Ocean to Sky

Photo courtesy of Lorenia

For the first time in about a year, I’ve had a couple of good reasons to be away from the blog:

1) I actually had some writing to do for someone other than myself (hooray!).

2) We went on a vacation … without our children (hooray, hooray!).

Last Saturday, Andrew and I traveled down to Guana Cay in the Bahamas for a week’s vacation with friends. If we’d gone to Florence or Edinburgh or even San Francisco, I might have something interesting to say about the trip, but the fact is that we did very little.

We sea kayaked and snorkeled. We slept, read and ate. We sat in the ocean drinking rum punch, and in the fistfuls of red-flecked sand we pulled up in the shallows came star fish, sand dollars and intricate pieces of coral. Beauty was everywhere, from ocean to sky, and the main thing I felt for the seven full days we were away was gratitude. It is amazing to feel so consistently grateful for such a sustained period of time.

Now that I’m back to my real life, I’m trying to remember the lessons I learned last week:

1) Reading makes me a better person.

2) Waking up to complete quiet is an unspeakable joy.

3) Immense gratitude makes me feel like I have super powers.

4) My husband is still the most thoughtful, handsome person I know.

5) When you start getting paranoid that a shark is going to appear out of nowhere while you’re inspecting the coral reef, it is time to come in.

If you’re disappointed that I didn’t write a real essay tonight, go read some other insightful, lovely, inspiring words on the Art House America blog, a diamond in the rough. I am really excited to have been included in last week’s batch of features. Enjoy!

 

 

 

(Un)Cluttered

De-Clutter Mind Map

Originally uploaded by creativeinspiration

A month or two before Claire was born, Andrew and I accepted an invitation to travel to the Turks & Caicos islands with some friends who had won a vacation there at a silent auction. The trip was set for October of this year, and surmising that we would be way ready to have a vacation away from the baby by then, we booked our flights (with travel insurance), crossed our fingers that my mother would not chicken out of keeping an infant for an entire week, and patted each other on the back (prematurely) for claiming some time in paradise for ourselves.

Then, Claire was born. Swaddle blankets, diapers, pajamas, and plush toys stuffed with rattles mounted and overflowed in our small house. We made peace with bulky plastic contraptions that only Claire loved, and we surrendered to the realities of excess tupperware, bottle parts, and tiny socks.

Months passed.

In September, two weeks before our planned trip, I realized that I could not find my passport. Anywhere. At first, I thought there was no cause for alarm: it would turn up. But after casually looking through the drawers of our coffee table, a couple of rarely-used jewelry boxes, and my make-shift office, I could feel the tension creeping in, my old grad-school theme song, “Under Pressure,” throbbing through my brain.

Soon, my passport-finding efforts intensified. Drawers were emptied, closets undone. I scoured Claire’s room, thumbing through stacks of onesies and a crop of board books. I cleaned out and reorganized our (overflowing) linen closet, finding a set of sheets I’d been missing for years. I sifted through almost every book I own. Meanwhile, I reorganized our kitchen shelves, tossed outdated salad dressing from the refrigerator and donated a large bag of canned goods to our local food pantry. Still, no passport. I began to wonder if, in the throes of new motherhood, I’d tossed it, or slipped it inbetween a stack of diapers, or stuck it in some book on pregnancy that I’d returned or given away.

In the midst of this crisis, a new, utterly undeniable crisis emerged, a crisis of Too Much Stuff. Suddenly, our little house felt chock-full of unnecessary items, overflowing with things that might be obvious re-gifts had we the pluck to carefully wrap and gift them; things that look dated (and not in the newly-popular retro way); things for which we have no more use, or that we have loved and used sufficiently enough to sell for $1 or less; new things, even, that take up our limited closet, under-the-bed and in between space; baby things of every imagined material, color and function; and, of course, books, loads and loads of books, read, digested and pining for new homes.

