away from writing. And without writing (writing for real, writing that other people can see and respond to) I don’t feel fulfilled with my life.
I feel like I have missed a turn I was supposed to take, and the road I am on is in the same location I was meant to be in…but not exactly the right place. I know where I want to be (in the country of the writers, to continue my metaphor), but I haven’t pushed myself to find the way. I’ve just continued on with my happy little wandering journey, with my bits of scrapbooking creativity, gaining miniscule amounts of success in an industry where I don’t really fit (having words, yes, but not the skill of graphicality—not the ability to use design like others do), and feeling sort of hollow.
So here’s my current mantra: less scrapbooking, more writing!
And when I am scrapbooking (because really, I can’t imagine life without it), I want more authenticity. More meaningful details. More stuff I’ll be glad I spent the time on. (Not more intricate decoration.) I want to make layouts that make me happy, even if they don’t necessarily jive with the current scrapbooking aesthetic. I want to share more layouts on my blog, not because I think one of them will finally be my way of being noticed but because I just like sharing what I’ve made.
And I want to be able to accomplish more in less time.
One of the ways I’ve found to scrapbook faster is by using sketches. I don’t do it very often because that would require me to find sketches and then organize them. (Which takes more time!) But this summer at Write. Click. Scrapbook. we’ve been having Saturday Sketches. I haven’t played along with all of them, but the ones I have have consistently taught me: a sketch makes it go faster. Especially for me, where all my energy goes into the words, and where my strength is writing the story, not arranging the pretties.
I see more sketches in my future.
And in the spirit of sharing, here’s a layout I made using last week’s Saturday Sketch:
I started it when I was home on the weekend for my lunch hour, and then I finished it later that day…so I spent maybe an hour, total, on this. Which for me is like Ethopian-marathoner fast. In the end, it looks almost nothing like the original sketch (click HERE to see it and some other layouts made with it). I turned it sideways but the journaling strips are still horizontal, and I used one photo instead of two. Copying exactly, however, is not ever my goal when I use a sketch. Instead, I like how it got me started and gave me enough of a structure that I could put everything together quickly. I love how it turned out!
If you are a scrapbooker, do you use sketches? How do you organize them?
When you go to Rome, you are supposed to throw a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder into the Trevi fountain if you want to return to Rome.
I tossed a Euro and made the wish, and while I loved Rome and hope to go back there again, the city I most want to revisit is Florence.
Since we went to Italy on a guide tour, the itinerary was already planned. We didn't stay in Florence, but drove there from Montecatini. Once we arrived, we met up with a tour guide who walked us through the city.
We stopped at the Florence Cathedral (the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiori) and the Baptistery,
but since we were there on a Sunday we couldn't actually go inside the buildings. (People were going to church there.) After taking some photos and getting us each a copy of a city map, the tour guide showed us more of Florence. She pointed out monuments, buildings, museums, and bridges with historical importance, giving us an idea of the city's layout, and then led us to the Accademia, where I had my moment with the slaves.
Then we had some free time.
Most of the people in the group decided to go to the leather market. I was sorely tempted to join them, as I had visions of finding a belt for Nathan (belts being one of his favorite things, ever since he was little) and a gorgeous Italian leather backpack for myself. But Becky and I had other ideas. We had someone show us where we would all meet up (as well as the location of the leather market, just in case we had time), the San Lorenzo basilica, and then we were off on our own adventure.
We wanted to climb the 414 stairs in Giotto's Campanile.
Having already earned our title as the "straggler sisters" (a story in its own right), we didn't want to be late to the meeting place. So we hustled. We stopped at a little restaurant on a side street, where we scarfed a delicious pizza and a thoroughly disappointing cannola. (One of my wishes for my trip to Italy that wasn't realized: eating some delicious and amazing cannoli.) Then, as we walked to the Campanile following our handy map, one of the street vendors stopped Becky to tell her she'd dropped something. When we looked behind us and saw nothing he said, "You dropped my heart, beautiful lady." This was her third Italian admirer, but alas, we did not have time for her to be wooed.
But it did make us laugh all the way to the Piazza del Duomo.
Giotto's Campanile is the free-standing bell tower of Florence Cathedral. It is absolutely breathtaking even before you start climbing the stairs. (I cannot believe I didn’t take one photo of the tower itself.) Dark pink, white, and green marble in geometric patterns, hexagonal relief panels depicting biblical scenes and scholarly ideas, rows of lozenges, niches, and statues. Like the cathedral, it was designed to look like a painting. Very ornate, of course, but so beautiful. The top three levels are each built larger than the lower one, so that when you look up at the tower, the effects of perspective cannot be seen. It took 25 years to build the tower; during part of that time no work was completed because of the Black Plague.
Oh how I wish I could hear the history stories those old stones could tell!
