Without Envy

And other rhapsodies on the road to happy

Intentional Uproot

Can you revelate?

In an article that appeared in the Rocky Mount Telegram one month after we opened our bakery, Alimentaire Wholesome Breads, in Tarboro NC—and another written more recently—Franca spoke of the reasons we found this to be the right community for which to uproot our lives. The downtown  had charm, it had character, purpose. It seemed to serve a function. Also, the people were friendly and just so happened to like her baked goods, a lot. There remains, however, a great deal more to the story than just why and where we were going. Missing was where had we been.

How to convey a life lived in one meaningful statement

But that is the bigger challenge, isn’t it? The telling of history to strangers in a way that doesn’t leave some important component out, some critical context with the faculty to impart upon the receiver the heft of all those years, the sheer gravity of each and every situation, every consequential decision. It’s like being introduced at your new job by your buddy as the guy who once took a dump in a McDonald’s bag in the back of a rented Chevy Tahoe. The backstory matters. 

How even to chose though which parts of the story to share? Do you focus mainly on the conflicts, those moments of delirious anxiousness that seemed at the time monumental to our successful pursuit of happiness. Or periods of peace and enlightenment? And what of the smaller things, the family meetings, the dinners, the books read, devoured, loved, then shared?

What of the words never spoken, or heard?

When Franca and I agreed to spend our lives together we did what most people do, we folded the stories of our past lives into one and accepted the other’s history without condition or benefit of having witnessed it. Bit by bit, fueled by time, patience and desire, a more complete picture of our truest selves took shape. Who we had been. Where we had come from, the trials we each had endured, as well as the many pleasures. It takes years though, decades, for the prologue to reveal itself.

So then back to the question: How do you share history with a stranger, or even should you? Consider this from the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson:

We tell you, tapping on our brows,
   The story as it should be,—
As if the story of a house
   Were told, or ever could be;

Eros Turannos, by Edwin Arlington Robinson

So maybe the answer is you don’t. You may try to explain it anyway, and that’s okay too, but history, with all its rose petals and baggage carts, is a lot like a clown at a carnival: Sometimes they’re funny, but most often they’re not—quite the horrifying opposite really—and they’re not very reliable at predicting what the hell will happen next. Instead, perhaps, we should aim to invest our timely differently in building relationship and understanding one another. 

The Zen of a Projectionist

Toto from Cinema Paradiso

Think of a movie theater, where we go now to watch other people engage in real life while we sit back eating handfuls of popcorn. Decades ago, before the digital age, movies would play on large 35 millimeter reels that had to be operated by a projectionist. A single, full length movie might have as many as three reels to it. So in order for the story to play out uninterrupted, there had to be a certain degree of distance between the projectionist, the movie, and the movie-goer. If not, if the projectionist got caught up in the story or what was happening in the theater, they would likely miss the tiny cue marks that appeared on the screen to know that a reel change was necessary. If that happened, the movie would stop as would life for the movie-goers. It was a necessary emotional distance for the show to go on.

Which seems to me a pretty good metaphor for life. Some distance from the story is okay, even warranted. We don’t have to know everything all at once about a person to know if we like them or are willing to support them. All we have to know is what are they doing right now, at this very moment, to ensure that the story, of which we are now a part of, continues. Instead, we watch for tiny cues, things we might miss otherwise if we’re busy looking for markers in their past, reasons to love or hate them. 

Dog Days of Summer 2.0

I had never been much of a fan of the dog days of summer. It was always too hot, the weather too unpredictable, the days too long, and they always come at a time of the year when throughout human history bad things tended to happen. Wars. Droughts. Floods. Population-crippling disease. Even Homer had a problem with the abundant humidity and heat, writing in the Iliad of Achilles’ march on Troy:

Priam saw him first, with his old man’s eyes,
A single point of light on Troy’s dusty plain.
Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
On summer nights, star of stars,
Orion’s Dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity

Then I met Franca and started to change. I learned to love food, real food, and in learning to love real food I came to  appreciate the harvest season—despite humanity’s long suffering—and food, especially, for what it is: a very serious business. One of both spiritual and mortal necessity. Ubiquitous and constant, and of good reason for social occasion. Even in the dog days of Summer.

