Traveling Tuesdays Part V: Mind the Gap

(Author’s Note: I’ve since rediscovered where I got the idea for “Mind the Gap.” It’s from Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, Chapter 5. If you don’t yet have that book, I highly recommend it!)

Paris and Rome are very different places. Both cool in their own way, both fashionable in their own way, both beautiful in their own way, both have kind people who, when they see you in need will come to your aid with their culture’s version of kindness which, while different, is both kind in its own way.

Notice in the repeating phrase “in their own way.” That’s because, while they are similar, they are, in fact, *very* different places.

After ten days in Rome living in the neighborhoods and eating in the restaurants and delighting in the gelaterias of locals, were were feeling pretty Roman. Imagine our surprise when our four American-Roman selves landed in Paris. No coffee on the bus? No old women on the metro? No chain smoking men whistling at me as I go up the stairs? What the hell is going on here?

Another big difference? This city is crazy clean. And by crazy clean I mean, crazy clean. There is no complaint here for gone are the polluted skies and graffiti and trash in the gutters. Everything sparkles like new, even when it’s hundreds of years old. It’s absolutely beautiful. But different.

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The metro system is also so different; in fact it took us several days to figure out how to navigate it. We were told Paris has the best metro system in the world but for those few days it just felt like the most confusing one.

And then one day I started to feel like I was getting a handle on it. We had walked for two hours–two hours–the night before because we couldn’t figure the transportation situation in relation to the construction going on at several train stations where we could have transferred.  As you can imagine, my sons just about lost their minds on that two-hour walk, especially considering it occurred after walking all day in Versailles.

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Here’s one clear similarity: crowded and hot. No difference there. July in Paris is just like July in Rome with regard to those two little gems.

“What the heck, Dad?” is how our two-hour walk began, but I couldn’t let Craig take the fall. There was construction everywhere and our geographical challenge, this time, was a mutually created problem. As we began the trek home that we thought would be only about a half hour–maps in Paris, different–soon enough we separated into our usual walking pattern. Craig and Jackson head down and leading the charge up front while Tommy and I took in the sights and entertained ourselves in the back.

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After about an hour, we started go get punchy.

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“Too legit, too legit to quit! Bau, bau!” I was lead singer. This doesn’t happen very often in my family so I was making the most of it. Soon enough, Tommy cut in on my action.

“Too legit, bau, too legit to quit! Bau, bau, ba, ba, bau!”

“Tommy, I’ve told you three times, that’s not how it goes.”

“Well, maybe that’s how it should go,” he responded. “Let’s call MC Hammer when we get home and suggest it. Hey, wait, did his mom name him ‘MC?'”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“I think that’s AWESOME! I’m Hammer MC Hammer, go Hammer, MC Hammer! Too legit, bau, too legit to quit! Bau, bau, ba, ba, bau!”

It went on like that another hour. Craig and Jackson tried to be annoyed, but they couldn’t because our way of getting through this torture was far more fun than theirs. About a half hour into our show they laughed but soon after got very quiet. We tried to mind our manners, but we just ended up laughing even louder which irritated them to no end. The did manage to keep their cool, though, and when we finally got back to the apartment they went straight to bed without dinner. MC Tommy and I, exhausted and blistered, went back out to get a burger.

The food. Let’s pause for a second about the food. With the exception of the burgers, the food was not so great. Not terrible, but not great. Not even in its own way.

At any rate, this traumatic/entertaining two-hour walk stiffened my spine and the next morning I set out to make the metro work for us. No more is it going to take down my family. I OWN this metro.

Turns out, attitude is everything. We rode that thing like pros from then forward.

Once the stress loosened it’s grip I noticed something new. Every time we get to a stop on the metro a recorded voice asks me to mind the gap. She’s speaking of the space between where I step off the train and where I step on to the platform. I heard her today and felt strongly that I had heard that phrase before, at least I thought I had. I searched Google when I got back to our apartment because I didn’t want to write something that has already been said.

After 3 pages of searching I came up with nothing familiar so I write with this crystal clear notion that may or may not be original: Mind the Gap.

To me (or maybe to this other person) (or maybe that other person is me and it’s one of many things I intended to write about but promptly forgot) “Mind the Gap” applies to everything in life because it’s about being aware.

Mind the Gap between cultures. Recognize that my version of what’s real is not everyone’s and that, in fact, it’s a construct made up by the people who came before me and then was followed by me as gospel. When in someone else’s home follow their rules; when others are in my home, remember what it feels like to be in theirs and cut them some slack. 90%(ish) of frustration is based in one’s own perception.

Mind that Gap.