Becky and I laughed, talked, and breathed fairly heavily going up those stairs. It's a sort of a spiral staircase, sometimes curving but mostly turning sharply, very narrow and steep, with a low ceiling.
As we climbed, I thought about the people in the past who would've done this as part of their lives. The people who rang the bells, or priests I suppose. The stairs are worn smooth from people's feet, but the high reaches of the walls are dusty. It is like breathing in history.
At the top, we wandered around.
(The tiles on top of the tower. I prefer to think that white stuff is patina, not bird poop. Please do not disabuse me of this notion. Thank you.)
There was a procession of some sort, winding its way through the narrow streets.
I really, really wish I would've taken more pictures. I wish I would've handed my camera over to a stranger for a photo of me and Becky on top of the tower. I wish I would've crouched down at the bottom of the tower and photographed it that way. I wish I would've taken more pictures on top. I have some pictures—but not enough, and that is an exact reflection of my frustrated feeling that day. I tend to get impatient with photography when I am in a bad mood.
I was in Florence...and I was in a bad mood. How dumb of me. But it felt like being given an entire box of chocolates and then having time to eat half of one. I wanted the whole box! I wanted to have time to see all of Florence. So it's not that I was grumpy. Just highly frustrated.
Once we stood on the top of the tower, and admired the view, we climbed back down, and set off to find the Ponte Vecchio.
This is a bridge that crosses the Arno River, and was the only bridge not destroyed by the Germans when they retreated from Florence during World War II. Florentine bridges used to all have those buildings on top—they were places for shopping and gathering. Only the Ponte Vecchio still has them. They used to be butcher shops, but now they are little shops where you can buy jewelry and souvenirs.
By this time, we were seriously racing to beat the clock. We crossed the Arno on the Santa Trinita bridge.
This is a bridge that was destroyed during the war. On each of its entrances, it has two statues, and they were destroyed as well. Each of the four statues depicts one of the seasons. After the war, the bridge was rebuilt and the statues pieced back together (their parts mostly lying in the river until they were restored). I wanted to stop and admire each statue, but since we didn’t have much time, I settled for photographing each of them. The light was bad and I was hurrying so even that “settling” was disappointing as the pictures aren’t great.
(I had to convert them all to black and white. Otherwise they were too awful to look at.)
The best photo I took of the statues was this one, which is the back of the summer statue:
It is so moving to me—the clear lines of where it was pieced back together are evocative of my Mary figurine and what it still means to me.
After crossing the bridge, we speed-walked down a small side street to get to the Ponte Vecchio. This is one of my most vivid memories of Florence, for some reason, the small shops with their lighted windows and food, the heavy grey skies, the hustle of the crowds, the slight scent of the river. We turned a corner and there it was, the Ponte Vecchio. I wanted to stop and linger but we had like eight minutes to get to San Lorenzo. I crossed the Ponte Vecchio—but I didn't get to linger or really experience it.
We started to sprint. And then the weirdest thing happened—I slowed down. You have to know this about me: I am seriously a fast walker. But for some reason, I just could not walk fast. Or at least not as fast as Becky was walking. My feet were hot and my ankle was throbbing (I had my brace on) and I felt like I was walking through mud.
As I got slower I got more and more frustrated. What was wrong with me?
We passed the leather market and I looked at my watch, but there was definitely no time to shop, so my perfect Italian leather backpack and Nathan’s favorite belt stayed in Italy. We kept walking and we made it to San Lorenzo with three minutes to spare—and no one was there to see the Straggler Sisters' early arrival! Or, at least, no one from our group. All that hurried rushing only to discover we could have lingered for just a bit.
San Lorenzo is one of the oldest churches in Florence. It’s surrounded by an enormous square of crumbling stone steps. I sat down on the stairs of the church and I took off my boots so I could get rid of my ankle brace. I actively did not take any photos. Even though I want one now, so much, even just of my boots on the steps. Of that ancient church and my Eeyore self. I'm pretty sure Becky sat ten feet away from me, because she didn't want to be inundated by the waves of frustration rolling off of me. There we were in Florence, with a ridiciulously small amount of time to actually see much, and I finally realized why I had been walking so slow: I needed to pee. SO BADLY.
One thing about Italy: they don't really do bathrooms. Probably if you know all of the secrets, you know where the bathrooms are. But in that square, I couldn't find one. And I was in serious pain. I walked (slowly) around the square, hoping to find a bathroom. I didn't dare ask anyone "dove e il bagno?" because there was no way I could understand their quick responses. So I looked (in vain) through the belts a small merchant was selling. I saw no leather backpacks. Becky stood watch for me as the tour group members started trickling back, and then I just gave up. I sat down right there, on the steps of a church that seemed beautiful in such a simple, striking way, in a remarkable city full of history, architecture, art, and beauty, and I felt such a combination of annoyance, frustration, and desire for more that it was like I was sitting in a black puddle.