As I wracked my brain for the potential hiding place of my desperately needed passport, I also began hatching plans for a yard sale. Like someone half-mad, I wandered aimlessly around our house, sighing, opening drawers I’d already sifted through more than once, and, with a scowl and a disgruntled air, slammed it shut … but not before dropping a never-used leatherette photo album or outmoded Christmas candy dish into a paper bag – the beginning of my yard sale stash.

I realized that my entire life had begun to feel this way: that the stuff I really cared about and needed to find had become tangled up in a coffee table drawer stuffed with last year’s Christmas cards, several cords to unknown electrical devices, pens, a couple of odd napkin rings, random photos, a barely-used Martha Stewart envelope making template, blank paper, playing cards and a quarter. And if found, the lost part(s) of me was in serious danger of being lost again upon being found – in the bedroom underneath a stack of overflowing (but folded!) laundry, in my office within the stacks of reading material meant for research on my pending book project, in Claire’s toy bin, or even in the grocery store.

It was clear: no vacation was ever more needed than this one – the one I would not be going on unless I found my Passport.

At the last possible moment, just before calling in my Passport to paradise as lost or stolen, it appeared – squashed in a jewelry box I’d looked in first, and at least five times more during my search, just where I thought it “should” have been all along.

The lessons in this for me were many: the first, of course, was that I would no longer trust myself with my Passport – I’ve now entrusted it to Andrew, who is much more organized than I, and never loses anything. Secondly, I pulled out the calendar and made a date for a yard sale extravaganza this spring (it’ll take me that long to sift through all the stuff we need to sell). Third – and perhaps most important – I took heed of the symbolism in this: that the thing we most need to find is often right in front of us, straight ahead, just where it should be. Within all the tangled up junk in my brain, my misplaced motivations, my scattered priorities and shaky misgivings lies that which I’ve been looking for all along: to write, and be happy, and to live a life full of family and purpose.

So now I’m back from vacation, slowly untangling myself from the stacks of laundry and the cluttered drawers. Stay tuned. Let’s hope it will last.

Brave Enough?

Six months after Andrew and I got married, we quit our jobs, sub-let our apartment, packed our bags, and jumped on a plane to Cape Town, South Africa. It was a crazy thing to do. Ridiculous. But, we were young and in love and brave, confident that everything would fall back into place upon our return to the States. We also knew that taking such a trip – a four month excursion to South Africa (one month), Australia (two months) and New Zealand (one month) – was, at least for Americans, an unusual experience, and that nothing could possibly be better than spending the latter half of our newlywed year abroad.

In Cape Town, we lived with friends of friends whose house happened to have a spare wing, empty and in need of warming during the African winter (our summer). In Australia, on the outskirts of Sydney, we bunked in another friend’s spare room, a fifteen minute walk from the Turra Murra train station – gateway to the coolest city in the world. Except for a brief stay with new friends in Auckland, we did New Zealand on our own; it was a time to reflect on our experiences as guests while seeking out adventure alone.

Andrew and I learned volumes in the few months we spent abroad: we learned about accepting the generosity of others graciously without feeling the crushing need to give back; we learned about each other, how to travel well as tourists and in life; we learned how to extend the gift of hospitality, and we learned about the necessity of leisure, the gift of solitude and the adventure of not knowing what’s next.

Upon our return to the States, Andrew and I both fell into a mild depression. This depression stemmed not from having to return to work, but from the reminder that life here is so heavily weighted with expectations, expectations that are both ours and others’; expectations and assumptions that are far more debilitating to the spirit than finding oneself in a sea of gray paneled office cubicles day after day.

Our culture impresses upon us the importance of “success” in its myriad forms. Strangers begin conversations by asking us what we “do” as a means of finding out who we “are,” when the reality is that these two things might not be true reflections of one another at all.

Our reentry into life as we had once known it was difficult on a number of levels, although not in the ways we might have expected. New jobs – better even than the ones we’d left – fell into place, and, upon our return, our decision to leave was lauded more than it was questioned. But in order to cope with the challenges of coming back home, I found I needed a constant – something that would remind me of the carefree days crossing the Harbour Bridge, the astonishing sound of breaking waves in Tsitsikamma National Park, the celebration of New Zealand’s natural beauty, all physical representations of the freedom we’d come to embrace.