Mind the Gap between what it means to be 8 and 11 year old boys and what it means to be their parent. Don’t get so caught up in shoulds. Hold a line but do so in a way that teaches, not preaches. That shares, not controls. Keep clear about how my voice is becoming their inner voice and be even more clear just what exactly I want them to grow up telling themselves. Remember there are many gaps between them and me–in age, in gender, in individual personas-–and that they are to become a grown up version of themselves one day, not a grown up version of me.

Mind the Gap.

Mind the Gap between my husband in myself. We are not one fluid being, but the fluidity between two individuals. Remember I have a dam at my disposal that can come up to stop the flow of his frustration before it enters my heart and he can do the same. The gap is a gift in that regard, use it. Just remember to hang on the bridge where the fluidity flows more than the shore where it stops lest I forget that bridge exists.

Mind the Gap.

Mind the Gap between discomfort and joy to be sure one does not invade the other too often. Discomfort has it’s place, but it’s not a place that has to be tenated very long because whenever I choose to leave it there is always a gap over which I can walk back into joy. The inbetween is indifference and never a place I’d like to roam. Or fall.

Mind the Gap.

Mind the Gap between myself and my extended family and friends. It’s good to be on my side of the gap alone to recharge and refuel, but if the work I am doing has me there all the time, take that as a sign to change the work, not avoid crossing the gap. Family and friends remind me where I come from and who I am; they need to be visited often lest I forget who I am and from where I came.

Mind the Gap.

Mind the Gap between work and self. Work is wonderful but without a gap between the work and the heart, even when the work is of the heart, perhaps especially when the work is of the heart, everything else suffers. Remember why I do what I do but don’t let it define me to the point I can do nothing else. Involve myself in work that refuels and recharges, not work that I have to run from to find the refueling and recharging station.

Mind the Gap.

Mind the Gap between anxiety and Truth. This is a place where imbalance is healthy and spending more time on one side than the other is the right thing to do. Anxiety has ruled me most of my life and, while it’s protected and served me in many wonderful ways, the time for it is over. Visiting its side is inevitable because it’s part of who I am, but staying there is a choice I will actively choose against. Staying in Truth is where God is and where I want to be.

Mind the Gap.

Mind the Gap means living mindfully, honestly, making active choices and being aware of the consequences. I must be aware of what lies on both sides as well as the space in between. In all things and in all ways.

Mind the Gap.

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Traveling Tuesday Part IV: Strangers and the Mediterranean Sea

We actually made it to the Mediterranean?!

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Let me return to the beginning of the day. When I get excited, sometimes I get ahead of myself.

Today we decided to hit the tourist spots early, both for the sake of avoiding the heat and the crowds. While neither was possible, we certainly were in better spirits for starting at least ahead of each. That and Rick Steves saved our ever-loving asses with his advice on how best to tackle the Coliseum, both in regard to where to get the tickets as well as how to navigate the Palatine, Forum, and the Coliseum itself. So huge, this place!

And the fact they are still excavating cells and tunnels and other evidence of all-terrible-reasons-to-break-the-law in Ancient Rome is just amazing to me, especially because the history is as intense as it is hypocritical (Really, guys, mounting a huge cross in the place that witnessed the gruesome death of thousands of lives, human and animal alike? Is that what Jesus would do?).

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I return to the size of things again, just because it blows my mind. No motor driven tools–only thousands of men using things like levers and planes and chisels–and they were able to erect not only masterpieces of doom but also things like an arc ten stories tall to honor the legality of Christianity. Boggles. The. Mind.

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After our trip to Ancient Rome we returned to the apartment for lunch and a nap before going out to meet Lyena’s sister, Tatiana, who I swear was sent straight from Heaven. I know this because she welcomed us like we’d known each other for years, she provided us an opportunity I had literally prayed for without her even knowing that was my wish, and she challenged my fears in a way only the divine can do.

Too fast again. I’ll momentarily take this further back for the sake of clarity. The one aspect I couldn’t reconcile in my non-planning form of planning this trip (something new I was trying, a challenge at best) was the fact I wasn’t going to get to the coast of Italy. Something called me there so seriously but I couldn’t see how to get there in any reasonable way. In the theme of my non-planning, planning, I prayed on it and let it go.

So there I am in my bedroom packing for this crazy trip at 10pm with a car coming for us at 4:30am the next morning, when I get a message from Lyena. How did she not know we were going to Rome? She has an awesome sister in Rome! I don’t know how she didn’t know, maybe because my husband had the subject on public lockdown for fear our house would be robbed while we were gone for a month, and then the moment he released that fear I blurted all over town (and Facebook).

