American

These days, being an American is exhausting.

I moved here six years ago, and with each political update, each headline or news story, I get more worn out. Where is the line to cross? Is there a line? Why haven’t we made it there yet?

This did not escalate quickly. It escalated over four years, but likely even longer.

I feel like my country has broken in half since I moved, which makes idyllic dreams of moving back a lot more complicated. I feel loss. I also feel with the same intensity as my friends and family, despite being gone.

I suppose this is a form of nationalism: what it means to be from a place. Makes me think of a podcast I listened to about Dolly Parton’s love of home and the Smoky Mountains. How much of who we are is tied to where we are from?

I have learned over the years that I am unequivocally American. I am loud for one (something in our voice carries at a different frequency that travels greater distances), I am excited (all the time), and I am apologetic (often for no reason). These last two traits are in opposition to the Dutch.

But when I used to shy away from “being American,” I don’t mind leaning into it nowadays, even at a time when it isn’t fashionable. It is still the place my father never left, the place my grandfather decided to immigrate to. Without my dad around, being from Boston has become more important to me too. Part of who I am.

But I think nationalism and even regionalism is problematic, and perhaps one of the many reasons why we have gotten ourselves into this mess. Identity politics. How do we get out of it now? How can we meet, compromise, agree? This is something America has forgotten how to do, and I worry we don’t know how to fix that.

It distracts me. Makes me tired. I keep thinking of my smaller circle of control. My smaller world. But sometimes I feel trapped by it. It feels more and more challenging to find things to appreciate in our 90 square meter home.

I am trying to be grateful for the things less loud, because those big things get attention they don’t deserve. And I am loud enough as it is.

Pandemic Happiness Hacks

Things I am hoping will help heal my broken soul during this lockdown:

New puzzles with Swiss landscapes that remind me of our honeymoon

New Tropical Cookie Cutters in the shapes of cacti and flamingos

New shortbread recipe to bake

Adding friend and family birthdays and wedding anniversaries to my 2021 calendar, including new babies

Pre-scheduling my live aerobics/yoga classes for the week

Learning more about how to get a good night’s sleep on reputable forums

Looking for a new writing group online

A free online design app that’s helping me refine my aesthetic

Researching and deciding on a new hobby, anywhere in the world, to do with a new community

Preparing for new gardening projects for Spring

Continuing my Friday emails to friends and family back in the States (week 20 this week!)

Planning more social events online, and sending more whatapp voice messages to friends

Official board game nights with my husband

Adding all my classes and deadlines to my calendar to plan for the things I can anticipate and control

“with lots of love, always -“

My grandma’s Christmas gifts arrived in the mail today. She had originally mailed them November 20th, and after a journey back and forth across the Atlantic three times, they were finally delivered to our mailbox.

Her holiday cards and Birthday/Christmas gifts arrive like clockwork – always wrapped first in tissue paper then in matching gift wrap, sealed with a small ribbon bow. Her cards are from Hallmark, and signed the same, “with lots of love, always – grandma”.

The gifts are never anything big or ostentatious: something practical or handmade, knitted or crocheted. I love thinking of her in her straight backed living room chair, watching her old TV, dutifully creating for each child and grandchild she has, everyone getting something similar but unique; the whole family treated with equal care.

The reliability of her gifts and thoughtful cards is something perhaps I have taken for granted over the years. This quiet and dependable act of kindness has become something I simply expect. Despite where I am or who I am with, I know there will always be a card to open from my grandma on each holiday (St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Easter), and a present from her for each special occasion (my birthday and Christmas). When others forget or are late, grandma is always on time, always there, her pretty handwriting with the same NYC address.

Maybe that’s why I was so sad this holiday when the gift didn’t arrive. In a year when my grandma has not left her Manhattan apartment in over nine months, she still mailed my present, almost a month before it was due. Still, this last year was full of unexpected disappointments. Nothing to open on Christmas day, nothing to sniff that reminds me of her.

When it came today, I felt so much joy. I sat on the couch with my husband and opened her gift a few days late but with more gratitude than I have ever had before: a set of two pillow cases in a beautiful blue crochet. I sat with them for a long time, feeling thankful for this small but very important sign of normalcy. Despite their long journey and the many obstacles it took for them to make it here, this gift arrived, to help us lay our heads and rest in peace, because no matter what, grandma is there.

Gratitude Practice

The smell of a baby’s head

Fleece lined leggings

Waterproof warm boots

Walks in nature

A friend’s reliable and consistent weekly yoga instruction

Wool hand-made hats

Belly lint

Fun socks

Non-competitive board games

Late night desert

Gingerbread cookie cutters

Spotting farm animals on long walks

Waking up to sunshine

The light from candles

The existence of dishwashers

A cat’s response meow when you say his name

Coming back to a clean house after being away

Sitting too close to your partner on the couch

Pasta for dinner, knowing there is enough for lunch tomorrow

Rock lamps

Finding a coloring book you thought you lost

Having Monday off before starting work again

Putting snail gel on a tired face

Realizing life isn’t that bad

The Rules

So, as I have mentioned before, I am a top-notch, high-ranking corona worrier. The plan for this vacation was to bunker down with friends in the middle of nowhere for a week, and hang out in our bubble.