So, I became a tea addict.

Nearly five years have passed since our big trip and I still drink two cups of hot tea a day – one in the morning, one at night, just as we did on our trip. Tea keeps me grounded. It straightens my priorities and clears my head. Through its steamy, herby wonderfulness, I become whole again: if not hydrated, then somehow rested, internally warmed, connected to a sense of liberty that is both memory and the present time.

We have often referred to our excursion abroad as a once in a lifetime experience, but the temptation to step out of time is strong and unlikely to be sated by tea alone. Just last night we revisited the idea of taking true sabbaticals (once every seven years), a break away from it all with our little family in tow. We have two years to plan and consider our options, ask ourselves whether the limitations we perceive are real or just conditioned, insurmountable or simply in need of extra thought and care.

Even if we continue to live in a world that sizes us up by the business and busyness of our days, we want to be “about” more than that. More importantly, we want our children to know that we can do the unexpected together, lending malleability to a world full of surprises, good and bad.

I wonder: Will our leading example be that which we set as a young, unfettered newly married couple, or will we have courage enough to do the unlikely thing again, and again, and again? Until we have clear vision, hot tea will have to suffice.

Oxford American Magazine – A Review

Be faithful to that which exists within yourself.
-Andre Gide

The quotation above appeared at the top of a freelance job posting email I received this morning. I found its presence there slightly ironic, because the sort of work that appears on this email list often begins with, “Do you want to write about cars?” and ends with, “Compensation: $10/story.” (I have found I may be keeping the subscription for the quotations alone.)

“That” which exists within me isn’t driven by compensation (if it were, I wouldn’t be writing at all), but since I’ve made more than ten dollars an hour working RETAIL – nevermind the Master’s degree – accepting ten dollars for a story (even if it is about cars) seems to be the most unfaithful thing I could possibly do with myself. As a writer of creative nonfiction, I might quite enjoy describing an electric blue T-top Camaro (in another life I dated a driver of one, after all …), but probably not for a publication that doesn’t appreciate the work it takes to put the reader in those vinyl bucket seats.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. If a select few magazines and/or online journals wanted my writing but could pay me nothing for it, I would consider it a gift – and might even write the editor a thank you note. The Oxford American (OA), a magazine for and about the South aimed at publishing solidly written narrative nonfiction, is one of those.

My mother, who could have made good money discovering big talent for literary agencies or record companies (she is always surprisingly ahead of the trends) gave me my first issue of the OA when I was in college. She thought the magazine’s music issue was neat, and that the writing was better than most – and it was. But not enough people knew about the mag, or maybe not enough people cared, and it foundered.

The magazine, recently resurrected as a registered nonprofit, is now housed by the good people at the University of Arkansas. I love the Oxford American not just for its excellent writing, but for its humor. The magazine embraces the South’s quirkiness, revealing and exploring personalities and cultural phenomena that usually defy the Southern stereotype. I rejoice in this defiance because it is done so cleverly and with such playful curiosity.

The Oxford American‘s writers take their readers by the hand and lead them through the South on old, forgotten trails, aimed not at shallow industry or fad or stereotype, but at getting to the everyday oddities that make us and our region so interesting.

In this way, the OA is a magazine both for those who are Southern and those who are not. In the current issue, I’ve read a story about Merian C. Cooper, the high-flying Southern renegade who created King Kong, as well as a more serious article about the esteemed historian John Hope Franklin – an African American man embittered and empowered by the Civil Rights movement to write the South’s unvarnished history. The Oxford American‘s identity as a magazine about the South is clear, but it is for everyone interested in back stories, quirky personality, and true-to-life narratives that read like fiction. To learn more, or to subscribe, www.oxfordamericanmag.com

The Pilgrimage (or, the Longest Blog Posting Ever)

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One gorgeous Sunday in Italy, Andrew and I decided to go to Assisi. We were drawn there because of our guidebook’s glowing remarks about it, but also because of its sacredness. St. Peter’s and the Vatican are of course known for their outward pronouncements of institutional faith, but Assisi, made famous by St. Francis and his Friars’ gentle, faithful reverence, exuded – so we had heard and read – a different, more personal brand of spirituality.