I love Lyena, but I don’t love meeting the family of strangers, even awesome sisters like hers. I didn’t even work to find my own family here in Rome because I’m just not the kind of girl who is into meeting people in intimate settings with no escape route (no common language + no car of my own + strangers at a dining room table = a nightmare in my racing mind and heart). It’s the anxiety and introvert combo speaking, I get it. Still.

But, my husband (Mr. Mayor, as we like to call him) is all about strangers. He says he’s not a dog person, but I swear, with the exception of the tail wagging, he bears a great likeness to our Mario when he even talks to people for the first time. Case in point: Lyena’s awesome sister.

Three days into Rome I had lost my mind–the heat, it makes a person crazy!–and sent Tatiana a message that we were here. Within the hour she called and next thing I know she and Craig are talking merrily on the phone, making plans for the next day to go to the beach and then to her house for dinner afterwards.

Wait, what? I was sending a courtesy email because I told my friend I would. I wasn’t serious about making plans, much less plans that involved going to a stranger’s house! Why did I let him answer that damned phone?

By that time we were in deep, though, so I had no choice but to be gracious (My desire for Grace overrides my desire to hide in my anxiety, so much so that I had the word tattooed on my arm on my fortieth birthday. No, I’m not kidding.). That said, I laid into Craig when he hung up the phone.

“What the hell are you doing?” I cried, literally crying, “You know I hate to meet strangers, and you have us going to the beach and to her house? Have you lost your mind?”

“Just what beach do you think we’re going to?”

Hmm. When I heard the word “beach” it didn’t ring an angel’s bell for me. I say the “beach” and I’m talking about a sand strip about a mile long that runs between the San Francisco Bay and my town.

Not so for Tatiana, however. Come to realize, when she says the “beach,” she means the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Craig knew I’d hate going, but he also knew how much I wanted to get to the Mediterranean. Anxiety out, elation in.

“Oh My God!” Now I’m the person with the proverbial wagging tail. And he is smug because he knows he’s got me, strangers or no strangers. What a pain in the ass this guy is.

So here we are, back in current time, rested after our nap, picked up by the kind and gracious Tatiana at a train station not remotely close to her house, after a lovely car ride taking in the sights of the city of Rome way outside the city of Rome, sitting on a lounge chair watching my children frolic in the Mediterranean Sea. The sand is warm, fine, and soft. The water is blue and warm and beautiful.

The place she took us had an east coast style situation where we (she) rented a little section of beach with chairs and an umbrella so we could rest and take it all in.

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 And every few minutes I just kept thinking, We’re here! We’re here!

“Mom!” Tommy yells, running up from the water, “Did you know we can’t drown here because the salt content is so high?” I raised my eyebrows at this prospect and he ran back toward the water, apparently just wanting to reassure me that there was no need to watch him because not only was this fun, it was safe as can be. I was not reassured, but amused, and happy Craig was out closer to the water keeping a close eye on our children in the impossible-to-drown-in water.

I digress for a moment to note that everything, in fact, does happen as it should. My non-planning form of planning needed an outlet for all my nervous energy so instead of planning the trip, I scoured travel blogs about what to pack. One site suggested a blow up beach ball for people who have low back trouble because it packs easily and you can blow it up to the size that works for you. Of course Craig thought I was ridiculous but look what happened. We ended up at the Mediterranean Sea and the kids had a ball to play with!

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A sign if there ever was one that God works with crazy, not against it.

Icing on the proverbial cake was the visit to Tatiana’s home for dinner after this glorious trip to the sea. Her husband just as kind as she, a younger version of my grandfathers in voice, look, and their affinity for the way children bring joy into a home. Her lovely house has a gorgeous view off the lush back yard where we ate a simple and exceptionally delicious meal, drank fantastic wine, and had a delightful time. With strangers.

To get to the sea, I had to go through strangers.

Both were varying degrees better than I expected.

Traveling Tuesdays Part III: Finally a Holy (and Happy) Day

We didn’t sleep well last night, which actually lead to a bit of sweetness between my eldest boy and me. Tom was playing musical beds following Craig around last night and at some point my bed ended up empty when Jackson wandered in not being able so sleep himself. It seems to be the 230am burden at this point, each of us have been up in varying combinations at this hour every night. Jackson and I decided to read for an hour, during which Craig intended to come back into bed but found his spot taken. We all had a giggle and he went back to the kids’ room and Jackson and I back to our ipads. Thankfully we were able to go back to sleep at some point, but no one woke before 10am.

We started our day with a positive attitude, aided in part by this breakfast at a local bar. (“Bar,” is to Italians as “coffee shop” is to Americans. I’m pretty sure I like their version better.)