The problem is the airbnb landlord, a plump jolly looking older gentleman who owns a series of slightly dinky and rundown farm homes, seems to have no concept of a bubble, and keeps entering ours.

Everything in this holiday home is from the second hand store. It looks okay until further inspection, when you realize it doesn’t work quite right. The oven door won’t close, the shower floods the bathroom, the dishwasher doesn’t clean, there are no plugs in our bedroom or lights in the right spot. The toilet paper roll falls on the floor every. single. time. because the holder is missing a screw. The bathtub leaks. The list goes on.

Luckily, the landlord is very responsive. He has given us apology wine, then come back with apology cake. He comes in to hum and haw and try to fix things whenever we tell him something, essentially everything, is broken. Luckily for my peace of mind, each time he swings by, we have been out of the house for a walk. But yesterday he took me by surprise. In a time where I am terrified to be with other human beings inside, he barreled into the kitchen while I was looking for a snack. Panicked, I yelped, frozen where I was, and then ran from him as if he was a serial killer, into the other room. My husband and I hid in our bedroom as he messed around with the stove in the kitchen and I worried my hardest that his germs were polluting our air. When I finally emerged, my friend reported he had accidentally taken a kitchen hand cloth, and come back to return it. Then accidentally stolen my phone from the kitchen table, the one I abandoned in fear, and had to come back to return it. For a man we wanted in the house zero times, he came in three times in one afternoon.

Then I think – why not have a rave? Why not lick someone’s face? We have kept such strict corona rules for ourselves just to have this one man come in and turn my world upside-down. We haven’t let my in-laws come over, haven’t seen friends in months. And now suddenly this random stranger can come into our kitchen with an apology cake? What is the limit? What is the rule? If this man can come in 10 times in a week, why am I not hugging my nephew? Or my best friends? Why am I not going to a gym class? My world quickly is turned on its head. In a time when nothing makes sense but we are trying to follow rules, what rules are right?

Then I think of this dietician’s advice: just because you eat a donut once, doesn’t mean you have to eat donuts the rest of the day. Being healthy and eating healthy is not ruined forever.

So I picked myself up from a collapsing puddle of worry on the floor, all from one visit from a man trying to fix the oven in our holiday home, and got myself back together. Back to hand sanitizer and masks. Back to eating broccoli and holding out for my desert until this is over. Luckily we still have some apology cake in the fridge.

Pretty Bird

The other day, we pointed out to our toddler friend that six bright green parrots had landed on a tree outside our holiday home, and were happily squawking by our window for a good part of the morning. She was thrilled.

These bright green birds excite me as well, having seen them now several times. Are they native to The Netherlands or did they escape a pet store long ago to thrive in this wet grassy land, their coats matching the landscape?

When I was younger, the birds I knew best were my pets – a pair of mating cockatiels named Mr. and Mrs. Pretty Bird. Their hobbies were screeching, pooping and endlessly reproducing. While Mr. Pretty Bird sauntered, Mrs. Pretty Bird waddled. My youth was spent watching their babies hatch and grow, their family easily multiplying quicker than ours for the few years we had them.

My parents thought it was mean to keep them in a cage, so the flock would fly around the five rooms of our house, perching on our curtain rods, and pooing on our carpets. Sometimes the whole group would enthusiastically attempt a shoulder landing on an unsuspecting neighbor dropping by, or a friend visiting for lunch. When one bird launched, the rest would follow. At night, I’d hear them take off in explosions of noise and feathers, only to end their journey flying directly into our bathroom mirrors or dark unshaded window panes where they’d slide to the floor and wait to regain their energy to do it again.

My dad loved them. Every night, he would microwave a large bowl of popcorn, settle into his barcalounger, turn on the evening news, and wait as the bird family descended to share a meal. He would delicately move his hand to grab fistfuls of popcorn among the hungry bird bodies as they nipped at his fingers, less willing to share. This was their nighttime ritual, him in his chair, them in the bowl – the whole bunch of them covered in half eaten kernels and lit up by the changing TV channels in the dark of our living room.

I thought of this when I watched the six green parrots sit outside our window on a tree. I wondered if they also had a family before. I wondered if they ever lived in a home with newspapers under every window and ate popcorn with a dad watching TV.

New Beginnings

One of my fondest memories from my first time in The Netherlands back in 2007 was a trip to Schiermonnikoog with my program. We stayed in an old farm house with lambs in the back yard, sleeping all together in one big room upstairs.