After spending the morning in Perugia, eating chocolate, we drove thirty kilometers to Assisi. From the Autostrade, we could see the town in the distance, and it looked like it had been blessed. The old buildings, sitting high on a hill, gleamed white in the sunlight. Mount Subasio, behind the town, was shrouded in a God-like cloud, the shadow of which lent Assisi even greater gravity and promise.

After taking the exit for St. Francis’ homestead, we found a free parking spot at what we thought was the edge of town, and hopped out of the car, eager for enlightenment. As we approached what we thought was a former Temple to Minerva (converted to a Temple to Mary), we noticed a throng of young people carrying large flags and rucksacks. There must have been at least two thousand of them, hanging out around the “temple,” and many of them looked as though they’d just woken up. It was about 2 pm.

Upon closer inspection, Andrew and I realized that this was not the Temple to Minerva/Mary, but a regular cathedral, so we began walking past the throng of shabby, rowdy youngsters and toward Assisi, still far in the distance. As we walked along, we began to notice that the throng was not limited to the piazza/cathedral, but that it was traveling with us – or we with it.

I began to feel a very bad mood creeping in. The teenagers, all of whom were Italian, smoking cigarettes, and talking loudly, were ruining my deeply spiritual experience.

Andrew, as is typical of him, had a much better attitude. “We’re part of a pilgrimage, Towles!” he said. “I’ve never been part of a pilgrimage!” An image of the cook — with the oozing sore on his leg — from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales sprung to mind. I grimaced. “I’m not into pilgrimages,” I said. We kept walking, passing vendors selling t-shirts (one said “Enjoy Cocaine” in Coca-Cola script) and massive flags emblazoned with Fidel Castro’s face. A boy who looked to be about fifteen marched alongside us, kicking a soccer ball up the street. As the road narrowed, the crowd with whom we were walking began to close in; the flags, many of which were rainbow-colored and displayed the word “PACE” (peace, in Italian) in block letters closed in on us, too.

This was no pilgrimage; it was a peace march, and we were the only Americans in the throng. I felt like a yuppie at Woodstock. The HippieItalianKids (HIK) were all wearing t-shirts denouncing weapons of mass destruction or protesting “Dal Molin,” a proposed American military base on Italian soil, and carrying the rainbow Pace/Cuban Castro flags.

After walking about eight kilometers with the throng, the road began to grow higher and more narrow. The marchers slowed, and then stopped completely. At this point, we were about two kilometers from Assisi’s gates; on the steep banks around us had been planted beautiful, dainty, pink roses. Andrew (no longer as chipper about our Great Pilgrimage) and I (almost in tears) were hemmed in at all sides; the crowd had grown to what must have been fifty thousand smoking, flag-carrying, loudly-chattering people. A young woman in front of us fainted. Around us wafted the distinctive smell of pot. In a moment of panic, I imagined us getting trampled at Assisi, the sweet Franciscan friars charged with finding our next-of-kin.

Around us, in an effort to get around the bottleneck, rowdy (high) teenagers began to climb the lovely rose-covered banks, trampling both the flowers (ripping some at the roots) and the Franciscan’s irrigation system. A few girls slid down the banks on their backsides, taking foliage with them, laughing mercilessly.

Once we finally (FINALLY) reached Assisi, I thought we could salvage our spiritual journey and break free of the crowd, but there were fifty thousand more “pilgrims” in St. Francis’ square, jabbering loudly in his cathedral (despite the Friars’ repeated requests for silence), playing hackey-sack in front of the church and laughing loudly in the crypt holding St. Francis’ tomb. Worst of all, outside the lower chapel, someone had organized a Bike-a-thon for PACE, and there were at least two hundred stationery bikes set up there; on the bikes were Italians decked out in spandex, participating in what looked like an American spin class, complete with thumping bass and a militant, barking instructor.