IMG_0020After a very trying day yesterday we decided to keep things very simple today: Saint Peter’s, our favorite pizza for lunch, a stop off at the Roma soccer store, and then back home–all of us getting one thing we wanted, including getting out of the heat and inevitable rainstorm before the late afternoon.

Saint Peter’s was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen constructed by humans. Awe inspiring, truly. It felt holy the moment I stepped into the square (which is actually more of a circle). The line was in the shade and moved quickly, we were in within fifteen minutes and, although crowded, it was nothing–NOTHING–like  the vatican yesterday. For me, the biggest difference was that at Saint Peter’s there was room to move and be inspired, even room to pray which I did with great gratitude. I brought my journal with me that had a photo copy of Rick Steves’ walking tour through the basilica and I learned and saw and shared with my family really interesting things. When Tommy wasn’t stressing about how high the ceilings were, a new fear of heights has emerged on this trip, even he was taken by the beauty of this place, including the gold inlay of the latin words that joined the walls of mortals and the ceilings of angels.

The one thing I wanted to see was the Pieta, Michelangelo’s masterpiece depicting Mary holding her dying son. When I was confirmed my grandparents gave me a replica from their trip to Rome many decades prior, Papa’s handwriting on the bottom now faint with age. Even before I had sons of my own this sculpture spoke to me of the deep and un-fillable hole that I imagine comes with the loss of a child. To me, knowing that loss was coming and choosing to mother him anyway…that is the greatest sacrifice I can ever imagine. It moves me to no end and the original statue did the same. I sat many minutes in quiet reflection and gratitude for what it really means to be entrusted with the life of a child and the great call God puts in the hearts of parents to care for that gift.

Having the opportunity for some quiet that day reminded me that, like it or not, I am an introvert and we are a people who need quiet to find peace and peace to find Grace. We took this family photo outside when we were done and I think it really captures how happy we all were today. Maybe the old adage, “If Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy,” has some truth to it.

IMG_7042As it turns out, my internal shift was not the only epiphany of the day. It was on the way to the trattoria that I noticed something remarkable: my external self matched the external selves of those who call this city home. Everywhere I looked were big noses. Mine was no longer the biggest of the bunch, either, and that’s something to note in and of itself. Like me, men and women had bountiful, big hair, none of it smooth and silky, none of it tamed and controlled. My propensity for dramatic displays of affection or frustration were child’s play compared to the people of this city and I marveled at how, for maybe the first time, I was more the same on the outside than different.

I know it to be true by stories and records, but was it possible that my heart also recognizes this as the place of my biological origin? As city of my people? As I glanced across the street considering this very question, my answer revealed itself. Even my middle name, pronounced the way my mom says it, not the way most people assume, belongs here.

IMG_7051 We stopped at a few tourist shops, got some gelato once back in the neighborhood, and then hit the market for a few dinner items. The walk was lovely, in part because the clouds had moved in to cool things off but it had not yet rained. Also because we weren’t lost. Mostly, however, because my family was in that sweet spot of a place where all was well.

Our last stop was this tiny shop dedicated to one of Italy’s soccer teams, AS Roma. We have been staying out of the center of Rome, in a neighborhood of locals where tourists are uncommon. Accordingly, this shop was not the typical tourist spot, but rather a place young men would gather around a tiny TV set to watch their team play not because they don’t have a bigger or better TV at home, but because here they’d be together as AS Roma family.

I say all this because, as it turns out, Romans take their soccer *very* seriously. This man in his late twenties was stuffed in this tiny shop overflowing in maroon and orange, and looked like the happiest person I’d ever seen. His shop was his great source of pride and to have people in to shop was like having people into his home. Gracious and kind, excited at the prospect of an American boy taking home a Roma jersey in celebration of his city and his team, this was one happy and contented man.

We headed home to load up photos, chat with friends on Facebook, and make another humble dinner of cheese, salami, prosciutto, bread, salad, and fresh cherries for dessert.

2013-07-06 18.18In it’s purest sense, the day was delightful.

Traveling Tuesdays, Part II: Today Sucked

After getting barfed on yesterday, not to mention the complete washout we experienced on the bus, I thought today would look up. Apparently, not so much.

Rome in July is hot–wicked hot. Now when I say hot, I’m not sure you understand just how hot. Today was 93 degrees. If that’s not enough to convince you, allow me to introduce you to the temperature’s evil twin, 93% humidity.

And then there’s us, standing in line again because July is high tourist season in Rome and that, my friends, is what’s called a double whammy. We stand in line out in the burning sun for the bus, stand in line to see the Trevi (which was being cleaned so by the time we got up there there wasn’t even any water), stand in line to get on another bus, stand in line to get a slushie that ended up being gross…and it’s so crazy hot, in case you didn’t catch it the first (or second) time I said it.