I might as well have just gone ahead and peed my pants.
And then I had my Florence Moment.
A nun, walking toward the church but from a different angle from where I was sitting, changed directions. She walked right over to me, patted my shoulder, and touched my forehead with the thumb of her other hand. She said something in Italian, squeezed my shoulder, and walked into the church.
My puddle evaporated.
I don't know what she said. Maybe it was "you're acting like a giant baby right now." Maybe it was “Yes, you didn’t get to see everything you wanted, but you are here, right now, in Italy. Cheer up.” Maybe it was “there’s a bathroom around that corner.”
But to me it was a blessing. A benediction of sorts. I thought about the feeling I had had while in St. Peter’s Cathedral, standing in front of the statue of St. Peter, which has a foot that, if you touch it, is supposed to give you a blessing. The foot is worn thin from so many centuries of touch, and it made me think about how powerful touch is, how it connects us and yes, blesses us. How we give a small portion of ourself in that touch, too. Being touched on the shoulder by the nun was the same feeling, only better because this was real.
My frustration drained away.
Eventually, everyone from the tour group arrived. In fact, I think they all thought I was the late one holding everyone up. I wasn’t late though. I was sitting on the ancient steps in front of an ancient church, thinking about how moments with God are not limited to time in churches or temples. They are not narrowed by religious denomination or gender or nationality. They are a thing you can find anywhere, even when you have blocked yourself into a black emotional corner.
The spirit is everywhere if you watch for it. Or maybe you sometimes have to sit still enough in your darkness for the light to find you, but it will.
I won’t say everything was magically better. I still had tons of walking left with my stupid aching bladder holding me back. (Our tour guide finally stopped at a bathroom in a tiny alleyway and I have never been so grateful to hand over money to pee.)
I still wanted to shop and explore. Not getting to examine statues in the Loggia di Lanzia in the Piazza della Signoria (Perseus with the Head of Medusa, The Rape of the Sabine Women, the Medici lions…) felt like ripping my heart out.
Walking past the Uffizi without going in—the Uffizi where Bottecelli’s “Birth of Venus” is hanging?—was physically painful.
But I had more of a peaceful heart (even if it was ripped out of my chest) and a lift to my feet. I tried to savor whatever I had left of Florence—walking past the city hall,
at least seeing those statues, listening to the tour guide talk about Santa Croce, a Christian church designed by a Jewish architect who included a Star of David. (This is where Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli are buried.)
I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to Florence. There wasn’t a fountain to throw a coin into along with a wish. But it’s there, on the top of my list: revisit Florence. See all the churches. Go to the Uffizi. See more of the Accademia than just the Slaves and David. Walk slowly along the Arno, cross all the bridges, shop at the leather market.
Find my Italian leather backpack.
I just wanted to go to church on time.
Or at all, because the past three weeks I haven’t made it (due to adolescent angst). (Not mine.)
So I made to get up and get going with plenty of time to get to church by 11:00. I put the pork roast in the microwave to defrost, and then I made French toast and got everyone started on getting ready for church. Then I printed out the announcements for relief society and started to get myself ready.
Then I remembered I hadn’t put the pork in the crock pot.
So I hurried to dry off and get dressed. I gave Kendell his marching orders: he needed to take the boys to church, I’d put the pork together and then meet them over there.
I’d be a few minutes late, true. But better than not going, right?
So I start the sauce (toss the Rotel tomatoes in the blender, then mix with some brown sugar and Dr. Pepper) and open the microwave, and yes: the microwave has done its special thing, which is stop half way through the defrost time so you can turn the meat. Only I didn’t notice it had stopped because I was in the bath.
Which means it’s only partly defrosted.
And this is a big pork roast (I’m feeding three growing boys here). Too big to fit into the crock pot unless I cut it in half.
So I set it on the cutting board and find my biggest knife.
Meanwhile, Nathan is already at church waiting for us and Kaleb can’t find his tie and Jake is dragging his heels and Kendell is all “let’s leave NOW so we can walk” and Jake’s like “I’ll just stay here then and come late with mom because I am not walking” and I’m being perfectly quiet but inside my head I’m fuming at myself because I had more than two hours to get ready and yet I’m late again, and I’m fuming at Kendell because can’t he just load them up into the *&$*#ing van and take them, and I’m fuming at Jake for being such a teenager, and I’m sawing silently away at the half-thawed raw pork, and the blade gets stuck.
And instead of calmly wiggling it out like a non-silently-fuming person would do, I yank on the knife as hard as I can, with all the fuel of my fumingness behind the yank.
And it slides right out of the pork.
And slices right into my forehead.