It felt, it in a strangely fated way, like a bit of a homecoming. As if this was who I was meant to be, this writer, this maker, this lover of food, this father and husband, this man. And is that not the way of deep personal change? It is a thing that awakens inside you, rather than superficially, more profound than self-knowledge or worldly perceptions, and this new thing creates a sort of contract with yourself that says, this is who you are. This is You.

A Homecoming Reunion

Many years after this transformation began, I wrote a series piece of a special reunion (you can read it here — scroll down to the one titled, Digger). It is a story I reflect on from time to time, as it is one of those “awakening” moments I can point to in my life. The time of year was not August, but January, the dog days of summer had long past, but it was, as I wrote in the piece, “a separation from a comfortable life” and change, as we all know, can be quite suffering. Bad things can and do happen. (Just ask Achilles about his heel).

But we become who we are nonetheless, often despite our own efforts, because change that comes from within takes only time and the eventual courage to accept it for the homecoming that it begs.

a favorite

It’s Day 6 of Diabetes Blog Week and we’re asked to share a favorite sentence or blog post from our writing. Though there are a number I could select—specifically any of those tagged, The First Year—I settled on one from a post titled External Genetistry, published eleven months after Lia’s diagnosis. In it, you can see I am still wrestling with the demons of her diagnosis but I am also beginning to scrap together the sentiments of acceptance, optimism, and action that continue to grow and take shape:

You could look into your own heart and listen to what it was saying to you only after her blood sugar had been taken and the insulin administered because it was then you felt the safest; you’d done what you needed to take care of her and so this was the best time to surrender to it with little worry of there arising any immediate problems. But you put yourself in jeopardy if you allowed yourself to stay in that one place too long. We were new to the whole operation and things could go wrong, sometimes quickly, so it was important not to forget that the requirement of any situation, good or bad, is not what you find in your hearts but how what is there turns to action.

 

 

Eating, the Best Part of Our Day

I am going to cheat today, day 5 of Diabetes Blog Week, but not because I don’t find this topic engaging. If anything, in our house, food is the only subject worth discussing everyday. And we do, starting on Saturday or Sunday when we plan out our next week’s menu, which is almost always home cooked and almost always has a Mediterranean flair to it (lately the centerpiece has been chick peas, but if I had to choose a favorite dish, I’d pick a pan-roasted Harissa chicken cooked in a cast iron skil—See what I mean, I promised myself I wouldn’t talk about food and here I am talking about it. Some things can’t, and shouldn’t, be helped, I guess. Email me if you have time today or any day to talk about food. Franca and are I always willing!

Instead what I’d like to do is share a post from the past, the one in which Franca shared her recipe for baking bread. Bread is one of those items that will dress up any meal. Toasted and then rubbed with garlic, a shot of olive oil and some salt, and presto, Bruschetta. Makes it feel like you’re dining in Sicily, especially if you add a glass of Chianti (which may or may not also be homemade. Ahem).Stanca Wine

The recipe Franca shares here has changed a bit since then (as has the kitchen and mixer), but to be sure whatever ingredients you use at home will be better than the periodic table list of crap found on a store-bought bag of bread. The biggest item that has changed is we no longer use gluten to beef up the whole wheat flour and the flour we use (called Montana Prairie Gold) we source locally. If you can’t find that in your neighbor then King Arthur is an excellent alternative. The point here is that whenever you make at home, it tastes better and is usually better for you.

Here’s the link to the original post— homemade bread and the video, which is always brings a laugh at our house, except out of Franca, who only stands and with a disapproving purse of her lips, shakes her head.

A New Utopia

Of changes we have seen plenty. My writing here documents most of them, those both good and bad, welcomed and unwelcomed, short-lived and long. But the one change I haven’t written much about is the one I hope is most evident and feel most strongly affected by and that’s empathy and effort. Okay, that’s two, but bear with me here, because really what more is the first when not shared with the latter but a singular, self-contained feeling. Empathy alone is only fulfilling half its potential. The capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes works best when it results in some meaning action.