The day was looking up when we stopped in at a local pizza place that had the best pizza I’ve ever had in my life. The. Best. Pizza. Ever. OMG, Margarita, I love you. I honestly thought I might squeal in delight as I ate it.

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The pizza and wine and leisurely lunch seemed to have pulled us through our funk and we were ready to tackle the afternoon.

Until we got into the Vatican.

I expected this to be a most holy place. I did not expect the crowds or the heat or the behavior of my young son to be so very unholy. Moving through rooms of precious art like chattel, it was a disgrace both to the artists and to art itself.

We spent only an hour in the Vatican and most of that was just trying to navigate the crowd, not because we had really stopped to look at anything. The entire hour, and I mean the entire hour, Tom complained.

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His favorite tirade, “I’M GOING TO DIE OF THIRST, DON’T YOU CARE? DON’T YOU LOVE ME? I SAID I’M GOING TO DIE!” rang through my nervous system until I thought I’d fracture.

In addition to the heat and the crowds is the fact I have barely slept in three days. Couple that with my expectation of holiness and the Godforsaken results, and you can understand my distress.

Finally we got into the Sistine Chapel. I took Tom’s hand, gave it to Craig and said, “Take your son.” Finally, I’m going to have a holy moment. Unfortunately, with easily two hundred other people in this very tiny chapel, all talking and gwaking and bumping into me and the guards yelling, “SILENCIO!” and “NO! No Photos!” well, it’s a wonder I have any recollection of that dimly lit room most people call a masterpiece.

Within three minutes we were out of there. You read it right, three minutes. In the Sistine Chapel. We were all shuffling out when Tom started in again.

“DO YOU KNOW HOW THIRSTY I AM??” Honestly, I had to keep my hands to my sides because if even one got some sense of motion it might have involuntarily smacked that kid.

We finally got out of there and Craig walked ahead, the three of us following. He had had it as well, so I was letting him lead without question. After about 15 minutes I asked, “Do you know where we are?”

“Nope”

“Should I get out the map?”

“Nope.”

Ok. He was an Eagle Scout. The man has a good sense of direction. He wouldn’t knowingly lead us in the wrong direction. In the rain.

20 more minutes go by. I have seen nothing resembling anything familiar since we left the grounds of the Vatican.

“Really, I think I should get the map.” More rain, heavier.

“You said you trusted me to get us home, so do you trust me or not?”

Uh Oh. Keep walking.

Tommy is now perfectly happy wandering around in the rain, cooled off from the heat and away from the crowds. Now it’s Jackson’s turn.

“My knees hurt…”

Here we go.

“…and I have to go to the bathroom,” he says with a heavy sigh.

Heavy Sigh (that one was me).

Ten more minutes and he starts to lose it. “Dad doesn’t know where in the world we are and you are letting him lead? What the heck, Mom?!” This child does not drop the drama bombs the other one does and has been very calm all day without a word of complaint. Don’t be fooled, however. The energy of this kid may not be dramatic, but it carries the weight of pre-teen intensity.

20 more minutes. I’m done.

“I’m getting the map, I can’t tolerate not knowing where we are any more!” Craig turned around to face us and I could tell he had no idea where we were. And he was feeling pretty contrite.

“I messed up. I’m really sorry.” My grouse softened. Jackson? Not so much.

“WHAT THE HECK DAD?! YOU GOT US LOST IN THE RAIN FOR AN HOUR?!” There it is. Maybe he’s not eleven, maybe he’s actually 14 and I’ve just lost a few years somewhere.

After a few minutes of map checking (had we totally walked off the map for God’s sake?) and asking for directions from people who don’t speak our language nor we there’s, we finally reoriented. We went way the hell out of the way, but we were actually only a couple blocks off our street. The Boy Scout did have us going in the right direction, just the long-ass way to get to the destination.

We hauled ourselves up the stairs and plopped down on the couch of our apartment, drenched in sweat and rain. About one minute into the silence Jackson popped up, unable to let the afternoon go without a few more words on the subject.

“I still can’t believe you had us lost, Dad. FOR AN HOUR. IN THE RAIN!”

Not the best day for Team Elliott. Nor Team Rome for that matter. Maybe we should have stayed home and remodeled our kitchen after all.

And then Tommy started giggling. Hand over his mouth, spit coming out, hand off the mouth and slamming on to the couch giggling. Jackson couldn’t stay mad. None of us could.

Tomorrow is another day. And it won’t suck as bad as today.

At least I hope not.

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