So then I threw the knife down and I screamed every. single. swear word that was fuming around inside my head, and I clamp my hand across my forehead (immediately wondering if you can only catch trichinosis by eating raw pork? Or can it get in through a wound?). Jake and Kendell rushed over and Jake was perfectly calm. He offered to cut the pork for me and Kendell hustled me to the bathroom where I looked in the mirror at a long, narrow cut, and I’m sobbing and shaking and bleeding and my heart is pounding and I wailed but I don’t want an ugly scar! And then he put a big clump of toilet paper on it, which distracted me enough from my worries about scars because, ewww. THAT IS WHAT GAUZE IS FOR.
So I stopped shaking and crying and my heart stopped pounding because Kaleb (who had meanwhile found his tie) started telling me it could be worse, at least it didn’t cut my brain open, and you can’t shake, cry, and panic when you’re laughing.
Because really: how embarrassing is it to head to the ER (wounds requiring medical attention never happen when the doctor’s office is open, ever) to tell this story:
So, I was cutting some pork, and the knife got stuck so I yanked it out and yeah, I cut my forehead open with the back of a knife.
It’s a very common kitchen injury, the head wound.
It was just shallow enough not to stitch. So I had to go to the ER, and listen to Kendell complain about how much the bill will be, and tell that story to the guy checking me in, and to the nurse who cleaned it off, and to the doctor and his two medical-student assistants.
And then they glued the stupid cut closed.
I would way rather have stitches than glue. Stitches at least look serious. (Stitches can at least be covered with a bandaid.) The glue shouldn't be covered because then forehead sweat will gather and dissolve the glue too quickly. The glue looks like I have a big, shiny glob of spit stuck to my forehead, with the cut, which turned purple, underneath.
But he promised me the scar will be smaller this way.
He better be right.
On the bright side, the pork is in the crock pot, and we’ll be having sweet pork burritos for dinner.
I was very careful not to bleed on it, I promise.
This is strange for me, but I confess: I’m not ready for summer to be over. I wish we had another month of lazing around with my kids and not having to worry about schedules, carpool, grades, homework, and complaining about homework.
Maybe the complaining about the homework is the worst.
But alas, August has ended, despite my reluctance for fall. It’s not that I don’t love fall—it’s actually my favorite season. But I don’t want it to start because if it starts, it will end. In fact, today I was at Target, I discovered that they had Halloween Oreos and I had to fight back tears.
We did lots of back-to-school shopping, including managing to catch two Dillard’s sales. I bought a pair of sandals for myself, and this awesome t-shirt,
Haley came home to visit twice.
I feel such deep happiness on nights when everyone is sleeping at home! Since it’s been so long since I had a picture of all four kids together (Christmas I think), I made them do a quick photo shoot. (There are better pics on my big camera…but I’m just not going to Photoshop them right now!)
We went to dinner and a movie with some old friends we haven’t hung out with for a long time. We ate at Red Robin but I have completely forgotten what movie we saw. (It must’ve not been very good.)
To celebrate the very last day before school started, we took the boys to Red Robin and then they went to see Guardians of the Galaxy. (They loved it!)
My Gap credit card number got stolen by someone in California who ordered $350+ of sweats, Ts, and ball caps. It has been simply a joy to get this resolved! I might’ve found myself screaming “I just want to talk to an operator” into my phone to the unresponsive menu system. (Actually, it did make me laugh when I got an email from the Gap, asking me to rate my recent purchase. Ummmmm…)
One of the coolest things that happened in August is that my mom, my sisters Becky and Suzette, and I went to see Wicked at the Capitol Theater in Salt Lake. I had read part of the novel (back when I was teaching), but I didn’t love it so I never finished it. I wasn’t dying to see the play (I was more excited about the time with my mom and sisters), so I went into the experience with very little expectation. But I loved it! I love stories that do this—take a book you know and turn it around, so that what you thought you knew turns out to be anything but the truth. I had figured out the twists, but I didn’t expect to be so moved by Elphaba. To most of the world, we only are what we look like, both psychically and by our outward traits and behaviors. So few people know what actually motivates an individual, so it is easy to twist and make something good look like something bad. I am still thinking about it! (We weren't supposed to take pictures in the theater but we didn't know that when we took this selfie. And then Suzette, who hates to have her picture taken, dodged out after the play before we could take the picture I wanted. So, imagine: the four of us standing outside the Capitol Theater, just under the Wicked sign.)