There are many moments in life that I don’t remember or appreciate. Sometimes individual memories can be different depending on the person remembering them. My sister read a post on this blog and is convinced I made up it up because she doesn’t remember the story at all.

But I actively wanted to make that Schiermonnikoog trip a memory. I felt so grateful, in wonder of this beautiful place: an island with green fields and sandy beaches and frolicking lambs. Having not traveled much beforehand, I knew I was lucky to be there.

This week, we’re on a similar trip with friends. After a year of hibernating and feeling fearful of others, we are at another Dutch farmhouse in the countryside, with big windows overlooking cloudy skies, close to sheep.

The area is typical of Holland – wet, green, and windmilled. Thirteen years later, I am still playing board games into the night with lukewarm enthusiasm. I am still grateful for the drafty rooms we are sharing with friends. And like before, I want to keep this memory. In a year of endless days that merge together and where time passes with a lack of special moments, I will try to remember the joy of watching my friend’s daughter read a book on the floor with my husband, and the look her son gives when he wakes up from a nap. Despite corona’s endless days, I can still make new memories worth keeping.

Corona Pains

The past few days, I had been unconsciously clenching my jaw so much that I could no longer open my mouth fully. I had to carefully maneuver food inside, and still prefer apple sauce over granola due to the amount of effort it takes to get down. My body hurts from stress.

I am not out of shape, but my legs feel a bit shaky when I go for walks, not used to stepping at their same pace and frequency this year. I have three pimples in my yogi third eye. What does that mean? Am I emotionally clogged?

It feels that way, sometimes. Since March, I often feel like I am on a plane waiting to crash. At the moment, we are at a holiday house with a family in our corona bubble, and this is finally the time to relax. But I still feel sometimes like I have forgotten how.

When will I not be like this?

It has gotten a little better now on day three. I am starting to take deeper breaths; we’re doing yoga and takings walks, playing board games and reading books. But still, when someone tries to pass me in the kitchen, or hand me something, it’s like their hands are on fire. I’m afraid to be too close.

So much of my time up until this moment has been scheduled in zoom, smiling at people I either enjoy talking to, or feel uncomfortable in front of – in school, for work, at home “connecting.” But what if these tools aren’t enough for the human connection I’ve missed since March?

I hope I will remember how to be there for people when this is all over, when I can manage more than just a text, and give a hug instead. I hope this pandemic hasn’t broken my spirit like it has often broken my body – a injured hip, a twisted knee, now a sore poorly functioning jaw. I hope these are just growing pains, that we are all in a metamorphosis now, just waiting for something better, something new. No longer caterpillars inching along, looking down, trying to get where we need to be, but something else. Something able to fly.

Magic

The bulbs from our indoor white hyacinth bloomed on Christmas, and despite being rainy for days before and after, Christmas day was sunny.

I am not a particularly religious person, but I do think I have become more spiritual over the years. Anyone who has lost someone to some dreadful accident or to some awful disease, won’t respond well to the phrase “everything happens for a reason”. Unfortunately, I think bad things happen to good people for no reason at all. And it’s awful. There is no other work-around for it. There is never anything right to say, or justification to give. It’s just bad. I like the Dutch expression to offer strength, to cope, to continue on, to manage. That’s all one can wish for on a particularly bad day.

But now after the initial pain has dulled and my own life continues chugging along after losing my dad, I realize I cope differently, believing in a bit more magic.

A couple days ago, we realized a beautiful large moth was perched inside our windowsill. It seemed curious to me that 1. it had managed to get inside despite having all the windows and doors closed for days, and 2. that it had escaped our cat’s attention, the household’s aggressive bug hunter. This moth, that I’d preferred to imagine as a gorgeous butterfly, was sitting in stillness, looking out our window.

My dad always called all the spiders in our house “his friends,” and insisted that we let them live, resulting in endless cobwebs and daddy long-legs in every corner and crevice of my childhood home. Growing up Catholic, my dad was a Buddhist during my time with him, and didn’t believe in killing anything. We lived amongst the bugs in our house, and when he was sick, always keeping his humor, he told us that after he was gone, “when we see a pencil drop, or a butterfly land, that was him.”

So, we let the moth out the door into the wintery world, and I followed him onto the balcony. He didn’t go far, landing close to a different window a bit farther from where he’d come, but now outside. I stood with this moth for awhile, in the rain, thanking him for visiting. Telling him we were okay without him. Telling him I loved him very much.

I know this sounds kooky. It is. But the idea of reincarnation often brings me comfort. Likely, this moth was not my dad. But what my dad has taught me, both in his life and after it, is to be more kind to living things. To appreciate them more, to be more grateful for a spider, or a butterfly. I stood in the rain for awhile watching that moth, and looking out into our backyard. And told him again, in the middle of this pandemic where we often feel alone, “we’re okay.” Then I left the moth to sit there by our house, and went back inside.