How to Gather a Life

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The week we moved into our new, sparsely-furnished rental house in London, I realized I needed something of my own to make the place feel like we lived there. Without something of us, it looked as if we’d embarked on Rent-a-Life rather than rent a home. Our dishes, clothes, and a few poorly chosen decorative items (collectible teddy bears, I’m looking at you) sat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, bobbing across the sea, making their way from our East Coast past to our United Kingdom future.

It was a fifteen-minute walk from my little house with the bright blue door to the Charity Shop. A charity shop is the English version of a thrift shop, a place where one could find almost anything from old lady brooches and children’s clothing to tattered furniture and portable potties. After an enormous international move, our finances were stretched thin. I had a few British pounds in my pocket, and I needed to spend it wisely. Naturally, I spent it on something that would be dead in a week—a pretty little posy of flowers from the local grocery.

Flowers in hand, I stopped by the Charity shop for my next purchase—a second hand vase of thick, wavy glass. Just big enough to hold a few stems of something light and green and lovely. I came home, filled the glass with water, cut the stems of the flowers, and breathed easy for the first time since our arrival. There, on the kitchen table, sat proof that even the smallest effort to make us feel at home made a tangible difference. We might survive the upheaval after all, and I had daisies on the table to prove it.

Over the three and a half years we lived abroad, I mapped a carefully curated Charity Shop route throughout my little corner of London. I faithfully visited each shop every few weeks, bringing home a random assortment of items someone else had discarded. Every time I brought home something new to me, I thought about the hands that had previously held it. Who knit the little hand-made doll with the jaunty yellow hat now sitting on my daughter’s bed? Who gossiped with her best friend over this teapot around a table set under gray skies? Who turned the pages of this novel before me?

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I began assembling a life out of the everyday, worn-out wares of women who had gone before me, women who had raised children and read books and warmed their hands and souls over cups of strong tea. Gathering forgotten treasures from the charity shop helped me build a real, full life for my own family. I didn’t have to settle for renting one.

During our years living in London, I collected not only dust-covered books and vintage tea sets, but friendships and experiences. I collected photographs and prayers and long-walks on urban streets. I collected memories. I learned we create our lives from the things we gather, and so I gathered people and places and things with purpose.

Most of the lovely bits I gathered from my charity shop curation, have gone on to live other lives elsewhere, although the tea set still sits proudly in my china cabinet while the knit doll hides, gathering dust in the basement. The thick-bottomed vase disappeared years ago, and I keep hoping it will show up, miraculously. Even if it doesn’t, in my mind’s eye, I see it sitting on a rented, nicked-up and dented kitchen table in the terraced house with the blue door. I see it as the promise of a life gathered, full, expectant. I see it filled with a handful of daisies.

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What are you gathering to make a life?

Having a bad hair day

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Every few days, I receive an email or a phone call from well-meaning family or friends asking how I’m doing with the transition of our move. They take a gentle approach, offering the question in the same manner one would try to aid a wounded animal, all soft voice and slow hands. It’s sweet, and given my predilection for drama and behaving as if the sky is falling in over something as simple as my inability to  find the missing set of white sheets, they’re wise to move with caution.

My response is always the same. I’m surprised, shocked even, to find myself sure and steady, knowing we have made the right decision for our family to move back to America. It’s possible I’m self-medicating with a weekly hit of cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory, but otherwise, I feel content.

After gingerly stepping around the question of my state of mental health, my loved ones then ask if the kids have adjusted to their new/old life. And I have nothing to report other than they are brilliant and part chameleon. Our dog on the other hand, has lost his mind. I attribute this to the brilliant idea of having him groomed two days after he moved into our new home. Apparently, the family member he stayed with during the move, did not realize that brushing the top 1 inch of his coat did not constitute grooming. When I took him to the real groomers to cut out all the knots in his fur, they greeted me with a sad shake of the head and promptly handed me a waiver to sign.

The waiver was a thinly veiled admission of animal cruelty and owner negligence disguised as permission to shave my dog bald. He may never recover. When I sent my husband a photo of our newly balded dog he asked why I had a squirrel attached to a leash. The psychological trauma of signing the waiver wasn’t enough, and now the dog has taken to pooping on my antique oriental rug as retribution. Poor pup has a bad hair day, all day, every day.  I might need to invest in puppy prozac, or at the very least another slice of cheesecake.

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Are you experiencing change this summer? A move, a job loss, a seriously bad hair-do? Note: The photo above is obviously a “before” shot. I can’t even bring myself to post an “after”.

When a face doesn’t tell the whole story

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I see familiar faces now–on my morning run, at the library, in the grocery store. I know we have some sort of shared history, but I can’t always place it. Did our children share a teacher? A dance lesson? Did that woman try to strong-arm me into joining the PTO? Did that fella deliver my pizza? I often wonder what is different about their lives, three years after we said goodbye and moved across the ocean.