You know, I’m sure this all sounds very judgmental. And believe me, as I sat in St. Francis’ crypt praying that I would get out of Assisi without screaming at the top of my lungs at one (or all) of the HIKs, I also prayed I could find a way to appreciate them, and to believe they actually had a cause.

But that was the problem. The Italian kids, now wearing the PACE flags like Superman capes, weren’t serious. They were marching up to the gates of Assisi and trampling the Franciscan’s flowers and smoking pot outside St. Francis’ tomb because a friend of a friend said the peace march would be fun. They didn’t chant in protest of Dal Molin, or burn American flags, or sit, prayerfully, holding candles, for a peaceful solution to all the world’s heartache. They milled through the cathedral with passive, glazed expressions. They kicked around a hackey-sack and sang Italian love songs to some kid’s poorly played guitar.

I don’t think I have ever been so outraged – and not outraged for myself anymore, but for St. Francis and his Friars, and for all of the people who take, with dead seriousness, a place’s sacredness and the business of war protests.

After seeing all we could see in the midst of the PACE people, Andrew and I fled Assisi. On the way, to avoid the throng, we took an alternate road that cut through tilled fields now growing hazy in the setting sun. At last, it was quiet (except for the distant sound of pumping, spin-class-bass), and we could walk freely without stepping on any PACE flags.

In silence, I handed Andrew the last of our Perugina chocolate – the only thing that had saved me and Baby K. from expiring on the 10 mile trek – and sighed. When we reached our car, teenagers were piling into big, blue chartered buses covered in PACE flags, looking almost as tired and beleaguered as the two of us; acknowledging my own sore feet and back, I almost felt sorry for them.

Upon our return to the States, we would find that the march, as a whole, was composed of almost 200,000.

Everybody’s A Snob About Something

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Today, I went to Binders – an art and craft/framing store – to get a mat board for an etching Andrew and I picked up from a street artist in Florence. We found the etching’s artist in a courtyard near the Uffizi Gallery, among several other vendors selling artworks of Florence and Tuscany.

There was something I liked about this artist, beyond his work. He had an easy way about him and was less conspicuous than the others, smoking cigarette after cigarette while working on a copper etching block. He seemed content and absorbed in his work. He had a graying beard, and big, brown, deep-set eyes. He didn’t seem to care, really, if we wanted to buy his stuff or not, but he was clearly pleased when we showed more than just passing interest. His etchings were lovely – mostly panoramas of the city, with Brunnelleschi’s duomo in the forefront – and they weren’t too expensive. 35 Euros bought us a nice-sized print – half the price of what we would have paid if we’d bought it in a Florentine boutique.

Upon our return to the States, I was excited about displaying our little piece of Florence. But typically, I feel a little intimidated at art & craft stores. I like to walk the aisles and imagine myself doing something highly artistic … or, let’s face it, even just colorful … but I know my limitations. So, today I approached the custom framing counter feeling a little silly, carrying a huge “liberty blue” mat that I hoped could be cut to size by someone other than myself. (I am left handed and a disaster with scissors and most other sharp things.) I rang the bell, and in a short time a red-headed guy with a scrubby goatee and very artistic looking wire-rimmed glasses greeted me.

He seemed a little annoyed by the gigantic blue mat, my Target-brand frame and the Florentine etching. I explained I just wanted it cut to size, that I didn’t know how big to make the window for the etching to show through and that I would trust his judgment. He sighed deeply and took out a tiny, pocket-sized measuring tape. (Should I have made an appointment, I wondered?)

At about that time, someone came over the loudspeaker and made an announcement for the frame shop. My disgruntled frame guy sighed again, more deeply still, and said, to no one in particular, “It never fails. I’m here alone, the bell rings, and all of a sudden everyone needs me.” I didn’t quite see how stressful life behind the custom frame shop counter could be, but I smiled sympathetically anyway.