August was a hard month in a way I never anticipated. Jake and I have disagreed about a very specific topic…and oh, my. We have gone around in circles so many times. I have been overwhelmed with promptings that he is making choices that will lead him down a path that will change him forever, but he thinks I’m just not trusting him. And making a big deal out of nothing. (I know I’m being vague, and oh my: the blog posts I have written in my head about this. But I don’t feel like it’s my place to put these details out in public.) I have ached, raged, wept, screamed wordless screams, tossed and turned, worried ceaselessly, prayed without stopping. I also threw a box of Kleenex at him. I love him so much and yet he makes me so angry. Mostly because I think he’s smart and funny and handsome (that smile!) and has so much potential and yet he’s on the very edge of ruining everything.
What has surprised me about all of this drama is the unresolved stuff from my own adolescence that is surfacing in my psyche. I have had several ah-ha moments about myself and other people and the ways I misinterpreted both their decisions and my options for reacting to them. I have remembered experiences I thought I had made peace with but only buried; I have thought about long-ago relationships and how they might still affect me now. And the dreaming! So vivid. I am grateful for these new insights—I just wish I could use them to convince Jake to see things a little bit more rationally. (Which is, I know, expecting far too much for a teenager whose brain is a cauldron and body is a hormone volcano. I just so do not want him to have to learn things the way that I did.)
I have been realizing just how much I have held on to the blame, guilt, and shame from experiences that happened (literally) decades ago. In fact, my struggles with Jake’s experiences have felt like a sort of karma to me. Who am I to expect that raising my teenagers would be, if not easy, then at least not this hard? I deserve far, far worse than I have had so far because really, I was a horrible teenager. I made my parents suffer in awful ways. And it doesn’t exactly make me feel like mother of the year, this feeling that my bad choices will continue to haunt my kids. I am starting to see, though, how much they haunt me. I haven’t ever totally moved away from feeling like, at my very deepest and truest self, I am so ridiculously wrong that I didn’t ever deserve to feel happiness. My mind knows there must be a statute of limitations for feeling guilty over the stuff you did as a teenager—but my spirit has not reached it yet.
Maybe that will be one good thing out of this kerfuffle with Jake, that I am finally able to see (for real, not just write the words like I am now) that what I was, at my deepest and truest, wasn’t wrong but just damaged, and that the things I did were all about that damage. (Mostly, I think, about making it worse. That hurts; I’ll deal with it by making it hurt more. How strange is that?)
Now that I think about it, maybe I really am glad that August is over. It was an exhausting month.
But not everything was difficult. There were a few last trips to the water park and the city pool. Quite a few lingering outside breakfasts. Plenty of trampoline jumping; Nathan and Kaleb can both also now do back flips on the grass. (It scares me every time, which makes me wonder how my parents dealt with all of our gymnastics meets.)
It was a rainy, wet August. Twice thunder woke me up in the middle of the night, and then I just stayed awake listening to the storm.
I did a ton of yard work, although I’m not sure I’m any farther ahead on my eradicate-the-ivy process. I might, dear friends, have to resort to Round Up.
I ran 56.16 miles. As my goal was 50 miles, I was happy with my progress!
My friend Wendy and I went hiking, one of the highlights of my August. It was so nice to talk for so long without any interruptions! We went on the Squaw Peak trail.
We didn’t make it all the way, but I got to show her one of my favorite parts of the trail. For a good long while of the Squaw Peak trail, you hike along a ravine on the back (east) side of the mountain. It’s a long, steep trail that goes through trees, and you can't really see where you're going except for just ahead. But then, just before the trail turns to go up to the saddle, you leave the trees and come out into a meadow. In the spring it’s full of wildflowers. They were crispy and brown now, of course, but the meadow still has a unique spirit. I think it is that at last, you can see sky again, and the lower peaks of Cascade Mountain which you can’t see from the valley. It’s like a deep, refreshing breath of air. It is one of my favorite places I’ve hiked to, and I was happy to show it to a friend.
(It's also a hike I'll remember for the bug bites I got. I don't know what was chewing on me, but they got me even through my running pants. Admittedly, spandex isn't super bug-bite-resistent...but holy cow. My legs were covered in bites, about 9 or 10 each. They got HUGE...like the size of a child's bouncy ball, right under my skin. They each developed a purple bruise around the perimeter of the swelling. So once the swelling went down, I had enormous Os all over my legs. They itched. And scabbed. And are still healing in some places!)
I made 8 scrapbook layouts. I'm trying to focus on spending less time scrapbooking (because I want to spend more time writing and submitting!), so I feel like my style needs to change. Quicker layouts=less time on the least-important thing, which is embellishments. Here's a layout about Kaleb that might show what I mean:
I managed to find some new carpooling friends. (The family I was carpooling with had a drastic schedule change that wouldn't work for carpooling anymore.) I only have to drive three times a week, which is lovely. Plus all of their kids are little, so it's been fun to listen to the chatter of six-year-olds again. I'd forgotten how funny they are. Everyone started school, with only a few problems. Namely, schedules. Jake realized he didn't have an English class, but he got it fixed the second day of class. Nathan's schedule was more complicated (they had him in ballroom dance and that was not going to happen for him), and I am still not happy with the crappy "solution" his councilor came up with...but as we are stuck going to the country's worst junior high, we sort of have no choice.