It used to be my idea of utopia was forty acres of land and a house smack dab in the middle of it. Cordoned off in such way from what I perceived was a complacent, self-interested society poles apart from where I stood, I could live with my family in relative peace and quiet, pursing that one thing I felt above all would bring us me the most joy: my privacy. Living, in other words, in complacency and with my self-interest.

How could this be? I was no different than those I was wanting to shield myself from. In fact I was worse because I had the gall to deny it. I had a job. I had money. I had things. I had a voice, and when things didn’t go my way, I got mad as hell and retreated to my corner. I also was very unhappy, though unhappiness in and of itself is easy to conceal. It’s hidden all the time through the food we eat, shopping, big houses. Maybe content is the better word.

I am not suggesting that diabetes changed all that. It certainly helped (when I was done being angry about it). But I believe it began sometime sooner, a slow chipping away, if you will, of my very un-empathic exterior by the loving, steady, compassionate and utterly amazing life force that is my wife. She has always had, from the moment I’ve known her, a champion’s perspective for those less fortunate. What Lia’s diagnosis added to her efforts was a new level of urgency. This was not some nameless, faceless person I had to put myself in the shoes of, this was my daughter.

Looking through her eyes, imaging her future, her relationships, her connectivity to the world, I see a world in much need of help, and I’m not speaking of a cure, of better treatment, or awareness. I’m speaking of the struggles people face everyday, some like her, who must evaluate the many aspects of daily life that the rest of us may take for granted and then filter them through an alien, unpreventable, unwarranted, and often invisible condition. And yet. And yet as she gets older and settles into the real Her, I see a young person who is ready, willing and able to put her own self in another’s shoes and share in the emotion of their experience. To better understand them and when possible offer help. Empathy in action, that’s the biggest and brightest change diabetes has delivered upon us me.

D-stuff

We have too much stuff, we know that. It exposes itself slow and daring, like a neighborhood pervert, every time we open the garage door, and when cornered, let’s say in a closet, it cowers behind nicer things, using camouflage, guilt and association to spare it from being tossed it out. We find it lurking in cupboards, in drawers, every time we sit down at the desk. It looms over us from walls, from bindings on bookshelves, and always from under the bed, tormenting us like a steely eyed monster. Go ahead, it says, I fucking dare you.

And we pull back our paw and we pause and we say to our tormented self: Under the bed isn’t really the problem, the damn problem lives up in the attic.

But the attic has stairs and a door and we really can’t give it the time it will take to sit down and wrestle with that, so we go on about our day and the stuff. just. lingers.

So it is with our supply cabinet, too. In there you’d find every blood glucose meter ever offered to us, every insulin pen, every pricker. You’d find adhesive wipes, alcohol wipes and some other wipe that utterly seems to have no purpose. There are boxes of test strips, of cartridges and infusion sets…and speaking of infusion sets we own a growing collection of leftover tubing, though why it’s leftover I haven’t a clue, it’s not like it isn’t required.

And of the One Thing we require over all, our level of hoarding is much worse, because imagine the ensuing calamity if suddenly our insulin maker experienced a Blue Bell moment and production were suddenly ceased. That’s no problem with a seven month supply of it tucked neatly away in the fridge (note: I know that, too, can be a problem, but I won’t let myself think of that, just as I wouldn’t consider what could happen during a world-wide doomsday event. Sorry, Doomsday, but fuck off).

But seriously, it’s easy to see how we can let it grow out of control. Our minds start to think: what if that, what if this. Maybe so, maybe not. And so we hold on tight to it, just in case. I’m starting to think there’s a better way. Might someone else not benefit by taking that monster of stuff and find for it a new home? Well maybe not for that garage-locked pervert, but for most things that are, you bet. That’s especially true of all those extra diabetes supplies, because who knows, somewhere out there might be a like-minded, minimalist hoarder wondering what on earth they’re going to do with all their mysteriously tubeless infusion sets.