I bumped into an old church friend at the donut shop. Two years ago, she survived a life and death fight with breast cancer. Another friend went back to work full-time. And another launched two church campuses. My mother-in-law lost her husband. My parents moved across the country twice. My former house, the one where I nursed my last baby in the wee hours of the night, has a new car parked in the driveway. One friend’s father has been slowly dying all of these years, while my sister-in-law birthed her fifth baby. My daughter’s friends now look down from the great heights of teenage limbs when they talk to me. They notice boys.

It’s easy for me to believe I have had the greater good, the greater change, the more unique life experience. It’s easy for me to believe this because I have cleaned the dirt of countless cities off my feet, and I have stood at the top of the world and bathed in the lowest spot on earth, and I have raised my family apart from the comforts of family and life-long friends. And in believing it, I fool myself into thinking that my experiences over the last few years are more valid, somehow more worthy of remembering than the years lining the “sort-of familiar” face I saw at the local park. I’d like to believe that she spent three years sipping lattes at Starbucks and shopping the aisles at Target, while I spent that time scratching my itch to wander all over the world.

These are the quiet lies I tell myself. The truth is, while I wandered, and secretly dreamt of shopping those very same aisles, a few of the people we left behind looked death square in the eye and said, “Not today, Sir.” Some scattered ashes into the air, taking flight along with them. Others labored and bore down and screamed new life into this tired earth. Some grew and others faded. A few said yes, and others learned how to say no.

These are the quiet truths I must remind myself when I see them. Many of these familiar faces have found the light and beauty and midnight depths of the universe in their own back yard, and the truth is I might find it here too.

Home sweet home

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Dear Friends,

Thanks for understanding the current state of things, and my too-long absence from this space this summer. I miss meeting you here. I also miss knowing where to find my household goods and using a working washer/dryer and my two big kids who traveled to sleep-away camp this week. I miss free time too, and maid service at the hotel. Yesterday, the toilet overflowed while in use by one family member. Said family member’s shorts got wet with toilet water, and this individual simply dropped their dirty, water-soaked shorts, and left them on the floor for me to find the next day. Oh yes, I’ve missed the perks of home ownership.

The house is a tower of boxes, my very own tower of Babel. Why have I purchased so much stuff? It’s like I’m trying to reach the heavens with it, box by box. I suppose this is what happens when you move entire households across countries five times in thirteen years. This is also what happens when you marry someone who has a new burning passion/hobby every other month, and you fight your own personal addiction to tchochkes. I found scuba gear, a bow and arrow set, and approximately 327 candlesticks. It’s a sickness.

I find myself wanting to strip it all down, take everything to the bare bones, and create a small space of quiet in the middle of this house-moving hurricane. This weekend, I attended a writer’s conference, and I had the pleasure of meeting with Emily Freeman and a number of writer friends from her blog. She asked us where we find ourselves right now, at this moment in time. She said “Imagine the YOU ARE HERE dot on the mall map. Where are you right now?” And I said I’m in the eye of the hurricane, and the furniture, the paperwork, and the some-day book are whirling around in the air while I stand still in the middle. In all of the chaos, and the anxiety-inducing amount of work, I stand there and I feel satisfied. It’s the only way I know how to say it. Satisfied with our decision. Satisfied with our home. Satisfied with the outcomes, the changes, the new/old life. Satisfied with the way the dirt collects on the hardwood floor and the water seeps from the toilet and the list of to-do’s growing ever longer. It is so very good to know one’s place and one’s calling, and to lean into it.

Much love,

Kimberly

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What are you leaning into right now? Where are you feeling satisfied or dissatisfied with life?

Cultures collide or Five minute Friday: Belong

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**I’m linking this post from Wednesday up to Lisa-Jo’s Five Minute Friday prompt: Belong. And while it did take more than five minutes, I can’t think of another way to write about belonging than to say this…

I suppress the urge to say “Danke” every day. I suppress my “Ja” and “Nein” and the ingrained instinct to constantly shush people in public. The Swiss are so very quiet. They shush people on the train and at the cinema with alarming regularity. My kids are now the quietest American children you’ve ever met. I can’t complain.

We Americans move and shout and talk louder than I remember. We’re more prone to dropping profanity in heightened conversation with little ears listening, but that might just be my Jersey talking. We talk big and eat big and shop BIG. We consume, and so much of our food/entertainment/cheap goods aren’t worth consuming. The amount of advertising for new products overwhelms me after three years of limited commercial interruptions. So does the cereal aisle.

Despite this, it is good to be here. Here is home, right down to my very bones. This northeastern earth is the dirt I can’t scrub out from underneath my fingernails. It’s sweltering summer days and red-tipped leaves burning like fire throughout autumn. It’s winter white and chartreuse spring, and it is where I feel most free, most me. It’s wrapped itself into the double helix strands of my DNA.

We move into our house next week, and I will set about making it into a home. I will stock the shelves and make the beds and overcook our dinners. I will consume like the good American I am, but I will start with the peaches and cream sunset sky. I will collect the flowers from the garden, and gather the fallen leaves from the ground. I will pluck the stars from the sky. I will make mounds of the earth, filling up on the sweetness of the soil. And the taste of it will linger.

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Thanks so much for reading here today. I’d love to know what patch of earth makes you feel as if you belong?