So yeah...August. Like with Nathan's schedule, not much choice. It's over, and September is here. It's time to start savoring fall!
How was your August?
The cool thing about working in a library (OK, one of the cool things!) is talking to other book people about books. We don't always agree, but we always have opinions. Take this book I finished last week, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. When I mentioned it to one of my friends in circulation, she said “OH! I was so disappointed by that book, I gave it a 1 on GoodReads.”
I asked her why she didn't like it (because my response was so different) and she said she felt like she couldn't connect to the characters much, and that the story seemed to be too much on the surface.
All of which I totally agree with, but (surprisingly!) I didn't mind because I liked other things so much.
The book tells the story of A. J. Fikry (obviously), recently widowed and trying to not make successful the little bookstore he owned with his wife. He figures that he doesn't have to try super hard to be successful, because A—who wants to live on in the dream life you made with a woman you loved, once that woman is gone? and B—he owns an uber-rare copy of Poe's Tamerlane, a chapbook of poems he wrote very early in his career, with a print run of only 50 copies. Once Island Books goes out of business, he plans on selling Tamerlane, drinking the proceeds, and joining his wife.
Except for one night, Tamerlane disappears.
And then, very shortly after, a child appears, just plonked down and left in the children's section of the book store. A two year old child, with a note attached, explaining that this is Maya, and her mom can't take care of her anymore, and a bookseller seems like a good person to be her parent.
The next day, the body of a young woman is found, washed ashore, an apparent suicide, and A.J. ends up keeping Maya.
The structure of this book is part of why I loved it. Each chapter starts with a very-short essay about one of A. J.'s favorite short stories, and what he'd like Maya to know after reading them. Each one sort-of relates to what happens in each chapter. And then, each chapter sort-of reads like a short story. (Get it? The "storied" life? Ahhh.)
Because of the structure, there are a lot of gaps. For example, we learn that A. J. has adopted Maya, but none of the details are told. I think this is why my friend felt like she didn't get a deep understanding of the characters; the structure sort of doesn't let you.
Plus, it is a little bit...I don't know exactly the right word. I'm tempted to say "fluffy," but that isn't right. It has more substance than fluff, even though it's not especially deep. Perhaps "fun" is the right description...but there are sad things that happen, too. It is a mystery, a love story, a comedy, and a tragedy.
But really, what it is is a book about reading, and books, and how they influence our lives.
(Plus, it's a book with a main character who's a runner, and how could *I* not love that? I mean, I've written actual, real live letters to companies like Nike and Under Armor pointing out that just because we're women doesn't mean we don't need pockets to hold our keys. Where do they think women runners put their keys? In their husbands' pockets? Because all of the men's running shorts and pants have pockets, but women's? Almost never. So when I read this sentence, well, you can imagine the literary swooning: "There are many challenges to long-distance running, but one of the greatest is the question of where to put one's house keys.")
Novels, non-fiction, short stories. A little bit of poetry and even some picture books. Rants against e-readers (I am on A.J.'s side.) A relationship between a bookseller and a publishing rep. A missing, priceless book. Book clubs. How English teachers can either make you love reading or make you hate it. How readers sometimes become writers. And how all of the stuff that's related to being a book lover intertwines with our lives and how we live them.
Did it change my life?
But it had so many true and real ideas about how it feels to be a bibliofile that I loved it anyway.
A.J. thinks how similar everything in the crime genre looks. Why is any one book different from any other book? They are different, A.J. decides, because they are. We have to look inside many. We have to believe. We agree to be disappointed sometimes so that we can be exhilarated every now and again.
and this, which maybe didn't change my life but it did neatly paraphrase it:
The words you can't find, you borrow.
We read to know we're not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.
My life is in these books. Read these and know my heart.
We are not quite novels.
We are not quite short stories.
In the end, we are collected works.
I don't have a word to exactly describe it. But that's OK. It reminded me of why I love reading and why I will always be a book person, and that seems like exactly the thing a book set in a bookstore should do.
Hmmmmm...Labor Day. I feel like I labored in many ways today:
So when it was dinner time, I did not want to spend a ton of time cooking. So I made this dish, which is one I don't make very often but is always delicious when I do! It's awesome because it's pretty flexible, and I can usually find one or another of the ingredients in my pantry.