Mums the Word

In the beginning when it was 90% us and 10% Lia in charge of managing her diabetes, we would tell everyone we knew about it. Tell her teachers, of course, and her coaches and the school administrators, the people she carpooled with. Tell her friends, tell their parents. Tell the neighbors to either side of us. We’d tell family and friends near and far, then remind them again and again and again and when we made new friends we’d tell them too. We’d tell strangers. Servers. Folks working behind counters. We’d corner parents at birthday parties, unsuspecting adults who were not brought up to think that swinging around from a trapeze bar could be anything else but fun. We knew differently though, or were starting to know differently, but because we were just starting out and it was just the two of us, we felt so completely inadequate. So we’d share: Lia has diabetes.

That’s usually how we began, or some slight variation of that. Lia has diabetes. And they’d look at you and frown or apologize and we’d go on because we weren’t seeking their pity but their watchfulness. We’d tell them what exactly that meant, to have diabetes, about blood sugar and insulin and carbs. Maybe some mention of her pancreas. We’d tell them of highs and lows, and perhaps, depending on the role they played in Lia’s life, a few dangers to be on the lookout for. No one ever had to use any of the information we shared, at least not on the level of why we were sharing it, to prevent an emergency. Nonetheless, we felt better.

Then one day not long ago we were out backpacking and ran into a gentleman on the trail who worked for a company we recognize locally as being a strong supporter of diabetes. Franca mentioned that Lia has diabetes and immediately regretted it. I did, too, though it was something we’d shared a hundred times before. What we had both realized, then and there, this five years later, was that we are not new to diabetes and the division is not 90/10, but more like 20/80 and Lia is in charge and if she is in charge, it only seems natural that she should determine who knows about her diabetes.

But it is a big deal for a parent to let go, and though the world is kind in that it happens in small increments, there is still that feeling that no one, not even Lia herself, will be as vigilant as her Mom and I. Our hearts though say it’s time we start believing.

Heroes and Heroines

I must admit, this caught me by surprise today. I wasn’t prepared when I learned that it was Blog Week and considered sharing on Without Envy. To be honest, I’m not even sure why I keep the site out there, other than perhaps as a written reminder of what life was like back then in those beclouded, long days in the weeks and months right after Lia’s diagnosis. Sure, maybe it still serves some purpose for others and maybe it will one day, too, for Lia. I don’t know. I know though that whenever it crosses my mind, which is often, I am filled with a bit of regret, just as I would over having lost touch with a good friend who had helped me through a difficult time. If enough time between visits has passsed you’re left to wonder: where even to begin?

And so you don’t.

And I haven’t.

But maybe this week, that will change. Maybe this week, I’ll pop on over and sit down for a bit and visit. Catch up for old time’s sake, you know.

For sure there’s not much new to say. We are older, smarter, and for the most part hardened by it all. In that way, Without Envy has served its purpose. After all, how often can you, or should you, seek to illuminate what appears to have become normal? As often as you like, by God, you might say, and that would be true, you can and you should because what is normal to one may be unusual to another. But damn if there’s not a peacefulness to acceptance. Something softens around the edges, there’s a quiet that needs no words. That is where we are and where we have been. Enduring diabetes with grit and composure, and with tolerance, yes, always with tolerance for it won’t ever just go away and so we stand as we must and we greet every day with a stick in one hand and a bouquet of flowers in the other because you never know which one you will need.

What I was reminded of today when I read about Diabetes Blogweek is that we are not and have never been alone in our undertaking. There has always been someone to stand alongside us and calm our fears, reassure us and help us understand that there is nothing that Lia can’t do. Other readers, writers, heroes and heroines, moms and dads, sons and daughters. Considerate, caring people who have proven again and again that case to be true. So thank you. It’s so good to see you again.

Cruddy American Lesson #One

And so it begins, Z’s American High School experience.

First lesson: Winning is Everything. And if you’re not good enough to win, you can always fetch water.

Captain_America_ShieldSo, she tried and failed to make the volleyball team. No big deal. She’d only arrived from Germany roughly 48 hours before the tryouts. I’m sure that had nothing to do with the time change of flying halfway around the world, her first trip of that kind, ever. But I’m being too soft, too liberal, or maybe it’s too progressive. I don’t really know. Either way, this is high school sports, after all. No one said she was ugly or stupid. She just didn’t exhibit the whatever-it-takes to make the team (as a consolation, she was offered the role of manager, delivered via email, second only to texting as the most insensitive and cowardly way to deliver bad news).