A moment later, the frame guy whisked away my big blue mat and the Florentine print and went to a back room. I heard mechanized slicing sounds and worried about our little etching, wondering if the disgruntled artist would take out his frustrations on Florence. He didn’t. Instead, he emerged with a perfectly cut liberty blue mat in just the right size, with a massive scrap of mat board left over for me to take away. I asked if they wanted to use the mat board scrap for any reason, to which he sort of rolled his eyes and said, “No. We use a better quality board than that back here.”

Oh. Sorry.

I actually thought it was kind of funny – that everyone has something about which they are inordinately snobby. For some of us – those of us who eschew Chicken Soup for the Soul type books and Dan Brown-esque novels – it’s a specific type of writing; for others of us, it’s mat boards. Go figure!

I did wonder what our street artist would think of my el cheapo frame job, but decided that he’d just shrug and light up another cig, or maybe just close up shop for the day to grab a late afternoon cup of espresso.

The Punches

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Andrew and I consider ourselves at our very best when traveling. We’re into (cautious) adventure; we like to learn stuff; we love to wander and find ourselves in restaurants/b&bs/towns not mentioned in the guidebooks. We like to hang out and play card games and to sleep in – even in Italy, where there is so much to see we really should have gotten up at 6 am every day. We are often so relaxed while traveling together that very little can stand in the way of our good time.

On this most recent trip, however, we did encounter a few snafus that almost made us lose our cool. Europe by car is not for everyone. Lots of people would be scared out of their wits to get on the Italian Autostrade in a snazzy little Fiat wagon with psychotic Italian drivers on all sides, and even the bravest adventurer might opt for a cell phone and/or one of those automated Magellan gadgets that tells you where to turn to find your agritourismo. But not us.

No, the ever-intrepid Kintzes took to the Autostrade with gusto, armed only with a detailed map of Tuscany, a bag of apples and a tank full of diesel. At first, we fared well. We made it out of Pisa in one piece, found our first agritourismo after only three or four wrong turns, and discovered a convenient 45-minute train into Florence from the small town where we were staying that would keep us and the Fiat safely away from city driving.

On our first day of sight-seeing, we walked from 10:30 am until 10 pm. We looked at art and architecture until our eyes crossed.  But it was on the night’s last train from Florence to Montevarchi that our luck began to turn.  Once on board, Andrew promptly fell asleep and I engrossed myself in the Frommer’s guide to make a plan for the following day. After what seemed like a very short time, I thought I heard a faint announcement saying something about Montevarchi, but I was in a daze. I woke Andrew up. He confirmed (groggily) that we’d reached our destination, so we hopped up, gathered our things, and headed for the door. Yet, when we tried to open the door, it wouldn’t budge. We pulled and pushed and banged. No luck. Minutes later, the train started moving again.

This was a very, very bad thing. The train’s next stop was Arezzo – as far away from Montevarchi as Florence, and, in October, a tiny, forgotten place. I guess it is probably beautiful – most towns in Tuscany are – but when we finally reached it at midnight on our first day in Italy, it might as well have been Hell’s second circle. There were no buses to be seen, no hotels in sight, no cabs lined up at the taxi stand. We were a good 40 kilometers from our agritourismo,  no trains were going back that way until the morning, and both of us were so tired we felt like we might cry.

Eventually, we did find ourselves a cab.  He was one of only two cabbies in the whole city, though, and he spoke only Italian.  He also did not seem to be thrilled about driving two American tourists 40 ks to a train depot.  After paying him the $75 fare (so much for souvenieres) he dropped us off about a mile’s walk from the Montevarchi train station.  By the time we got in bed, it was close to 2 am.

Of course, such things are to be expected when traveling; we’d just forgotten how to compensate for them.  After a few more snafus (getting lost, nearly getting smushed by a number of cars & scooters, encountering a very drunk, tip-hungry houseboy at one of the cottages we rented, and marching with 200,000 to Assisi (more on that later)) we learned to appreciate – at least in retrospect – the surprises and stories that might emerge from such adversities.