Sweet and Spicy Meatballs
1 cup ketchup
1 8-oz can tomato sauce
OR two cans of tomato soup
1 cup brown sugar
1 T chili powder
1 tsp hot chili
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
2 tsp liquid smoke
20 ounces pineapple
OR 1 cup pineapple
premade meatballs (I buy the kind they sell at Costco)
Stir everything together. Bring to a boil, then let simmer until the rice is done. I always make coconut rice, which is just rice made with 1 can of coconut milk substituted for 1 cup of the cooking water.
Easy, fast, and delicious dinner!
What did you cook for dinner tonight?
Last week I sent all three of my boys off to their first days of school.
Kaleb's first day
Nathan's first day (It was raining when he went to school...I didn't get many good pictures, and caused a mini traffic jam getting this one by shooting through the car window while in the junior high drop-off loop)
Jake's first day of school...he gets to drive himself this year!
I argued with Nathan's counselor. (The problem with his schedule is still not resolved.)
I listened very solemnly to Kaleb talk about how he is different now he is in fouth grade (he doesn't "play" anymore, he "hangs out," and he needs to read "important, hard books," preferably about monsters).
I shopped a great sale but bought myself nothing.
I ran 14-ish miles, some sluggish, some blissful, a few that felt entirely effortless.
I finished Tell the Wolves I'm Home and it made me cry. I started The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry and it made me laugh.
I got to see Haley.
I talked to my husband. I laughed with him. I came home to find him painting the trim on the garage. I also argued with him and wished I wasn't. I wished I could make things better somehow.
I spent hours talking with Jake. There—I also wish I could make that better. That hardness he is going through. Some of it is my fault, some of it his, but he is in a hard place he doesn't know how to get out of and all I can help him with is words.
I talked to my mom. I texted with my sister while she drove to California. I talked to my other sister on the phone.
I prayed. I laughed. I cried.
I made chocolate chip cookies with Nathan, and potato salad, and confetti rice salad, and roast beef with balsalmic vinegar.
I ate one of the most delicious watermelons of the summer.
There was rain nearly every day, which was like a sacrament. There was morning snow on my favorite mountain. There was a rainbow tonight that was so beautiful I made my neighbors come outside and admire it with me.
Tonight, I felt like something I've been struggling with was finally righting itself, and for one good, long hour I could breath deeply. I felt, if not exactly free, then lightened of my Atlas stone. When it turned left, the resettling of weight was almost unbearable, but then I told my friends the story of the day I lost my temper with my classful of 4th-period hooligans and shouted the F word at them, and then we all laughed together and the weight readjusted itself to a more bearable spot.
And then, just now, because I couldn't sleep and he wasn't asleep yet, Jake and I went outside (after midnight in the pouring rain) to put out the drain spouts together, and then we rain in the drenching storm, and the cold didn't make us go inside, or being soaked all the way through—but eventually the lightning did.
It was a good week and a hard one. It was usual for my life right now, and I know one day life will change and I will miss these days (as I miss other days) so I am making peace with the hard and savoring the good.
How was your week?
My husband hates Facebook.
I mean...seriously. He hates it. He doesn't have a Facebook page, but he hates it. He doesn't see why you'd want to share all your personal, private stuff with a bunch of people who are only "friends," not really friends. He doesn't know why anyone would care what someone else had for breakfast.
Since he doesn't have a Facebook page, he also doesn't know what people actually DO on Facebook.
Every time he sees me on Facebook he gets annoyed.
Which sometimes makes me defensive because it's not like he's the boss of me, and if I want to putz around on Facebook it's really not his choice, right? And it’s not like I spend hours and hours on Facebook. Just some time, usually when I’m on my phone and we’re just hanging out, doing nothing.
Sometimes it just makes me think about why I like having a FB page and putzing around on it. In fact, he asked me that just a few nights ago, I think out of sincerity and not annoyance: why do you like Facebook? After I thought about it I decided:
it's like having friends.
Which sounds like I'm the most pathetic person ever, so let me explain. Because really: I do have friends. Good friends whom I cherish.
But I've never been one of those people who has tons and tons of friends. I'm OK with that, as I would rather have the handful of authentic friends I have then a bazillion casual relationships. But sometimes, I confess, I wish I had more friends. And when you're scrolling through Facebook, reading bits and pieces of other people's lives—people you know, however remotely—it feels a little bit like hanging out with a whole bunch of friends.
I enjoy that feeling, even while I’m simultaneously understanding that it’s not 100% authentic. We create an image of ourselves on Facebook, using the words, images, links, likes, and discussions we put out there. It’s not dishonest, just not the whole picture.
A couple of months ago, an old friend from high school found me on Facebook and sent me a friend request. We chatted briefly when I accepted it, and then here and there, started liking some of the other's statuses. Getting to know a little bit about the life of a person we used to know, years ago.
We've chatted a couple of times since then, and the last time he said something like "it seems like you are happy" and then I got sort of defensive. Calling my life happy seemed like a sort of...flattening of it. Because yeah: I’m happy. But I’m many other things, too.