Furthermore, if you were to read the school’s athletic handbook you would see that the program’s focus is to complement the academic development of well-rounded students by helping to develop character, discipline, team work, and other life skills that are benefit to the student/athlete. Complement. Not build. This is not Habitat for Humanity. Our high schools are not constructing gyms and stadiums for the poor, the homeless, the un-gifted.

Athletics is not about charity, it’s about winning. Or if not winning, by God, it’s about fielding the best possible chance to win. An objective shaped by someone’s opinion. Over the course of a two-day, four-hour evaluation. With little regard for character, discipline, team work, and any other life skill they might achieve playing against their peers. No, sir, it comes down to this one characteristic: Can you crush them?

Forget the fact that there are would-be student athletes all over the world battling various personal setbacks, hardships, and challenges to even muster the nerve or find the wherewithal to attend tryouts, much less have a chance to compete. These young heroes are having to fight poverty, chronic illness, societal and self-doubt, and a host of other formidable, never-ending obstacles the sports world would rather not think existed. To be sure, over-coming adversity doesn’t fit evenly into an athletic mission statement. It doesn’t cry out: We’re number one.

But kids facing down difficulty or, as in the case of Z, pursuing a dream despite the challenges, are, if anything, exactly the kind of competitors who belong on a team. The kind that believe that the will to go out everyday of their lives and do their very best is much more important than being crowned champion. These are kids who know the difference between winning and playing to win. I’d take a squad-full of that attitude over talent any day, hands-down.

And so here we are, with Z not even one week in this country, feeling firsthand the spirited, albeit blunt, competitive drive that has on the one hand made this country strong (and at one time, well respected), but on the other seeks to separate our young people into the haves and have-nots. That sounds to me like the exact opposite of character development.

I know, too, I don’t have the answer. Not everyone can be on a team, I get that. But then again not everyone wants to. Those who do, should. Period, end of discussion. To offer anything less is saying to our future generations and the world at large, this is the true American experience: to be better than everyone else at everything everywhere.

As we’re seeing both inside and outside these proud, imperfect borders, that kind of thinking is simply unsustainable. It is time we think of character, discipline, and team work as something more than just a feel-good phrase in a handbook. It’s time they become something we practice.

Honest Open Arms

It was Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, one of my favorite books growing up, who once said: “Rarely do members of the same family grow up under the same roof.” I am thoughtful of that today as we start a new chapter in our home and also in our hearts by welcoming someone new into our family.

The opportunity came to us a few months ago: A 16 year old exchange student living in Germany was searching for a host family in America. The girl—we’ll call her Z—has type 1 diabetes and, according to the area coordinator, was diagnosed around the same time as Lia in 2008. Franca and I talked about it and thought Z perfect for us, and thought us perfect for her, too. We could only imagine the great opportunity her coming here presented, but also the obvious conflict of a teen with diabetes leaving home for a year. With Z’s courage and our experience, it seemed a perfect match.

So the waiting is over and as I write this she sits in a plane somewhere high over the Atlantic, as nervous, excited and hopeful, I assume, as we are after all these many weeks of waiting, exchanging emails, chatting through Skype and Facebook. Today, we finally meet.

There will be a lot to learn for her and for us to learn about her, and while certainly diabetes will be a part of that—just her coming here serves as inspiration and reminder that there is nothing in life save our own fear and self-doubt capable of holding us back—there is so much more to share. About our language and where we live. About family and trust and goodwill. Already the girls and Franca and I have spent time talking about who we are as a family and what values we find important. About sharing our selves with someone else. For days now, we have been ready.

I have always used this blog as a way of culling through the little and big things life throws at us, beginning and mostly surrounding Lia’s diagnosis, using words and my writing to search for some understanding, some clarity, and maybe, perhaps, some direction. It has helped me discover things about myself I didn’t know and on other occasions it taught me nothing at all, just offered a glimpse into the peaceful, happy life we know and strive for, which on second thought, now that I think about it, standing here on the day we open our arms and our hearts and our home to another says a great deal after all.