And then I thought some more about Facebook, and why I use it. (USE it? Am I, like Kendell hints, an actual Facebook addict? Do I use it in a way that makes me not have to deal with real life? I don't know.)
I spent some time, in fact, reading through my status updates for all of 2014, so I could maybe see the image I’ve created of myself there. I discover I post a lot about running, reading, and gardening. Quilting when I am actively quilting. Some little bits about scrapbooking. I post lots of flower pics, and some of my kids (I try to keep a good balance of this, because I don't want to post things they would be embarrassed to share), and some of weather. (WEATHER! How boring am I?) I also, despite protesting to Kendell that no one really posts about what they had for breakfast, share quite a few foodie details. I post about some of my adventures; this year they've included the bear den, hiking, Ragnar, my trip to Cabo, my trip to Yosemite.
And, you know: my friend from high school is right. If all you knew about me was my Facebook statuses, you probably would think I was flatly happy. Because I don't ever post the whole truth. Probably no one does, right? Like...take that trip to Cabo. The pictures and the status updates make it look like, ah, fabulous! Peaceful beachy happy time with family, right? Swimming in the surf, relaxing by the pool, running on the beach. My motivation for sharing was to, literally, share. Because it was beautiful and fun and good. And plus there's the fact that I don't, in my usual Amy life, do stuff like that.
But what I didn't ever post about was how much I felt like a cuckoo bird. Like I didn't quite fit in the nest my mom and sister have made. The argument my mom and I had over what words you can use to call other people and how it left my feeling defensive and on edge and like she’ll never be able to see me as who I really am. The lingering feeling that I am the bad sister, the disappointing daughter who almost made the right choices but not quite. The thing that someone said to me that made me feel small and insignificant. Or that I felt guilty for spending not a small amount of money on myself, and for enjoying the time away from motherhood and wifehood so thoroughly. The complicated emotion of enjoying the vacation but also feeling like I was intruding on my sister’s good will.
Who would post that on Facebook?
Because it’s not a space where you really, really trust people, is it? Your real friends are there, but also your best friend from elementary school who turned popular in middle school and left you behind. (Why am I Facebook friends with her?) The wife of your husband’s coworker, who from every angle (body, but also personality and relationship skills and career and homemaker and mother) seems perfect and so makes you feel intimidated. The old childhood friend whose 200-mile running weeks make your 50-mile weeks look pathetic. Girls from high school who you don’t even really like and have nothing in common with other than you went to high school together, and you’re not even sure if you clicked “like” on one of their posts if she’d know who you were.
We want the people who used to know us to think we turned out successfully (or at the very least normal). We want our family members to think we have it all together and never fight with our spouses. We want our co-workers to think we’re intelligent, our kids to think we’re cool, our neighbors to think we cook perfect dinners and keep our house perfectly clean. We don’t want to confess that the fact that the girl who used to be our fifth-grade best friend is now married to a doctor, fabulously wealthy, and obviously really—no, really—happy makes us green with jealousy, so we like posts and post smileys and keep our ugliness hidden.
We try to make our lives look beautiful.
(Or, at least: I do.)
Maybe Kendell’s right.
Except I still like Facebook. I like seeing how old friends from high school turned out, and getting to know (some of them) better. I like being exposed to other people’s ideas and opinions. And, if I’m thoroughly, painfully honest, I like feeling like I’m a part of something, even though I know it’s mostly illusion.
The same day that Kendell asked me why I like Facebook, I read an article somewhere about a guy who did a Facebook experiment. He decided to like everything that came up on his page, just to see what happened, and then end result was that he didn’t like his Facebook page anymore. I thought his conclusion was sort of obvious—if you are clicking Like on things you don’t actually like, what do you think will happen?—but it made me think about carrying out my own, more subtle Facebook experiment: being more real. Being more myself. Posting fragments of poems I like just because I like them (instead of worrying that people will think I’m weird or, even worse, highbrow). Making references to movies and songs no one else remembers or cares about. (“That’s because you don’t own a Prada backpack.”) Letting some of the tarnish show.
Not because I care what people think. Actually…yes, I do. If I’m going to spend time on Facebook, I want it to be authentic. And I have never been someone who only shows the shiny bits. I try to be honest, and to tell the whole story, and I think it’s time to be that person not only on my blog (which almost no one reads anymore anyway), but among the Facebook “friends” I’ve accumulated. In the hopes of perhaps making more of them actual, real friends, who know that I am happy but also depressed sometimes, worried about my kids, frustrated with my husband, ashamed of where I live and of some of my life choices, disappointed at how I turned out, jealous of other people’s happiness. That I’m human, but they love me anyway.
How do YOU feel about Facebook?